By building California High Speed Rail along with enhancements to complimentary Regional Rail and Rapid Transit, the most innovative state will join the Northeast Corridor leading America’s epic war against traffic congestion, smog and greenhouse gas emissions. Big Infrastructure milestones are coming in 2024, 2028, 2029, 2030 and beyond. — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
California High Speed Rail
To understand why California High Speed Rail is needed despite its high cost and lengthy construction time, a thoughtful combination of text, videos, and charts simplify a lot of “Train Nerd Stuff” in this explainer. Hyperlinks to supporting resources are boldened and aplenty to keep it layperson-friendly as well.
In the 20th century, cities in California attracted above average Car Ownership Per Household. So leaders in the state channeled over $100 billion into the world’s most comprehensive freeway system. California is one of the most visited regions on Earth. So leaders in the state funded what the Federal Aviation Administration describes as 3 Large Hub and 5 Medium Hub Airports.
The state ranks 1st in Industrial and Agricultural products. California also has the 1st, 2nd, and 10th busiest commercial seaports and the 2nd busiest military seaport. So private companies built America’s second-largest freight rail network between agricultural areas, manufacturing & distribution centers, military bases, and seaports.
If the Golden State was a sovereign country, it would have the world’s 5th largest economy. It is the most populous state and has the highest Average Household Income of any big state in America. In Fiscal Year 2021-22, the California’s State Transportation budget of $31 billion and California Air Resources Board had a multi-billion dollar budget too.
When large U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) grants join equally large state agency budgets for big infrastructure, know that America and California can afford it. I’ll explain below why America and the state must change their Transportation budget priorities to feature California High Speed Rail, Regional Rail, and more Rapid Transit. By the way, commuter rail is considered Rapid Transit.
California Freeway Widening Has Become Fool’s Gold
You would think that California’s impressive transportation infrastructure would deftly handle all traffic. Yet in 2018, a US News article proclaimed that Los Angeles and San Francisco as 2 of the 5 most highway-congested cities in the world. San Diego wasn’t far behind. At first take, that’s odd because Los Angeles Metro Area, San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego Metro Area have several of the biggest freeway systems in the world.
When Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area freeways widened to 2 HOV + 6 Standard lanes, they reached the most practical balance of “Capacity-Efficiency-Per-Lane” in 1990. Ditto for San Diego Metro Area by 2000. Beyond that number of HOV & Standard lanes, each widening reduces Capacity-Efficiency-Per-Lane more than it helps traffic flow.
The mathematics of Queuing Theory helps explain why. For each freeway lane beyond 2 HOV + 6 Standard lanes, drivers spend increasingly more time adjusting speeds and lane-changing lateral motion that slows Average Speed during Rush Hour.
Other factors denigrate traffic flow too. When new lanes open, they also induce demand from drivers who otherwise take local streets. The population of California’s metro areas is increasing despite rural populations decreasing. The state’s percentage of car ownership increased. More people are driving from deeper suburbs to work, school and play in the city. The urban planner at City Beautiful has YouTube videos illustrating these congestion factors.
Considering all those factors, the freeways re-congest 2 or 3 years after each widening.
Since most people were unaware of those congestion factors, politicians convinced Los Angeles Metro Area (19M pop.), San Franciso Bay Area (8M pop.), and San Diego Metro Area (3.4M pop.) voters to fund freeway expansion to 2 HOV + 8 Standard lanes under the hype of “Congestion Relief.” If they stopped at 2 HOV + 8 Standard lane freeways to fund better Amtrak Regional Rail, more Metro Rail, more Bus Rapid Transit, and more Dedicated Bikeways, highway and boulevard congestion would not be as rampant.
When congestion returned 2 or 3 years later, politicians retread the same Congestion Relief hype widening freeways to 2 HOV + 10 Standard lanes. Some freeways widened to 12 and 14 Standard lanes. Yet congestion is continuing to slow Rush Hour Average Speeds. Even the breathtaking 21-lane freeway junction in San Diego congests because its exorbitant number of lanes are NOT capacity-efficient.
Further freeway widening is like loosening your belt to treat obesity.
Intra-state driving is another component of traffic congestion that costs California residents $28 billion/year in wasted time and fuel. Residents and visitors love driving from metro areas to the beaches, national & state parks, and to Las Vegas just beyond it border. Hence, California intra-state travel is forecast to increase from 361 million annual trips in 2010 to 545 million annual trips by 2040.
Remember the “545 million intra-state trips 2040 forecast” for the end of this explainer.
California Hub Airports Swamped, Airlines Skipping Over Central Valley
Sunny days, fertile soil and canal water make California’s San Joaquin Valley, hereafter called “Central Valley”, one of the world’s great agricultural regions. Economic bounty from freight trains and freight trucks transporting agriculture & oil, military bases, plus five major universities helped Central Valley cities sprout small to midsize metro areas.
Today, the Central Valley’s Stockton-Lodi, Modesto, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Hanford-Corcoran, Visalia-Porterville, and Bakersfield metro areas range from 150,000 to 1,000,000 population. Yet major airlines are skipping over small and midsize metro areas like those in the Central Valley because those short flights don’t break even. Since flights are a vanishing option to/from the Central Valley, more drivers in mostly single-occupant vehicles contribute to highway congestion, Smog & Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.
The major airlines only tolerate 45- to 90-minute flights like LA-San Francisco, LA-Oakland, LA-San Jose, LA-Las Vegas, San Diego-San Francisco, and Los Angeles-Phoenix because their flights currently have high passenger load factors. When the passenger load factors reduce, those flights will reduce too.
A 21st-century mega-trend is that airlines are shifting to more Medium-Haul flights (2-5 hours), Long-Haul flights (6-12 hours) and Ultra-Long-Haul flights (over 12 hours) to meet rising demand for them and for higher profits.
California Striving to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation
California acquired the Golden State nickname due to sunny days tanning brush on majestic hills and mountains. Since 2000, California has seen rising temperatures produce more frequent drought conditions that dry an abundance of brush fueling wildfires.
