LA Times Looks At Engineering Challenges for Tehachapi Pass HSR

Nov 13th, 2012 | Posted by

Ralph Vartabedian has been rather quiet on the high speed rail beat for the Los Angeles Times since the State Senate voted to release the voter-approved bond funds for construction back in July. His usual and frequent attacks on the project have almost totally ceased. I’m sure that’s just a mere coincidence. But Vartabedian is back today with an article on the engineering challenges of the Bakersfield to LA segment of the project, particularly through the Tehachapi Pass.

Scenic Tehachapi

Vartabedian’s article is actually fairly informative, even if there’s some concern trolling in there about the costs of building this section and the fact that the tracks will run through a seismically active landscape:

The probability of an earthquake occurring as a train is going over a fault is “very small,” Gillam said. Some experts, however, say the probability is not inconsequential, considering high-speed trains are expected to be running as frequently as every five minutes in each direction.

Stephen Mahin, director of the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center at UC Berkeley, said the bullet train’s operating plan suggests a “strong probability” that a train could be going over a fault if it ruptures. But good engineering can reduce the risks.

Of course, Vartabedian could have mentioned that high speed trains have been operating in the very seismically active country of Japan for nearly 50 years without being negatively impacted by earthquakes. (Tsunamis generated by the quakes are a different matter.) But at least he did include a lot of information and some quotes that together make it clear that these are challenges that can be overcome, rather than reasons to abandon the project entirely. So it’s nice to see that Vartabedian is no longer using his position as an LA Times reporter to overtly attack the HSR project.

The rest of the article is worth reading for more details of the engineering challenges. It’s not a technical document, of course, but it does a reasonable job of setting the stage for the long process of designing and eventually building this crucial missing link in California’s passenger rail system. Because Merced to Los Angeles is likely to be the Initial Operating Segment of the HSR system, building rail through the Tehachapis is essential to getting high speed rail up and running in California. Going under Pacheco Pass will be a more straightforward and easily solved engineering challenge, but the Tehachapis are the missing link, and I am looking forward to seeing it closed in the near future.

  1. JJJ
    Nov 13th, 2012 at 23:06

    I did think the earthquake part was unnecessary. Im going to take a guess that we have gas/water pipes all over the state that could also rupture, yet is it an issue?

    And as you say, Japan does it, and theyre earthquake central. And its not like LA doesnt have any trains today.

    VBobier Reply:

    Agreed, pretty much a non-issue, unless one is an excessive worry wart, then they need to be seen for super severe anxiety problems by a psychiatrist…

  2. StevieB
    Nov 13th, 2012 at 23:07

    Vartabedian is misleading when he says “high-speed trains are expected to be running as frequently as every five minutes in each direction”. To have trains at 5 minute intervals in each direction over a two and a half hour trip would require over 100 trains traveling simultaneously all day. While there may be trains at 5 minute intervals part of the day it will not be all day and trains will not be running all night. The likelihood of a train crossing a fault during a rupture is much less than he leads us to believe.

    BMF from San Diego Reply:


    Matthew B. Reply:


  3. Winston
    Nov 14th, 2012 at 05:50

    It’s not too late to switch to the superior Grapevine alignment. It isn’t that much more trouble and it’s a lot quicker.

    Peter Reply:

    Well, they’d have to first do an actual honest, non-sandbagged reassessment of Tejon. Like not limiting viaduct height to 150 feet, while accepting a 330 foot high viaduct as a real option for Tehachapi.

    VBobier Reply:

    And that’s if the 330 foot high viaduct is a real option for Tehachapi in the first place and not an exaggeration of the facts to pander to those who like promoting fudd.

    Peter Reply:

    What are you talking about? That’s one of the official alternatives being considered for Bakersfield-Palmdale.

    BMF from San Diego Reply:

    Service to Palmdale is required per the enabling legislation. Address that and your idea has legs.

