Calif. HSR: Fast track to nowhere or platform for quality travel, better air?

Whereas other northern-hemispheric-located countries have embarked on high-speed-train journeys beginning with Japan in 1964, the United States is only now starting to get on board. Here in America, construction of the country’s first true high-speed passenger rail system officially broke ground in Fresno, California on Jan. 6, 2015 with physical construction actually going on a handful of miles to the north in Madera County that same year on Jun. 16th.

And with that commencement what had begun was a whole new era in domestic rail transportation, made possible through passage of the “Safe, Reliable, High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century” (otherwise referred to as California Proposition 1A) in Nov. 2008.

Also known as the California high-speed rail project and as far as major infrastructure efforts go, this one was indeed ambitious: 800 miles of rails bridging together the north, central and south state, tapping major population centers up and down California, among them Baketsfield, Burbank, Fresno, Los Angeles, Merced, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Stockton, just under half of the proposed or planned 24 communities total to be served by the 220 mile-per-hour California fast train. The extensions to Sacramento and San Diego are to come later in Phase 2 of the project, adding an additional 280 miles to Phase 1’s 520 miles connecting Los Angeles/Anaheim to San Francisco through the state’s expansive interior central and southern San Joaquin Valley regions.

Those opposed, meanwhile, balked at items of the perceived high cost, and, over time, things like construction mismanagement and delays, cost overruns, and, to some, the seemingly snail-like pace of parcel and property acquisition.

Golden State voters approved $9.95 billion in state bond funds with grant money to the tune of $2.55 billion coming courtesy of the federal government. Moreover, through what is known as the California Cap-and-Trade provision, funding is generated through emissions auction proceeds as well as via other sources.

Though the current estimated $80 billion to cover the cost of building Phase 1 in total is not yet fully in hand or committed, there is, however, according to reports, enough capital available to complete Construction Packages 1 through 5, also referred to as Initial Operating Segment, consisting of 171 miles of double-track, grade-separated, high-speed rail line that will serve the central and south San Joaquin Valley-based cities of Bakersfield, Fresno, Madera and Merced with a regionally-centered station offering service to and from the nearby towns of Hanford, Tulare, Visalia and others in the area. Total estimated cost for this? Twenty-billion-dollars plus.

All of which is more than sufficient for some to label the project as a boondoggle or worse, such as branding California high-speed rail as a “train to nowhere.”

But, in reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

First of all, prior to California’s effort, high-speed rail has never been attempted anywhere else in the United States. Like the saying goes, it has to start somewhere. California, with its 40 million state residents, is that place. That makes the most populated state in the country, a very suitable location for something on this scale to go in.

Secondly, the cost of building airport runways, terminals and highways to handle the expected passenger loads this bullet-train system is capable of handling, would far exceed the current approximately $80 billion price.

Next, high-speed train service is ideal over territory between 100 and 600 miles in length and is very competitive with aviation covering the same distances.

Furthermore, the statewide bullet-train project is a jobs generator. In the San Joaquin Valley alone, more than 5,000 laborers are engaged in the building effort. Meanwhile, construction work is either in progress or had been completed on over 30 locations in five counties. And there will be the creation of a multitude of permanent jobs once the construction effort has ended.

By virtue of the construction activities and once operations begin, ancillary, supporting jobs will be created, too. All of which will help grow economies – local, regional and state alike. The industries of tourism and hospitality will also benefit.

Then there are what’s known as “connecting” or “feeder” services. These will be required for the purpose of meeting high-speed train patrons’ local and/or regional travel needs. These can be accomplished in any number of ways including but certainly not limited to the following: transit bus, taxi, ride-hailing services, streetcar, light rail, subway, commuter rail, and even people-mover systems, such as are in place and operational at airports, for example.

Add to all of this that high-speed rail is safe. In fact, it’s one of the safest modes, if not the safest mode, anywhere. Safety protocols will include a technology known as Positive Train Control, which is designed to prevent the possibility of train-to-train collisions, overspeed conditions and accidental incursions of trains into work zones. Moreover, there will be zero locations where train tracks and roadways directly intersect. This will be facilitated using overpasses and underpasses carrying cross traffic over and under railroad infrastructure, respectively.

