By Noel T. Braymer
A major reason for building High Speed Rail in California is to reduce congestion on the air corridor between Southern and Northern California. Delays on this air corridor are common and flight times slower now than in the past. There isn’t much room on the ground to build additional runways at existing airports to allow more flights to be flown. Also surface traffic congestion at major airports is already often bad that it is difficult for the airports to handle more passengers. Besides that short distance air corridor traffic is not particularly profitable for either the airports or the airlines. Both are more interested in flying more long distance routes which produce more revenue. Reducing the amount of local air corridor traffic would free up more runways and gates for the longer distance flight.
A major reason for building California High Speed Rail is to relieve congestion on the California Air Corridor. To do this would require High Speed Rail service which is competitive with air travel on an origin to destination basis. An example of this is travel time from your home (your origin) to you destination ( your client’s workplace) and not just the time between airports or train stations. This will require excellent connections at the train stations to ground transportation and short distances to and from origins and destinations compared with airports. To be time competitive with air travel, the plan is to offer High Speed Rail passenger service between Los Angeles an San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes or less. This will require travel speeds up to 220 miles per hour. Where High Speed Rail has been developed in major air corridors with competitive origin to destination travel times and competitive fares, it has dominated the market.
Does this mean that all California High Speed trains will travel at 220 miles per hour? The problem with speed is it is expensive. In many cases in the past when rail speeds have been raised, the cost of operation have risen faster than revenues because of the reduced running times. A classic example of this is when BART was being planned in the 1960’s it was expected to travel at 80 miles per hour and average 60 miles per hour. This in an attempt to be competitive with freeway speeds to get people out of their cars on to BART. The reality today is BART has an average speed of around 30 miles per hour and the trains are still crowded.
High Speed Rail service needs to appeal to the largest possible market in order to operate at a profit. There is a big difference between a traveler on an expense account compared to a discretionary traveler. A person with an expense account often has to be someplace at a specific time and place. Often with a busy schedule and needing to make a good impression, extra comfort is valuable to be rested and alert at their destination. This often costs extra. A discretionary traveler is willing to pick and chose the day and time of day they wish to travel, often in attempt to get the lowest ticket price. There are of course many travelers that fall in the middle between expense account and discretionary travelers.
California High Speed Rail has long planned to run a mixture of services for different travel markets in California. These include fast express trains and a mixture of multiple station stops local trains to serve as many communities as possible An express High Speed Train between Los Angeles and San Francisco may only make on station stop. This would most likely be at Fresno which is roughly midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Not only is Fresno the largest city in the San Joaquin Valley. But as a transfer station it will connect most of the cities in the San Joaquin Valley with air competitive travel times to major populations centers at both ends of California.
But what about the discretionary, economy class traveler? Even at slower speeds like 170 miles per hour, such train travel even with many station stops will be faster than driving the speed limit on free flowing freeways, as well as more comfortable. Also when a train or any vehicle has to stop, it takes more energy to get back up to speed compared to staying at a steady speed and not stopping. The more stops, the less impact of going faster will reduce running times on a trip. Rapid acceleration is more important in reducing running times with multiple stop service than higher top speeds.
It is too early to say exactly how fast the local, multi-stop California High Speed trains will go when they are running hopefully be 2025 between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. This is because the operation of California High Speed Rail will be up to the service operator which will determine the best service to run at a profit and pay for the franchise to run trains on this publicly owned railroad. What will be running are express trains at speed up to 220 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco in under 2 hours and 40 minutes by 2029 or so.