    Winston Reply:

    If you really have to, improve Metrolink’s route to Palmdale and serve it that way. Here is one place where running tilting equipment would save a whole lot of money because even the LA-Palmdale route is expensive, but much less so if you can live with a lot of unbalanced superelevation.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    The Authority was of the opinion that it was not required.

    thatbruce Reply:

    @BMF from San Diego:

    Service to Palmdale is required per the enabling legislation.

    The only mention of ‘Palmdale’ is in one of the routes that can be built in addition to phase 1 from SF Transbay to Los Angeles and Anaheim. The wording in the enabling legislation doesn’t explicitly rule out avoiding Palmdale.

    Clem Reply:

    Service to Sacramento seems to be less important than service to Palmdale. Address that!

    Nathanael Reply:

    Sacramento (ahem) decided that service to Sacramento would be part of “phase II”. Dunno why, seems like an odd attitude for the state government to take regarding the state capital, but it’s part of political history now.

  4. Walter
    Nov 14th, 2012 at 08:48

    Where synonymouse’s ridiculous conspiracy rant about Tejon Ranch and Mexico and Jerry Brown and other stuff?

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    The thing about our pal Synonymouse is that RIchard Tolmach and the “ridiculous conspiracy theories” have been unambiguously proven to be right, while all the anonymous astroturfer fanboy trolls and everybody else (including myself) who drank the Palmdale and the Highway 99 koolaid look like idiots.

    80% of what Mr Mouse writes might still be nuts (freight base tunnels and the like), but the 20% which isn’t, isn’t. That compares extremely favourably with the 0% non-nuts contributions from all of the anonymous PB fanboys.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    There is an inverse relationship between how far away from Rohnert Park something is and synonymouse’s opinion about it…

    synonymouse Reply:

    There are only a few ways in which the long term future of the fiscally dead on arrival Tehachapi Detour can play out:

    1. Sold for scrap, dismantled and demolished – after having passed thru numerous hands and would-be operators.

    2. Picked up for a token price by the class ones and cannibalized.

    3. What I’ll call for lack of a better and more creative imagination the “Villovitch Offensive”.
    In order for the State to hope to justify the copious amounts of operating and maintenance funding that would have to be funneled into the DeTour to keep it running the State would have to produce and induce massively greater ridership than will materialize under the current conditions and circumstances. In other words you have to vastly increase the population living along the Tehachapi route. Another LA in the high desert. Tracts just a cut above tar paper shacks all up the mountainside as far as the eye can see.

    After all the CHSRA is not at all about hsr – it is all about regional rail(quasi Amtrak)and commuter rail(quasi BART). So you have to turn Palmdale’s back 40 into a teeming slum to find enough riders to make a case for perennial subsidies. And of course you will need below market fares to get those riders on board.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    … induce massively greater ridership ….course you will need below market fares to get those riders on board

    So what they lose on any individual passenger they will make up on the volume of passengers they carry?

    Can I have your dealer’s phone number? He’s got some realllllly good shit.

    synonymouse Reply:

    They need the raw ridership figures to make a public service case for the considerable and continuing subsidy, and that is if they have already quashed the private ownership model. The private operator would simply abandon as chronically underperforming.

    Basically they hope to utilize the BART exurban modus operandi – take an otherwise mostly empty peripheral line and build up the traffic by urbanizing snd sprawling.

    joe Reply:

    Public service and public transit bugs you, not subsidies.

    Matthew B. Reply:

    Trust me, Palmdale is already willing to grow and sprawl as much as the market will allow. HSR would only have the effect of driving demand for higher quality development and possibly some office space near the station. Short of the California government paying for these tar paper shacks you’re imagining, I don’t think a politician can do any more than is already being done to convince people to move into low quality sprawl. People living in your imaginary tar paper shacks are more likely to be Greyhound customers anyway.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    There is, of course, one little flaw in your story.

    Where exactly are you getting all the water from to build Rio de Janerio-on-the-Mojave?

    There’s a way simpler explanation for what you notice of the Villaraigosa-Antonovich-Reid triumvirate:

    The Senate President wants DesertXpress, excuse me XpressWest. The Authority needs to bridge the “gap” between the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles. And the Supervisor will put anything in the median of the High Desert Corridor Freeway project (read: HSR) to get federal money for it.

