By Noel T. Braymer
Railroad service for both freight and passengers can have a positive impact on local economies and quality of life in a community. Rail service can reduce traffic congestion and air pollution created around freeways and major roads. Railroads are a major factor in job creation. In California local and state governments have been investing money into railroad infrastructure to improve rail service. Local governments in California already own miles of old railroad rights of way which in many cases have been used to to build light rail services or for expanded rail passenger services. In many cases the railroads retain the rights to operate freight service on their former lines while using a much better publicly owned and maintained railroads than when the railroads own them. A major example of a public investment in railroads is centered on the heavy rail freight traffic between the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach out to the mainlines of the UP and BNSF railroads in Southern California. Most of this investment is in Los Angeles County for improving and eliminating dangerous grade crossing on these busy railroads while reducing traffic tie ups and auto pollution from cars idling at closed grade crossings. Such improvements help both the quality of life in the neighborhoods and reduce problems caused by grade crossing accidents both for the public and the railroads.
A major example of this is the Alameda Corridor Transit Authority. It began construction in 1997 on a rail speedway from the ports to downtown Los Angeles. Years of planning and negotiations were needed to consolidate the 4 original rail lines in Los Angeles County to the harbors with 200 grade crossing between them into a single shared publicly owned 20 mile fully grade separated high capacity railroad called the Alameda Corridor. Finished in 2002, 10 miles of the line alongside Alameda St. is in a fully grade separated trench with 3 tracks. Track capacity on this single route was increased in part because the trains could travel faster than on the other 3 old former harbor rail lines. The other 10 miles of the Alameda Corridor along Alameda St. is on the surface and grade separated. This has allowed heavy port centered rail freight service to continue which is a major factor in the local economy and job market while reducing local pollution and traffic congestion. This project cost $2.4 billion dollars to build. This projects is largely being paid for from tolls charged according to the number of containers carried by the railroads sharing the Alameda Corridor tracks.
Many traffic problems were solved with the Alameda Corridor between the ports and major rail yards in downtown Los Angeles. But rail freight traffic continued to be a problem between downtown Los Angeles along the railroads mainlines to the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes to the east. This particularly impacted the San Gabriel Valley east of downtown Los Angeles. Out of this came the Alameda Corridor-East Construction Authority, which is building several grade separations on the railroads mainlines on the busiest streets and upgrading crossing on the less busy ones. Of the 70 miles of mainline railroad in the San Gabriel Valley, the Authority is building 18 grade separations, eliminating 23 grade crossings and upgrading 40 crossings for improved safety. Not only will the railroads and motorists benefit from these improvements. Metrolink and Amtrak service will as well since they also operate rail service on these lines in the San Gabriel Valley.
There have been some problems. The economic downturn of 2008 reduced freight traffic at the ports which had an impact on income for paying the bonds used to finance the Alameda Corridor. The Alameda Corridor is still earning enough revenue to service their debt. Another problem at the ports is the heavy level of truck traffic also carrying containers to the Inland Empire. This causes both pollution and traffic congestion problems on the freeways. In an effort to greatly reduce pollution at the harbors, there are plans to operate short haul trains to the warehouses in the Inland Empire east of the San Gabriel Valley in the counties of San Bernardino and Riverside. One such train could remove up to 750 truck trips. According to an article published in the Press-Enterprise in April 2016, a new yard as a terminal near to the warehouses in the Inland Empire would first have to be built. For the Alameda Corridor this would create more traffic for it which it has plenty of capacity to handle.
Another project which the Alameda Corridor Transit Authority was involved with to improve rail traffic from the harbor was the construction of the Colton Crossing Flyover for the Union Pacific over the BNSF halfway between the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino. In late 2006 the Alameda Corridor Transit Authority presented a feasibility study for this project. It was completed by August 2013 eight months ahead of schedule and at $93 million dollars, well below the estimated cost of $202 million dollars.
In the San Gabriel Valley we can expect increased rail passenger service in the near future. This would include additional Metrolink and Amtrak service. But the biggest user in the future will be High Speed Rail. It is likely that upgrades and electrification of existing rail rights of ways in the San Gabriel Valley will be used. This is also planned for High Speed Rail service sharing existing rights of ways between San Jose to San Francisco as well as between Burbank, Los Angeles and Anaheim. Speed on these urban area would be below 125 miles per hour. As part of High Speed Rail service a station is planned at Ontario Airport which is served by the 2 UP lines in the San Gabriel Valley,
These projects are being funded by a combination of funding from the railroads, the ports, local, state and in some cases Federal funding. This could be a model of future projects which government and railroads pay a share of costs to upgrade railroad which will have benefits for the public as well as the railroads. For years already there have been other major grade separation rail crossings projects largely paid for with government spending. Even more money is needed for this effort. Also raising more money to add tracks and provide service to reduce traffic on major freeways is a better use of taxpayers money by upgrading the railroads instead of spending even more money to expand freeways.