Calif. high-speed rail: Regarding ‘fast-track’ building, progress steady

There appears to be a concerted push in different parts of the world to electrify the motor vehicle fleet. All well and good, but that likely seems years or decades away if at all. Still, the interest and effort appear strong.

In California, a state, it is more of the same. According to Sacramento Bee correspondent Alexei Koseff in the article “California lawmaker wants to ban gas car sales after 2040,” one state Assemblymember, Phil Ting, plans to introduce legislation in January, a bill to stop sales of both diesel- and gasoline-powered motor vehicles in state, to begin, presumably, in year 2041.

Mandating drivers in state switch to motor vehicles that derive their power from the electric grid, solar panels and renewable fuels, is California ready for this? I guess we’ll find out come January.


Where, apparently, all this is headed, is significant emissions reduction from transport by a certain date. There are many ways that can be adopted to help bring this about. Another, of course, is the statewide high-speed rail program. It is the momentum or movement in this context that is the topic of today’s discussion.

So, brought to my attention courtesy of a friend is the Los Angeles Times’ “California bullet train costs up $1.7 billion for Central Valley segment,” story.

The article written by Ralph Vartabedian is chock full of information – there is no question about that. This is not to say, however, that ideas presented could not have gone into far greater detail than what they were – no question about that either.

That said, exactly where I’m going with this is this.

With the focus being on Golden State high-speed rail, one point raised had to do with the so-called promised schedule time of 2 hours and 40 minutes for express, non-stop trains. Based on what I read, difficult, if not impossible, it will be for said trains to make the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco run or conversely the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles run (when that section known as Phase 1 is up and running) in that time space.

In elaborating, first consider that for the length of the Phase 1 section – 520 miles, in order to meet the “promised” San Francisco-to-Los Angeles running time, trains must average 195 miles per hour. So, for the record, achieving this is in no way impossible – in fact, it’s quite probable. As long as they maintain an average 195 miles per hour speed the trains themselves purportedly having a top speed of 220 mph, then no problem. Now granted, there are some places where posted speed limits will be lower. For instance, between San Jose and San Francisco trains may be limited to 125 mph. And, it should not be lost on anyone that trains can’t get up to maximum speed and stop instantaneously. So, this too needs to be taken into consideration. But, all things considered, meeting the time-frame objective should be doable. Something else you should know: the track to be built, from what I understand, is specified (in some locations) as 250 mph-capable.

Secondly, the subject of signals came up.

It is my understanding that right-of-way signals, otherwise known as wayside or lineside signals, won’t be needed. However, this is not to say once construction packages 1 through 4 in the San Joaquin Valley (covering a distance of roughly 119 miles between Shafter and Madera) are completed, that this section of the line won’t ever see Amtrak San Joaquin service. Should it (see San Joaquin’s service, that is), it is entirely possible that in this use, line-side signals could very well be specified, procured for the purpose of governing the movement of said trains in this service territory. (Disclosure: It may behoove me to look into this much deeper and then report back later on what I am able to learn in this regard).

Meanwhile, to keep high-speed rail train drivers apprised, informed of essential information as train speed, track-ahead conditions (such as whether track ahead is occupied or unoccupied) and locations where speed restrictions are in effect, this is where what’s known as Positive Train Control (PTC) comes into play. Via onboard, computer monitor screens and often incorporated into a panel located inside the operating compartment or cab of designated high-speed-rail trains, said essential information is continuously displayed. Data of that kind is paramount to keeping operations safe and comes with the territory.

On the other hand in territory where high-speed trains and conventional passenger trains mix, that is, they use the same track, then, yes, signals are absolute – line-side- and/or cab-based. Under such joint or shared operation, it is the conventional passenger train operator who is typically responsible for providing applicable signal and control system hardware and software needed, necessary for the safe (and efficient) operation of said trains.

Up next, there seems to be a question (uncertainty) as to whether work south of Fresno has gotten underway.

It has. As it relates, work is ongoing at 13 locations in all, some of that work in fact, taking place to Fresno’s south.

Now to costs. It should be noted that the California High-Speed Rail Authority is not the entity building the infrastructure. Hired contractors are charged with doing this work. Via submitted bids which were then evaluated, contracts were let. And, just because a given contractor submits a certain bid, this does not mean that such will be the exact cost to build when completed. I believe this aspect was very well covered in the article in question.

But, here again, further explanation, in my view, is warranted.

According to what I’ve learned, there is already $12.2 billion in hand. Quite honestly, that should be more than enough to cover the cost to construct the 119 miles between Shafter and Madera, the as-so-reported, central Valley $1.7 billion cost overrun notwithstanding.

From Bakersfield to San Jose, meanwhile, that cost is projected to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion. That means with a $64.8 billion total Phase 1 projected cost, the remainder of the system building work between San Francisco and Los Angeles comes to around $44.8 billion, give or take. The most difficult work in the Valley, incidentally, is in Fresno. Building costs from south Fresno to Shafter should be a lot more predictable as should the building of the line in the Valley north of Madera once that part gets underway.

Not part of the Vartabedian newspaper account, but no less important, is the sustainability or environmental aspect of the construction effort. It is worth noting that the very latest in construction equipment is being utilized system-wide. An Air Quality Matters post detailing this aspect can be accessed here.


Is Dallas-to-Houston, Texas next?

Image above: California High-Speed Rail Authority

– Alan Kandel

1 thought on “Calif. high-speed rail: Regarding ‘fast-track’ building, progress steady”

  1. True that high-speed rail will reduce the quantity of fuel to be used for generating its electricity, but the greater efficiency will make this mode of transport cheaper and more popular, so its overall effect on total fuel consumption is almost nil. We need natural energy sources not fossil fueled ones.

Comments are closed.