Anti-HSR Forces Renew Call for New Alignment
Last weekend a meeting in Hanford brought together anti-high speed rail activists to pitch their case for unnecessary changes that would undermine, perhaps fatally, the California high speed rail project. The only difference is that the meeting was held by those who consider themselves to be supporters of passenger rail.
The Train Riders Association of California (TRAC) and David Schonbrunn, for example, have long opposed the California high speed rail project and worked to undermine it on multiple occasions. So it’s no surprise they’ve joined up with anti-HSR folks from Kings County to make their pitch for sweeping changes to the HSR system. These changes, including a new alignment, are pitched as saving the project. In fact, they would not only repeat the same problems already in existence, they would also create much more serious problems as well.
But rather than simply bash the concept of high-speed rail and the Authority’s plan, which came under intense scrutiny, the approximately 75 participants on hand also reviewed possible alternatives, including a combination freight/passenger route they said could generate the private investment capital necessary to make high-speed rail a reality.
They’re going to combine freight and passenger trains? Like we already have, a system that works well enough but can’t provide true high speed rail service? They’re basically calling for the status quo in terms of rail in California, which does not attract private investment capital.
The focus Saturday was on a combination freight/passenger route that roughly follows the Interstate 5 route over Tejon Pass. The option would require private investment from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads to succeed, speakers said. Such a plan would close the Los Angeles-to-Bakersfield gap in the Amtrak system and would probably include upgrades to the Central Valley Amtrak track to increase speeds to 125 mph.
“California needs a realistic and achievable high-speed rail plan,” said David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions and Education Fund.
California has a realistic and achievable high speed rail plan. It’s just not a plan David Schonbrunn likes.
The concept as I understand it here is something much less than high speed rail. Rather than Japanese or French style bullet trains, the concept would provide slightly higher speeds in the Central Valley and rely on a crossing of the Tehachapi Range at Tejon Pass to connect the Valley to Southern California. The gap in passenger rail service between Bakersfield and Palmdale/Santa Clarita is the main missing link in California passenger rail right now.
But the California HSR project has a realistic plan to close that gap, tunneling under Tehachapi Pass to Palmdale. The Tejon concept being pitched here by TRAC and Schonbrunn is a fantasy.
First, neither BNSF nor UP have shown any interest in helping undertake a megaproject like building a new rail line through the Tejon Pass. Their business model relies on leveraging legacy rail infrastructure to move freight, making upgrades to those tracks and routes as needed but never more than is necessary to keep freight moving.
For those freight railroads, their main routes are west to east. Cargo ships carrying manufactured goods from China arrive at a port on the West Coast, unload their cargo, and then the cargo containers are loaded onto trains than head eastward toward warehouses in the Inland Empire or to other metropolitan areas further to the east. I am struggling to envision the kind of freight demand that would entice these two railroads to suddenly be willing to commit billions to help build a new north-south rail alignment, since a north-south route within California is far from a high priority for either of them.
So without the freight companies, you’re back to seeking other private investors and federal money. Which is exactly where the California HSR project is. Congratulations, guys, you’ve just reinvented the wheel.
Except this wheel has other problems:
[Frank] Oliveira suggested a route along Interstate 5, with feeder lines running westward along existing rail corridors. Such a plan would avoid impacts to Kings County homes, properties and dairies that have earned the current two route options between Fresno and Bakersfield such disapproval in Kings County, he said.
By cutting Bakersfield and Fresno out of the mainline, they’d be reducing ridership and revenues, making the project less attractive to a private investor.
And what “existing rail corridors” is he talking about here? Assuming they exist, preparing them for passenger rail service will entail disruption to someone else’s farmland.
So too will an Interstate 5 alignment. It’s unlikely that the state or federal governments would allow HSR tracks to be placed in the median of an interstate. That means the new tracks would have to go on either the east or west side of the freeway. That in turn means someone else’s farmland will have to be bought to make way for the tracks, and it wouldn’t be a small narrow strip either. I’m sure those farmers on the west side will be happy to experience the disruption just so Frank Oliveira doesn’t.
Ultimately an Interstate 5 alignment would generate its own opposition, its own lawsuits, its own angry public meetings. It wouldn’t be much cheaper, if at all, since there would be numerous interchanges that have to be rebuilt. And bypassing the population centers of the San Joaquin Valley reduces ridership and revenues, making the system a less attractive investment.
None of these proposals are realistic. They lack political support and would be much more difficult to fund than the current California HSR project. The existing project only appears difficult to fund because the Tea Party seized control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, and has been making every aspect of modern American civilization difficult to fund. Once the Tea Party is kicked out of power, then HSR will become much easier to fund again.
But these kinds of vaporware proposals appeal to those who are either put off by the challenges faced by the current HSR project, or who are merely piqued that their own brilliant ideas were somehow and unjustly ignored by those big bad bureaucrats in Sacramento.