By Noel T. Braymer
I recently got a chance to look at the March 2018 issue of Trains Magazine which had a special report on Speed. This included several stories about high speed rail with one story about the California High Speed Rail project.This story was written by Jody Meacham who is also a reporter for the Silicon Business Valley Journal which does an excellent job covering the California High Speed Rail project. A major challenge building the California High Speed Rail project is the need to keep the curves gentle while running at up to 220 miles per hour. Anyone who has been in a car taking a tight turn too quickly has felt the centripetal force push them towards the car door. Imagine the force trying to take a tight curve at 200 miles per hour? This article points out that to build a balloon track for speeds of 200 miles per hour would need 13 miles of track.This is a major problem building this service since this requires land acquisition where there are curves to allow 200 plus miles operation. Such high speeds are needed in order to meet the goals in the ballot measure which voters approved for this project which calls for rail service between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes or less.
This article brought up the claims by some that it would have been cheaper to build high speed rail on the I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley. But the same voter approved ballot measure that calls for fast service between Los Angeles and San Francisco also names the cities that will have High Speed Rail stations. The I-5 bypasses all the cities in the San Joaquin Valley that by law must have high speed rail stations. While I-5 has fairly long segments that are fairly straight, it still has some curves that are too tight to take at 200 miles per hour. This Trains Magazine article brought up the claim of Hyperloop promoters that construction of it along I-5 will be much cheaper than High Speed Rail now being built. That might be true if they can build a tube in the San Joaquin Valley which is perfectly straight.The California High Speed Rail project’s Chief Civil Engineer Scott Jarvis comes with 30 years experience building roads with the California Department of Transportation. Mr. Jarvis knows that trying to build a 200 mile an hour railroad on a freeway built with curves for top speeds of 70 miles an hour wouldn’t be easy. Hyperloop promoters are talking about running pods 2 to 3 times faster than 200 miles per hour in an evacuated tube. So far it is doubtful that there has been much testing simulating a Hyperloop pod turning at speeds around 600 miles per hour. There has been no announcements of such a test being performed with people in such a pod. The amount of land required to take a curve in comfort at 600 miles an hour would be greater than for a train at 200 miles per hour. It is doubtful that Hyperloop passengers would want to wear “g-suits” and risk losing consciousness taking a “high g” turn at g forces as high as those in fighter aircraft. Hyperloop would have many of the same or greater problems getting land for rights of ways for construction that have faced the California High Speed Rail project.
One idea that has been looked at has been to use parts of California’s future High Speed Railroad for moving rail freight. At the behest of California’s State Senator Jim Beall who chair’s the State Senate’s Transportation Committee, the California High Speed Rail Authority contacted the Union Pacific and BNSF about running some of their freight trains taking advantage of the long tunnels to be built between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. This would be with electric locomotives hauling this freight to bypass the slow running speeds in the Tehachapi mountains. Neither railroad was very interested in this idea.That’s understandable since most of their freight traffic is over long distances and the time saved using the new tunnels wouldn’t mean that much over a long trip. Also there is the time spent attaching and removing the electric locomotives if these trains traveled in the new High Speed Rail right of way and the existing freight rail lines which would have to be included in total travel time. This is not to say carrying freight is a bad idea on a High Speed Railroad.
Just in Europe there are examples of freight trains sharing high speed railroads with passenger service. One example is HS1 for High Speed 1 for the rail route between London to the portal of the “Chunnel” between Britain and France. High speed trains and freight trains also share the Chunnel. Switzerland is building long high speed rail tunnels through the Alps to divert truck and auto traffic off of its roads and onto the railroads. The recently opened 35 mile long Gotthard Base rail tunnel in Switzerland has a top speed of 160 miles per hour. The 31 mile Chunnel has a top speed of 100 miles an hour. The tunnels for California High Speed Rail are planned for speeds of at least 200 miles per hour. It should be possible to schedule time slots when slower and less frequent freight trains can run mixed with high speed trains. A double tracked railroad should be able to handle between 12 to 20 trains an hour in both directions. Also freight traffic can be run generally at non-peak travel times when passenger service is light. There are 2 good reasons to run freight service on high speed rail. First is with a high capital investment needed for a high speed railroad, you want to run as much traffic on it as you can to pay the overhead costs. Second, diverting truck traffic on to rail reduces emissions, traffic congestion on existing roads and reduces the need to expand roads to carry more freight.