The increasing number and severity of droughts and wildfires are two of many reasons why California leads America’s initiative in the Paris Climate Agreement. The members’ primary goal is to limit Global Warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050 to prevent apocalyptic stuff from happening. To accomplish that goal, every advanced and emerging nation must slash GHG emissions in all economic sectors.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that America is the world’s second-highest GHG emitter and Transportation Sector is America’s largest GHG emitter. In descending order, the largest Transportation Sector GHG emitters are:
1. Oil-powered Cars & Small Trucks
2. Freight Trucks
3. Regional Flights
4. Cargo Ships
5. Freight Trains
First, the good news. Californians are purchasing 7 times more Electric Cars than the next 10 states combined. Charging stations will be pervasive along California highways by decade-end. By 2035, Amazon and Walmart electric freight trucks will be commonplace for Short-Haul and Medium-Haul loads.
Elon Musk expects that Battery Electric freight trucks will reach the 500-mile range for Long Haul loads in few years. By decade end, charging stations will provide 500 miles of range in 30 minutes as well. When you consider that freight trucks are fully depreciated for tax purposes in 10-12 years, Battery Electric freight trucks should be commonplace by 2035.
Cargo ships, cruise ships, and ferries are implementing Sustainable Maritime Fuels and new technologies to cut GHG and Smog emissions. California implemented regulations that will dramatically cut GHG and Smog emissions in seaports by 2031.
There’s also work-in-progress news. Unlike freight rail in Europe, America’s freight rail industry has not committed to a Battery Electric locomotives. Instead, the industry is moving towards a variety of biofuels that only lower GHG & Smog emissions by 20-30%. The industry has yet to settle on a single widely available Sustainable Freight Train Fuel.
Airplanes are getting more fuel-efficient and switching to greener Sustainable Aviation Fuels. LAX and SFO Airports have committed to the large-scale use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) and other airports are following. By 2030, airline use of SAF should be commonplace in America.
Now, the bad news. Aviation GHG emissions will only stabilize due to excessive Short-Haul (41% of U.S. flights are regional) and more Medium-Haul and Long-Haul flights coming in greater numbers.
Though electric cars, small trucks & freight trucks will comprise a large percentage of highway vehicles by 2035, the percentage of oil-powered cars, small trucks & freight trucks will remain large, and total highway vehicles are growing. Since highways are becoming less Capacity-Efficient-Per-Lane, increasing highway congestion will continue producing significant GHG & Smog emissions.
Transportation Smog Lowered, But Not Enough
Diesel-powered freight trucks, cargo ships and freight trains also emit Smog particulates that contain elemental black carbon — the main cause of Asthma.
South Coast Air Quality Management District confirms that most Smog emissions in Los Angeles Metro Area is transportation-related. In 2014, 5.2 million people or nearly 14% of Californians, had asthma. That will remain a health issue of magnitude for the state.
Catalytic converters and California regulation for cleaner gasoline paid off. Excluding wildfire days, the air in Los Angeles Metro Area is no longer brown. But don’t pop the champagne yet. California cities still dominate the American Lung Association list of metro areas suffering the nation’s worst Smog, with LA Metro Area topping the list.
The American Lung Association also reports that high Smog levels within 1 mile of highways, airports, and seaports trigger higher levels of lung diseases. Smog also reduces the quality of sleep. Black and brown communities live disproportionately closer to highways, airports, and seaports.
California’s Central Valley has more conditions tormenting air quality. Its diesel-powered agricultural equipment and high concentrations of diesel-powered freight trucks & trains moving agriculture elevate Smog emissions. When clouds from the Pacific Ocean climb over the western mountain range they are trapped in the Central Valley by the eastern mountain range. Those clouds combine with warmer temperatures to trap Smog inversions.
As Global Warming increases average heat level, Smog inversions last longer and more Central Valley residents develop breathing problems. Since Central Valley workers produce one quarter of America’s food, this is a health problem of national significance.
To keep the economy humming along while addressing the 21st-century challenges of traffic congestion, smog & GHG emissions, the state needs California High Speed Rail System, upgraded Amtrak Regional Rail lines, more extensive Rapid Transit networks and better stations connecting them all.
California HSR Authority Vision Undercut by Naive Journalists
A high-speed, high-capacity, high-frequency, zero-emission, interconnected passenger rail network is the best way to lower GHG and Smog emissions from cars, small trucks, and regional flights. California High Speed Rail System is the spine to that network. That state-of-the-art rail system will open in multiple segments within two phases:
Phase 1: 494-miles San Francisco-Anaheim (includes Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs & Fullerton between LA & Anaheim)
Phase 2: 300-miles Merced-Sacramento and Los Angeles-Riverside-San Diego
In November 2008, California voters passed a $9.95 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) bond measure in the same election President Obama promised economic stimulus grants to states with Preliminary Plans and Environmental Clearances for HSR-Amtrak projects. In the bond measure, California HSR was authorized $9 billion, while $760 million would go to local projects in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metro Area that would connect to HSR stations.
To keep the cost for Phase 1 below $88 billion (latest quote by California HSR Authority), the state must continuously build multiple segments. From 2022 to 2034, I estimate that the California HSR project needs $3 billion/year in federal, state & local funds to build an impressive Phase 1 Initial Operating Segment in these stages:
Preliminary Plans >> Environmental Clearance >> Property Acquisition & Engineering >> Construction >> Testing >> Open
The average voter in Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area wanted a straight alignment between them. Naive journalists and lazy bloggers repeated that sentiment to an eager public. Against that media and public pressure, California HSR Authority had the vision and political courage to select the curvier Central Valley alignment from Burbank-Palmdale-Bakersfield-Kings/Tulare-Fresno-Gilroy.
