By Noel T. Braymer
Most people when they hear how much time it takes to travel by train, they will think “I can drive faster than that, if the roads aren’t congested.” High Speed Trains around the world have led to increased ridership on trains where such service is available because shorter running times are attractive. But a better reason for running faster trains is it improves rail’s productivity. A simple example of this is if you can double the average speed of an existing train, you not only travel in half the time. You also allow the train crews to run twice as many trains using half the amount of equipment and carry twice as many passengers in a work day. There would be slightly higher costs running at such high speeds, but the increase in productivity would still be great. That is one reason High Speed Rail service is successful and operates at a profit in many places in the world. Even if you don’t run in half the time, even modest reductions in running times will improve rail service productivity and reduce costs carrying passengers by allowing trains and crews to carry more passengers in a day. So what’s the hold up here in California and around the United States to getting faster rail passenger service? Many passenger trains ran faster over 50 years ago than today.
There are many factors to reducing running times on trains. Many people think: run non stop and you will go faster and attract more passengers. The first part is right, trains will go faster if they don’t stop at stations along the way. But express services rarely carry lots of passengers because they bypass passengers who would get on at the stations the trains skipped. Express trains since the 1970’s have been tried many times in this country, at least twice between San Diego and Los Angeles. In all these tests, there was a major loss of ridership compared to all stop trains and the experiments usually lasted less than a year. So what’s a better way to reduce a trains running time and increase ridership?
The cheapest and easiest way to reduce running times is to spend less time at a dead stop. If you can trim a minute or two at every station stop, that’s up to 20 minutes saved if you have 10 station stops on a route. To do this you need to have every passenger car door open on a train at the stations and have either high level platforms or low level loading passenger cars to quickly load and unload passengers. The biggest problem is we don’t have enough rail passenger cars that can do that on all the trains that are running just in California now. California did order more faster loading passenger cars a few years ago, but the car builder screwed up the job and never delivered the equipment that we should of had by now. Money for that order has been transferred for different cars that are in production and hopefully be delivered in a couple of years. But these new cars won’t be fully compatible with most of the equipment used now on the local Amtrak trains in California.
A great way to run trains faster is to have more double tracking. Most of the railroads in California have one track connected to double tracked sidings every few miles. Ideally if the trains are on time the train in the siding won’t have to wait long for a meet with a passing train and then be on its way. But if one train is late, this can cause more delays to all the trains forced to wait at sidings for the late train to pass. This can get worse if a train has equipment problems or if there is an accident at a grade crossing. Having most or better yet all of the railroad double tracked makes it possible to prevent many of these delays and allows faster recoveries when there is a problem. Now the agencies and the civil engineers who work for the agencies with rail passenger service know all about this and they have plans to take care of these problems. But the main problem is getting funding. Basically all of these projects have to wait in line for their turn along with many other competing projects to get funding. This takes years and can get pushed back due to politics, changes of the administration or the economy. Even when the money is available, construction of a second track often require shutdowns on the railroads. San Diego County now has around 70% of its railroad double tracked and plans to get that to 90% by 2025. But this means the railroad is often shut down several weekends a year. This is the reason this work can’t be done quickly all at once when you also have train service to run.
One thing which will speed rail service up in Southern California will be run through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. Getting into Union Station now can be very slow. Reversing direction to pull out is often even slower when you count the time the trains have to wait in the station. It will still be a few years before we will have run through tracks at Union Station. But this will make it possible for a Surfliner train from San Diego to stop in Los Angeles for a few minutes, then move forward and continue to Santa Barbara. Just run through operation at Union Station will greatly reduce the running time for service between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. Much the same will be true for Metrolink. Routes will be combined with run through track on Metrolink which reduces the need to transfer between trains which saves time for passengers. Also with run through tracks Metrolink will be able to run up to 6 trains an hour at Union Station with run through tracks compared to at best 2 trains an hour now with current stub end tracks. This will also improve Metrolink’s productivity since the trains will spend more time operating in service and less time standing by during the day. Metrolink is planning to add more frequent service throughout the day and night over the next 5 to 10 years or so.