    But perhaps the most important thing you overlook is why the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas have a common future. (It’s not about gambling.) Basically, Los Angeles is becoming less of movie town and more about television production and perhaps not so unrelatedly, video games. The Bay Area is focused more on system architecture and hardware design. Las Vegas, meanwhile, is becoming basically a permanent venue for certain types of acts.

    So the fact that a company would need access between where the three cities on a fairly common basis is not that hard to believe. I think it was Wildermuth who was talking about how the real potential for HSR is linking Silicon Valley to Hollywood. That’s the first type of synergistic combination to expect, but not the last.

    Miles Bader Reply:

    speaking of nutters…

    James M. in Irvine Reply:

    Nope, his argument makes perfect sense…


  5. synonymouse
    Nov 14th, 2012 at 10:27

    Take a look at the pastoral image of rolling Tehachapi hills and imagine them covered with slum tract houses. That’s what this is really all about.

    C’mon foamers, just come on out and scream it. You’ve got the power, all of the power. You’ve won an absolute victory, so cut the crap. As an hsr route Tejon is an unadulterated smoking piece of shit. And virtually everything PB-CHSRA has to say about it is a pack of lies.

    Just revel in your victory and go ahead and flush $20bil down the toilet. It’s only money.

    This planning error reminds me in its magnitude of BART’s egregious decision to go hopelessly proprietary. The SP put a gun to BART’s head and Bechtel cravenly went along. Terrible move that has had perennial negative side effects. But in another respect, and Richard may not agree with this, BART route planning was much superior than that of the CHSRA, even tho I would have done it differently. I would have gone to war with the SP over using their corridors, but the point remains that BART route planning was direct and ballsy and I suggest that the Bechtel BART people would have gone for Tejon and fought Palmdale the way they fought with Berkeley.

    On the plus side I just love the Anaheim streetcar project for Katella. I trudged that street for miles several times in the early seventies and thought this is perfect for modern streetcars. I feel vindicated. Go Anaheim.

    Peter Reply:

    “Take a look at the pastoral image of rolling Tehachapi hills and imagine them covered with slum tract houses. That’s what this is really all about.”

    I think that is what Richard talked about above on the 80% nuts stuff.

    “As an hsr route Tejon is an unadulterated smoking piece of shit.”

    Freudian slip?

    synonymouse Reply:

    I must be really tired today. Plug in Tehachapi for Tejon as mierda.

    Peter Reply:


  6. J. Wong
    Nov 14th, 2012 at 12:13

    I expect that construction on Bakersfield-Palmdale will commence before completion of the Central Valley segment.

    Yes, of course, they’re going to have get funding from the Federal gov’t, but I think Obama will do it.

  7. joe
    Nov 14th, 2012 at 14:50

    OMG HSR will bankrupt California!!! Or not.

    The report cites the improving state economy, prior budget cuts and the passage of the Proposition 30 tax measure as the factors for the sharp improvement. By 2014, the state will have a surplus of $1 billion and that will grow to more than $9 billion by 2017, according to the fiscal outlook.

    Read more:

    Matthew B. Reply:

    Democrat backed policies balancing the budget? Don’t tell Fox News!

    Peter Reply:

    I think you mean “Tax increases balancing the budget without destroying the economy?” That’s the unbelievable-if-you’re-Fox-News-or-a-Republican part.

  8. Stephen Smith
    Nov 14th, 2012 at 16:53

    In other Ralph Vartabedian-related news, his SNCF article has been wiped from the LA Times’ website:,0,973921,full.story

    I emailed Ralph but got no response. Anybody know where to find a cached version?

    VBobier Reply:

    I couldn’t find it either, but I did find this blog Here(Bullet Train Bombshell: CAHSR Spurned Cost-Cutting Offer From the French) that mentioned it…

    joe Reply:

    My bet is you need to pay to read older articles. The failing tribune co instituted paywall that kicks in after N articles are read in a month.