Naive journalists and lazy bloggers pushed for a somewhat straight Burbank-Bakersfield alignment. That alignment was quickly discarded for being more expensive than Burbank-Palmdale-Bakersfield due to 60 miles of tunneling required under the mountainous Angeles National Forest from Sylmar to Wheeler Ridge in the Central Valley. That
Nor did naive journalists and lazy bloggers remind the public that $760 million of HSR Bond money helps fund Caltrain commuter rail electrification between San Francisco and San Jose, the massive Los Angeles Union Station upgrade, a new Metro Light Rail tunnel towards Los Angeles Union Station, and Rosecrans-Marquardt overpass that improves two Amtrak lines, two LA Metrolink commuter rail lines, one freight rail line, while reducing gate-waits for automobiles by 21 hours per week before it serves California HSR.
Another baseless criticism was that trains could not operate at 220 mph to meet a trip time requirement in the HSR bond measure. If naive journalists had checked Youtube in 2007, they would have seen video of a modified French TGV setting a 357 mph speed record. And in January 2008, the French train maker Alstom was taking orders for a new TGV certified for operation up to 224 mph (360 kph).
That baseless criticism didn’t stop until 2017 when China elevated commercial operation of high-speed trains to 217 mph (350 kph).
Federal Funding Failure for California HSR
In general, America likes to lead in successful technology and infrastructure that are good for America’s international influence. Consequently, there is a federal precedent of lead-funding technology and infrastructure projects that have national significance. America’s first 220 mph HSR system certainly checked both boxes. And for decades, California had been a “Donor State” sending billions more in taxes to the federal budget than it received back in benefits.
The nationally significant project should have easily qualified for $24 billion/12 years of federal grants.
Large federal grants always increase state and local political willpower. If USDOT stipulated that state & local governments cover 40% of the project cost, like many highway projects today, California politicians would have grown kahunas. That $24 billion/12 years combined with the $9 billion HSR bond, would have attracted $7 billion more over 12 years from California State Transportation Agency, California Air Resources Board, and local transportation agencies. That sum of $40 billion would have erased doubts about Phase 1.
With $40 billion committed, Three times more Environmental Clearances, Property Acquisitions, and Engineering Designs could have been completed by 2015. California HSR Authority could have secured lower-cost contracts for a 250-mile Initial Operating Segment (IOS) from Gilroy to Palmdale. More Environmental Clearances and early Property Acquisitions would have started in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metro Area too.
At Gilroy, the IOS could connect to Caltrain commuter rail running to San Francisco. At Palmdale, the IOS could connect to Metrolink commuter rail running to Los Angeles. More travelers with early access to 220 mph trains would jack-up public confidence in the project and HSR in general.
The Obama Administration envisioned that opportunity. In 2009, President Obama authorized a $3.5 billion federal grant to California HSR from economic stimulus funds. Using savings from a reduced Defense budget, President Obama planned to fund more Transportation infrastructure projects without raising federal taxes. Obama proposed to invest $53 billion/6 years in HSR-Amtrak projects beginning in 2011.
Two of America’s bipartisan political achievements were great Highway and Aviation infrastructure. Unfortunately, a political change in Congress was hell-bent against President Obama’s entire agenda. The 2011 House of Representatives majority kneecapped that and all subsequent HSR proposals. The absence of more federal grants devastated the California HSR project. Beyond the initial $3.5 billion federal grant, the state alone had to fund the IOS. The smaller budget reduced Central Valley IOS from 250 miles to 119 miles.
By default, the shorter IOS did not reach the outskirts of the Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area, giving rise to a “Train to Nowhere” narrative. Haters, naive journalists and lazy bloggers pounced on that narrative even though the Central Valley already had a larger population than 30 states.
In the 2016 election campaign, both presidential candidates backed major federal HSR investments. A compelling majority of Democrat, Republican, and Independent voters wanted it. Chambers of Commerce, big construction companies, labor unions, and environmentalists wanted it. There was real hope that Interstate HSR would become another bipartisan infrastructure achievement. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
In 2017, the next president submitted a $1.5 trillion proposal that would have cut federal infrastructure funding to $200 billion and shifted $1.3 trillion in costs to states, counties, cities, and the private sector over 10 years. He lied to voters.
With sleight of hand, his administration cancelled all HSR project funding, froze Amtrak’s operational “Life Support” funding, and slashed Rapid Transit project funding that could have improved commuter rail projects overlapping California HSR route.
Fortunately, Congress shot down his Bait & Switch Infrastucture proposal. As a political vendetta against the governor, however, that president withdrew $929 million of previously committed federal funding to the California HSR project.
The Root of Rookie Mistakes and Bad Luck
California HSR Authority made many rookie mistakes from 2002-2016. It underestimated delays getting environmental clearance, acquiring property, and construction costs that invited more inflation. It did not shape a reasonable project timeline. That triggered public communication missteps and sapped political willpower.
It’s fair to criticize the California HSR Authority’s rookie mistakes. Haters gonna hate. But to many naive journalists still overplay the “Troubled, Over-Budget, Delayed Again, Train to Nowhere” narrative. If fair-minded journalists want to insightfully criticize the project, they should place a magnifying lens over the “Root of Why” so many rookie mistakes were made. Bloggers will follow.
America has liked the idea of high-speed trains since 1964 when Japan introduced the world’s first at 130 mph. Since America’s first HSR project launched in 1965, the nation has never summoned political willpower to continuously invest in passenger rail. If it did, America’s Interstate HSR System with Regional Rail appendages would be more impressive than its counterparts in Europe today.
Some politicians say America’s “Strong Car Culture” constrains interest to build an Interstate HSR System. That argument does not hold water compared to other democratic countries having over 40 million population and strong personal property rights. That argument is also counter to public polling that still wants more investment in passenger rail.
In ascending order, France, Spain, Germany, Japan, and Italy have 59-82% of the USA’s Motor Vehicle Ownership Per Capita. Again in ascending order, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and Japan have 40-80% of the USA’s Roadway Kilometers (10 KM = 6.21 miles). Those nations have sufficient vehicle ownership and roadway for Strong Car Cultures too. Yet they summoned political willpower to form federal passenger rail agencies that build HSR mileage dwarfing that in America.
