HiSpeed Services and Branding
Conventional wisdom has it that HSR in California equals long-distance trains from Northern to Southern California. However, just because trains can cross mountains doesn’t mean that passengers will always want to. More often than not, their origin and destination will lie in the same region, i.e. Bay Area, Central Valley or Southern California. Over time, HSR may change that, but it would be prudent to study service models that accommodate a combination of intra-regional and inter-regional trains on the same timetable.
Keep in mind that CHSRA is not a railroad, it is only responsible for planning and constructing the HSR infrastructure. That will be owned by a separate, yet-to-be-created entity in which the various investors, including the state of California, will have equity stakes. This entity will also fund any extensions. If European trends are any indication, a long-term (e.g. 20 year) contract for day-to-day operations and maintenance of the infrastructure will be awarded via open tender. Train operations governed by a timetable defined by the infrastructure operator may or may not be delivered by separate companies that bid for slots at regular auctions, e.g. every 4 years. Note that CHSRA has yet to announce the gory details of all this, so the above is just my personal educated guess.
A useful example from overseas is NS HiSpeed, a relatively new joint venture between the Dutch national railways (NS, 90%) and KLM (10%). On the one hand, this is an umbrella brand and online portal for all high speed trains to and from destinations in Holland, including those that cross borders. On the other, in terms of passenger volume, the most important segments of the HiSpeed network will likely be Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport-the Hague-Rotterdam-Breda, to be served by AnsaldoBreda V250 trainsets.
In part because of teething troubles with ETCS level 2, this Italian manufacturer is late in delivering the equipment to NS HiSpeed and SNCB, the Belgian national railways who will deploy them on the Brussels-Antwerp-Rotterdam-Amsterdam route. In addition, the faster but also more expensive Thalys service featuring WiFi on board will remain operational. This somewhat confusing proliferation is a result of the planned liberalization for cross-border rail traffic in the EU in 2010.
This eye candy promo video features text in Dutch, but should be self-explanatory:
A key objective of the expensive HSL Zuid high speed line and the new NS HiSpeed services on it is to decongest the extremely busy motorways linking the dense randstad conurbation, home to about 10 million people. Most Dutch motorways have just four lanes total, though some have been widened to six.
The Dutch railways have long offered deeply discounted traintaxi service at 36 stations throughout the country, provided only that you buy the requisite coupon together with the train ticket. The service operates as a jitney, conceptually similar to airport shuttles in California but typically based on smaller vehicles. The driver selects the route ad hoc, rather than plying a fixed route (cp. dolmush in Turkey).
The construction of dedicated HSR tracks in the SF peninsula will mean the end of Caltrain’s existing “baby bullet” service. However, electrification plus an expected FRA waiver to operate lightweight non-compliant EMU equipment plus a top speed of up to 90mph means that future Caltrain locals will have the same SF-San Jose line haul time (p2) as baby bullet do today.
This is in keeping with Caltrain’s traditional role as a standard-speed commuter railroad and also the only service being planned today. However, if there is sufficient demand, there is no reason why there could not be a Caltrain HiSpeed service in addition to the upgraded locals. After all, the PCJPB does own the right of way in the SF peninsula and could easily negotiate the right to run a certain number of Caltrain-branded trains on the HSR tracks there. It will be many years before long-distance trains will saturate the capacity of the new tracks, so why not use the empty slots for a new genuine bullet Caltrain service, running at top speeds of 125mph in the peninsula? CHSRA has yet to define a speed limit between San Jose and Gilroy, it could be higher in that stretch but nowhere near the 220mph expected through Pacheco Pass and in the Central Valley.
That means Caltrain could deliver a HiSpeed service using cheaper, previous-generation equipment. Note, however, that combining relatively frequent HiSpeed with long-distance express trains only works well if the headways are long enough and the HiSpeed trainsets have superior acceleration and braking performance. One option would be embedded asynchronous linear electric motors in the track infrastructure for a certain distance on either side of the stations. Aluminum plates integrated into the underbody design of the HiSpeed trainsets would be used to leverage this supplemental propulsion without adding significant axle load or drawing excessive amounts of power from the catenaries. During acceleration and recuperative braking, HiSpeed trains would then be hybrid electric/electric vehicles.
