Why California should see its high-speed rail project through

Broken ground. Image: Getty.

In California, there is now a serious proposal afloat to divert dedicated high-speed rail money from the construction effort predominantly taking place in the San Joaquin Valley, located in the state’s centre. It would go instead to what are known as “bookends” projects in the San Francisco Bay Area along the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose (if not beyond) on Caltrain, and on Metrolink in the southern part of the state between Anaheim and Burbank. Caltrain and Metrolink are heavy rail, commuter-train operations.

If this proposal gains traction and funds are actually diverted – billions, I hear – the commuter-rail services in question will reap substantial improvement benefits. But what the state’s mid-section will be left with, I suspect is a 119-mile-long rail corridor connecting small rural villages (Madera and Shafter in this case) with the one large city in between (Fresno), and one built to high-speed rail standards but bereft of high-speed-rail trains. In lieu of actual and true high-speed rail, America’s national passenger rail service provider, Amtrak, is the entity most likely to use this section of track. And the trains will most probably be diesel-powered to boot.

Should this become the reality, I believe California high-speed rail can forever be kissed goodbye. The motivation and urgency for seeing the entire project through will, in all likelihood, fall by the wayside.

There are myriad reasons why mid-state bullet train construction should continue.

Firstly, Golden State voters apparently thought what was coming down the pike was a network of high-speed tracks linking Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Francisco (520 mile Phase 1), with separate extensions to San Diego and Sacramento (280 mile Phase 2) to follow, covering a distance of 800 miles in all. It is a grand plan to say the least.

No secret, meanwhile, is that the high-speed-rail program has faced staunch opposition. It’s been hamstrung by mismanagement and cost overruns. It’s been litigated against. All these factors are partly responsible for construction delays; all have slowed building progress.

California high-speed rail building in the Valley commenced 16 June 2015 on the Fresno River viaduct in Madera County; the formal ground-breaking took place on 6 January 2015 in Fresno. In the latest plan, high-speed rail is being constructed between Madera and Shafter, covering a distance of 119 miles, with the expectation that ultimately 171 miles of track in Bakersfield (in the south Valley) and Merced (in the north Valley) will be completed. The intent here is to provide electrified high-speed train service to those city-pairs no later than 2028.

The proposal in question seeks to redirect between $5bn and $6bn to the bookends sections, leaving a total $20.4bn, of which $14.4bn to $15.4bn will be expressly for high-speed rail construction work in the valley. Arguably, constituents should be provided with what initially they thought they would be getting. At this late date, to do – or settle for – anything less than the full allocation just isn’t right.

Moreover, with Bakersfield-to-Merced a key part of the initial California bullet-train operating segment – a so-called high-speed rail “starter” line if you like – will come five key stations: Bakersfield, Kings/Tulare, Fresno, Madera and Merced. The last of these could serve University of California students, faculty and staff there well.

These new stations provide an incredible opportunity for location-efficient, medium- to high-density, mixed-use, transit-oriented development to sprout, providing tremendous potential for increased bullet-train ridership. This will in no way be a “train to nowhere” as some have suggested.

Case in point: at Merced, there are plans for a new multimodal “union” station, served not only by high-speed trains but Altamont Corridor Express trains too. High-speed train riders and others will be provided with the means to travel to San Francisco Bay Area destinations, most notably San Jose, via the ACE connection.

For the uninitiated, via bullet-train construction work, dollars by the billions have been injected into the state economy.

And, let’s not forget the quality of San Joaquin Valley air. The region, year after year, sees some of the worst air pollution in the country. The Valley has consistently topped the American Lung Association’s most air-polluted list. In response, not only is the project being built using the most environmentally-friendly equipment and methods going, but electric trains running on nothing but renewable energy – solar and wind power, for example – will do much to reduce fine particulate matter and ozone and other pollutant emissions in air further, as well as to contribute to the state meeting its greenhouse gas emissions-reduction goals. Where else do you find that?

With increased numbers of train riders, drivers on paralleling motorways will feel the impact – there will be less motor vehicle traffic. To some degree there will be less need to build additional runways and gates at airports in state, even as its population grows an estimated 25 per cent from 40 million today to an estimated 50 million by mid-century.

Once in full swing, the train will be a momentum generator for driving further bullet-train development along with patronage numbers both in the north and south state – make no mistake.

There is that now-popular expression coming immediately to mind: “Build it and they will come.”

Alan Kandel is the author of the ebook, “The Departure Track: Railways of Tomorrow”. You can buy a copy here.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.