Most of the freight traffic carried on California High Speed Rail would likely be for time sensitive deliveries, and for intra-California freight traffic now usually carried by trucks on the highways. This looks like a job for the California High Speed Rail Authority’s consultant DB Engineering & Consulting USA. DB stands for Deutsche Bahn which means German Railroad in English. DB has the job of planning services for the operation of California’s High Speed Rail service. DB is also expected to operate California’s future High Speed Rail service at a profit. That means passenger service, but it could also mean freight service too. DB is a major freight handler around the world. It has the contract for all the rail freight traffic to and from Britain that travels to and from Europe. DB if it saw a way to make money with high priority freight traffic with high speed rail would likely be more than happy to add it to its future high speed rail passenger service.
Speaking of tunnels, the planning for California High Speed Rail calls for building 3 of the longest rail tunnels in the United States between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The first tunnel will be 13 miles long under the Pacheco Pass between the San Joaquin Valley and Gilroy. It may be built either as a single or double bore tunnel. The other 2 tunnels in Southern California will be longer than the Pacheco Pass tunnel with the largest one at 16 miles between Palmdale and Burbank. At a current budget of $67 billion dollars this promises to be an expensive and complicated project. Big projects often come with big problems. But to get some perspective of the costs of transportation, the 5 counties in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County will be raising and spending $133 billion dollars on transportation projects alone, much of that will be for rail passenger services. At San Jose, Fresno and Los Angeles there are already major redevelopment projects being planned at and around each city’s train station/transportation centers. Google is planning to build a new headquarters near the San Jose Station to ease traffic problems for its employees. Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley as a whole have seen an economic boost from spending for building High Speed Rail resulting in lower unemployment in a region with some of the highest unemployment in the State. Los Angeles and the Bay Area are spending billion to improve local transit and commuter rail services with transportation hubs in Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco. Along with this construction in the San Joaquin Valley have brought improvements to the local economy.
It is always hard to make predictions, particularly about the future. As more rail work is finished, and the more the local economy grows with this construction, the harder it will be for the opponents to stop the California High Speed Rail project.This is not to say everything will go according to what is promised in the 2018 California High Speed Rail Business plan any more than it has for the previous business plans.The 119 miles of major construction work underway now in the San Joaquin Valley is funded and should be finished sometime next year. Funding for now with money coming in from the Cap and Trade sales should be enough to build high speed rail from at least Wasco to San Jose. But what makes budgeting for major projects difficult is neighborhoods want nothing but the best for their neighborhoods at taxpayers expense. An example of this is the issue of how to bring high speed rail into San Jose from the south. An elevated structure would be the most economical way to bring High Speed trains into the station. But local residents want a tunnel saying that previous highway construction had broken up local neighborhoods and believe an elevated structure for High Speed Rail would do the same. No matter how hard anyone can try, its always impossible to please everyone.
What must be remembered is the High Speed Rail project is not just a fast passenger railroad serving major cities in the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. It will be a trunk line for the whole State of California with connections to almost the entire State of California. When finished California High Speed Rail will connect to improved rail services from ACE, BART, Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink, LA Metro, and San Diego County rail services. All the high speed rail stations could have expended connecting bus services to the smaller towns in the area to serve many more communities. Even if residents never ride a high speed train, this expanded network of public transit will improve transportation in their communities. Let’s not forget High Speed Rail will in time also stop at San Francisco International, Burbank, Palmdale, San Diego, and Ontario Airports when completed. But the biggest benefit of rail passenger service including high speed rail is economic growth and land development. Rail service can allow more housing and jobs while needing less land and expense than freeway based land development. Even without high speed rail there has been significant economic growth already where improved rail passenger service has been built in cities in California. Usually when it comes to transportation the money is made not so much by carrying passengers, but from the development that follows improved transportation.