California High Speed Rail is the best alternative for the set of transportation, environmental, safety and urban development problems it addresses for the 21st century. Coupled with enhanced rapid transit systems and enhanced Amtrak California services, it will be a transformational mobility option that silences critics similar to the way Interstate Highways silenced their early critics.
WHY CALIFORNIA NEEDS ANOTHER MOBILITY OPTION
In 1980, California highways and airports matched population well. You could average 80 mph driving non-stop over most of the 400 miles between Downtown LA and San Francisco. You could average 85 mph over most of the 275 miles between Las Vegas and Downtown LA. That dynamic changed when population continued its fast growth rate as measured by Statista and forecast by Public Policy Institute of California:
1980 23.7 million
1990 29.8 million
2000 33.9 million
2010 37.3 million
2017 39.5 million
2020 40.7 million forecast
2030 44.1 million forecast
2040 47.6 million forecast
In 2018, metro area populations sprouted in LA (18M) San Francisco Bay (7.5M), San Diego (3.5M) and Sacramento (2M). The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, San Diego, Sacramento and Las Vegas metro area populations will surpass 40 million by 2040. Population growth is why California and Las Vegas do not have a No-Build Transportation Option. They must add transportation capacity between them or highway and airport congestion will get worse.
Flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco are the second busiest in America, transporting over 8 million passengers annually. They are also the most delayed in the country — one of every four flights are late. LAX, SFO and LAS are respectively, the 2nd, 7th and 8th busiest airports in America.
Los Angeles and San Francisco are 2 of the 5 most roadway-congested cites in the world. The vast majority of visitors to Las Vegas drive or fly from LA, San Francisco Bay and San Diego metro areas. Los Angeles-Las Vegas flights are 9th busiest in the nation. No state has widened as many freeways or added as many HOV lanes as California. Yet most LA, San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego freeway widenings reached their maximum efficiency at 8 lanes around 1990. Since then, freeway widenings to 10, 12 & 14 lanes have induced more solo-driving. As a result, average freeway speeds during rush hour have lowered to 17-22 mph. The advanced mathematics of Queuing Theory explains that for each added lane, drivers must spend more time changing lanes than forward motion. Combined with increasing traffic volume from population growth, they produce more accidents per year as well.
Most California metro area and Las Vegas air pollution is transportation-related. That is why public and private measures are being taken to reduce smog and greenhouse gas emissions from freight trucking, freight rail, airports and seaports. Californians are also adopting electric cars at a relatively faster pace than most states. Despite progress on those fronts, California cities and Las Vegas still dominate the America Lung Association list of metro areas suffering the nation’s worst ozone pollution.
According to California High Speed Rail Authority, Californians took 361 million annual interregional trips via all modes of travel in 2010. California interregional travel is forecasted to increase to 545 million trips annually by 2040.
The U.S. Census Bureau also forecasts California’s Central Valley (Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, Hanford-Visalia-Porterville, Bakersfield & Palmdale) to add 10 million people between 2010-2040. Most Central Valley residents drive or ride by car to LA, San Francisco Bay, San Diego and Sacramento metro areas.
Yet major airlines are cutting flights to Central Valley cities because they make more money on longer flights. Remaining flights from LAX and SFO to Central Valley cities typically have airfares double that of LAX-SFO flights. Since Central Valley flights are a declining option, highway travel between the Central Valley, LA and San Francisco Bay Area is increasing congestion on I-5 and SR-99, California’s two busiest north-south freeways.
That scale of population increase, traffic congestion, productivity loss, smog and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are principal reasons why, November 2008, voters authorized a $9.95 billion bond to kickstart a 800-mile rail system construction-managed by California High Speed Rail Authority. After lengthy public outreach, route alternative studies, environmental review, engineering design, legal process and land acquisitions, California HSR broke ground in January 2015.
TRUE COST OF NOT BUILDING HIGH SPEED RAIL
The latest estimate from California HSR Authority is that 520-mile Phase 1 will cost $77 billion. As this is mega-project with many tunneling unknowns, that number could rise. Every time they hear about California HSR cost, critics repeat the same trope, “That’s too high. Halt the project, to expand freeways and airports.” That trope is utterly wrong on many levels.
