High Speed Rail Isn’t A Commuter Train
In the wake of the new California high speed rail business plan, which calls for sharing tracks with other passenger rail services in some urban areas, some are charging that this means the service will merely be “commuter rail” in those urban areas, according to the Voice of OC:
Political reality is scaling down California’s proposed Anaheim-to-San Francisco high-speed rail project and transforming it into a faster commuter train system in urban areas, according to critics of the system’s latest business plan….
But officially changing the business plan to include the “blended approach” drew a strong reaction from former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, once a member of the High-Speed Rail Authority board.
“I call it the great train robbery,” Kopp told the Los Angeles Times, “because they plan, if they can get away with it, to take money out of high-speed rail and bestow it on to commuter rail systems.
“This isn’t high-speed rail,” he said. “High-speed rail runs on dedicated tracks.”
This has been Kopp’s concern for many years now, and it’s a concern I’ve shared. One of my criticisms of Senator Alan Lowenthal is that his opposition to the HSR project is driven by his desire to use the $9 billion in voter approved bonds to simply upgrade urban passenger rail alone and ignore the core purpose of the HSR project, which is to bridge the gap between the Bay Area and Southern California with bullet train service.
But I disagree with Kopp that what is happening under the new plan is a great train robbery. The plan still calls for starting construction on true bullet train tracks between SF and LA in the Central Valley. Governor Jerry Brown has made it clear that this work must be funded and the funds cannot be redirected to urban commuter trains. What the plan does say is that HSR will be built in phases (as was always planned) and that its initial services will resemble European HSR systems which often share tracks in urban areas but use dedicated tracks between urban areas. Over time, as new funding is found, the urban tracks will indeed be upgraded to help carry more bullet trains faster to their ultimate destinations, again as is often the case in Europe.
It’s also similar to the way the Interstate Highway System was built. I can remember my first trip to Arizona in 1984, when Interstate 10 ended on the western edge of Phoenix. One had to use surface streets to get downtown or to the other side of the city where Interstate 10 resumed. It wasn’t efficient but it was workable, at least until the freeway was finished through central Phoenix (and at considerable expense).
I would love nothing more than to build dedicated tracks from SF Transbay Terminal to LA Union Station and Anaheim all at once. In fact, I think the US federal government should fund such a major infrastructure project in states across the country as part of our efforts at economic recovery and energy independence. But until that happens, a phased approach that involves a blended use of urban tracks is a sensible way to proceed, preserving the core values of the project while enabling construction to begin this year.