The reason we lacked political willpower is a bipartisan failure by Congress and several Presidents who fear or coddle HSR Haters — the Highway Lobby and Aviation Lobby. This Amtrak Acela High Speed Rail article explains in more detail.
Without showcasing Acela trains running in the Washington-NYC-Boston HSR corridor and a high-functioning Federal Passenger Rail Agency by 2008, America lacked Institutional Knowledge to efficiently build HSR infrastructure. California HSR Authority could not hire a project team of experienced engineers, planners, contract managers, and program managers from an American agency to plan better, execute better and communicate better. Mistakes were inevitable.
Obama’s 2009 HSR stimulus funding could not overcome massive shortcomings caused by HSR funding failures from 1965 to 2008. Those shortcomings were drummed into the public consciousness for so long that few leaders would risk political capital to fix Amtrak Washington-NYC-Boston Corridor HSR or wait 12 years to open an impressive California HSR Initial Operating Segment.
Instead, it was politically safe for the 2011-2020 Congressional majority and 2017 President to disregard HSR and Regional Rail upgrades.
California HSR Authority also had bad luck. No one could predict a 2020-22 pandemic triggering supply chain delays, labor shortages, and inflation for infrastructure projects worldwide.
California HSR — Central Valley Initial Operating Segment
Despite many rookie mistakes and bad luck, California HSR Authority has been forging good Institutional Knowledge since 2017. They attracted talented new management. Experienced geologists took deep core samples of mountain alignments. The Authority consulted Swiss tunnel engineers who worked on rail tunnels under the Alps. They increased transparency with a better communications team. Public opinion of the project improved.
Experienced consultants implemented the respected industry practice of risk modeling hundreds of construction scenarios via Monte Carlo Simulation. Though 11 years of stalled federal funding allowed inflation to drive Phase 1 Base Cost Estimate to $88 billion, the 2022 California HSR Business Plan includes more best practices to minimize unknowns and exploit early opportunities.
The biggest opportunity is that a $72 billion Low-Cost Estimate is still possible. But it requires federal, state, and local governments to commit funding for 75-80% of project costs ($58-54 billion) today. That would minimize the risk for private investors to bring $14-18 billion for the last segment of California HSR Phase 1. Since 422 miles will be Under Construction or Ready-to-Build in August 2022, this opportunity is fresh material that fair-minded journalists and bloggers should be publicizing.
A near-term opportunity that experienced HSR consultants revealed is that California HSR Phase 1 should open the Initial Operating Segment with two northern spurs, rather than one:
1. Previously planned spur towards Gilroy
2. A new spur to Merced
Together, the northern spurs form what California HSR Authority calls the “Merced Wye”. The state found additional money to extend the IOS to 171 miles from Bakersfield to the Merced Wye.
At present, Amtrak San Joaquin lines from Oakland and Sacramento run to Bakersfield. Route infrastructure currently limits them to 60-80 mph. This decade Amtrak San Joaquin lines are receiving more trains for more frequent service and minor improvements for more 80 mph mileage. Once the Merced Wye-Bakersfield HSR segment opens, Amtrak San Joaquin trains will stop in California HSR Merced Station for transfers to high-speed trains.
Counties containing Los Angeles Metro Area, San Francisco Bay Area, and San Diego Metro Area are funding massive Rapid Transit network expansions. They will open, expand, or enhance Regional Rail, Metro Rail, Bus Rapid Transit and Dedicated Bikeway infrastructure from 2022 to 2040.
By 2029 or 2030, more Rapid Transit and Dedicated Bikeways will connect to train stations that serve California HSR, Amtrak Regional Rail, and Intercity Buses. People with large luggage will continue using Uber, Lyft, Taxis, and drop-offs/pick-ups. By hosting so many modes of mobility, these train stations become what transportation planners call “Intermodal Transit Centers” or “Multimodal Transportation Centers.”
Upgraded Transit Centers & Regional Rail in the Northern Bookend
San Francisco’s Salesforce Transit Center is an architectural tour de force with an amazing rooftop public park and great interior retail space. At present, Intercity Bus, Bus Rapid Transit, Uber, Lyft & Taxis options are plentiful. Metro Heavy Rail (called “BART”) and Metro Light Rail lines have stations 1 block away and San Francisco Ferry Building is only 3 blocks away.
Salesforce Transit Center has a pre-built underground level wide enough to host 6 long passenger trains. Caltrain commuter rail runs between San Jose and San Francisco but currently stops 1.3 miles short of Salesforce Transit Center at 4th Townsend Station. San Francisco’s rail tunnel extension to Salesforce Transit Center has Environmental Clearance. It will likely be funded for Engineering in 2022 with Construction starting in 2023.
Trains won’t run 220 mph in curvy urban areas. They are typically upgraded from 80 mph to 90 mph using diesel-electric trains and 2 Main Tracks. Over time, more upgrades can be added to run 110 mph in urban areas. One difference-making upgrade is diesel-electric trains conversion to electric trains that accelerate & brake faster.
Atypically, Caltrain management chose to electrify trains before building significantly more over/underpasses, street closures, and fencing to support 110 mph. That means Caltrain will likely be limited to 90 mph for many more years.
In combination, these upgrade produces significant time savings. Small station upgrades, upgraded signaling, upgraded train control, faster track switches, street closures, and fencing for Regional Rail infrastructure can be done in 3-5 years. Building over/underpasses, overhead electric systems, maintenance facilities for electric trains, major station upgrades, tunnels, and viaducts typically require 7-11 years. Here’s why that matters.
Pre-pandemic, a single Caltrain commuter rail line between San Francisco and San Jose transported nearly 90,000 passengers/day on 2-4 Main Tracks using old diesel trains limited to 80 mph. A few freight trains used the tracks at night but ran only 40 or 50 mph. From 2009 to 2018, Caltrain experienced 80 collisions with people and automobiles at railroad crossings.
