By Noel T. Braymer
The California High Speed Rail Authority is busy planning an initial High Speed Rail service in the San Joaquin Valley to start service possibly by 2028. Central to these plans is the need to improve surface travel not only in the San Joaquin Valley, but also to the Bay Area and Southern California. Most of the planning for this is being done by the California High Speed Rail’s “Early Train Operator” (ETO) DB Engineering and Consulting USA. It is a subsidiary of the Deutsche Bahn railroad company of Germany. What the ETO is proposing is to run the initial HSR service from a new HSR Bakersfield station by the UP tracks to a new HSR station beside the UP tracks at Merced. This service will be run hourly and would replace all current San Joaquin train service south of Merced. The fares on the HSR line will be comparable on trips to those now with San Joaquin trains. The running times between Bakersfield and Merced on this service would be about 90 minutes, saving roughly 90 minutes of running time over the current San Joaquin trains. This will also bypass current San Joaquin stations at Wasco and Corcoran. A new HSR station is planned between Kings and Tulare Counties to replace the Hanford Station. Planning for this station includes a DMU Rail Car service on an existing rail branch line which will connect several places in both counties with 10 future stations. These include stops at Huron, Naval Air Station Lemoore, Hanford, Visalia and Porterville. There will be new High Speed Rail stations on this initial service at Bakersfield, Kings/Tulare, Fresno, Madrea and Merced.
CAHSRA map of its plan to run HSR service between Bakersfield and Merced. What is confusing about this graphic is the one station for combining HSR, ACE and San Joaquin services . It shows the existing BNSF track alignment for the San Joaquins in green out of Merced. Does that mean a track connection will be needed for the San Joaquins to cross the UP at the new Merced station to connect to the the BNSF?
What this map shows in purple is the planned UP own route for ACE from Merced to both San Jose as well as to Sacramento. The blue line shows the BNSF route of the San Joaquin trains. This was the plan for expanded service to Sacramento before the plan to terminate the San Joaquins at Merced instead of Bakersfield for High Speed Rail service.
At Merced there will be connections to future ACE and reconfigured San Joaquin service. ACE will provide service on a new track built for it on the UP right of way between Merced and Lathrop. ACE will provide service both to San Jose as well as Sacramento. The planning so far is for service to alternate every other hour between ACE and the San Joaquins for future service to and from Sacramento giving a train every hour between Merced and Sacramento. At this time it is not sure how many San Joaquin trains will run to Oakland and ACE trains to San Jose. The California High Speed Rail Authority expects ACE and San Joaquin trains to run at least 10 connecting trains each at Merced. Would that mean 5 San Joaquin trains to Oakland and 5 to Sacramento? Does this also mean 5 ACE trains to Sacramento and 5 ACE trains to San Jose? Will there be both ACE and San Joaquin trains standing by at Merced every hour for transfers from HSR Valley trains?
One of the advantages of terminating the San Joaquin trains at Merced means they will no longer need their crew base at Merced. This will save the San Joaquin service money. Also the shorter routes mean the San Joaquin trains will be able to run more frequent service with the equipment at hand. By the time this service is running around 2028, the San Joaquin trains will have new Siemens single level Cars and Locomotives. These will be compatible with the High Speed Rail equipment at the stations having the same platform level at floor height as the new High Speed Rail equipment.
What was unexpected is the State is also planning to reduce running times with connector buses between Southern California and Bakersfield. A major problem taking connecting buses to trains in Southern California is getting stuck in traffic and running late. This is particularly true between downtown Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. What is in the works now is running express buses between Santa Clarita and Bakersfield in the future. To connect to these express buses will be expanded Metrolink service for most of Southern California with connections at Union Station to Santa Clarita for passengers transferring to trains at Bakersfield. What will make this workable will be on line ticketing which will allow ticket purchases using smart phones allowing connections between trains and buses. This will greatly expand the number of places to catch Metrolink to get to the San Joaquin Valley or Bay Area compared to using the limited number of stops for Thruway Buses available now.
This graphic is from the updated 2019 Business Plan of California High Speed Rail for the State Legislature. It shows the potential financial improvement from combining High Speed Rail and existing rail passenger services.
The following is from the updated California High Speed Rail Business Plan for 2019 addressing the early initial HSR service in the San Joaquin Valley
Project Update Report to the California State Legislature 2019
Early Train Operator’s Analysis of Early Service
The 2018 Business Plan committed to reaching farther than the first 119-mile segment funded by the federal grants. A line connecting to Bakersfield would provide greater ridership and revenue and deliver an increased overall economic impact throughout the Central Valley. The plan also committed to evaluating an extension to Merced to link with other passenger services proposed for expansion by both the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC), which manages the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE), and the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA), which oversees the San Joaquins service. A line making key connections to the expanded services would be more productive, provide greater travel opportunities and be more meaningful to the Central Valley than the shorter Madera to Poplar/Wasco segment.