What will also speed trains up? Well there are plans as part of the planning for High Speed Rail in Southern California to build an electrified passenger railroad between Burbank through Los Angeles to Anaheim. This will be shared with Amtrak, Metrolink and High Speed Rail trains. This will require separate tracks for passenger trains and freight trains. The railroads rights of ways are wide enough to handle up to 4 tracks. By separating passenger trains with different tracks from those of freights will allow passenger trains to run faster than the freight trains while staying out of the way of the freight trains. If Amtrak and Metrolink had electric or hybrid electric/battery powered locomotives they could accelerate faster than with diesel locomotives which would also save times at least on the electrified segments. All of this could be 10 years or so in the future. One reason for this is that more grade separations will be needed to run extra trains on a four track railroad without creating major traffic problem on the roads that cross the tracks. But only a few grade separations can be built at a time to avoid making traffic problems worse on the railroads as well as the on the roads.
Where improved track work is most needed is on the Coast Line in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. Track upgrades and additional sidings in these three counties would greatly reduce running times and allow more trains to run there. The sticking point is mostly finding local money for these projects particularly in Ventura and San Luis Obispo Counties. However the recent shutdown of Highway 101 in Santa Barbara due to massive mudslides highlights the need to improve and maintain rail service for both passengers and freight when the highway system is jammed or not available. Traffic problems are increasing in California and many other places around the country. Also much of the existing transportation is aging and in need of repair or replacement and this is not being funded.
So what about High Speed Rail service in California? Much like the reporting for the flu season that comes every winters, we regularly see news stories of impeding doom from construction of High Speed Rail in California. But it isn’t just High Speed Rail that is difficult to get built. Almost any construction project needs to overcome opposition from somebody, often local residents or businesses. We can’t expect any new freeways or airports to be built in California. Doing so has become too expensive, controversial and getting land for them is equally difficult. Also the United States by far have the most expensive construction costs on all projects in the world due to inefficiency. Another factor is there is little experience in this Country building and operating good rail passenger service. There is also often a steep learning curve which the California High Speed Rail Authority has experienced and caused construction costs to rise in the San Joaquin Valley.
Los Angeles County had similar problems with its first subway built in the 1980’s which led to a ban on future subway construction for a few years. Los Angeles County now has 3 major rail projects under construction with tunneling and subway stations. Recently tunnel boring was completed on the 1.9 mile Regional Connector which will connect all of downtown Los Angeles with direct Light Rail service to Azusa, Long Beach and Santa Monica and all points in between. The original projected cost for the Regional Connector in 2014 was $1.42 Billion dollars. The cost now is $1.75 billion. What increased the cost were surprises underground like steel piles that were unmarked on utility maps which the tunneling machine chewed into. On a per mile basis the cost of the Regional Connector is just over $894 million dollars a mile. Yet Los Angeles continue to improve and expand its rail transit:Why? Just travel on most of Los Angeles’ rail services and you also see new buildings and economic growth. Downtown Los Angeles has changed greatly with rail transit with many more people moving and now living in downtown Los Angeles. When considering the costs of transportation construction, the benefits of economic growth from such construction also should be considered.
As for the current cost estimate for 119 miles of High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley, it is now at $10.6 billion dollars up from $7.8 billion dollars. The new higher cost per mile estimate for High Speed Rail in the Valley is now roughly $89 million dollar a mile. Compare this to the cost of the Regional Connector of at least $894 million a miles to get a perspective of what the current costs of construction can be for transportation. The LA Metro’s Crenshaw/LAX line is planned to open next year. At $2 billion dollars for 8.5 miles of track with some of it in tunnels, its cost per mile is just over $235 million dollars a mile. Even after an increase of about $3 billion dollars, to $67 billion dollars of the Phase 1 of California High Speed Rail, this is still one billion dollars less than the estimate for Phase 1 construction between Anaheim and San Francisco in the 2012 Business Plan. For the 520 miles between Anaheim and San Francisco at $67 billion dollars it comes to about $129 million dollars per mile in 2029 dollars. The California High Speed Rail project has had its ups and downs as well as mistakes. This is also a very complicated project which can easily bring problems and delays. Many of the delays are because of the inability of some parties to agree to what they want done. An example of this is the delay getting Bakersfield to agree to a station on the UP route which Bakersfield demanded but wanted a station by the BNSF tracks.
No doubt there will be more oversight of this project and attempts to kill it. But big construction projects usually get built despite going over budget. Highway projects often have cost over runs and go over budget as rail projects. But theses are usually ignored by the media unlike rail projects. There was a time when the United States sought challenges and to be a world leader and were willing to spend money to do things. The 1860 Republican Platform called for the construction of a Transcontinental Railroad. Construction for it began during the Civil War. In the early 1960’s President Kennedy when the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in manned space flights called for the United States to spend people to the moon before 1970. These were times when America was great.