Eight of the nine largest California airports and Las Vegas airport have no adjacent open land for runway expansion. Due to their existing burden of air and noise pollution, airport-adjacent communities in San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Los Angeles, Burbank, Irvine, Ontario, San Diego and Las Vegas reject more land-taking for airport runways. Some have even blocked adding terminal gates. Only Sacramento International Airport has open land to add runway and terminal gates.
Highway medians through Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay and San Diego metro areas have already converted to highway lanes and the last easy freeway widenings complete over 2019-24. Beyond those dates, freeway widenings will encounter stiff public resistance like that which has cancelled completion of I-710 Freeway in LA. Communities also reject more double-decked highways, like I-110 Freeway shoved through South Los Angeles or the Oakland double-deck freeway that collapsed during 1989 Earthquake. Every additional vehicle from Central Valley cities makes highway and boulevard congestion worse inside LA, San Francisco Bay, San Diego, and Sacramento metro areas. Californians have also learned that freeway widening induces more solo-drivers causing traffic congestion to return within 2 years later.
Some think autonomous vehicles are the answer. Given Californians deep relationships with cars and small trucks, the day when they give up driving is unlikely for two generations (2060), if then. That means Autonomous Vehicles will have to mix with human-driven vehicles on highway for distances common to LA, San Francisco Bay Area, and San Diego drivers. Mixing Autonomous Vehicles with the random activity of human-driven vehicles does not solve traffic congestion. The bigger unknown is, will Autonomous Vehicles increase the random paths of human-driven vehicles, causing worse congestion and more accidents.
Autonomous Vehicles are however, a great idea in dedicated roadways in large controlled areas like amusement parks and possibly, military bases. But no polling indicates that a majority of people want to pay more taxes for dedicated Autonomous Vehicle highway.
Aside from congestion relief, here’s a compelling economic reason for funding California HSR, rather than freeway and airport expansion. In a report commissioned by the California HSR Authority, the cost of building equivalent transportation capacity in airports and freeways is estimated to be:
$170 billion for 2300 new freeway-lane miles, 115 airport gates & 4 runways
$ 77 billion for California HSR Phase 1
California HSR gains that cost advantage by using existing train station, commuter rail and freight rail rights-of-way that avoid or greatly reduce land-takings. Even when new rights-of-way are required, California HSR only needs 2 lanes over most miles, plus 2 passing tracks in a handful of stations to safely blend track use with commuter and Amtrak trains. When sharing a freight rail corridor, freight trains will run on different track than California HSR. Occasional freight trains from San Francisco to San Jose will only run late night, when passenger trains do not.
In a democratic country, every railway, highway, rapid transit or airport project attracts lawsuits that delay schedules and inflate costs. But four or five times more land-takings for a new freeway and residential land-takings for airport expansion would generate far more lawsuits than California HSR. High litigation equals project delay that explodes construction costs.
Critics of California HSR don’t want to admit that the state has reached freeway endgame. Every highway lane expansion costs more, transports fewer people per mile, yet increases congestion, smog and green house gases (GHG).
HSR DOOR-TO-DOOR TRAVEL TIME ADVANTAGE
Since electric High Speed Trains (HST) are space-efficient and do not emit smog or GHG, they can go from one city center transportation hub to another and allow those hubs to fill with plazas, shops, lounges, cafes, artwork and business services. Business patrons enjoy hours of productive travel time on their laptops and smart phones. Everyone enjoys being able to walk around the train to restrooms or dining car when they please. Going from city center to city center in less than 3 hours, leisure travelers enjoy more weekend getaway hours too.
HSR-RELATED OPENINGS, MORE CONSTRUCTION UNDERWAY
Examining state highway and air quality data, California HSR Authority study determined that a single railroad crossing can cause up to 45 days of stopped roadway traffic per year, resulting in 1,800 tons of GHG emissions annually and frustrated drivers. Millennials are the first generation to have grown up with smart phones and mobile devices that make it easier to plan trips, obtain real-time travel information, and even pay fares. Technology allows people to use their Travel Time more productively, provided they are not driving.
As a result, LA, San Francisco Bay and San Diego metro areas are adding railroad grade separations, electric trains, low-emission trains, sound walls, fencing and high-speed signaling for commuter rail to share track with California HSR.
