By Noel T. Braymer
The current draft of the 2018 California High Speed Rail Business Plan has pushed back the start up of the first segment of High Speed Rail service from 2025 to 2029. Instead of running from Shafter to San Jose, it is now planned to run between Bakersfield and San Francisco. This delay in starting HSR service is driven both by problems building such a complex project and funding it on a pay as you go basis largely based on future but not always steady income from the Cap and Trade program. Also in the current draft of the HSR 2018 Business Plan is potential passenger service before 2029 using the 119 miles of High Speed Rail construction now underway between Shafter and Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. The current plan is for completing the current 119 miles of construction by 2022. What is being suggested is running San Joaquin train service between Bakersfield and Sacramento using the 119 miles of High Speed track. What could this look like?
The latest diesel locomotives and passenger cars both built in California by Siemens are capable of speeds up to 125 miles per hour. This equipment could be available in California before 2022. Speeds up to 125 miles per hour is currently at the low end of what is now considered High Speed Rail. But this was the original top speed of the first modern High Speed Trains, the Shinkansen trains of Japan which began operation in 1964. At 125 miles per hour this would be the fastest passenger train in California, and one of the fastest in the United States. Such a service if running around 2022, would likely start in Bakersfield at the current Amtrak station and continue along the BNSF tracks to Shafter in northern Kern County not far from Bakersfield. At Shafter a connection between the BNSF and the new 119 miles of High Speed Tracks would be needed. Once on these new tracks, diesel trains could run as fast as 125 miles per hour and likely use the new stations on the 119 miles right of way under construction. The first 119 miles of HSR right of way will also be used by future High Speed Trains between Anaheim and San Francisco by 2033 according to the proposed 2018 business plan. Even at the current top speed for the San Joaquin trains of 79 miles per hour, running times using the new 119 miles of new High Speed trackage will take less time to travel than using the current BNSF tracks which have several miles of slow running speeds .
A few miles north of Fresno the High Speed Rail tracks currently under construction will end at Madera. There are plans to extend High Speed trackage north of Madera to Merced. This is not likely to be finished before 2029 when the first leg of High Speed service is planned now to open. This service is expected to run between Bakersfield and San Francisco. There will be HSR service for Merced both to San Francisco and Bakersfield. But the Merced High Speed Rail station by 2029 will be at a dead end for the High Speed tracks. But it is expected to have connections to ACE, which now runs rail service between San Jose and Stockton. ACE has funding to build a new passenger only track along the UP line between Lathrop which is south of Stockton to Merced. All San Joaquin trains will also still be able to use the BNSF between Madera and Stockton.
Beginning this year, the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, which is the local body overseeing the San Joaquin train service is planning to expand rail service on the San Joaquins to Sacramento. As part of this the SJJPA has an agreement with the UP to move passenger service between Stockton and Sacramento off of the UP mainline to a lightly used secondary UP line to Sacramento. This will allow operation of more passenger trains than the current 2 trains a day to Sacramento on the San Joaquins. This alternative rail line lacks connections to the Amtrak Station in Sacramento. But there are plans to build stations in south Sacramento, near the Capitol area and north of Sacramento with bus connections to the Sacramento airport for the San Joaquin trains to Sacramento.
What could be done by roughly 2022 would be to upgrade the tracks and add more double tracking on the BNSF between Madera and Stockton. This would connect to the 119 miles of HSR track starting at Shafter. At Stockton, High Speed San Joaquin trains would be routed on the UP passenger line to Sacramento. At the very least this could lead to raising the speed limits for the San Joaquin’s up to 90 miles per hour for most of the line between Madera and Sacramento. With more double tracking and improvements at the grade crossings, speeds up to 110 miles per hour could be attained. Work is on going in the Midwest now to raise rail passenger speeds on existing railroads up to 110 miles per hour. The work to allow such speeds is almost complete now between Chicago and St. Louis.
