Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some Musings on CalTrain, HSR, etc

A few years ago, there was an optimistic buzz that:

  • Pretty soon, we would have an HSR system from SF to LA.
  • HSR would use CalTrain's right-of-way, in the process rebuilding it, electrifying it, and providing access to a downtown SF terminal.
  • By becoming faster, more efficient, and improved ridership from providing an overall more appealing service, CalTrain's operating funding problems would go away: either ridership would increase enough to make it more cost-effective, or the service would be so awesome that the public would be willing and happy to provide more funding.

Today, we're looking at a worst-case scenario:

  • CalTrain will go out of business, or atrophy into a handful-of-trains-a-day type service, like Ace or Capitol Corridor (useful in their way, but overall, so marginal to be almost irrelevant to the larger transportation picture).
  • HSR will build an initial proof-of-concept segment from Fresno to Bakersfield, run fast trains up and down the central valley, and run out of money leaving a disconnected "railway to nowhere" that Californians will get mocked about for decades. (Btw, here is an interesting historical parallel).

Last fall, I went to an informal friends-of-CalTrain gathering, a preview for this Saturday's summit. One of the themes of the discussion was this conundrum:

  • Peninsula residents support CalTrain, and would generally support improvements like electrification.
  • They are wary of HSR.
  • Nobody knows how long it will take before work on the peninsula segment of HSR actually begins.
  • But does it make sense to electrify CalTrain in its current state, if that means all that work has to be ripped out and redone when grade separation is built for HSR at some point in the future?

My answer is yes, and here's my thinking:

  • A complete statewide HSR system may take decades to build.
  • The best way to make use of a partial HSR system it to give HSR trains access to SF and LA terminals via electrified, but slower, local commuter lines. So if you want to travel the length of the state, your train will poke along at 88mph or so (CalTrain's current speed limit) on the way out of town, haul ass down the central valley, and slow down again as it gets onto Metrolink for the last couple of miles. It won't be faster than flying but it'll still beat driving.
  • Grade separation and realignment in the peninsula (and elsewhere) can be accomplished piecemeal. Each grade crossing can be designed with time for community input, etc.
  • Train speeds can be increased with conditions that make them more palatable to neighbors--specifically, I think the HSRA should commit that their trains will not make more noise than some dB/distance threshold.
  • This still leaves NIMBY types with a hope of undergrounding HSR (or rerouting it to the median of the 101, which is actually not such a bad idea). They can accept electrification but keep some control over future development of the right-of-way.
  • Conversely, HSR-boosters can hope to incrementally ramp up speed, and get people used to living next to HSR bit by bit, diffusing the current opposition.


arcady said...

The only problem is that the only rail line from Bakersfield to LA is the circuitous and congested Tehachapi Pass route, which would take some five (5) hours just for LA-Bakersfield. The other possibility, and the one that is currently used, is to have a bus connection between LA and Bakersfield. Which is kind of lame for an HSR system, in a number of ways. But yes, in general, a more incremental approach has lots of benefits, and a considerably higher chance of success, both overall and in terms of providing at least some benefits immediately, even if the full system is never built.

295bus said...

HSR is planned to go via Tehachapi, correct? Just faster (straight up the hill; no loop, I suppose)?

To make my suggest really work, yes, that part of the line needs to be implemented too. At least there's no NIMBY opposition there, just engineering challenges. And a connection is needed from the central valley to the Bay Area. The easiest solution the Altamont Route (although the HSR board is so nuts about that I suspect they would be wary of setting any precedent of running their trains there, even as an interim).

arcady said...

HSR is planned to go via Tehachapi and Palmdale, to provide some fuel to the land speculation economy in the high desert (and add something like 15 minutes to the trip). Of course since it's a politically driven project, and driven by local politicians, it's the local sections that are getting the priority: Peninsula, Central Valley, and LA-Anaheim. The actually important links between those three areas don't have much population, and thus very few politicians pushing to get stuff built there. And that's part of why I think HSR is doomed.