San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles rapid transit agencies are increasing service to intermodal transportation centers in San Francisco, Millbrae/SFO Airport, San Jose, Burbank Airport, LA Union Station, Norwalk-Santa Fe Springs, Anaheim and possibly Fullerton. Those transportation centers will later host California HSR.
In 2010, the Obama administration awarded $3.6 billion to combine with $9.95 billion California HSR bond money, state transportation, state cap & trade, regional, county and private funds, plus transit agency and freight railroad rights of way for the mega-project. Anticipation of significantly more federal funding was a key assumption built into the project schedule and cost estimates of the 2012 California HSR Authority Business Plan.
Though President Obama continued backing California HSR, Congress has not directly funded it since 2011. Unfortunately, the state has received less than $1 billion in commuter rail upgrades in the San Francisco Bay Area and LA, whose tracks and electrical system will be shared with California HSR.
The dearth of federal funding has forced California HSR, state, regional and local partners to pay-as-you-go. They’ve built two iconic intermodal transportation centers, an impressive number of railway grade separations and 119 miles of HSR superstructure by February 2019. Equally important, LA and San Francisco Bay Area rapid transit networks are expanding. They will feed more passengers to California HSR Stations.
California HSR mega-project is so big that it needs 50% of funding from the federal government and 15-20% from the private sector. Absent 50% of $64 billion (~$2 billion/year from 2012-29) from the feds, California HSR construction schedule has lengthened by 4 years and cost increased to $77 billion. And despite the 2019 funding spat between the California Governor and the President, HSR construction milestones continue. The 2020 election will most likely end the spat.
Due to the huge tunneling costs, California HSR Phase 1 is not slated to complete until 2033. But the mega-project has already yielded other transportation and transit-oriented development benefits. Since 2010, more railway grade separations in San Francisco-San Jose corridor and Burbank-Los Angeles-Anaheim corridor are being built to improve commuter rail, Amtrak and freight rail movements and safety. Anaheim Regional Intermodal Transportation Center (ARTIC) opened, providing Orange County’s premier location to transfer between Metrolink commuter rail, Amtrak, regional buses, Disneyland & Convention Center shuttles and in the future, California HSR. Giant residential and retail developments have opened near ARTIC.
In 2018, Salesforce Transportation Center opened in Downtown San Francisco for Greyhound, Megabus, Amtrak coaches, regional buses, local buses, shared rides, taxis and bikeshare. Its lower level will serve Caltrain commuters and California HSR trains when the tunnel extension to Salesforce Transportation Center opens. Salesforce Transit Center has been the catalyst to a redevelopment boom in that part of San Francisco because so many employers and workers want walkability to the transit center.
More transportation and transit-oriented development benefits are coming:
2019-21 Google is building a 20,000-person village surrounding San Jose Diridon Transportation Center in large part, to ease transport to & from all parts of Northern California.
2021: California HSR funding helps LA Metro Light Rail complete an underground connector for 3 lines that feed LA Union Station and Downtown LA.
2022: California HSR funding helps Caltrain commuter rail complete electrification between San Francisco-San Jose for faster, more frequent, greener and quieter trains.
2024: California HSR funding helps complete railroad grade separations in LA Union Station-Anaheim corridor for faster, quieter and safer Metrolink commuter rail and Amtrak services.
2025: California HSR funding helps complete San Jose Diridon Transportation Center upgrade for more frequent Caltrain, BART (Metro Rail), VTA Light Rail, BRT, shared rides, taxis, local buses and bikeshare.
2026 California HSR helps LA Union Station upgrade & expand to handle ridership increases due to LA Metro Rail extensions to LA Museum District, Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, Pomona and Paramount.
2027: California HSR helps complete tunnels and railroad grade separations to Salesforce Transit Center, enabling start of CHSR and electric Caltrain service in San Francisco-Gilroy segment. CHSR service starts in Merced-Bakersfield segment too.
2028: Most grade separations & track upgrades complete in Burbank Airport-LA Union Station-Anaheim corridor and Chatsworth-Burbank Airport-LA Union Station corridor. More Light Rail extensions & upgrades complete to LA Union Station, Burbank Airport Station and the Coliseum for the 2028 Summer Olympics. Tunneling completes in the Northern California from Gilroy to Merced and Madera.
