By Noel T. Braymer
The basic philosophy of RailPAC over the years is several small victories are better than a big flop. Even small victories like adding a new siding somewhere or building a new transit center takes years to get done because of waiting for funding. A classic example of this is RailPAC’s goal of seeing run through tracks built at Los Angeles Union Station. RailPAC has been advocating run through tracks at Union Station since at least 1980. Construction for run through tracks should finally begin in the next year or two. What I remember growing up in Southern California in the 1960’s were the many grand and expensive plans to build Heavy Rail Rapid Transit in Los Angeles County. All of these grand designs failed at the ballot box. The irony was the first rail transit finished in the late 20th century in Los Angeles County was the Light Rail Blue Line between Long Beach and Los Angeles opening in 1990. The Heavy Rail Red Line Subway which took longer to build, had many construction related delays, accidents and cost overruns. Ridership on the Red Line for the first few years was well below expectations and didn’t really take off until the service was extended to North Hollywood. But what was unexpected was the Red Line was getting many transfers from passengers off of the Blue Line. The planners for the Red Line had assumed that the Blue Line would compete with the Red Line for funding and passengers. Instead the two services complimented each other.
This is how most good public transportation systems work. Yet so often service operators in this county look at other services as competition rather than complimenting their services. But many counties such as in Europe know better and work to have good connections between services and have different levels of service on their railroads. What RailPAC has worked on over the years is advocating incremental improvements that are fairly simple and inexpensive to achieve, but will have a positive impact on the total Rail Passenger system in California. One of the criticisms I’ve had in the past about California High Speed Rail was it wasn’t being built incrementally which is how most transportation services are usually built. It is asking the public a get deal who voted for California High Speed Rail in 2008 to wait until 2029 to get any HSR service.
Well its no secret that many things have not gone according to plan for California High Speed Rail. But that’s true of most major construction projects where there can be many problems that aren’t expected. Increasingly the California High Speed Rail Authority has been adopting ideas to both reduce the costs of the project and connect it to more of the growing California Rail Passenger system. Recently the California High Speed Rail Authority announced that they are willing to allow San Joaquin trains to use the new HSR railroad between Bakersfield and Merced after the tracks are finished in 2022. The Authority is also planning to build the tracks and electrification for High Speed Rail between San Jose and Gilroy by around 2026 or 27. Caltrain would be able to expand service to Gilroy before HSR service is planned to run between Bakersfield and San Francisco by 2029 at the earliest.
For now plans, such as they are for San Joaquin train service using the new High Speed Rail tracks are rather vague. Would this mean all San Joaquin trains would use the High Speed Rail tracks? What happens to the San Joaquin trains when High Speed trains are running on the new tracks by 2027 or so? What happens to service at the San Joaquin stations that will be bypassed by using the Valley High Speed Rail tracks? Hopefully there will be answers before any San Joaquin trains are running on the new right of way in the 2020’s. One solution would be to run only Sacramento bound trains on the new HSR tracks. As it is now there are only 2 round trip San Joaquin trains running to Sacramento so they are unlikely to be missed by most passengers at the stations that would be skipped. There are plans in the near future to add more trains on the San Joaquin trains to both Oakland and Sacramento. Running additional trains from Bakersfield to Sacramento with greatly reduced running times using the new HSR tracks would attract many new riders. Upgrading existing rights of ways north of Merced as far as Stockton would allow faster speeds of between 90 up to 110 miles per hour and shorter running times on this segment. Service to either or both Sacramento and Oakland would attract many more passengers with reduced running times.
What could be done if all San Joaquin trains switched to the High Speed Tracks would be to operate connecting bus service to the towns with stations now that would be skipped for connections to stations with fast San Joaquin service. If there are no competing private bus services, these buses might also be used by local residents for other trips within the Valley. This bus service could also be used in the future for connections to future High Speed Rail service. This would greatly speed up rail passenger service in the Valley. Using some of the new locomotives and future passenger cars due by 2020 for California passenger service, some San Joaquin trains could be run at speeds up to 125 miles per hour between Bakersfield and Merced. Even with existing equipment the trains can run up to 90 miles per hour which they can’t legally run now on the BNSF. The new high speed tracks won’t have the slow running that the BNSF tracks have in places like downtown Fresno now. So even at the top speed of 79 miles per hour, running times will be much shorter on the HSR tracks compared to the BNSF tracks for the current San Joaquin trains.
So what happens to the San Joaquin Trains when High Speed Trains are running in the San Joaquin Valley? How about blended service? Blended service is where High Speed Rail Trains share the tracks also used by conventional trains. This is common with many High Speed Rail services around the world. This is planned for California High Speed Rail service between Gilroy to San Francisco and from Burbank to Anaheim. This could be done with some or all of the San Joaquin trains. What would be needed would be to use High Speed Rail equipment on future San Joaquin trains. This is because the most efficient use of a railroad, or any road is to have all the vehicles running at the same speed. Having vehicles at different speeds on a busy railroad or freeway often causes congestion on those roads which can bring things to a halt. So what happens when our HSR San Joaquin trains run out of overhead catenary at Merced? This would require hybrid operation with these trains using supplemental batteries, a turbine powered generator or both to operate these trains where there is no catenary. There is also the option to extend electrification north of Merced to Sacramento and to Oakland.
High Speed Railroads are best seen as trunk lines. This is an old railroad concept of the main line being a trunk like that of a tree with branches to other rail lines feeding traffic to the trunk or main line. A double track railroad should be able to handle at least 20 trains an hour in both directions. So there is plenty of potential future capacity for High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley. With such a high capital investment for a High Speed Rail railroad, the best thing to do is to put on it as much revenue service on it as possible to make it pay. Also adding additional services and markets in the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area to High Speed Rail will increase ridership, revenue and support for this project years before HSR service can be extended to Southern California. Speaking of which the question was recently asked by a California High Speed Rail Authority Board member from San Diego as to when High Speed Rail would reach San Diego? Using blended service and needed improvements on the existing rail line can make some service happen sooner than now planned as a temporary solution. The same could be done for service to the Inland Empire. But for now let’s first get something fast running with paying passengers by 2023 at the latest in the San Joaquin Valley that goes beyond Merced.