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California’s Bullet Train — A Fresh Start and a Change in Direction

Posted by Ken Orski on Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

Innovation NewsBriefs
Vol. 23, No. 10

A new strategy is beginning to emerge toward California’s embattled high-speed rail venture. The strategy is designed to rescue the project from a possible defeat at the hands of the state legislature, gain friends and supporters among local transportation agencies, win converts among independent analysts and turn around a largely skeptical public.

The plan combines the existing commitment to proceed with construction of the first rail segment in the Central Valley with near-term actions aimed at upgrading rail facilities at both ends of the proposed LA-to-SF high-speed line. Specifically, the so-called “bookend” strategy will involve “blending” high-speed rail service with commuter rail service in existing Bay Area and Southern California rail corridors.

At the northern end of the line, between San Francisco and San Jose, bullet trains would share track with Caltrain commuter trains. Both would benefit from new investments in electrification, signaling systems, bridge replacements, passing tracks and grade crossings elimination. Similar type of improvements would be introduced at the Los Angeles/Orange County/San Diego ends of the line, benefitting LA’s Metrolink and other Southern California commuter rail and transit systems.

Improving the urban “bookends” of the system will make it possible to increase the speed of local commuter trains and thus bring immediate benefits to large segments of California’s urban population. It will be a good investment whether or not the overall $98 billion high-speed rail project ever goes forward, said Will Kempton, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and Chairman of the independent Peer Review Group advising the High Speed Rail Authority.

The investments will be funded with a portion of Proposition 1A funds, supplemented by matching funds from local government agencies. Up to $2.3 billion in bond money and its $950 million “interconnectivity” fund would be committed to these near term improvements according to well-informed sources. This would provide approximately $1.4 billion for Southern California and $900 million for the Bay Area, assuming a 60/40 split. Another $2.7 billion has been already set aside for the 130-mile Central Valley segment, leaving roughly $4 billion of Proposition 1A money for future HSR construction.

The new strategy has evolved from discussions held by the High Speed Rail Authority’s new chairman, Dan Richard with the Governor and his fellow board members. In a conversation we had with Chairman Richard several weeks ago, he was frank to admit that significant changes must be made in the Authority’s way of doing business if the bullet train project is to retain the support of the state legislature, overcome the skepticism of independent critics and turn around public opinion. The Authority must find ways, in the Governor’s words, to do things “better, faster and cheaper.”

While supportive of the Governor’s vision, Richard saw a need to show signs of near-term progress and not have to wait until 2033 to demonstrate the benefits of the investment. The dollars spent on the “bookends” could have “an immediate and dramatic effect,” he told us.

Turning to the Central Valley project, Richard freely admitted the ham-handed way in which the Authority dealt with the affected property owners and local governments. He made plain his resolve to restore trust and rebuild the agency’s credibility with the Valley constituencies. We also were struck by his refreshing willingness to reach out to the program’s critics, in contrast to the Authority’s often arrogant and dismissive posture of the past.

Richard’s new strategy is beginning to bear fruit. Six Southern California planning and transportation agencies, including the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) voted as a group on March 1 to support the development of high-speed rail “while providing funding for local early investment projects in Southern California that will improve rail service immediately.” The Authority hopes to stimulate similar expressions of support in Northern California by working closely with the Bay Area’s Caltrain and the San Francisco County Transportation Agency. The Peer Review Group, which has long supported the “bookends” approach, can be expected to provide an additional boost to Richard’s strategy.

As for the initial Central Valley segment, its construction, initially planned to begin in September, has been pushed back. The slowdown is due to the need to revisit the environmental report whose initial version has run into a storm of objections concerning the proposed route. The revised draft report will be subject to another round of public hearings before the route through the valley is finalized. Assuming the state legislature authorizes the bond funding, construction in the Central Valley is now expected to begin in early 2013, although court challenges may cause further delays. Critics are expected to continue questioning the value of that investment, fueling continued controversy and increasing the project’s vulnerability.

A New Perception

Regardless of what ultimately becomes of the Central Valley project, the new urban “bookends” strategy is bound to profoundly modify the public perception of the bullet train venture. While the Governor and Chairman Richard maintain that the ultimate year 2033 goal of a 2 hour 40 minute train trip from LA to San Francisco has not changed, the practical effect of the new strategy will be to shift the focus from achieving that distant vision to effecting concrete near-term improvements— investments designed to benefit millions of present-day commuters in California’s two largest metropolitan rail corridors.

Given California’s budget deficit, given the uncertainty of further federal support for high-speed rail in general and for California’s HSR project in particular (see below), and given a lack of any evidence of private investor interest, the”bookend” program of investments may indeed end up as the key accomplishment of the Proposition 1A initiative. While bullet train visionaries will regret this shift in the focus, pragmatists will welcome it as a prudent and realistic response to the growing skepticism. From an economist standpoint, the bookend strategy will be viewed as the best use of scarce financial resources. The public will see it as a victory for common sense: a decision that wisely  places greater value on satisfying present-day needs than on the promise of distant-in-time benefits.

Could Washington come to the rescue?