Drivers were frustrated by railroad crossing gates down an average of 11 minutes during weekday Rush Hours. Residents surrounding its tracks hate the smog & GHG emissions and train horn noise. So Caltrain is making stepwise enhancements towards the commuter version of Electric Regional Rail.
Faster track switches, a new signaling system, and a train control system have been built. In 2024, Caltrain converts to electric trains running 90 mph in stretches where over/underpasses and street closures permit. Since Caltrain will eventually share the track with California HSR, the overhead electric power system is constructed at the international standard for modern HSR. Caltrain management plans an increase to 96 roundtrips/day.
To lower collisions in the short term, Caltrain is installing safer Quad-Gate Systems at railroad crossings. Commuters will love higher Caltrain speed and frequency boosts, but drivers will hate more frequent gate waits at railroad crossings. So the upgrade is not finished.
By 2029, the downtown tunnel extension into Salesforce Transit Center opens, most San Jose Diridon Station upgrades will be complete, and at least a dozen railroad over/underpasses and pedestrian-bicycle underpasses will be under construction in the San Francisco-San Jose corridor.
In 2030, a 171-mile IOS opens between Merced Wye, Madera, Fresno, Kings/Tulare, and Bakersfield. Amtrak San Joaquin trains will stop at California HSR Merced Station. BART Metro Rail extension to San Jose Diridon Station opens.
In 2031, California HSR will complete the San Jose-Gilroy segment upgrade for its trains and Caltrain. Then California HSR trains will run from Merced or Bakersfield-Kings/Tulare-Fresno-Madera segment into Merced Wye then on to Gilroy-San Jose segment on 1-seat rides.
By 2033, over half the 37 railroad crossings between San Jose and San Francisco should have railroad over/underpasses, pedestrian-bicycle underpasses, street closures, and fencing. The train control system will be tweaked to support 110 mph and more frequent trains. California HSR will operate over 422 miles (San Francisco-SFO Airport-San Jose-Gilroy-Madera-Fresno-Tulare/Kings-Bakersfield + spur to Merced).
To eliminate collisions and minimize gate waits, 36 of the 37 current Caltrain railroad crossings between San Francisco and San Jose need to railroad over/underpasses, pedestrian-bicycle underpasses, or small street closures. 4 Main Tracks will be built at strategically located Caltrain stations so high-speed trains can pass by commuter trains operating in the route.
Given the lengthy environmental reviews and high funding required for each over/underpass and wider stations for 4 tracks, those two goals are unlikely to complete before 2040.
Upgraded Transit Centers & Regional Rail in the Southern Bookend
The Southern Bookend consists of an 82-mile Palmdale-Burbank Airport-Los Angeles-Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs-Fullerton-Anaheim segment. The City of Palmdale environmentally cleared a larger Palmdale Multimodal Station that will connect Metrolink commuter trains, high-speed trains, intercity buses, and Uber/Lyft/Taxis.
A 38-mile combination of tunnels & viaduct is required between Palmdale and Burbank Airport. After leaving the Palmdale-Burbank Airport tunnel, high-speed trains will slow for 110 mph Electric Regional Rail infrastructure from Burbank Airport to Los Angeles Union Station, and then towards Anaheim.
Burbank Airport plans to build a replacement terminal north of the current terminal by 2027. Once Palmdale-Burbank Airport HSR segment is funded, Burbank Airport will help coordinate construction of an underground transportation center to host high-speed trains at walking distance to/from Burbank Airport Replacement Terminal.
Located on the edge of fast-growing downtown, Los Angeles Union Station is the 6th busiest train station in America. It hosts Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, 2 Amtrak Long-Distance lines, 6 Metrolink commuter rail lines, 3 Metro Rail lines, many Bus Rapid Transit lines, Intercity Buses, Taxis, Uber, Lyft, and Dedicated Bikeway.
In 1939, Los Angeles Union Station was built as a terminus rather than a run-thru station. Today, many passenger trains that need to pass through Los Angeles Union Station must Pull-In & Back-Out. That process adds 6-10 minutes to train schedules coming from or going to destinations further south.
The architectural enhancement and modernization of Los Angeles Union Station, called “Link US”, includes run-thru tracks. That project is on pace to complete by the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. As passenger numbers build towards the Olympics, Transportation-Oriented Developers (TOD) will build retail establishments and possibly an onsite hotel that helps pay for Link US.
Aside from the under-construction Rosecrans-Marquandt railroad overpass, 3 more overpasses are needed between Los Angeles Union Station and the planned California HSR Station at Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs. That station is already served by Metrolink commuter rail but needs a major upgrade for future California HSR and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner patrons. In the 2030s, a Metro Light Rail line will likely extend 3 miles to the station as well.
Fullerton Station only needs a modest upgrade for more passengers but a half-mile east, a massively upgraded rail junction is needed to increase from 84 trains/day to 360 trains/day by 2030. The high-capacity Anaheim Regional Intermodal Transit Center (ARTIC) with retail space is already open. A public agency (“LOSSAN”) managing the rail corridor has Preliminary Plans for 3 overpasses between Fullerton Station and ARTIC but needs funding for 6 more of them. With the recent federal infrastructure funding, that should happen.
By 2033, the 38-mile Palmdale-Burbank Airport segment should be well under construction. The 44-mile Burbank Airport-Los Angeles-Norwalk/SFS-Fullerton-Anaheim segment should have enough 2-4 Main Tracks, Siding Track, over/underpasses, street closures, faster track switches, electrification, fencing, and level boarding platforms for high-quality 110 mph Electric Regional Rail.
Las Vegas to Southern California HSR
A privately funded 170-mile HSR project branded Brightline West HSR has Environmental Clearance between Las Vegas and Victor Valley in Southern California. Phase 1 of that project consists of 40 miles in Nevada and 130 miles in Southern California with a construction start planned for 2023. Brightline West HSR will use electric high-speed trains compatible with California HSR System. Brightline West Phase 1 will operate from Las Vegas to Victor Valley, a city located 84 freeway miles from Los Angeles Union Station.