2029: California HSR San Francisco-Bakersfield service and California HSR San Francisco-Merced service start.
CALIFORNIA HSR BENEFITS FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF HSR LEADERS
California HSR Authority benefits from the collective environmental, design, construction, operating and safety experience of HSR in Japan, France, Germany, United Kingdom and Switzerland.
Transporting over 6 billion passengers through earthquake country since 1964, Japan’s Shinkansen HSR system has never experienced a deadly accident due to technology or operator error. In 1992, a Japanese earthquake warning system was introduced that enables automatic braking of Shinkansen trains in case of large earthquake. In 2011, the 9.0 Earthquake shifted the ground 8 feet sideways in parts of Japan. The resultant tsunami killed hundreds of people, washed away Sendai Airport, roadways and triggered a nuclear power plant meltdown. Japanese railway engineers however, designed a resilient HSR system that prevented a single High Speed Train (HST) in operation from derailing. After safety checks of HSR track unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami, Shinkansen HST returned to service hours later. Incredibly, Shinkansen service to tsunami-ravaged Sendai resumed only 6 weeks later.
Transporting over 1.5 billion passengers since 1981, France’s HSR system has never experienced a deadly accident due to technology or operator error. French railway engineers have also demonstrated how to upgrade old rail from 93 mph to 136 mph and build new high speed supporting 186-199 mph (300-320 kph). When the French announce TGV readiness to operate at 217 mph (350 kph), they’ve done their homework. German and British railway engineers have mastered the human factors & engineering of timed transfers between HSR, Commuter Rail, Metro Heavy Rail & Light Rail to maximize ridership and passenger convenience. The Swiss have built the world’s longest high-speed railway tunnels under the Alps.
California HSR Authority is hiring some of the best Japanese, French, German, British and Swiss railway consultants to help design speed, earthquake resilience and operational efficiency into California HSR. The state of California has really smart geologists, civil, electrical & mechanical engineers and tunneling experts too.
OTHER BENEFITS FROM WORLDWIDE HSR EXPERIENCE
High Speed Trains (HST) are safe to operate at racing car speeds. The French, Japanese and Spaniards operate HST up to 199 mph (320 kph). South Korea operates HST up to 205 mph (330 kph). In 2017, China introduced an HST certified operate up to 248 mph (400 kph), but limits operation to 217 mph (350 kph).
Zefiro, Velaro and AGV trains are being certified to operate up to 248 mph with less aerodynamic drag, lower maintenance wheels, lower cabin noise and lower exterior noise. At those very high speeds, overhead electric wire that transmits power to HST wears out faster. So engineers are developing more durable electric wire. Japanese, Chinese and Korean HST builders have similar R&D underway.
Over 2020-26, France, Japan, China, Spain, South Korea, Italy and United Kingdom plan to introduce HST that will operate up to 217-224 mph with maintenance costs, noise and vibration levels similar to current HST at 199 mph. Based on the experience of those HSR leaders and inevitable technology advancement, we can be confident that California HSR will operate up to 220 mph in the mostly straight Merced-Palmdale segment.
ONCE FEDERAL FUNDING STEPS UP, BIG PRIVATE FUNDING FOLLOWS
Since 2011, California HSR bond money, state transportation, state cap & trade, regional taxes, county taxes, city & freight rail Rights-of-Way and naming rights fees are paying for most HSR transportation center, viaduct and railway grade separations. Soon, California HSR Authority and its partners will have to start lengthy tunneling through the first of three mountain ranges.
Around the world, HSR builders (mostly public) and HST operators (mostly private) are upgrading intercity passenger rail and trains for 136-162 mph operation or building new HSR routes and super-trains for 174-217 mph operation. HST Operators do so because higher speeds translate to more business patrons paying premiums to reach more City Pairs in under 3 hours. This Public-Private-Partnership is similar to privately-owned airlines paying to upgrade their terminal inside a publicly-owned international airport.