And, in taking the environment into consideration, the trains will produce no emissions of their own. Power is to be derived from 100 percent renewable energy sources. Another of the train’s esteemed qualities is its potential to remove many vehicles from area roadways as well as to reduce duplicative flights. Trains have the ability to move upwards of 50,000 passengers per direction even in a conservative daily operational scheme. Air quality in many of the jurisdictions the train is due to operate in is bad. All the more reason, emissions-free, fast passenger train service is an excellent fit in cities to be served by California high-speed rail.

Going above and beyond, the system is being built using equipment, material and processes that reduce harm to the environment. Is there a transportation-infrastructure-construction-operation anywhere else that can top, let alone, match that? It’s highly unlikely.

A “train to nowhere” California high-speed rail is definitely not. What America’s first bonafide very fast passenger train service is on the other hand, is a platform for improved air quality and superior travel. Truly what this train is all about!

– Alan Kandel

Copyrighted material.

3 thoughts on “Calif. HSR: Fast track to nowhere or platform for quality travel, better air?”

  1. I have ridden high speed trains all over Europe and they work very well. Unfortunately, the U.S. with very spread out, low density housing and very poor public transit and no local or regional train service, except for the North East corridor, is not made for high speed trains. The ridership projections for California HSR are pure fiction, faked to justify the project. A real projection would have taken 100% of current rail traffic, 70% of current air traffic and 50% of current auto traffic and inflated it to account for population increase. That would have given them about 1/4 of their projected ridership. California HSR is a $100 billion boondoggle. At 74 I doubt that I will live to ride a train from San Francisco to LA. I may live to take a San Joaquin down to Merced just to take the HSR to Bakersfield, but I am not sure of that.

    • Take it from me, if there was a better, more efficient, more practical and proven way of traveling long distances on land, I would support it. But, alas, there is not, in my opinion.

      There is always maglev – magnetic levitation, active maglev, that is – but energy consumption per passenger transported maglev versus conventional steel-wheel-on-steel-rail high-speed train travel, the former is typically higher. There is a good explanation of this in the California Progress Report post “Conventional High-Speed Rail Vs. Magnetically Levitated Trains: Was Maglev Ever In Contention?” dated Nov. 22, 2011. (Since the article is no longer available for viewing online, here is a related excerpt: “On energy efficiency, [then Fresno County Council of Governments Transportation Technical Advisory Committee member Dennis] Manning surmised, ‘Efficiency is tricky. Conventional [high-speed rail] is probably more efficient below 200 mph, but less efficient as the speed rises. This is assuming the same load factor. If maglev enjoyed higher ridership then the per passenger mile efficiency would rise.’” (It is important to remember that the above-quoted statement is not absolute; it is supposition because of potential variables involved).

      As it relates to all of this, I conducted a thorough study of three different technologies (all are rail-based) between 2008 and 2011, essentially. One was propelled by conventional electric motor; one was powered using atmospheric pressure, and the third operating on the principle of passive magnetic levitation. All of it is laid out in ebook format and available for purchase at Amazon. The publication’s title is: “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow.” I qualify it as a semi-technical, impartial, independent study. This is something that may be of interest to you.

      But, getting back to the notion that high-speed rail in California initially might be limited to the portion built in the San Joaquin Valley, this is not a valid reason in my book to reject that prospect. Even if ridership numbers are low comparatively speaking.

      As I see it, the, again, prospect of a one-seat ride between, say, Fresno and Bakersfield or between Merced and Fresno, or even on the full 171-mile distance Bakersfield to Merced and vice versa, once people experience for themselves land travel at higher or high speeds that is friendlier to the air, more efficient, more dependable, more relaxed, replete with the luxury of being able to get up and move around en route, and enabled on a mode-type that is considered the safest of all, then those that ride will get to experience firsthand what this type of travel truly has to offer. This is the way high-speed train travel is elsewhere where just such service is in place.

      I, maybe, could see your point if conventional high-speed train travel was unproven. The truth is, the technology has been in existence for well over half a century. It’s pretty tough to argue with something that has this kind of success!

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