By 2023-end, all 494 miles of California HSR Phase 1 and Brightline West HSR will likely be Under Construction or Ready-to-Build.
Metrolink has a new train control system and runs a less direct commuter rail route between Palmdale, Burbank Airport, and Los Angeles Union Station. By the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics most of that corridor will have 2 Main Tracks, Quad Gate Systems, faster track switches, a few railroad overpasses, some street closures, and a signaling upgrade to support 90 mph and 34 roundtrips/day.
Once California HSR Palmdale-Burbank Airport segment enters construction, Brightline West HSR will likely raise more private funds to extend 53 miles of viaducts from Victor Valley to Palmdale. They will lease track time from California HSR Authority to enable 1-seat rides from Las Vegas to Victor Valley, Palmdale, Burbank Airport, and Los Angeles.
California HSR Safety and Environmental Advantages
As the map below illustrates, California HSR operations will significantly reduce corridor Smog & GHG emissions over 2029-50. It will bring benefits like HSR infrastructure hosting TGV bring to France.
In France, the original dedicated HSR infrastructure called “Ligne à Grande Vitesse” (LGV) enables “Train à Grande Vitesse” (TGV) to operate at 186 mph (300 kph). Since 1981, the TGV has transported 2 billion riders on LGV without a single fatality in commercial operation.
France also has nextgen LGV certified to let nextgen high-speed trains operate at 249 mph (400 kph). Current TGV run up to 199 mph (320 kph) on nextgen LGV.
The French train-maker Alstom also builds “Avelia Horizon, a nextgen high-speed train certified for operations up to 249 mph (400 kph)” with 20% lower energy costs than current TGV.
During the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, France will set an example for high-speed transportation that cuts GHG & Smog emissions by lowering demand for highway drives and regional flights. TGV Avelia Horizon will likely run at 211 mph (340 kph) to connect more city pairs in 3.5 hours. As more low-cost renewable energy enters the French electric grid this decade, anticipate TGV Avelia Horizon increasing to 217 mph (350 kph) at the same energy cost as the current TGV running at 199 mph.
California HSR infrastructure is being engineered to similar standards as French HSR. Trains running on it will be powered by zero-emission renewable energy. Since Germany, Japan, South Korea, Spain, and China also make nextgen high-speed trains using the same technical standards as TGV, California HSR Authority will have a buffet of train choices.
California HSR Door-to-Door Travel Time Advantage
Most people choose modes of intercity travel based on time savings, train frequency, affordability and schedule reliability. California HSR is a winner on all four counts.
California HSR corridor has a higher Average Household Income, higher population, and higher regional traffic than France has in its Lille-Paris-Lyon-Valence-Marseilles LGV corridor. California HSR Authority also has Northeast Corridor HSR proof that more Americans will ride high-speed trains. Those demographics and proof points will enable the Authority to offer First Class, Business, and Coach fares competitive with airlines.
California HSR is initially designed for trains to run at 94-95% schedule reliability without the schedule-padding typical of airlines. When the bookends are sealed off with complete over/underpasses, street closures, and fencing, schedule reliability will rise to 97-98%.
People who download tickets on smartphones often arrive only 15 minutes before train departure because security-check is a breeze. Passenger platforms level with train floors make boarding with luggage fast. Trains leave on time because luggage is self-stored above or near you, even when the train is moving.
In contrast, Total Air Travel Time for San Francisco-Los Angeles regional flights averages 4 hours with 80% or less schedule reliability. That time includes taking Uber/Lyft/Taxi or family drop-off at the airport 90 minutes before most domestic flights. Assuming one has carry-on luggage, these queues sandwich a 55-minute flight time: security-check, waiting to board, boarding, origin runway taxi, destination runway taxi, off-boarding, and walk to curbside.
If your destination is downtown Los Angeles, take an expensive Uber/Lyft/Taxi ride. If your destination is downtown San Francisco, transfer to BART Metro Rail for a 20-minute ride or take an expensive Uber/Lyft/Taxi ride. It takes longer than 4 hours when you wait at baggage claim or rent a car offsite from airport terminals, then drive to either Downtown or a satellite business center.
Large train stations have cafes, lounges, and shops for those who choose to arrive early. High-speed trains have more dependable WiFi than airplanes. They enable productive ride time using large seat-back tables, power sockets at each seat, and better seat lamps. Leisure travelers can watch a movie, gaze through large windows at passing landscapes, or nap on smooth rides. Everyone enjoys walking to the cafe car and restroom at their leisure.
California High Speed Rail Cost and Capacity Advantages
In case you’re among the critics who think California HSR is a boondoggle, let’s examine how the Highway-Airport Alternative compares to the California HSR Alternative. Increasing airport capacity for regional flights is the easiest alternative to dismiss.
Eight of the nine busiest California airports have no adjacent open land. Only Sacramento’s SMF Airport can expand. SFO Airport and OAK Airport would each have to bay-fill for a runway addition, but voters stand firmly against further shrinkage of San Francisco Bay due to environmental impacts on marine life. Voters object to more jet noise and smog emissions over their communities. Who wants a new Hub airport next to their community?
Though less obvious to many voters, building another north-south freeway between San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metro Area would have been an unmitigated disaster. A freeway would have required 4 times more land-takings than California HSR. It would have required wide highway tunnels and gargantuan earthmoving through two large mountain ranges. Even if voters changed their minds about airport expansion, costs would be twice as high as the California HSR Alternative and induce more driving. Highway congestion would increase statewide.
The Central Valley spine is designed for up to 12 trains/hour. Initially, California HSR Authority plans to license a high-speed train operator for 3 trains/hour in an 18-hour workday or 54 trains/day. San Francisco-Los Angeles segment will have 6 daily Non-Stop roundtrips at 2 hours 40-minutes trip time and 16 daily All-Stop roundtrips at 2 hours 56 minutes trip time. The longest Phase 1 segment, San Francisco-Anaheim, will have 32 Limited-Stop roundtrips in 3 hours 15-minutes trip time.
