Thursday, January 10, 2008

CA High Speed Rail--End of the Line? First, Some Facts

California High Speed Rail project has been on my mind lately--first, because my family and I just made another round trip to LA, by both car and plane, and both sucked--and because of the CAHSRA's recently announced decision to route trains over the Pacheco Pass rather than the Altamont.

I've got a lot to say on this, so I'm going to break it up into chunks. First--what is this choice about, and what's all the fuss?

The question is how to route trains from the Bay Area over the Coastal Range to the Central Valley. The choice is between an Altamont Pass route (where the ACE train and 580 go, via Livermore, and skirting Stockton), vs the Pacheco Pass (following the 152 from Gilroy to Los Baños).

There are plusses and minusses to both routes. Both involve engineering challenges, and treading carefully around wilderness areas. From both of these perspectives, I think it's a wash.

The biggest real advantage (I will mention some perceived ones later...) of the Pacheco Pass route is a slight faster overall travel time, especially from San Jose to Southern California. At bullet train speeds, it comes out to 5-10 minutes difference.

The biggest advantage of the Altamont is that this route is that it serves way more people. First of all, there are a lot of people commuting to the Bay Area from Livermore, Stockton, Tracy, etc, who could really use it on a daily basis. It would also serve the East Bay much better--a branch to Oakland seems logical. Second, it's a much more logical way to add a branch to Sacramento. Going to Sac and back via Stockton makes sense. Going all the way around through Los Banños is just stupid--it's such a long way around, that just running moderately fast conventional trains on a more direct route (just speed up Capitol Corridor a bit and get the UP out of the way) would be quicker.

And as a corollary--while an Altamont routing would serve established cities, a Pacheco routing would encourage a brand new swath of sprawl, as people moved to now-dinky Los Baños in search of cheap and now convenient housing (this could admittedly be seen as an upside--I'll return to the question of housing in a later post).

To me, the choice is clear--the Altamont Route is a more useful overall system, and the tradeoff in speed is worth it.

Despite the Altamont's clear advantage, or perhaps because of it, the CAHSRA has consistently waged a devious campaign to subvert it, and boos the Pacheco route. First, they simply refused to study it--it was in early drafts of the plan, but conveniently omitted from the initial EIR. That was a bit too heavy-handed to get away with, and they've become more subtle, for example in skewing ridership estimates.

If you follow this debate, you will hear a lot of reasons (excuses?) why the Altamont route is impractical. None of them really stand up. Here's a few I've heard, and rebuttals.

  • Environmental impact to South Bay wetlands. First, trains already run there. Second, as I (and the Sierra club) have pointed out--the environmental impacts of the Pacheco route are probably worse.
  • It will require a long, high, and expensive bridge across the south Bay. Does anything bigger than a yacht ever go farther south than the Dumbarton bridge? Maybe a rehab of the existing Dumbarton Rail bridge, with a drawbridge opened a few times a day, is all that's needed. Anyway, the Pacheco route requires more tunnels than the Altamont, so it probably balances out.
  • Livermore and Fremont residents don't want bullet trains running through town. Try to build anything anywhere, and somebody will complain. I betcha a lot of people who live in these cities are sick of driving to San Jose, though--maybe you should talk to them instead of listening to pissy NIMBY's, and concluding that the only place to build a railroad is where nobody lives (to either complain about noise, or ride it, either!).

So what is so great about the Pacheco pass route? I really don't think it's about saving a couple of minutes. I'll save that for next time.


Cap'n Transit said...

This is very interesting, Nick. Not being very familiar with the Bay Area I'll defer to your judgment, but I do want to point out that high-speed rail is not supposed to serve suburb-to-city commuters. If the bullet train goes through Altamont, it shouldn't allow westbound passengers to board. They should be taken care of by increased ACE service. Similarly with people from Los Banos.

Of course, the right-of-way should be set up so that high-speed service doesn't crowd out local commuter service.

295bus said...

You make good points, and the article you linked to got me thinking more in terms of trade-offs between long-distance, high-speed travel and commuters.

CAHSRA folks have actually come out and said explicitly that the projects is not about commuting.

I really don't believe that. The investment in the HSR system ought to support both long-haul and local traffic in the same corridor.

And if this project is only about zipping people around the state--turning jet-setters into bullet-train-riders--but does nothing for regular people getting to work--then I think it's not worth the money!

Cap'n Transit said...

Well, there's certainly no reason that commuter rail couldn't benefit from the upgrades made for long-distance rail. It might require a small contribution from a local transportation authority, or just sharp eyes during planning to make sure that the infrastructure that winds up getting built for distance trains can accommodate the commuter trains as well.