Latest plan for California high-speed rail: Build incrementally

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tues., Feb. 12, 2019 in his first State of the State address since taking office announced a new plan for the state’s high-speed rail project. The plan is to scale the project back.

The California governor, on this issue, was steadfast in his resolve. Having to do with this in his oratory, Newsom, who could not have been any clearer, demurred; vehement in his disapproval over the fact that the San Joaquin Valley suffers the worst air pollution in the nation.

Putting two and two together, and to help the Valley in the air-cleanup sense make the grade, so to speak, is where the focus of high-speed rail right now, at least, needs to be. And, the California state governor, apparently, agrees.

To further clarify, the current move in no way means the effort outside the Valley is to be nixed; additional Phase 1 construction – Los Angeles to San Francisco – is being postponed is all. By scaling the project back, this way building can concentrate in the state’s central core region, which is where the bulk of the construction activity is taking place anyway. Once completed and open to the public for service, but one more viable travel option between Bakersfield and Merced becomes available.

Not extending the line to the bookend communities of Los Angeles and San Francisco at this time, at least for now, makes sense. It makes sense economically, financially, land- and property-acquisition-wise, environmentally and environmental-clearance-wise as well as where the concentration of the project labor effort is concerned. In other words, in focusing work activity in California’s heartland where the building effort is centered, this is and has indeed been a boon for Central Valley residents, business, local, regional and state economies and many jobs for numerous area residents have been created, jobs both directly and indirectly tied to the project itself. Major stations will be located in Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced with more outlying stations situated in Madera, Kern (Shafter or Wasco or somewhere between) and Kings counties.

Beyond Merced – the home of a University of California campus – (before electrification), points in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento and to San Francisco Bay Area destinations are passenger train-served. As well, service to Bakersfield’s south is via bus connections, that is, until the high-speed rail line across the Tehachapi Mountains to Lancaster, Palmdale, Burbank and Los Angeles is built and becomes operational. Ditto for the link between the Valley and Bay Area sections; service will be available upon that connection being completed.

In addition to work on the ground, a new California High-Speed Rail Authority Board Chair has been appointed. The name of the new game is more accountability and transparency.

For the first time, the public will be able to keep apprised of the day-to-day funding-expenditure activity. This way, people will be able to see how much, when and where, exactly, money is being spent.

Meanwhile, there is enough money in hand already to build Bakersfield to Merced: $12.2 billion or thereabouts. This works out to approximately $75 million-per-mile construction cost (remember this includes money for construction of right-of-way, grade separation work, labor, subsurface utility relocation work, bridges and viaducts, trenches, barrier-wall protection where applicable between adjacent rights-of-way, soil and geologic testing, and other processes related to building a railroad like laying track.

In my humble opinion …

It is the opinion of this blogger that once construction on 160 miles of track in the Valley is completed, high-speed train testing should commence as soon as is practicable. Until that happens, the line should be made available for use by Amtrak “California” San Joaquin trains. The reasons for this shift should be quite apparent.

For one, via the improved, higher-class-track rating of rail infrastructure higher speeds can be had. That will mean a smoother ride for train patrons. Speeds up to 125 miles per hour are possible (this is contingent on diesel locomotives being built to operate at that speed and thus being procured). It’s a no-brainer.

Moreover, faster scheduling minus delays (as in there won’t be any due to freight or other passenger train interference that is common on most single-tracked lines where freight railroads host passenger train operations and vice versa) is a given, all on account of the line being double-tracked.

When fully electrified, on the other hand, average train speed will be more than double the current maximum Amtrak San Joaquin train speed of 79 mph: Top speed for electric high-speed trains in the Valley will be 220 mph.

All of these attributes should attract riders.

Building incrementally, one section at a time, at this stage, is a wise approach. Interstate highways are built that way, so why not high-speed rail also?

Governor Gavin Newsom has this right. And, he is correct in saying that the Valley has the nation’s unhealthiest air. In this regard, with high-speed trains, this is a great way for the Valley to get its deserved due.

Background

It has been the plan all along to build the California high-speed train system in stages, phases, pieces, segments, sections – in other words, to build incrementally.

As originally presented to Californians, put forth was the intent to first build Phase 1 followed by Los Angeles to San Diego and Chowchilla to Sacramento – Phase 2 – for a grand total of 800 miles.