Single-deck California HSR trains can start at 500 passengers, which is nearly triple the capacity of a Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 plane common for regional flights. When demand grows trains can add cabins and switch to double-deck cabins for up to 900 passengers without building new infrastructure.
More Regional Rail to Complement California HSR
California HSR is only the spine of an integrated passenger rail system. Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Amtrak Capitol Corridor, Amtrak San Joaquin, Caltrain, ACE, and Metrolink regional trains will directly transfer thousands of daily passengers with California HSR. Those Amtrak and commuter rail routes are upgrading concurrent with California HSR construction. Though COASTER commuter rail in San Diego County will not transfer passengers with California HSR until Phase 2, it’s another important component of the integrated passenger rail system.
In 2019, Amtrak Pacific Surfliner was the nation’s second-busiest Amtrak route at 2.8 million annual riders, mostly due to journeys between Los Angeles and San Diego. Over 5 million more people rode Metrolink commuter trains serving Los Angeles & Orange Counties and COASTER commuter trains serving San Diego County on the same southern route as Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. A key difference is Pacific Surfliner skips half the commuter rail stops for shorter trip times.
Metrolink commuter rail is stepwise upgrading 4 of its 7 routes shared with California HSR Southern Bookend and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner towards Regional Rail. COASTER commuter rail is stepwise upgrading its route shared with Amtrak Pacific Surfliner as well. The 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics attracted more state, local, and freight rail funds that will accelerate some of their upgrade plans.
Metrolink and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner passengers often transfer at Van Nuys, Burbank Airport South, Glendale, Los Angeles, Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, and Oceanside stations. COASTER and Amtrak Pacific Surfliner passengers often transfer in Oceanside, Solana Beach, and Old Town San Diego stations.
In addition to Los Angeles Union Station gaining run-thru tracks, 90% of the Van Nuys-Los Angeles-Anaheim-Oceanside-San Diego corridor will have enough upgrades for diesel-electric trains to run 90 mph. By summer 2028, Amtrak Pacific Surfliner’s Los Angeles-San Diego trip time should reduce from 2 hours 56-minutes to 2 hours 35-minutes.
Despite that progress, 13 miles in the corridor will remain a 32 mph chokepoint due to 1-track for 2 miles in San Juan Capistrano, followed by 2-tracks for 4 miles in Dana Point, then 1-track again for 7 miles of San Clemente between Capistrano Beach and Trestles Beach. That 13-mile chokepoint limits Amtrak Pacific Surfliner to 17 daily roundtrips, Metrolink to 17 daily roundtrips and 4-5 daily freight trains.
The 2022 California State Rail Plan calls for Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Amtrak Capitol Corridor, Caltrain, ACE, Metrolink, and COASTER commute rail conversions to 110-125 mph Electric Regional Rail status by 2040. The rail plan seemed overly ambitious until the recent boosts in federal funding and the recently announced state budget surplus.
In the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles Metro Area, Van Nuys Station is a major hub for increasing commutes in the Metrolink Van Nuys-Burbank Airport-DT Burbank-Glendale-Los Angeles-Commerce-Norwalk/SFS-Buena-Park-Fullerton-Anaheim-Orange-Santa Ana-Tustin-Irvine-Laguna Niguel corridor. A new LA Metro Rail line will meet Metrolink, Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Amtrak Coast Starlight, LAX Shuttle Bus, and Amtrak Intercity Buses at Van Nuys Station by 2028. Another major LA Metro Rail line is planned between the notoriously congested Sepulveda Pass to Van Nuys Station around 2035.
To handle the increased volume of rider transfers, Van Nuys Station will need 110 mph Electric Regional Rail service no later than 2034.
By 2034, the 110 mph Electric Regional Rail upgrade should extend 6 miles from Van Nuys Station to Burbank Airport South for connection to California HSR infrastructure. Electric Regional Rail upgrade should also extend 21 miles from Anaheim to Laguna Niguel, thereby sandwiching the California HSR’s 44-mile Burbank Airport-Los Angeles-Norwalk/SFS-Fullerton-Anaheim segment. Metrolink could then run 110 mph electric trains for 71 miles and 68 daily roundtrips in the Van Nuys-Los Angeles-Laguna Niguel corridor outlined in lime-green on the map below.
San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot features Spanish-Colonial architecture that has attracted skyscrapers around it. Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and COASTER patrons also enjoy convenience at this intermodal transportation center with San Diego Trolley station only footsteps away and the San Diego Cruiseport a mere 1 block away.
The State of California, Orange, and San Diego counties are committing over $1.5 billion/7 years towards railroad over/underpasses, level boarding platforms, and other station upgrades. Since military and commercial shipments to/from the Port of San Diego use the rail corridor, Freight Rail companies are building more Siding Track. Given those factors, the Anaheim-Oceanside-San Diego segment should qualify for $2.5 billion/7 years of federal and state funding over 2022-28.
San Diego County could start the Environmental Clearance process for the critically needed Del Mar Rail Tunnel and Miramar Hill Rail Tunnel. If federal and state rail infrastructure funding increase again from 2028 onwards, Del Mar rail tunnel could open by 2033 and Miramar Hill rail tunnel could open by 2035.
Amtrak Capitol Corridor and ACE commuter rail in the San Francisco Bay Area also make a compelling case for significant federal funding. Capitol Corridor is the 3rd busiest Amtrak route and shares a portion of its regional route with ACE from San Jose Diridon Station to a small existing Fremont Station. Most of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor route is shared with Amtrak Coast Starlight long-distance trains.
Before the recent federal funding was approved, state & local funding of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor South Bay Connect Project planned to add 2 passenger-only tracks in a more direct route between San Jose and Oakland, 1 railroad overpass, and a different Fremont Station by 2027. ACE has a similar upgrade project advancing.
