Fresno-Sacramento: Alternate Route
Note from Robert: This is one in a series of posts from Rafael thinking about different ways that we could route California HSR. It should be noted that the Merced-Fresno Alternatives Analysis has some very clear options on how to deal with much of this segment, although north of Merced is less settled at this point in time.
One of the big planning headaches for California HSR is Union Pacific’s refusal to make any part of its extensive network available for dedicated HSR tracks. The crusty old railroad has even raised a red flag on plans to purchase adjacent land for this purpose, citing the risk of derailments (and cargo spills) that could foul the HSR tracks (where at grade or in a trench) or else, damage their supports (where elevated). In effect, a private railroad is trying to impose restrictions on how land it doesn’t even own may be used. Contributor Dennis Lytton has called that extortion and demanded FRA or even Congressional action in response.
Unfortunately for HSR proponents, UPRR is a major freight railroad with a lot of political clout in Washington. The FRA would likely pay close attention to any fresh complaint from it against the revised program EIS on California HSR, since rail freight is a key component of interstate commerce and needs to operate on a low-cost-per-ton business model to remain profitable. Rulings that impose high additional liability on or require excessive new investments (e.g. in signaling or maintenance) by the private railroads could quickly lead to service cuts or outright bankruptcy.
Therefore, it is useful to explore alternative routes/alignments that would avoid the active lines on UPRR’s network. The original plan called for about 50% of the fully built-out HSR network to run adjacent to that company’s legacy tracks. This post addresses the section between Calwa (south Fresno) and downtown Sacramento in the Central Valley.
The following map shows the salient details. Naturally, this alternate route would require re-doing the program-level EIS/EIR for this section of the network.
View Fresno-Sacramento: Alternative Route in a larger map
UPRR’s competitor BNSF has been much more receptive of CHSRA’s proposal to share ROW, specifically in the Calwa-Bakersfield section. The BNSF line runs north and west out to Richmond harbor via south Stockton. It already hosts Amtrak California’s San Joaquin service. Unfortunately, the alignment through Fresno is not straight enough for express HSR service in its present state. It also fails to reach the downtown areas of Merced and Modesto yet does run through a number of smaller towns and villages.
Nevertheless, it might make sense to use certain sections of BNSF’s ROW for the Calwa-south Stockton section, in combination with greenfield sections and the available I-5 median between Stockton and Sacramento.
a) To rectify the alignment for express HSR service, there would be a tunnel section in central Fresno plus an aerial over the SJVR rail yards in Calwa. The Fresno HSR station would be underground with two platform and two bypass tracks. Elsewhere, the tunnel would feature just two tracks, dedicated to HSR service. A station site near the E Tulare/E Divisadero/CA-41 intersection might work well for the HSR operator, but there is no large plot of undeveloped land is available at that location. Note that the Amtrak station is too far out of the way for this rectification concept.
b) Considering the speeds and frequencies at which express HSR trains will be running through Fresno, the most suitable type of grade separation through the residential neighborhoods between N Blackstone and W Herndon would be a deep trench. This would include grade separation of the BNSF track(s), but only in this section. Additional measures to mitigate noise may be necessary, though concrete lids would entail aggressive (and noisy) ventilation to cope with the diesel trains operatged by BNSF and Amtrak.
c) The alignment would switch to a greenfield ROW between Planada and Riverbank. Part of that would run along Oakdale Rd (Stanislaus County Rd J17). The idea behind this is to avoid residential areas of Merced as well as a number of smaller towns along the BNSF ROW, while providing an alignment suitable for running trains at 220mph at any time of day or night. There would, however, be significant land use impacts on farms in the region. The Merced county station would be at the UC campus, way out in the boonies. However, a modified alignment would permit a station at Castle Airport instead if the county presents a viable plan to upgrade it for commercial aviation or else, for transit-oriented redevelopment. Right now, it is used for general aviation and there’s a federal prison east of the runway.
d) The merger with Southern Pacific in the 1990s added many duplicate rights of way (e.g. one between Niles and French Camp) and secondary lines that UPRR might well be willing to sell. One such line runs from French Camp to Modesto, but doesn’t actually join up with UPRR’s main line there. It runs right next to the BNSF track in the town of Escalon but is not connected to that, either.
Therefore, I’m proposing something of a “beet field” station at Escalon, with a new light rail service south into downtown Modesto (Jr College). A new Amtrak San Joaquin station there would be possible if desired.
Note that there may be scope for transit-oriented development near the HSR station and along the LRT corridor, which could easily be extended west along CA-120 and north via French Camp Rd at a later date. Admittedly, there’s a fine line between using high-density TOD to encourage strategic population growth where there is plenty of readily available water and, the risk of traditional low-density sprawl. It’s not a given that Stanislaus county planners are already up to walking it.
e) The Stockton station would be at San Joaquin St, intermodal with connecting Amtrak San Joaquin service to Contra Costa county and Oakland.
An elevated section and a new bridge would be required to get HSR tracks from the BNSF yard across the UPRR line, CA-4 and the river, where they would leverage the available I-5 median. It would be up to the city of Stockton to provide connecting bus transit to the downtown area. There would be no intermodal station with ACE or Amtrak SJ trains from Sacramento.
f) A second ROW that UPRR might be willing to sell runs from Sacramento’s historic Richards rail yards along the Sacramento river south to the hamlet of Hood, the last remaining fragment of what was once a larger network serving farms in the Delta, with cross-connections to Fairfield and Lodi along what is today CA-12.
This ROW would permit a Sacramento HSR station at the planned Richards development, albeit via a completely different approach route. Speeds on the elevated alignment through the residential neighborhoods south of downtown would have to be reduced, cp. SF peninsula or LA basin.
Note that a substantial extra-tall aerial would be needed to cross the eastern approach of the bi-level I St rail/road combo swing bridge as well as I-5, to reach the lateral location already selected for the HSR platforms. Vertically, they would be a level higher than currently planned. The waterfront would remain accessible but there would be some visual and noise blight. A trench or tunnel would be a preferable option, though the proximity to the river presents a major hazard for construction as well as a potential flood risk. Putting the HSR platforms at the station underground would also be more expensive than the plan of record, which assumes trains will approach the site from the east.
Another solution would be to radically rethink the layout of the transit hub such that UPRR/Amtrak veers north immediately east of the rail bridge, leaving just enough room for the HSR tracks to squeeze past at grade without crossing. A station at grade would be cheaper, but the California railroad museum would need to be relocated and the waterfront south of it would be severely impaired.