Rather than counting on outdated approaches to intercity transportation problems, California is building a High Speed Rail system for the 21st Century. Since powerful critics of the system abound and taxpayers are footing most construction cost, travelers and taxpayers should understand why California High Speed Rail is the best alternative for the set of transportation, environmental, safety and urban development problems it addresses. Though some transportation benefits started in 2010, at build-out in the 2030s, California High Speed Rail System, coupled with expanded rapid transit systems, will be transformational to residents and visitors alike.
WHY CALIFORNIA NEEDS AN INTERCITY TRANSPORTATION ALTERNATIVE
In 1980, California highways and major airports were well matched to population. You could average 80 mph over most of 400-miles between downtown LA to San Francisco. At night, you could safely drive 80-90 mph in the 275 miles (mostly desert) between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Despite Urban California growing to 5, 6 and 7 lane per side highways because, people were hoodwinked to believe the additions would to reduce congestion, when it fact they induced more traffic.
The fundamental reason for more highway and airport congestion is that California population has been growing faster than America for decades. Look at these digits gather by Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/206097/resident-population-in-california/:
1980 23.7 million
1990 29.8 million
2000 33.9 million
2010 37.3 million
2017 39.5 million
And its still adding nearly half a million people per year. Population growth is why a No-Build option does not exist.
Flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco are the second busiest in America, transporting over 8 million passengers annually, and the most delayed in the country. One of every four flights are late. Los Angeles-Las Vegas flights are 9th busiest in the nation. LAX, SFO and LAS are respectively, the 2nd, 7th and 8th busiest airports in America. Though California and Nevada continue modernizing airports to handle more passengers per day, they can not prevent weather delay at airports that ripples across the nation.
Los Angeles and San Francisco are 2 of the 5 most roadway-congested cites in the world. Greater LA has grown to 18-million person metropolis in 2018. Populations have bloomed in the San Francisco Bay Area (7.5M), San Diego (3.5M) and Sacramento (2M) metro areas as well. No state has widened as many freeways or added as many HOV lanes as California. Though a good idea until the mid-1990s, wider freeways has induced more single-passenger driving for commutes and intercity travel. In a given weekday, several freeways slow to 20 mph or less during rush hour.
Most visitors to Las Vegas drive or fly from LA, San Francisco Bay and San Diego metro areas. Most air pollution in California metro areas and Las Vegas 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.
Increasing urban population density, combined with suburban sprawl and inadequate intercity, commuter and Metro rail explain why Los Angeles and San Francisco have become poster kids for traffic congestion in America. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay, San Diego, Sacramento and Las Vegas metro areas will surpass 40 million population by 2040. 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 — a population the size of Chicago metro area today. Many Central Valley residents commute to Los Angeles, San Francisco Bay 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 California follows the lead of Europe and Asia building a high speed intercity passenger rail system. In 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 tired trope, “That’s too high. Halt the project, to expand freeways and airports.” That criticism is wrong on many levels and short-sighted.
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 traffic lanes and the last “easy” freeway widenings complete over 2019-24. Communities also reject more double-decked highways, like I-110 Freeway shoved through South Los Angeles or Oakland double-deck freeway that collapsed during 1989 Earthquake. So every additional vehicle from the Central Valley makes traffic congestion worse inside LA, San Francisco Bay, San Diego and Sacramento metro areas. Californians have also learned that freeway widening induces more drivers and traffic congestion returns only 2 years later.
Some think autonomous vehicles are the answer. Not at present. Autonomous Vehicles are a great idea in dedicated roadways in large controlled areas like amusement parks and possibly, military bases. But there’s no polling that a majority of people want to pay more taxes for dedicated Autonomous Vehicle highway. That means Autonomous Vehicles will have to mix with human-driven vehicles on highway for distances common to San Francisco Bay Area and LA drivers. Mixing Autonomous Vehicles with the random activity of human-driven vehicles does not solve traffic congestion. Given Americans deep personal relationships with cars and small trucks, the day when they give up driving is unlikely for two generations (2060), if then. The bigger unknown is, will Autonomous Vehicles increase that random activity of human-driven vehicles, causing worse congestion.
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 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 regional 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, freeway, 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.
HSR DOOR-TO-DOOR TRAVEL TIME ADVANTAGE
Since electric High Speed Trains (HST) are space-efficient and do not emit smog or greenhouse gases (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 whenever they please. By going from city center to city center, usually 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, CHSR 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 (Dutzik and Baxandall, 2013). Technology allows Millennials to use the time they spend waiting for or traveling on planes or trains more productively.
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.
This HSR mega-project needs the federal government to fund 40-50% of Phase 1. Though President Obama continued backing California HSR, Congress has not directly funded it since 2011. The last $450 million received in 2017, was for Caltrain commuter rail in the San Francisco Bay Area, whose tracks, signaling and electric power 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 concrete viaduct by November 2018. Equally important, LA and San Francisco Bay rapid transit networks are expanding, building more railway grade grade separations and attracting higher ridership.
California HSR mega-project is so big that it needs about 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.
Due to the huge tunneling costs, California HSR Phase 1 is not slated to fully open 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 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.
Most recently, 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 commuter trains 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 200 mph and above. The French, Japanese and Spaniards commercially operate HST up to 199 mph (320 kph) on several lines. South Korea commercially operates HST up to 205 mph (330 kph). In 2017, China introduced an HST between Beijing and Shanghai that is certified operate up to 248 mph (400 kph), but limits commercial 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 higher speeds, overhead electric wire (catenary) that transmits power to HST wears out faster. So materials scientists are working on more durable catenary. Japanese, Chinese and Korean HST builders have similar R&D underway.
Exploiting those developments over 2020-2026, France, Japan, China, Spain, South Korea, Italy and United Kingdom plan to introduce nextgen HST that will run up to 217 mph in mostly straight HSR segments, 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 on level viaduct 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.