The Real Beneficiary of the Blended System for HSR is Amtrak
Thanks to Tom McNamara for this guest post. -Robert
Update: I made some edits below to clarify the fact that House Minority Leader Pelosi was not speaking about any form of Amtrak consolidation, but was instead reflecting on the grandeur of Grand Central Station. The concept of Amtrak consolidation with HSR is Tom McNamara’s and not Pelosi’s.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi christened the TransBay Transit Center the “Grand Central Station of the West”. Although this draws on a deep vein of allusions, it also misses the mark for a couple of reasons. One, Grand Central Terminal serves passengers (the Station is used for mail). Two, if you want to take anything other than a commuter train from Grand Central Station, you are out of luck. Amtrak only serves nearby Penn Station.
Such a statement might seem like a Freudian slip. For as much ink as high speed rail’s role in the nation’s transportation future gets, Amtrak gets surprisingly little attention. At first, it might seem patently ridiculous to suggest that intermodality with long distance legacy trains is an important component of high speed rail. But actually, it’s not.
Amtrak, as many are quick to point out, has three almost autonomous components: transcontinental trains that are descended from earlier generations, the Northeast Corridor (which it owns), and state-sponsored routes around the country like the Hiawatha from Chicago to Milwaukee or the Cascades from Seattle to Portland. As HSR systems expand, they will absorb more and more of these state-sponsored routes, Congress will likely have to increase taxpayer subsidies for the longer transcontinental routes to offset the loss of income from state-sponsored service. Should that not be possible, however, the next option would be to consolidate lines and extend many of the routes with a final destination of none other than the Bay Area.
The Sunset Limited, as a prime example, ran in its Southern Pacific days from San Francisco to New Orleans. Today, you can’t go further than L.A.’s Union Station. And instead of terminating in the Crescent City, Amtrak’s version went all the way to Orlando until Hurricane Katrina. Combined with planned high speed rail upgrades, however, restoring the Sunset Limited would allow the Coast Starlight to be replaced, by the Limited in the south and extending the Empire Builder to the north. Similarly, Amtrak could make reciprocal moves in the East, extending the California Zephyr along the Ohio River to absorb the Cardinal and by shifting its Crescent service to the Gulf Coast, and beefing up the Auto Train. In fact, consolidation could reduce the number of long distance lines by a third, from fifteen to ten.
Moreover, using TransBay, and by extension, the Peninsula right of way for Amtrak also explains one other development: the Authority’s sudden willingness to embrace a “blended” system.
Consider that unlike CalTrain, which could be supplanted by BART, Amtrak will always have to use diesel engines to handle routes in areas of the country that are remote. Because of that, it will use heavier carriages that cannot reach the same speed as state-of-the-art high speed rail technology.
Thus, if the Sunset Limited did roll through Palo Alto once more it would assure that high speed trains would have a much lower maximum speed through town. But because high speed trains wouldn’t be sharing tracks with commuter rail, there would be little additional track if any, to build. HSR would simply pass by the once-daily trains just like the Baby Bullet does today.
It all makes so much sense, you would wonder why no one has mentioned the idea.
..except that Pelosi, America’s Shadow Chancellor, already did.
The key, of course, is that no elected officials
further south have joined with her have proposed this. But then that’s hardly a surprise given that there is no political will even to shore up Cal Train’s finances (or Amtrak’s for that matter).
The Authority’s Revised Business Plan, however, gives us a clue. The Northern California United Service is set to align both Amtrak California services and commuter rail under one plan. However, while the business plan makes it seem as if service would expand under this scenario, consolidation seems more likely. The Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin would be replaced with a longer version of the Altamont Corridor Express that would head both north to Sacramento and south to Merced. That would, in effect, make the Altamont Corridor route more desirable for Amtrak’s eastbound long distance routes as well, by reducing competition from freight.
For now, the only place you will find high speed rail and Amtrak’s long distance trains on the same platform is still New York’s Penn Station. Soon, however, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland will join that list. And then perhaps, it could be time to start calling TransBay Center “the Grand Central Station of the West”.