By Noel T. Braymer
There has been a great deal of publicity and criticism of High Speed Rail projects in this Country. Most of this is centered around trains with speeds over 200 miles per hour such as planned between Anaheim and San Francisco as well as a similar project between Dallas and Houston in Texas. Much of the opposition to these projects stem from the need to use eminent domain to condemn land to build these projects and local resident’s fears of the impact of such projects will have to their property. This has so dominated the discussion about High Speed Rail service, that other High Speed Rail projects with less impact to residents have been largely ignored. Going back almost 16 years the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has developed standards to operate passenger rail service at up to 125 miles per hour on upgraded tracks on mostly existing rail rights of way. This includes improved signalling for higher speeds and upgraded grade crossing standards for speeds between 110 and up to 125 miles per hour. For 125 miles per hour speeds at grade crossings, barriers are needed able to stop trucks. With the help of sensors and computers, grade crossings can be sealed off to allow trains to get through at speeds over 90 miles per hour. This same technology also can stop trains before entering a crossing which is blocked. This technology is much cheaper than full grade separation.
There are several projects underway to do this in this county. Areas which the FRA has been supporting Higher Speed Rail Passenger service include besides California, the Mid-West, Pacific North West and East Coast. There has already been years of work to upgrade tracks for higher speeds in the Mid-West for 125 mile per hour service between St. Louis and Chicago. The first higher speed rail passenger project to run is Brightline being built in Florida with private financing. Construction is almost finished between Miami- Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach with service expected to begin in the summer of 2017 with speeds up to 125 miles per hours. The railroad building this service is primarily a land development company, and is investing money in development around the stations for this new rail passenger service. The ultimate goal of this service is to go as far as Orlando. But final funding for construction to Orlando is still not settled.
So is 125 miles per hour fast? Back in 1964, the first modern high speed rail service, the Shinkansen opened between Tokyo and Osaka with a top speed of 125 miles per hour. This was competitive with air travel in 1964 for home to destination travel between Tokyo and Osaka. Looking at just California, there are plenty of existing lines and services which are good candidates for speed upgrades up to 125 miles per hour. For years there have been plans to reduce the running times for trains between Los Angeles and San Diego to under 2 hours. Today on the Pacific Surfliners this trip can take 2 hours and 40 minutes or more. Raising speeds from a current top speed of 90 miles an hour in parts of southern Orange and northern San Diego County to up to 125 miles per hour on more of the route will be needed to run under 2 hours. This will be faster even with station stops than driving at legal speeds during times when there is no congestion on the I-5. Most of the line between Los Angeles and Laguna Niguel is at least double tracked with some triple track already between Fullerton and the City of Commerce. By 2025 most of San Diego County will be double tracked with about 70 percent already doubled tracked. The bottlenecks are single tracked segments between San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente as well as in Del Mar. The locally preferred solution in both San Clemente and Del Mar are double tracked tunnels in both locations. These will both cost over a billion dollars each to build. But this will still be cheaper than building a new road or railroad to handle current or even future travel demand.
In the near future there are plans to build 4 tracks between Fullerton and Los Angeles. This will create double tracks for freight trains and double tracks for passenger service. This will allow faster speeds for passenger service and avoid conflicts with slower freight trains. This will be possible when the entire BNSF mainline between the City of Commerce and Fullerton is fully grade separated. Most major railroads right of ways in the country are wide enough for up to 4 tracks. In areas of heavy freight traffic, extra tracks will be needed for faster passenger trains to avoid conflicts which delay freight trains. Additional tracks for faster passenger trains to pass freights will be a critical feature for sharing rights of ways for passenger trains with freight trains.This will be a main feature of track upgrades for High Speed Rail between Burbank and Anaheim with HSR trains on the same right of ways as freight.
Faster service should be extended north of Los Angeles along the coast as far as San Jose. This will be helped with new run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station which will eliminate the need for trains to back in and out of the station as they must now in the next 5 years or so. This will save a great deal of time for trains getting in and out of Union Station. The Coast line has long segments of single track with few sidings and would benefit from more double tracking and upgraded signalling. While this won’t be cheap, it is the most cost effective capital improvement in terms of travel time reduction and number of people carried. The alternatives are new enlarged roads and or more runways. The Coast line would be well served with “tilt trains”. Tilt trains can travel faster around curves by “tilting” the rail cars so passengers stay in their seats instead of being slammed against the train walls at higher speeds due to centrifugal force. At 150 miles per hour on conventional track, a tilt train can travel as quickly as a non-tilt train going 170 miles per hour. At speeds above 170 miles per hour rail service is hitting diminishing returns with the costs of higher speeds rising faster than improved efficiency by moving more passengers per hour.
Another major route where higher speeds on existing rights of way will work is in the San Joaquin Valley on the route of the San Joaquin trains. Speeds raised in the San Joaquin Valley between Madera to Sacramento up to 125 miles per hour make sense. Madera is the future transfer point between High Speed Rail service and the San Joaquin trains for passengers traveling to and from the San Joaquin Valley north of Merced. What is also missing today is good rail service to Sacramento in the San Joaquin Valley. With track improvements and raised speeds up to 125 miles per hour and additional frequencies, a decent rail connections from south of Merced to the upper Sacramento Valley and Sacramento could be quickly and economically created. There are plans to build a High Speed Rail branch from Merced to Sacramento in the future. In the mean time service could be created much sooner on an improved San Joaquin train to Sacramento service. Some of this track work and grade crossing improvements could be incorporated as part of future High Speed Rail service.
Another route which is overdue for more rail passenger service is between Palm Springs and Los Angeles,connecting there to the rest of California. Limited service could be seen on this route in the next few years. For a faster passenger service improved track work and other improvements would be needed. This could be the basis in the future of extended service to Arizona to Phoenix and Tucson. This would be part of potential service built in Arizona for local service. This is a major travel market and speeds up to 125 miles per hour would be much cheaper to build if there is enough room on the right of way for additional trackage compared building a stand alone High Speed Rail only line. As part of this there should be efforts to expand rail passenger service between Los Angeles and the Inland Empire of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. Long term plans call for High Speed Rail service from Los Angeles to San Diego via a station for Ontario Airport and south of Riverside on roughly the I-15 freeway corridor. The most practical way to do this is to use part of the former SP Mainline now owned by the UP between Los Angeles and Colton which runs alongside the terminals of the Ontario Airport. It is the only right way which does this. Upgrading this right of way for faster speeds can provide rail service which can be used for future High Speed Rail service to Ontario Airport and along the I-15 corridor into southern Riverside County. With a connecting station likely at Riverside it will be possible for passengers to transfer to trains to Palm Springs and Arizona. The Palm Springs trains will likely run to Orange County and come up to Riverside, then transferring to the UP route to Palm Springs.