Proposed short-haul freight rail line linking Central, Southern California has potential

“Diesel, used by most [heavy goods vehicles], causes more air pollution per kilometre than other fuels such as petrol.” This was a determination of the European Environment Agency (EEA), as brought to bear in the EEA’s Feb. 28, 2013 “Reducing the € 45 billion health cost of air pollution from lorries” press release – a very important determination at that.

Diesel-smoke[1]Meanwhile, “EPA [United States Environmental Protection Agency] estimates that ap­proximately 11 million older diesel engines remain in use, and will continue to emit significant amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) until they wear out and are replaced. To reduce the public’s exposure to pollution from these older, dirtier engines, Congress in 2005 authorized fund­ing for the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, a grant program designed to selectively retrofit or replace the older diesel engines most likely to impact human health,” the federal regulatory agency expressed in the document: “Second Report to Congress: Highlights of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Program,” a document, incidentally, prepared by the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. In the interest of improved quality of life, this is indeed a noble effort. As far-reaching as this effort is, however, far more work in terms of diesel-engine-exhaust-emissions-reduction could be done.

As it were, today’s post is actually a follow up to my May 16, 2013 Air Quality Matters blog post: “The road to lower auto emissions could mean more road work ahead – huh?” Please understand many ideas have been floated as to how to effectively limit diesel truck pollution coming from California highways mainly, particularly those in both the southern and central regions; two of the nation’s dirtiest air hotspots and where air quality improvement is such a pressing matter.

Besides widening freeways or building new ones, which, in my opinion, just encourages more driving, everything from sustainable community strategies and regional transportation plans planning and implementation to the building of state high-speed rail, is in process. Call these works-in-progress.

Another, this one though yet to gain serious traction, is described in “The Altamont/San Joaquin Valley Corridor – Rail Sub-Program to the National Goods Movement Trade Corridor and Economic Stimulus Program for the San Joaquin Valley, Draft Version 2.5 – San Joaquin Valley National Agricultural Goods Movement Trade Corridor: Rail Program Concept Paper – October 2008.” It doesn’t mean the ASJVC idea won’t ever see the light of day. It simply might be a time issue as in when the time is right.

As it stands, four main north-south trade or goods movement corridors (California State Route 99 and Interstate 5 and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads) exist. The ASJVC, if installed, would be the fifth.

The plan

“Transportation represents one of the largest sources of air pollution and global warming emissions in the valley, and projections indicate that the amount of vehicle travel in the valley could grow faster than the valley’s population,” states the Center for Energy Efficiency & Renewable Technologies in its “Developing a Vision for Transportation in California’s Central Valley” communication. “Moreover, cargo traffic at California’s ports is projected to increase by 2 and a half times by 2020, with much of that freight traffic transiting through the valley.”

Meanwhile, what is expressed in this regard in the “Route 99 Corridor Business Plan,” released in Feb. 2013, is that vehicle truck miles over the next two decades in the San Joaquin Valley region are projected to grow by 60 percent.

The key here is finding viable and effective ways to reduce corresponding pollution without impeding the movement of these goods.

320px-APM_Terminals_WJ_Grimes[1]So, the basis of the ASJVC proposal is this: The Alameda Corridor in Southern California is what could be referred to as a “high-performance” rail corridor in that it acts as a sort of specialized rail conveyor belt between downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach for the purpose of expediting container traffic in and out of the ports area. “Like the Alameda Corridor goods movement in Southern California, this project seeks to build a public/private partnership to enhance goods movement and restore an ailing rail system,” the concept paper noted.

Meanwhile, on page 2 of the concept paper, presented is a graph which shows the energy intensities (in British Thermal Units per ton-mile) of freight modes (as of 2004) comparing Waterborne, Pipeline, Rail, and Heavy Duty Diesel Truck. The least energy intense is rail at 325 Btu/ton-mile while the most energy intense is heavy duty diesel truck at 3,163 Btu/ton-mile, making diesel truck-hauled freight the least energy efficient of the group.

And ergo the advantage of rail.

California's flat, expansive and agriculturally-robust but often air-pollution-shrouded San Joaquin Valley
California’s flat, expansive and agriculturally-robust but often air-pollution-shrouded San Joaquin Valley

Since agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry, having a so-called “high-performance” rail corridor in service to expedite agricultural produce and other large-volume time-sensitive lading, would be of great value particularly in light of the fact that freight on the state’s two existing long-haul rail freight lines is destined to increase.

“Increases in national goods movement will require mitigating impacts to Central California with additional air quality controls, grade separations, and an alternative corridor for short-haul rail,” according to the concept paper.

“Without a separate short-haul system, goods from more than 100 Central California businesses will have to be shipped by truck. This could disastrously affect California’s air quality as well as the national economy.”

Detailed maps contained in the concept paper show the proposed corridor in question and route selection.

Yes, it’s an ambitious proposal and will require much legwork, no question. But, to me, to pull off such an endeavor, the nature of this proposed state-based contiguous short-haul freight rail conduit being what it is, this is exactly where the rubber meets the road or, more correctly, where the steel wheel meets the railroad.

Images: William Grimes (middle)

This post was last revised on Sept. 23, 2020 @ 8:03 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

Alan Kandel