By Noel T. Braymer
With California’s Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown now in his last year as governor, he seems to be a man in a hurry to tie up as many loose ends as possible before he goes. Brown had years after he left Sacramento in 1983 to rethink what he would differently if he got a second chance as governor. When Jerry Brown came back to Sacramento as Governor in 2011, he had a lot of plans and is in the process making sure they survive after 2019. Central to his plans are expanded rail passenger service, reductions in green house gas emissions in the State and keeping California’s State budget in balance. Under Governor Brown, $4.3 billion dollars was just released to fund many rail and transit projects that have waited for years for funding. This was made possible with the passage of new transportation taxes on fuel, increased car registration fees and money from the Cap and Trade program. Brown is quickly putting that money to use for highway repair projects, plus improved rail and transit services. One thing building new roads or expanding old ones doesn’t do is reduce traffic congestion: it only makes it worse. Another factor in Brown’s hurry to spend this new tax revenues may also be part of his plans to avoid problems from a recession he predicts will happen after he leaves. What this new spending will do is not only generate economic activity after new rail and transit services are running, but also stimulate local economies with new construction in the short term. All of this while leaving the air cleaner and a State budget surplus. According to recent news reports, California is now the 5th largest economy in the world with $2.7 trillion dollars in Gross Domestic Product surpassing Great Britain. California has had major economic growth since the Great Recession of 2008, particularly after the election of Jerry Brown in 2010.
Two of the areas in California where rail infrastructure has been delayed too long are in the San Joaquin Valley and along the Coast between Ventura County up to Gilroy. Both areas are largely rural, generally have low population densities and don’t have a lot of money to spend on rail projects. But both regions are astride of the 2 main north/south travel corridors in the State and deserve State funded help improving regional and State wide rail passenger services. Like many overnight successes, efforts to expand service on both the San Joaquins and ACE trains in the San Joaquin Valley have been years in the making. With funding now at hand we can expect by 2020 faster San Joaquin trains with 4 round trips between the lower San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento. In addition to the 2 existing trains, the San Joaquins plan to add 2 more trains by 2020 to Sacramento. These new trains will be on an underused branch of the Union Pacific. With State supported funding these old tracks will be upgraded for running more passenger trains.This will include new stations in the Sacramento area. At the same time the ACE trains which now run between San Jose and Stockton will have in a few years service to Sacramento and to Merced. This will include a transfer station and timed transfers to get to any point on the ACE network. In a few years there is expected to be 9 round trip trains between Stockton and Sacramento with the combined San Joaquins and ACE services. The goal is to have hourly service to Sacramento in the not too distant future.
After the fires late last year in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties and the flooding in Santa Barbara: finally more rail passenger service and the money to add more sidings in the region is finally happening. This will have a good effect on service along the entire Coast Line. What could be next? Finally extending a Pacific Surfliner at least as far as San Jose? What will happen is improvements between Gilroy and San Jose to extend Caltrain electrification to Gilroy by 2027 for speeds up to 110 miles per hour. This is part of High Speed Rail construction. This will allow High Speed Rail construction to be used by Caltrain before the High Speed Rail tunnel needed to connect the Valley to the Coast Line is built which won’t be before 2029. There is also talk of running some San Joaquin trains on the new HSR tracks in the San Joaquin Valley which will be finished by 2022. What is funded now are track improvements to raise speeds for the San Joaquin trains up to 90 miles per hour and reducing their running times to under 6 hours between Bakersfield and Oakland.
Another area in California which will enjoy improved rail service is Southern California. A major beneficiary will be Metrolink. Metrolink is planning on greatly increasing the frequencies of its service with some lines having up to 4 trains an hour in both directions and 2 trains an hour on most of its lines most of the day. Service is also being planned to link stations on all sides of downtown Los Angeles. This will mean having tracks at Los Angeles Union Station that instead of dead ending like they do now, instead run through the station in one end and out the other. A major part of the funding for building such run-through tracks and other improvements at Union Station will be with the money which was recently released for rail projects.These improvements will create a truly regional rail service for most of Southern California providing an economical alternative to often gridlocked roads and freeways. In addition LA Metro is getting State funding to extend the Purple Line to Westwood as well as building a new 18 mile Light Rail Line from Downtown Los Angeles to the southeast border of Los Angeles County at Artesia. With the help of this new funding these and other new transportation projects will be ready by 2028 in time for the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics to help people get around.
With full electrification on Caltrain to Gilroy, to more frequent Surfliners, Metrolink and Coaster Trains on the LOSSAN Corridor between San Diego and San Luis Obispo plus in the future San Jose as well as expanded San Joaquin service, much more rail service will be available in California in just the next 10 years. In Los Angeles, San Diego and the Bay Area, major transit projects are underway now helped in part by increased funding made possible with local tax increases and funding approved by Governor Brown. This in addition to rail service upgrades funded now between Sacramento, the Bay Area and and San Joaquin Valley on the San Joaquins, ACE and Capitol Corridor trains. Then there is the California High Speed Rail project of whom’s reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.Transportation is a system with many moving parts. What is being planned now to deal with future travel demand is with expanding the rail passenger network to prevent more gridlock on already congested freeways and at airports which building new ones to handle more flights is prohibitively expensive. The High Speed Rail project is just a part of a larger interlocking system of public transportation to grow the economy and provide more travel options. One thing is clear, good rail passenger service attracts passengers. From Light Rail, extended subways and improved corridor rail services, many of the rail services improved in the last 40 years have improved the local economies of those regions that have expanded rail service. Caltrain and BART are often full and rail transit is often busy in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. As the California rail passenger service network continues to grown and interconnect more, the more it will benefit local communities and much of the State as a whole. High Speed Rail is one part of this growing rail passenger system evolving in California.