Google is buying property between San Jose Diridon Transportation Center and San Jose International Airport to gain a labor market advantage with more employees who take rapid transit or HSR to work and those who need to fly often. More private companies lease, business center, dining & retail space in HSR stations. In San Francisco, Salesforce.com is paying $110 million for 25-year naming rights to what was formerly called Transbay Transit Center. If they waited until 2027, when the first HST enter Salesforce Transit Center, naming rights would likely triple. With those private funding opportunities surfacing, Anaheim, San Jose, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Fresno, Burbank and Anaheim will entertain Transit Oriented Development and naming rights opportunities in the future.
Though details have yet to emerge, California HSR Authority believes it has identified mostly state & regional funding to complete a major tunnel that connects HSR San Francisco-Gilroy segment to Bakersfield-Merced segment by 2029. Once California HSR San Fracisco-Bakersfield service reveals early demand, big private and institutional investors will show more interest because popular HSR routes in the Northeast, Europe and Asia generate operating profit in only 5-7 years — mostly from business patrons.
Some private companies have upgraded portions of train routes and built stations as part of mixed-use real estate development ventures. In September 2018, privately-owned Brightline bought XpressWest, a Las Vegas-Victorville HSR project slated for 2022 opening. Brightline HSR plans a mixed-use real estate development on 38 acres adjacent to Las Vegas HSR Station to be located next to The Strip. Initially, their target market is the eastern side of LA metro area that can quickly drive to Victorville, then hop the train to Las Vegas.
XpressWest backers previously committed $1.5 billion, far less than the $7 billion Las Vegas-Victorville HSR Phase 1 project cost. Since Brightline is now majority owner, it suggests additional monies to increase capital on hand. Brightline also dropped one interim station and plans other cost reductions to reduce the size of federal loan request. Given it currently operates intercity passenger rail, there is higher probability that Brightline will raise federal loans & grants to complete Las Vegas-Victorville HSR Phase 1.
The possibility of Brightline opening 188-mile Las Vegas-Victorville segment by 2022 is attracting curiosity from CHSR Authority and CalTrans. LA County may also allocate rights of way and seed funds to attract federal funds and private funds that join with Brightline to build an all-surface, 54-mile Victorville-Palmdale HSR & State Highway segment to interconnect with Metrolink/California HSR Palmdale Station.
Like many other mega-projects that deliver huge public benefits, California needs the federal government to provide about half the funding of California HSR Phase 1. Until federal funding enlarges the pot of capital, how intercity and commuter trains will interface are subjects of program manager conversations, not engineering proposals. Nevertheless, California HSR, Amtrak California, Metrolink and Metro have open communication lines. They are talking about the possibilities of where, when and how to share tracks and station platforms for efficient passenger transfers between trains. Brightline recently bought a ticket to those conversations.
By the 2028 Summer Olympics, Burbank Airport-LA Union Station-Anaheim segment will complete most railway grade separations. Metrolink double commuter rail service. Brightline and CalTrans may attract federal funds to open Palmdale-Victorville HSR & Highway segment by Summer 2028 as well. Big private investors also want to see federal & state money constructing long tunnels in Palmdale-Bakersfield and Palmdale-Burbank Airport segments to believe California HSR Phase 1 will open by 2033 before they jump in.
In the last 40 years, California taxpayers have given far more than they receive from the federal government.
California deserves more love from the federal government. California has been the biggest tax donor to the federal treasury for decades. It gives far more in taxes than it receives in federal funding. On that basis alone, the state deserves $25 billion more California HSR funding over the next 11-12 years. Its a matter of when future Congress & President combinations agree to move forward, rather than politicize passenger rail infrastructure. If the feds jump in sooner, it will likely attract $12-15 billion from private investment towards California HSR Phase 1 completion by 2033.
Then, California HSR will operate up to 220 mph in the rural areas and lower to 110 mph in urban areas. Travelers from San Francisco’s Salesforce Transit Center will enjoy a 2 hour 40 minute travel time to Los Angeles Union Station and a 2 hour 57 minute travel time to Anaheim. Initially, California HSR trains will arrive and depart every 15 minutes.
California HSR Coach tickets are planned to be slightly lower than LA-SF Coach airfare. The profitable Amtrak Acela HSR line routinely sells out Business Class tickets at premium prices. Similarly, there will be plenty of California HSR Business tickets at premium fares. Profitability will attract a lot more private investment in California HSR for Phase 2.