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Administration continues pursuing its fantasy-land rhetoric. “We envision an America in which 80 percent of people have access to high-speed rail,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reiterated in a recent blog. “We’re committed to this program… there’s no going back… we will keep the momentum going” he stated at a February 29 high-speed rail conference sponsored by the U.S. High Speed Rail Association.

Except that this momentum, if there ever was one, has long since vanished. No funds for high-speed rail have been provided two years in a row, including the current (FY 2012) year. Nor are any HSR funds likely to be appropriated  in the next year’s budget. Congressional reaction to the Administration’s $2.5 billion HSR request in its FY 2013 budget submission has ranged from cool to dismissive. The President’s high-speed rail program is “a vision disconnected from reality” members of the Senate Budget Committee told Sec. LaHood at a recent hearing on the Administration’s transportation budget.

Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was even more blunt. “If the president thinks his proposal for high-speed rail is going to fly, he’s pipe-dreaming,” he told participants at the February 29 rail conference. In short, all signs point to continued congressional unwillingness to support a federal high-speed rail program. This sentiment seems to cross party lines: neither the Republican-controlled House nor the Democratic-led Senate have included HSR funds in their reauthorization bills. Rep. Jeff Denham’s (R-CA) bill would specifically prohibit new federal funds from going to California’s bullet train project during the entire life of the bill.

For California, the implications are grave. Without further federal funds, the State of California will be obliged to seek a fresh infusion of public and private funds by 2014 if it is to continue pursuing its $98 billion bullet train vision. Will a new bond initiative or a public-private partnership succeed? Time alone will tell.

C. Kenneth Orski is a public policy consultant and former principal of the Urban Mobility Corporation. He has worked professionally in the field of transportation for over 30 years, in both the public and private sector. He is editor and publisher of Innovation NewsBriefs, now in its 22nd year of publication.

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5 Responses to “California’s Bullet Train — A Fresh Start and a Change in Direction”

  1. Wells says:

    I’ve always preferred Talgo-type HSR trainsets whose top speed of 135-150mph and ability to accommodate freight rail is the more practical and applicable technology. Average speed, not top speed, is the more important measurement. Acela-type trains will average 140mph for the 4-hour trip; Talgo-type trains will average 100mph for a 5-hour trip; not that much longer. Talgo XXI ‘hybrid’ locomotives run diesel/electric through rural areas where emissions have little impact, and run all-electric through urban areas by raising a pantograph to overhead wire.

    Florida HSR proponents similarly overbuilt that proposal. The 80-mile Orlando-to-Tampa segment is a piece of cake using Talgo-type trainsets.

    The LA-to-LV HSR system will use Talgo trainsets. With Talgo XXI hybrid locomotives, the line could extend to Salt Lake City and Denver. Denver had better plan on 10 trains daily instead of the current 2 daily Zephyr.

    Amtrak’s Pioneer that ran the Portland-to-SLC route could be upgraded to a Talgo system. Talgo, the world’s first true HSR is Spanish design and engineered in the USA during the 1940’s-50’s.

  2. Jeff says:

    Yay! A great turn of events that provides some hope of accomplishing *something*.

    A positive benefit of sharing track with existing rail service is that it makes connections between the two much more convenient. Perhaps as convenient as simply walking across the platform.

  3. Scott Rajavuori says:

    We’d love to have some bullet trains up here!

    Scott Rajavuori

  4. Eddie B says:

    What a shame! Our small thinking has reached every citizen of our country, meanwhile just read the news that Public Transit ridership has reached its highest point ever in the country (11bil) and we keep cutting funding for it.
    “Rep. Jeff Denham’s (R-CA) bill would specifically prohibit new federal funds from going to California’s bullet train project during the entire life of the bill.”
    Hope you’re proud of yourself.

  5. GRAHAM KAYE-EDDIE says:

    TIME TO BE EDUCATED ABOUT AN ALTERNATE TO HIGH-SPEED RAIL

    Evacuated Tube Transportation Technologies (ET3) is the movement system to compare against the technology limits found in high-speed rail.

    Let us dispel government’s financial problems, high unemployment, and population growth congesting on roadways, railways, airways and boat ways that pollute the natural environment. Californians mobility for goods and people comes with magnetic levitation as the foundation for prosperity.

    ET3 is literally ‘Space Travel on Earth’ where all transportation friction is virtually eliminated. It is silent, low cost, safe, fast and electrically powered. Two-way tubes are built above, below or on the ground. People and goods are transported in lightweight capsules from a portal airlock entry to accelerated travel on linear electric motors. Automated acceleration of capsules into a network much like freeways, allows for coasting while deceleration power is recovered. With passive switching, two ET3 tubes can exceed the capacity of a 40-lane freeway. The Internet routes email much like the ET3 capsules from point to point.

    The ET3 cost benefit value is that it can be built for 1/10th of the cost of high-speed rail, or 1/4th of a freeway. ET3 can provide 50 times more transportation per KWH than electric cars or trains.

    A California State ET3 network that collapses time and distance with speeds of 350mph will bring California leadership forward in intelligence, skills and manufacturing capabilities to achieve this leap in future transportation.

    KCOG, Kern County and Bakersfield City have all been presented with this technology. It is time to have a debate of ET3 attributes.

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