Why moving dedicated HSR funds to California rail ‘bookends’ projects is a bad idea

There’s a proposal floating suggesting taking away dedicated monies from high-speed rail in California’s San Joaquin Valley and rededicating those for passenger rail improvement purposes both in the north and south state. The monies would be used for improving existing Metrolink service between Anaheim and Burbank in southern California and Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area located to the northwest and west of the San Joaquin Valley.

Allowing this very thing to happen – providing it’s even legal – is just wrong on so many levels.

Those pitching this half-baked scheme are apparently convinced that in upgrading either Metrolink in the specified Anaheim-to-Burbank corridor or Caltrain service between San Francisco and San Jose or between the former and Gilroy (which would include San Jose), subsequent to said work being completed, this will lead to significant motor vehicle traffic-congestion relief and such would provide considerable benefit (presumably more so in southern California what with the Summer Olympic games coming to Los Angeles in 2028), and, as a result, said so-called “bookend” projects will have greater value than high-speed rail in the Valley. That, apparently, is the thinking here.

Not to be lost sight of is the notion that construction work in the Central Valley would continue. However, rather than the Valley getting a 220-mile-per-hour electrified high-speed train line connecting Bakersfield with Merced, a Madera-to-Shafter non-electrified Amtrak diesel-powered-train operation providing presumably slightly higher-speed service, is what would result instead. That’s the message I’m picking up.

I am assuming that Cap-and-Trade dollars (proceeds generated from the auctioning off of emissions credits) dedicated expressly for high-speed rail use, would remain put. Twenty-five percent of proceeds are designated for the high-speed-rail program. The railroad roadbed, viaduct, trench, and other track infrastructure in the section being constructed in the Valley is being built to high-speed rail specifications or standards, and, while it still meets the 25 percent Cap-and-Trade auction-credit-proceeds-share qualification, the bookend work, on the other hand, does not.*

Also related to pollutant emissions, the San Joaquin Valley suffers from and with the worst fine particulate matter pollution in the entire nation, Bakersfield and Fresno and towns dotting the current route being among those cities year after year topping the American Lung Association’s “most-polluted” list. For more about this, see: “More than 4-in-10 Americans live with unhealthy air; 8 cities suffered most polluted air ever recorded,” here.

With high-speed, electric trains rolling up and down the Valley linking Bakersfield and Merced for a distance of 171 miles with additional stations planned for Kings/Tulare, Fresno and Madera locations (south to north), having just such a connecting/serving passenger train service, what a welcome train this would be, especially to the most vulnerable to pollution’s effects, namely, children, the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions, I would think, whether they ride the train or not. For more on this, see: “Trains: No better mode than rail for providing air (pollution) relief,” here.

As I see it, by building in the Valley anything short of a true high-speed rail, such would only serve as a substitute service which in no way would ever be on a par with the Real McCoy – that is, a bona fide high-speed rail passenger train service. Ask anyone who’s ever ridden a high-speed train elsewhere in the world and what you’ll likely hear is that it’s incomparable!

Do those proposing the money shift really think that billions in bookends-upgrade monies will really be the saving grace? I mean, if those buying into this scheme are steadfast in their belief that upping investment in Bay Area and SoCal conventional passenger rail is the way to go (on non-dedicated, shared track, no less), then why all of the effort to get state high-speed rail on the November 2008 ballot in the first place?! Please help me to understand this.

Metrolink system map

And, besides, with the Valley line reaching its full potential, this would present riders with a first-hand experience of what true high-speed rail is. And, riders recognizing the value in that, such would likely lead to far-increased passenger volumes and consequent revenue gains, additional expansion (meaning extending track to northern and southern California-based locations) is practically a foregone conclusion. If so, a broader train-served coverage area would result.

How anyone could suggest three conventional and separate (one north, one central and one south and they wouldn’t even connect!) albeit somewhat enhanced California-based passenger rail services in place of electrified, high-capacity, high-quality, high-speed rail in the Valley, sorry: that I don’t get.

Incidentally, the countries that built and operate true high-speed rail systems, even if they thought they were taking a gamble, all know unequivocally that they are much the better for having done so.

Images: Roger Puta (upper); Metrolink (lower)

* Setting the record straight: Since this post first went to print, I have learned that at least two bookend projects have actually received Cap-and-Trade funds. The projects, according to a furnished California High-Speed Rail Authority document emailed to my attention, are: Caltrain Track Electrification (amount received: $113 million) and grade separation, 25th Avenue on the Caltrain line in the city of San Mateo (amount received: $84 million).

This post was last revised on Jun. 14, 2020 @ 7:02 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel