By Noel T. Braymer
Like most political games, the critics of the California High Speed Rail project love to try to put it into a double bind. In other words, no matter what the California High Speed Rail Authority does their critics will damn them if they do and damn them if they don’t. The media loves to pick up on these games since their main interest is for an exciting story to increase their revenues, not the often boring facts. A recent example of this was yet another hit piece in the Los Angeles Times on California High Speed Rail less than a month before the 2016 elections. Ironic that the author of this story lamented after the last election how little impact his anti-High Speed Rail stories had on the election for Governor Jerry Brown who won easily and High Speed Rail was not a major election issue despite his best efforts. The basis of this latest story was to criticize the California High Speed Rail Authority for making changes to the project which would save the taxpayers money. This was framed that the project was falling apart and these changes were an admission that the service wouldn’t meet the requirements of the 2008 Prop 1A bond measure which kicked off the High Speed Rail project.
What the California High Speed Rail Authority did was change plans at the stations for platforms to serve 10 car High Speed Rail trains instead of earlier plans for 20 car platforms. This was spun that the Authority was reducing the size of the future stations by half. The other change was the Authority was now designing the tunnels of the project for only 200 mile per hour operation instead of earlier plans to run at 220 miles per hour. The article implied that this would have an impact on the running times of the future High Speed Trains which might cause them to be unable to meet the running times called for with Prop 1A. What these changes will do is save money so the service can be running sooner. High Speed Rail service in California will take years to build up ridership as different phases are built over time. Why spend the money for a 20 car platform for the first stations when 10 car platforms will do? As the entire system is put in place with more stations which increases ridership the original platforms can be extended as needed for serve up to 20 car trains.
As for the differences in running times at 220 miles per hour versus 200 miles per hour consider this. If you raise the speed of a train from 30 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour you go from a travel time of 2 minutes per hour to one minute per hour thus saving a minute. Over a long distance like 60 miles that’s an hour saved. Now increase train speeds from 60 miles per hour to 120 miles per hour and the times savings go to a mile in 30 seconds which is 30 seconds saved per mile or 30 minutes saved over 60 miles. Now double the speed again to 240 miles per hour and you save 15 seconds per mile by doubling speeds from 120 miles per hour or 15 minutes over 60 miles. This is an example of diminishing returns. Remember the amount of miles of tunneling is a fairly small part of the entire High Speed Route. The times savings of running at 220 miles per hour in a tunnel versus at 200 miles per hour are only a few seconds saved per mile for only a few miles. But the cost of building tunnels for 220 miles per hours speeds cost much more than for 200 miles per hour. It is better to slow down and save money.
Many of the problems for California High Speed Rail have their roots in its planning going back before the passage of Prop 1A in 2008 and up to 2012 when the project nearly imploded. Most of the planning before 2012 was done by private consulting firms. For years critics including myself complained about consultants “gold plating” rail projects. Gold plating was often seen since World War II for many proposed and sometime built rail transit projects. Many transit project failed to be built because of the high costs of projects proposed by consultants. The Light Rail movement which began by the late 70’s was a revolt against overbuilt stand alone fully grade separated rail transit projects which often didn’t connect with other transportation modes. Since 1980 Light Rail construction has exploded around this country along with ridership.
Of course for the consultant more expensive projects were in their best interests because that would create more work for them. Like anybody with a sales person, the goal of the seller is to interest a potential buyer in the most expensive item that the customer’s credit score will allow. Since 2012 the California High Speed Rail project has made major changes to many of the original plans creating a better and more economical service. This started with the California High Speed Rail 2012 Business plan which was major redo of the project. This started with a revised and increased budget for 520 miles of High Speed Rail for Phase 1 of just over $68 Billion dollars. For the 2016 Business plan the budget was reduced to $64 Billion which the critic continue to claim it will go over $100 billion. With experience and contact with High Speed Rail construction experts as well as their own staff of engineers, the High Speed Rail Authority is getting better at building High Speed Rail. We can see much the same thing happened in Los Angeles. The original Red Line Subway line had many construction problems, accidents, went well over budget and was behind schedule. Things were so bad that Los Angeles County banned the construction of future subways. This subway ban was lifted when they were needed for the Gold Line extension to East Los Angeles.There were no major problems tunneling in East Los Angeles. Los Angeles County has since gone on to extend subway construction in downtown Los Angeles for the Regional Connector for the Blue,Gold and Expo Line, extension of the Purple Line west on the Wilshire Corridor and for subways under Crenshaw Blvd for the Crenshaw/LAX Line. While not cheap, these project have much fewer problems because of experience gain in tunneling from the Red Line finished in the 1990’s.