    Stephen Smith Reply:

    I can find much older articles available for free. And yet, despite searching the archives, I see this one nowhere.

    Matthew B. Reply:

    Turning on private browsing gets around this limit. And they just show a box asking you to pay, not a 404 error.

  9. Clem
    Nov 14th, 2012 at 19:42

    I’m surprised that he doesn’t delve into the Tejon issue. It’s got the right heady mix of politics, money, and sandbagged engineering studies… C’mon Ralph, dig deeper!

    joe Reply:

    That’s hard work!

    Far easier to lather, rinse, and repeat what’s already out there.

    Any doubts? Look at ABC’s mistaken Petraeus’ Bio Book Cover. They lifted it off the internet- without seeing it was a Parody.

    synonymouse Reply:

    The LA Times used to be owned by the Chandlers – don’t expect an editorial calling for a return to Tejon.

  10. Tom McNamara
    Nov 14th, 2012 at 19:57

    Because Merced to Los Angeles is likely to be the Initial Operating Segment of the HSR system, building rail through the Tehachapis is essential to getting high speed rail up and running in California.

    The “initial operating segment” is going to be Merced to Palmdale.

    Jon Reply:

    No, the LA Times is correct. The official CAHSR line is that the IOS will be Merced to the LA Basin, but they may run Merced to Palmdale earlier if they think they can turn a profit. That’s a big if, so saying “likely Merced to LA” is accurate.

    Tom McNamara Reply:

    From the revised Business Plan 4/12:

    The IOS is achieved through expansion of the first construction segment into an electrified operating high-speed rail line from Merced to Palmdale and the San Fernando Valley, accessing the populous Los Angeles Basin. Following on the work discussed above, the next priority in implementing the IOS will be closing the rail gap between Northern and Southern California by crossing the Tehachapi Mountains with new, dedicated high-speed rail infrastructure. Prior to completion of the IOS to the San Fernando Valley, this link will tie the north to the south at Palmdale, where Metrolink commuter rail service can then provide service and connections throughout Southern California.

    Currently, the IOS is defined as extending from Merced to the San Fernando Valley, and high-speed revenue service would only start once the full IOS is built and operable. Should ridership and revenue forecasts and financial projections demonstrate that revenue service compliant with Proposition 1A could begin earlier, with a shorter IOS, appropriate reviews would occur to consider and implement earlier service, if appropriate.

    Jon Reply:

    …which is exactly what I said.

    Nathanael Reply:

    [quote]Merced to Palmdale [b]and the San Fernando Valley [/b][/quote]

    (emphasis mine) The IOS explicitly goes to the San Fernando Valley (though it’s somewhat vague about whether the San Fernando Valley to LA Union section needs to be up and running to constitute the IOS).

    Joey Reply:

    It probably makes sense to push for building all the way to LAUS. Metrolink makes a rather lackluster connecting service so unless a Sylmar park n’ ride would actually draw significant ridership it doesn’t really make much sense to terminate the IOS at Sylmar.

  11. trentbridge
    Nov 15th, 2012 at 08:20

    The ONION headline (I can see it now!) CAHSR: NO-ONE TOLD US THERE WERE MOUNTAINS!
    In a stunning blow to high-speed rail in California, the High Speed Rail Authority discovered that the “flat as a pancake” terrain that they saw in the Central Valley did not extend all the way to Los Angeles as their maps had indicated. A spokesperson said ” We saw the word “Tehacapi” and assumed it was just a Native American reservation – it looks flat on all our maps.”

    It was only when the Authority raised funds and bought a truck and ventured south – to the edge of the map – when the awful truth emerged out of the morning mist. In light of this, the Authority is now exploring the option of a five mile long aerial tramway to move passengers from the train at the base of the mountains to the top. There they will be able to catch a Metrolink train into Los Angeles. “We have seen this work in Palm Springs”, adds a spokesman. “and we have Swiss engineers on speed-dial so we are confident this will work”.

    “We know there are known knowns: there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns: that is to say we know there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” —Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Department briefing, Fe. 12, 2002

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