What would faster and additional rail services do for California? For starters it would carry more passengers at lower costs. Already despite fairly high operating costs charged by Amtrak, the Pacific Surfliner trains are already recovering nearly 80 percent of operating costs from the fare box. As the Pacific Surliners continue to expand service under the management of the LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority, revenues can be expected to increase as well as the cost recovery from the fare box. The Surfliners might even make a small operating profit in the future. We could see much the same with the San Joaquin trains with greatly increased ridership from improved service to Sacramento. Also with reduced running times this makes rail passenger service more economical. Faster trains mean more people can be carried using less equipment and man-hours than at the current speeds now. Also running passenger service on the High Speed right of way might mean income for the California High Speed Rail Authority.
The legislation for the California High Speed Rail Authority allows use of its finished High Speed Tracks by other services if High Speed Rail service is not ready to use the tracks. High Speed Rail service in California has to operate at a profit and its operations can’t be subsidized under the ballot measure approved by the voters to build High Speed Rail in 2008. So at the very least either lower billing or payments from Amtrak would be due the state from Amtrak using California’s High Speed tracks. The California High Speed Rail Authority could use any income it can get. Also opening the future High Speed Rail stations between Bakersfield and Madera well before 2029 will start the process of development around the stations which is a major goal of building High Speed Rail in California and generating income.
So what happens to San Joaquin service to Sacramento after 2029 if there is High Speed Rail service running between Bakersfield and San Francisco? It might be possible to continue San Joaquin service to Sacramento sharing the HSR tracks up to Madera after 2029. The biggest problem with mixing fast and slow trains even on a double tracked railroad is it can lead to track congestion problems if the slower train is late and blocks the faster trains behind it. Another solution would be to return the San Joaquin trains for Sacramento to the BNSF tracks when full high speed rail service is available. But this would do damage to the market established with faster service between Bakersfield and Sacramento. A better solution would be to buy new trainsets capable of faster speeds than 125 miles per hour between Bakersfield and Sacramento. With the introduction of Bakersfield to San Francisco High Speed Rail service, there could also be improved faster rail service between Bakersfield and Sacramento using both HSR and conventional trackage. Such “blending” of services is already planned for High Speed Rail in the Bay Area and in Southern California.
Such service could start at the new High Speed Rail train station planned in Bakersfield along the UP Line. This would leave the Oakland bound San Joaquin trains still on the BNSF and at the current Bakersfield station. A possible alternative would be to keep Sacramento bound trains on the BNSF and continue to connect to the High Speed tracks at Shafter. What would be new is the trains after 2029 to Sacramento could be hybrid electric trains. In other words, these trains would go faster than 125 miles per hour and have pantographs to collect power while the train is under catenary. These trains would also have batteries to run at slower speeds on rail lines without catenary. These could be modified trainsets which will also be used for High Speed Rail service with blended service between Bakersfield and San Francisco but without the batteries. At Madera these new trains could continue up to Stockton on the BNSF, then on the UP to Sacramento. Another option would be to continue to stay on High Speed Tracks to Merced and continue on the new tracks for ACE next to the UP tracks to Stockton and then on the secondary UP tracks to Sacramento.
What this would do is create a Higher Speed Rail connection for Sacramento to the main High Speed Rail service between Bakersfield and San Francisco when such service opens hopefully by 2029. The start of such service could be running around 2022. By 2029 High Speed Rail could have many more markets with Sacramento connections by day one than if such service was put off in the distance future with an all new fully grade separated 200 mile an hour High Speed Train. This is not to say such service couldn’t be improved and go faster in the future. But for much less money a much better rail service could be running and available than what we have now when the first High Speed Rail trains are running in the Valley.
Also important is the political question. Good rail service to Sacramento will attract riders including local government officials on business to Sacramento. As well legislators and members of their staffs and State government officials often travel to and from Sacramento. For many of these people the only option for travel is driving. It is 277 road miles between Bakersfield and Sacramento. It is often a road trip of over 5 hours. Having a reliable, comfortable and fast rail service connecting most of the San Joaquin Valley would be very popular with the people who often travel to and from Sacramento on business. Having the support and enthusiasm of such people will be valuable to keep the California High Speed Rail project on track.