By Noel T. Braymer
When it come to traveling and train travel, the expression “you can’t get there from here ” often comes to mind. What also comes to mind is often there isn’t a train available when you want to travel. This is true in particular when it comes to traveling between Northern and Southern California. On the Coast Line you have the Coast Starlight which runs daily between Los Angeles, Oakland and on to Seattle. It is the only direct rail passenger service between Northern and Southern California. Its a great scenic trip. But it literally takes all day to either go from the south to the north or north to the south. What would be great would be an overnight train so you could sleep at night and arrive for a full day at your destination. For that all we need is money, more equipment and the cooperation of the Union Pacific.
We are seeing more cooperation from the Union Pacific to be fair to them. Since the fires and then the mudslides over a year ago in the area around Santa Barbara, the LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority worked out an agreement with the UP to make long overdue track and signal improvements on the Coastline. LOSSAN is the State government body which oversees rail service used by Amtrak, Metrolink and Coaster trains between San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. San Luis Obispo is roughly half way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. There are now two round trips between San Diego and San Luis Obispo with bus connections all the way to San Francisco. But the tracks north of San Luis Obispo to Gilroy are also in need of major improvement if more trains are to be run at a decent running time. There are plans to extend 2 daily Capitol Corridor trains which now run mostly between Sacramento and San Jose down to Salinas. This still leaves a major gap between San Luis Obispo and Salinas. It will still be some time before we see faster and more frequent rail passenger service along the Coast between Southern and Northern California.
The I-5 freeway is the main north-south route between Northern and Southern California. It is a bypass route avoiding major cities in the San Joaquin Valley and is heavily used by cars and trucks for travel between Northern and Southern California. There is also Rail Passenger service in the San Joaquin Valley from Bakersfield with 5 trains now going to Oakland and 2 trains to Sacramento. All 7 San Joaquin round trains include bus connections to either Sacramento or Oakland. The San Joaquin Trains are also the fastest passenger trains in California. Since they mostly run in a valley, the route is generally flat and mostly straight. It takes about 9 hours on the San Joaquin’s to travel between Oakland and Los Angeles with a bus connection at Bakersfield. By car the same trip on the I-5 averages around 8 hours. The San Joaquins could reduce their running times with long proposed track and signalling improvements. These include raising the top speed from 79 miles per hour to 90 miles per hour on the existing tracks. Additional frequencies and more connecting bus services could make riding the San Joaquin Trains an even better, faster and safer alternative for most travel now by cars and trucks between Southern and Northern California.
This leave us with the question: what is the future of California High Speed Rail? Currently there is just over 100 miles of High Speed Rail construction underway in the San Joaquin Valley. It is roughly 400 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The plan is now to finish 171 miles of High Speed Rail construction between Merced and Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley and start up service between these 2 cities by 2027. This is also about the time newly elected California Governor Gavin Newsom if reelected Governor would have to retire as Governor. The plan for California High Speed Rail is for local service to run between Los Angeles and San Francisco in about 3 hours and 2 hours 40 minutes with express trains. There have been problems, most of them politically based with opposition by the political party out of power. This has helped in delaying the HSR project and increasing its cost. From this the opposition uses problems they helped create to complain about how expensive and poorly run the High Speed Rail Project is. So how is this working for these folks? Since the California High Speed Rail project was kicked off after voter approval of the project in late 2008 the political party using opposition to High Speed Rail as a favorite talking point have continued to lose members and elected offices.
There is uncertainty about future funding for construction of High Speed Rail service after 2027. A successful trial service between Bakersfield and Merced could stimulate increased funding to extend the service to San Francisco. The last place to see High Speed Rail service will be Southern California. It is also the most expensive construction leg with the need for 2 long tunnels to get from Los Angeles to Bakersfield. Long before there is High Speed Rail service between Los Angeles and San Francisco, there can be improvements with the San Joaquin service. These include slightly faster and more frequent San Joaquin service. Also needed is expansion of the network of feeder buses throughout California and Nevada. Better connections and direct ticketing to local transit at many of the stations connecting to the improved San Joaquin service would be helpful. With these improvements including adding long distance feeders buses to the San Joaquin Rail service will make travel by train competitive between Northern and Southern California for both travel time and convenience with driving. Such rail passenger service would help relieve in many cases the growing traffic congestion on many of our major local freeways.