The primary purpose of any putative HiSpeed service would be to leverage the HSR tracks in the peninsula and especially, the HSR platforms at the new Transbay Terminal in SF. The downside is that there will only be five HSR station on the route: SF Transbay Terminal, Millbrae/SFO, mid-peninsula (RC, PA or MV), SJ Diridon and Gilroy.
An extension to Hollister would be relatively cheap but require San Benito county to join the PCJPB. That might well entail restricting further residential development to transit villages, ostensibly to protect agricultural acreage but really to protect residential real estate values in Silicon Valley. Given the proximity to the San Andreas fault, buildings in such transit villages would need to feature steel frames and at least 7-8 stories. Earthquakes tend to generate ground excitation at frequencies of around 1Hz, close to the typical base harmonic in bending of buildings in the 4-5 story range.
Running HSR tracks out to Monterey county would be much more expensive due to the interceding coastal mountain range. FRA and CPUC rules plus opposition from UPRR prevent non-compliant equipment from using existing track at standard speeds and stopping at existing stations.
In much the same vein, SCRRA, which operates Metrolink, owns the right of way between Palmdale and Redondo Junction plus the one between Fullerton and Irvine. Therefore, if it wanted to, it could negotiate the right to run a certain number of Metrolink-branded HiSpeed trains. The stations served in phase I would be Palmdale, Sylmar, Burbank, LA Union Station, Norwalk and Anaheim. In this case, the primary purpose would be to create a sufficiently large catchment area for Palmdale airport, including visitors to both Los Angeles and Disneyland.
CHSRA has already mentioned the possibility of local HSR service between LA Union Station and San Diego once the phase II spur is built. It’s not yet clear where such a service would park its trains, given that no HSR yard appears to be planned between LAUS and Burbank. The train parking situation in San Diego is also unclear, it might make sense to run tracks all the way down to a terminus/yard in the Southland via the ROW west of I-5.
Amtrak San Joaquin HiSpeed?
A third possible HiSpeed service could be Amtrak California-branded and connect Palmdale airport, Bakersfield, Fresno and Merced in phase I, with an extension up to Sacramento in phase II. If CHSRA’s arm is twisted enough to build a station in Hanford, at least some of these particular bullet trains would stop there as well. However, considering the rather small populations near the stations served and the need to run at 220mph to avoid impeding long-distance express trains between SF and LA/Anaheim, the Central Valley presents arguably the least compelling HiSpeed proposition, at least in phase I.
It might make sense if the Merced county station were at Castle Airport, directly inside a new passenger terminal (same as Palmdale) and Fresno Yosemite plus the blighted land beyond its runways were converted into a new mixed used district with excellent transit connections to the HSR station and downtown area. That, however, would be a huge step for Fresno to take and is not currently contemplated.
Moreover, given CHSRA’s preference for Pacheco Pass, it might make more sense to defer any development of Castle Airport into a commercial airport to phase II. By that time, HSR will have had a chance to establish itself as a mode of travel and, both Fresno and San Jose might be ready to close their airports to accommodate population growth and eliminate runway blight. Already, e-ticketing and mobile boarding passes mean that check-in at the airport can boil down to dropping off any bags you may have. For passengers hailing from or headed to Silicon Valley, a comfortable 45 minute train trip to Castle Airport with broadband internet access may be preferable to the risk of fog-related delay and a clunky transfer at SFO.
The arrangement would hinge on making Castle Airport the only HSR station in Merced county, such that all trains to and from Sacramento would pass through it. Note that Sacramento’s own airport is somewhat constrained by its location smack in the Pacific Flyway, which means it experiences a lot of bird strikes. In addition, it is nowhere near the future HSR station on top of the new STIF. Plans for a light rail line out to SMF call for 13 stops, none of which would be right at the STIF or either of the airport terminals. An HSR trip to Castle Airport would take about 40 minutes.