In addition, the ACE and San Joaquins services expansion received a major commitment of funding from the state Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (announced in April 2018)—a commitment from all sources exceeding $1.3 billion and enabling much better connected services to be operated to Merced from both the Bay Area and Sacramento – CAHSRA…
The ETO analysis found that a Merced-Fresno-Bakersfield service integrated with ACE and San Joaquins service was the only early operation that generated incremental value across all services. Additional planning and analysis is needed to further identify the optimal balance of operations, costs and revenues. However, the analysis showed incremental benefits to the state passenger rail network that generate much more ridership and greater value for the public funding spent on operating intercity and regional rail services through the Central Valley.
The summary that follows identifies how a phased service implementation may potentially benefit the state’s existing passenger rail system. The ETO Financial Plan Study analyzed the impact of these options combined with existing rail and bus services in the Central Valley and San Francisco-to-Gilroy corridors…
The main drivers for the higher ridership included: „ A substantially improved quality of service including reduced travel times and increased service levels; „ Fares consistent with current San Joaquins service; „ Improved accessibility at a Merced intermodal station, shortening transfer times between the San Joaquins, the Altamont Corridor Express and high-speed rail services; and „ Enhanced service levels, bus connections and the number of daily trips based on use of high-speed rail infrastructure .
Early Train Operator’s Conclusions
The analysis concluded that improving service between Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield with a high-speed rail interim service—in coordination with improvements aligned with the State Rail Plan north of Merced to Sacramento and to the Bay Area and bus connections south of Bakersfield to Southern California—created the highest value and benefits, including: „ Provide faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger service than is currently available in this corridor, as shown in Table 1.0; „ Reduce travel times for passengers between Sacramento and the Bay Area to Bakersfield by up to 90 to 100 minutes; „ Enhance connectivity and accessibility to other passenger-rail services;„ Provide the highest ridership potential and fare revenue of any other Central Valley option, as shown in Table 1.1; „ Improve air quality in the Central Valley by shifting from diesel to clean, electrically powered trains; „ Provides an overall infrastructure configuration offering significant benefits to both passenger and freight movement; and „ Allow for early testing of high-speed operations and passenger use and reduce ramp-up time for future extensions. Additional planning and analysis is expected to advance on this scenario to address how to best optimize this service after addressing necessary agreements with and requirements from various stakeholders and agencies…
Fares from the forecasted service in 2026 without high-speed rail will cover approximately 41 percent of the current operations and maintenance costs. Incorporating high-speed rail infrastructure and trains into this network could improve that to 73 percent by providing more frequency, faster service and the elimination of delays due to freight trains, thus attracting more people to the system. Much more service (approximately double the number of total train miles) and much greater ridership is realized on the proposed system. The revenues were evaluated in total for all services. The revenue sharing agreements have not yet been established between the operators.
According to the ETO’s report, the financial scenario is better with high-speed rail than without high-speed rail, as shown in Exhibits 1.1 and 1.2. Total operating and maintenance costs with high-speed rail are 1.6 times higher than without high-speed rail in 2026. However, total revenues with high-speed rail are 2.9 times higher than without high-speed rail, resulting in a smaller gap of $62.6 million compared to $82.8 million. This means that from the point of view of California’s state budget, introducing early high-speed rail services in the Central Valley (Merced-Fresno-Bakersfield) is financially attractive and creates benefits for the communities in the integrated corridor because of the positive impacts shown across the San Joaquins and ACE corridors.
Early Train Operator’s Conclusions
The analysis concluded that improving service between Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield with a high-speed rail interim service—in coordination with improvements aligned with the State Rail Plan north of Merced to Sacramento and to the Bay Area and bus connections south of Bakersfield to Southern California—created the highest value and benefits, including: „ Provide faster, more frequent and more reliable passenger service than is currently available in this corridor, as shown in Table 1.0; „ Reduce travel times for passengers between Sacramento and the Bay Area to Bakersfield by up to 90 to 100 minutes; „ Enhance connectivity and accessbility to other passenger-rail services;
While this may sound to some like a snow job from a consultant trying to sell a client (in this case the CAHSRA) untested ideas. The fact is the Early Train Operator which is DB Engineering and Consulting USA is getting paid to set up a profitable rail passenger operation which is the norm in much of the world. To retain the role of train operator, DB’s future operation of CA-HSR is expected to be profitable and will be under contract to pay the CAHSRA to use its High Speed Railroad once the service is fully up and running.
Merced-Fresno-Bakersfield Interim Service Benefits
The 171-mile trip from Merced to Bakersfield currently takes 2.5 hours by car and more than 3 hours by existing passenger rail. Implementation of high-speed intercity rail service could cut that travel time in half, as shown in Exhibit 1.6 on page 23. The faster travel times and the improved connectivity that high-speed rail will bring to the Central Valley has the potential to fundamentally transform the regional economy. But the first building block will also deliver other benefits, including: „ Improved reliability by operating on a dedicated passenger rail line allowing more frequent, on-time service within the Central Valley; „ Faster travel for passengers traveling between Sacramento and the Bay Area to Bakersfield by reducing trip times by 90-100 minutes; „ Better connections to the Altamont Corridor Express and San Joaquins services to the north and bus connections from Bakersfield to the south, improving access to other California destinations (as shown in Exhibit 1.5); and „ Replacing diesel passenger service with clean, electrified trains, which reduces CO2 emissions.