Even within that plan there were to be sub-phases such as the “Initial Construction Segment” or ICS and the “Initial Operating Segment” or IOS. See map at right for details.

Complaints were lodged and lawsuits were filed. People on the San Francisco peninsula where the train would run protested. There were those railing against the high-speed train who favored either putting the tracks in a trench or tunnel in their communities. Others, meanwhile, wanted the project stopped. There was no pleasing all of the people all of the time here.

Arguments over costs and time-scheduling erupted. There were even folks in the San Joaquin Valley who proclaimed that where the high-speed rail line would traverse on or near dairy farm property, on-premises cows would be terrorized by passing trains and said cows wouldn’t be able to give milk. Such claims were completely without merit.

Between the time voters approved a high-speed train system for California in November 2008 when Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor and when construction finally began in the San Joaquin Valley in June 2015, more than six-and-a-half years had passed, a period during which much construction progress could have been made. But because of lawsuits advanced and an inability by the California High-Speed Rail Authority to acquire land or property at a more rapid clip than what was the case at the outset, this forced delay after delay in construction commencing. The plan was for building to begin in 2013 if not before.

And, as has been repeated many times before, the rest is history.

Update

Now I’ve come to learn that President Trump is demanding that California return the federal stimulus ($3.5 billion), calling the high-speed rail program a “‘green’ disaster.”

Lower image above: California High-Speed Rail Authority

Notes

Correction: I earlier stated: “Now I’ve come to learn that President Trump is demanding the California high-speed rail program be stopped and the federal stimulus ($3.5 billion) be returned.” The statement has been revised and is now correct.

This post was last revised on Feb. 17, 2019 @ 8:51 a.m. Pacific Standard Time.

3 thoughts on “Latest plan for California high-speed rail: Build incrementally”

  1. There is no money to finish even “Bakersfield to Merced.” There is no money to fund the train once the tracks are laid. There will be a very small number of riders on a much slower train from no where to no where, which means more operating losses year after year just like Amtrak loses money year after year. Gruesome Newsome will have to give back the $3 billion the feds gave California as the project from Sacramento to San Diego the the money was allocated for is now scraped. Jerry Brown’s multi-billion dollar Browndoggle “bullet train” was and is a total disaster. Newsome needs to just terminate the whole project now instead of throwing billions more that could be more beneficially used to repair infrastructure (highways, reservoirs and dams). Democrats doing what they do best…………..recklessly spending other people’s money while padding the bank accounts of their corporate crony friends in construction and legal services and their lobbyists, all in the name of the fraudulent “Global Warming” political agenda.

  2. I tell ya, you keep pushing this stuff like it’s true (I read your original articles back in 2015).

    What is your ridership projections between Merced and Bakersfield, and profit projections?

    You mention speeds of 220mph but no train currently in the world can achieve sustained operational speeds, particularly through urban areas like Fresno. Amtrak can potentially get up to 125mph, so when this train runs around 150, it’s not going to be the big draw as you suggest.

    • Assuming Amtrak “San Joaquin” trains use the line initially, whatever Amtrak ridership is currently, this will presumably be maintained. The thinking is with the upgraded track structure, faster running times and with the present number of Amtrak “San Joaquin” trains still running (seven round-trips in all), such additions/improvements will attract even more riders.

      As for profit, the profitable high-speed rail systems that I can think of right off the bat are the AVE between Madrid and Barcelona and the Shinkansen (translation: “New Trunk Line”) between Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. High-speed rail systems in operation elsewhere throughout the world, though they may not necessarily be profitable, are holding their own.

      If you can access a copy of the November 4, 2007 “Parade” magazine, there is an excellent article in that issue titled: “A Better Way To Travel?” written by Peter Richmond. In it, there is mention of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor “Acela” trains. They were introduced in the year 2000. Last I heard, these currently run at a top speed of 150 miles per hour.

      According to Richmond, since the Acela’s introduction, these trains have garnered the lion’s share of commuters traveling between New York and Washington, D.C. jumping from 4,500 (prior to year 2000) to 5,400 between the two cities. I fully expect results to be similar when high-speed rail in California is built out.

      And, with all of the railroad building going on in the Golden State, I just cannot see high-speed rail not being part of the total package.

      As for high-speed rail speeds, there is excellent coverage under the “Speed” subheading at Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail

      That all said, I am highly optimistic about high-speed rail in California.

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