The state and counties have committed $1.65 billion to Amtrak Capitol Corridor and ACE Regional Rail upgrades. A freight rail company is adding Siding Track. Amtrak Coast Starlight is doubling to 2 daily roundtrips on the route.
Given the recent infrastructure funding increase, the project should receive $1.6 billion/6 years in federal matching funds. If so, Amtrak Capitol Corridor, Amtrak Coast Starlight, and ACE commuter trains would run 90 mph in the San Jose-Oakland segment by 2030. Amtrak Capitol Corridor could reach 20 daily roundtrips and ACE would double to 10 daily roundtrips. Freight trains from the Port of Oakland and San Jose could run more frequently and reliably.
Google is building a 60-acre campus next to San Jose Diridon Station, which is also close to San Jose International Airport. By 2033, California HSR, Caltrain, Amtrak Capitol Corridor, ACE, Amtrak Coast Starlight, BART Metro Rail, Santa Clara Valley Light Rail, and the Airport Shuttle should transfer over 10 million passengers/year at San Jose Diridon Station.
Funding the Most Critical Segments Now
The 2022 DRAFT California HSR Business Plan identifies $25 billion in total funding for work mostly in the Bakersfield-Merced Wye, and smaller works in North Bookend and South Bookend segments.
Based on my years of studying Northeast Corridor, French, German and Japanese HSR and official estimates for current rail infrastructure projects in the state, I estimate California needs $30 billion more in federal, state, local, and freight rail funding to open or upgrade six difference-making HSR and Regional Rail corridor segments between 2029-33:
Northern California HSR + Connecting Amtrak Segments
• San Francisco-San Jose ($1.6 billion, 43 miles)
• San Jose-Merced Wye ($13.6 billion, 89 miles)
• San Jose-Fremont-Oakland ($1.6 billion, 38 miles)
Southern California HSR + Connecting Amtrak Segments
• Burbank Airport-Los Angeles ($1.4 billion, 13 miles)
• Los Angeles-Fullerton-Anaheim ($2.9 billion, 31 miles)
• Anaheim-Oceanside-San Diego ($3.5 billion, 96 miles)
Funding for partial Engineering Design and small Property Acquisition for California HSR Palmdale-Burbank Airport ($16.8 billion, 38 miles) and Bakersfield-Palmdale ($18.4 billion, 79 miles) segments is included in the $30 billion. Funding for full Engineering Design, major Property Acquisition and Construction can be identified later.
New Politics of Federal and State Funding for HSR & Regional Rail
President “Amtrak Joe” Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) in 2021. It allocates $66 billion/5 years for Intercity Passenger Rail & Freight Rail projects. Since $30 billion is earmarked for Amtrak Northeast HSR & Regional Rail projects, $36 billion remains for other Federal Railroad grants. Part of the BIL grants Federal Highways funding for over/underpasses that involve railroads. The BIL also grants $39 billion for Transit infrastructure. Caltrain, ACE, Metrolink, and COASTER commuter rail agencies will qualify for some of those grants.
President Biden is pressing Congress to increase the annual USDOT budget in October 2022 because the nation needs more Federal Railroad, Federal Transit, and Federal Highway projects than the BIL will fund.
Though Governor Newsom got off to a rocky start with California HSR in 2019, today he avidly supports California HSR’s apex role in the 2022 California State Rail Plan. Newsom knows that HSR, Regional Rail and Rapid Transit alternatives are far better than more Highway lanes and Aviation runways. That is why he proposes to channel the remaining $4.2 billion HSR bond money to the Central Valley and Engineering Design for more HSR segments.
Regional Rail upgrade projects for Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Amtrak Capitol Corridor, Caltrain, Metrolink, COASTER, and ACE already rate highly for USDOT grants based on state population and pre-pandemic ridership. The shift of more state funds to zero-emission Transportation also helps California compete for Federal Climate Adaptation grants.
California HSR and Regional Rail projects will share many stations and boost each other’s ridership, the same way Northeast Corridor HSR and Regional Rail share stations and boost each other’s ridership. The state is well-positioned to win $21-24 billion over 2022-28 from multiple federal agencies based on several more factors:
• California HSR and Regional Rail projects are eligible to compete for $57 billion in 6 categories of BIL grants
• California has the most state funds to match USDOT’s BIL and other grant programs
• California HSR and Regional Rail projects have the most Ready-to-Build mileage
• California HSR and Regional Rail projects have the most Congressional support of any state
• California HSR project approval polling has grown to 56%, with over 60% from ages 18-40 voters
In 2028, USDOT and California State Transportation Agency should authorize a bigger round of funding for California’s HSR and Regional Rail projects to construct dozens more over/underpasses, track upgrades, tunnels, viaducts, station upgrades, and electric train infrastructure.
By 2040, the Northern Bookend supporting Caltrain, Amtrak Capitol Corridor, and ACE should achieve 110 mph Electric Regional Rail status, while Amtrak San Joaquin Oakland remains 90 mph Regional Rail status a few years longer.
In the Southern Bookend, a 10-mile tunnel taking a shorter path along I-5 Freeway should eliminate the 13-mile San Juan Capistrano-San Clemente chokepoint. It would simultaneously adapt the route to storm surge and ocean bluff erosion. Then Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink, and COASTER can achieve 110-mph Electric Regional Rail status over the entire route from LA to San Diego.
Rapid Transit systems in Los Angeles Metro Area, San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego Metro Area, and Sacramento Metro Area are enlarging to attract millions of riders/day by 2040. Their intermodal transit centers should be as popular as those in big European cities today.
California Passenger Rail trips are also forecast to go from 125,000/day in 2019 to 1.3 million/day in 2040. That equates to roughly 475 million annual trips for a sizable dent in the 545 million annual intra-state trips forecast by 2040. Millions of trips will begin and end without highway driving or flying to destinations in the Golden State. California and the Northeast Corridor will best demonstrate what’s possible across America.