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With a new administration in D.C., it's time to think outside of the box because passenger rail's survival just may depend on it

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Integrating California's Rail Network


Cooperation Is Key
When it comes to the possible use of San Joaquin trains on the HSR route: There’s right way to integrate Amtrak service with high speed service—and a wrong way. The new passenger-only right of way should not be used as a replacement for existing San Joaquin service since several stops would be missed. Instead, the HSR ROW should serve as an extension of the San Joaquins southward to Los Angeles and San Diego since Caltrans has been blocked from using the Tehachapi Pass by Union Pacific for at least a decade.

The engine switching in Bakersfield and Los Angeles would be worth it since Californians would have another travel option between the Central Valley and Southern California. The Central Valley route would also serve as America’s first rail highway as long-distance trains would also use the passenger-only path for a new Los Angeles-Seattle route as well as revivals of Midwestern bound routes like the San Francisco Chief.

During the summer, I read this story from Public Transit that brought up the concept. Most people missed this article as it has not been brought up since. The author’s (Michael Setty) primary argument is that the state’s current HSR plan is way too thin and limited to justify its costs and that the design philosophy doesn’t permit interoperability to or from existing rail lines. The French built brand new 220 mph TGV lines in undeveloped rural areas, which bypassed intermediate towns.  Existing routes were upgraded to obtain HSR entry in most urban areas. Setty criticized the CAHSR route for disrupting existing communities and farms and for being extremely disruptive since it’s mostly along new ROW.

Networked Transit is a customer needs-driven approach rather than something that’s centered on technology. Each and every transit mode is considered for its place in an overall network/system. Switzerland—the mastermind behind Networked Transit--was used as an example with three different types of train service (Regional, Interregional, Intercity), buses, and walking. Under Setty’s scenario, for example, just one online ticket would cover a 14 hour trip from Crescent City to Twentynine Palms with local and regional buses, extended Amtrak California services, and an HSR train.

Networked Transit has resulted in Switzerland having Europe’s highest per capita rail and transit ridership. Most of France’s TGV routes operate along preexisting routes. Setty then concludes that the Golden State resembles the Swiss more than the French because its population is widely spread out and that extensive, coordinated connecting services are required if HSR is to be successful statewide.

Where the Concept Was On Point
Innovation is the key to any prospering system and Setty has completely overhauled CA’s planned system. It would be of great significance to point out that this concept is really dealing with three types of intercity rail—HSR, conventional rail handled by the Amtrak California system, and intercity rail that travels to other states regardless of operator—as well as various local rail in the metropolitan areas upon the implementation of Networked Transit.

There has been a recent uproar over CAHSR reviving the Grapevine Alignment because it would bypass Palmdale. The Networked Transit Plan would remedy that problem by allowing the DesertXpress to serve the Antelope Valley, providing passengers from Las Vegas a one seat ride to L.A. without having to rely on a CAHSR train.

Two brand new alignments that impressed me the most were the Los Angeles-San Bernardino-Victorville and Sacramento-South Lake Tahoe-Reno routes. In the case of the former, all other HSR companies could hypothetically use the route as an alternative to the Antelope Valley segment. As for the latter, the medium speed option would be parallel to U.S. 50 and would serve as an alternative to stretching the Capitols (which would be extended to Grass Valley instead) to Nevada and having to put up with UP’s resistance. Long-distance alternatives to the California Zephyr could utilize this route to serve tourist areas of western NV.

Overhauling parts of its system based on the Networked Transit concept would help the Authority to cut astronomical costs that could prevent the system from being built and doom future aspects of HSR in the U.S. This is very important because the Authority and the route have both come under immense criticism throughout the year.

Where the Concept Missed the Mark
The Tehachapi Pass would permanently be off limits to passenger trains if Grapevine Route is implemented. This is a very scenic part of CA.

Also, north of Bakersfield, the HSR route would continue to utilize I-5, bypassing stops between Fresno and Sacramento. Under the Networked Transit plan, the planned HSR stretch would be downgraded to electrified 110 mph Regional HSR service along some stretches. The problem is that the feds were strict about the Merced-Fresno segment being the first one built. I’d like to see PT trying to explain bypassing both cities in favor of a 220 mph segment to the west to the Authority.

Another problem with the NT plan is that San Jose would also lose out on fast train service—a forced transfer at Fremont being the only contact with high speed service.

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