Here are examples of changes made to the California High Speed Rail project from the original proposals. Early plans for High Speed Rail between Los Angeles and Anaheim called for building 5 tracks on the BNSF mainline between Los Angeles and Fullerton. There would be 3 tracks for BNSF, Amtrak and Metrolink and 2 tracks all for High Speed Rail. The problem was there was only room on the right of way for 4 tracks. The consultant’s solution was to build an elevated double track High Speed Rail tracks. Los Angeles Metro which controls all transportation construction in Los Angeles County. Los Angeles Metro told the High Speed Rail Authority no to that idea. Instead the then mostly double track BNSF with some triple tracking would be rebuilt to 4 tracks. The BNSF would have double tracking which is what they needed their freight service, The other two tracks would provide plenty of capacity for passenger trains and make faster speeds possible since you wouldn’t be mixing slower freight trains with faster passenger trains. In an urban area such as between Los Angeles and Anaheim trains speeds faster than 125 miles per hour are not practical. This was the beginning of using blended service with conventional and high speed rail trains on existing urban rights of way. This is commonly used in Europe where isn’t economical or even rational to build major new infrastructure in densely populated urban areas.
In the San Francisco Bay area the problem with building High Speed Rail is mainly in the area between Palo Alto and Atherton. California High Speed Rail’s original plan was to add 2 tracks for High Speed Rail service with full grade separation separate from the existing double tracks used by Caltrain. Local opposition to the High Speed Rail Authority’s original plans forced many changes including sharing tracks with Caltrain. The right of way between most of San Francisco and San Jose is wide enough for four tracks. There are even some 4 tracks segment in place already on Caltrain. The issue that Palo Alto and Atherton have, which are the towns most opposed to High Speed Rail is they don’t want more trains period. Certainly not without full grade separation in their communities for all trains. When High Speed Rail is running in the Bay Area at the beginning there will be several grade crossing. Over time these will be eliminated. But High Speed Rail planners were forced to cut back on the number of trains that will run to San Francisco until there are more tracks when they gave up their exclusive tracks idea. These grade crossings will be upgraded for increased safety to the same level as at Quiet Zones. With construction of electrification starting soon for Caltrain, it will be fairly easy to extend High Speed Rail on Caltrain’s tracks when electrification is finished.
The most grandiose plans the consultant’s dreamed up for the California High Speed Rail project was for operations south of Burbank into Los Angeles. Original planning called for an underground station across the street from Los Angeles Union Station. This would have tunnels for run through service between Anaheim and Burbank. Just getting to Burbank would have new right of ways used for the straightest and fastest running alignment built in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. In urban areas the distances are fairly short that the times savings for running fast are generally minimal, but the costs of construction major. Years of planning for this was carried on by the California High Speed Rail Authority. Yet last year the California High Speed Rail Authority asked LA Metro to allot 2 platforms and 4 tracks to their construction of run through tracks and a new concourse for Los Angeles Union Station for High Speed Rail. High Speed Rail will have separate tracks at the throats at the north and future south Union Station run through tracks from the other rail services, Between Burbank and Los Angeles High Speed Rail will use existing rights of way into Union Station mostly at grade. Not only will this save lots of money compared to their subway plan, but this will make transferring for passengers to and from High Speed Rail to other trains, buses and transit much easier than an underground station across the street.from Union Station. High Speed Rail trains inside Union Station not only is a much idea than the original planning, but will be much cheaper to build!