California High Speed Rail
In a state careening towards 45 million population, completing California High Speed Rail System is essential to future mobility. Its electric high speed, high capacity, high-frequency mode of travel will enable a balanced transportation network of Airports, Intercity Passenger Rail, Commuter Rail, Highways, Intercity Buses, Metro Rail, Bus Rapid Transit, standard buses and bicycle lanes. That balance is needed in the 21st century war against traffic congestion, smog and greenhouse gases — Thomas Dorsey, Soul Of America
California Population Growth Straining Transportation Infrastructure
Up through 1981, California built the world’s most impressive freeway system and good hub airports in Los Angeles Metro Area, San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego Metro Area. That transportation infrastructure matched population and economic activity well.
Los Angeles-San Francisco became the 2nd busiest air route in America. Travelers could arrive at SFO or LAX airport, purchase a ticket, breeze through security, board, fly to SFO or LAX, de-board and walk to rental car centers in 2 1/2 hours. Highway traffic had enough free-flowing daylight to drive from San Francisco to downtown Los Angeles in 5 hours 45 minutes at 70 mph average speed. I did it.
Despite significant population & economic growth after 1981 however, our federal leaders invested nearly the same percentage of Transportation budget on Highway and Airport infrastructure, but a lower percentage on Rapid Transit and a pittance on Amtrak. Without federal funding taking the lead on new Rapid Transit and Amtrak infrastructure, states funded lower percentages too.
By 1990, California population growth, as measured in millions by Statista was exceeding the state’s highway and hub airport capacity. Expanding attractions and colleges made Los Angeles and San Francisco two of America’s most visited cities. The beaches and attractions in San Diego bright more visitors to that metro area too. LAX Airport and SFO Airport became the 2nd and 7th busiest airports in America, respectively.
By early 2020, Los Angeles Metro Area population swelled to 19 million population. San Francisco Bay Area reached nearly 8 million and San Diego Metro Area grew to 3.4 million population. The growth of California’s 3 largest metro areas, combined with more Cars Per Household, made highways and California’s 8 hub airports (LAX, SFO, SAN, SJC, OAK, SMF, SNA, BUR) were experiencing severe traffic congestion. Congestion is gradually returning as the pandemic draws to an end.
Population forecast by Public Policy Institute of California suggests that traffic congestion is going to get get before it gets better.
California Freeway Widening Has Become Fool’s Gold
The beaches are great and California keeps adding tourists attractions. California intra-state travel is forecast to increase from 361 million annual trips in 2010 to 545 million annual trips by 2040. Since most trips are by automobile, many people assume freeway widening is the answer to traffic congestion. Let’s examine that assumption.
California freeways average 1.223 Person Occupancy Per Vehicle, which means they are mostly driven by Single-Occupancy Vehicles. Freeways have maximum Lane-Capacity Efficiency at 2 lanes each direction, meaning 4 Standard lanes. Widening to 6 Standard lanes increases freeway capacity enough to justify a slight loss of Lane-Capacity Efficiency.
Some California freeways were designed with median space to later convert to 2 additional lanes. Highway engineers wisely increased vehicle & rider capacity by adding 2 High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to 6 Standard lanes. The HOV approach partially counter-balanced more loss of lane efficiency. As a result, 2 HOV + 6 Standard lanes can loosely be described as “Best Lane-Capacity Efficiency” for freeways in large metro areas.
Freeway widening in Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area reached Best Lane-Capacity Efficiency over 1985-90. Ditto for San Diego Metro Area by 2000. Beyond those dates, each freeway widening to 2 HOV + 8, then 10, then 12 and then 14 Standard lanes reduces Lane-Capacity Efficiency more than it helps traffic flow.
The mathematics of Queuing Theory explains why those metro area taxpayers are getting a diminishing return on investment for excessive freeway widening. In laymen terms, for each freeway lane beyond 2 HOV + 6 Standard lanes, drivers spend more time adjusting speeds and lane-changing lateral motion that slows forward motion. The more speed adjusting and lateral motion, the more traffic congestion and accidents increase. When added lanes temporarily decongest a freeway, they induce more Single-Occupancy Vehicles. The same congestion reproduces 2-3 years after widening.
Nevertheless, voters elected politicians who claimed that expansion to 2 HOV + 8 Standard lanes would “Relieve Congestion.” When that didn’t work, voters elected politicians who claimed that expansion to 2 HOV + 10 Standard lanes would “Relieve Congestion.” Even today, many voters elect politicians who falsely claim that expansion to 2 HOV + 12 or 14 Standard lanes will “Relieve Congestion.”
As a practical and political matter, voters had to learn the hard way. California commuters have irrefutable proof that 2 HOV + 8 Standard lanes does not “Relieve Congestion.” Today, most voters know that widening beyond 2 HOV + 8 Standard lanes is like loosening your belt to treat obesity. Rebellion against further freeway widening is also growing due to projects that require damage to communities.
In 2018, INRIX proclaimed Los Angeles and San Francisco 2 of the 5 most highway-congested cities in the world. That is true despite Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area having most of the ultra-wide freeways in America and the world.
The drop in freeway Lane-Capacity Efficiency is proven by average speed during Rush Hour. A University of Southern California transportation study measured the drop in Lane-Capacity Efficiency on average speed since the 1980s. Pre-pandemic, Los Angeles Metro Area freeways dropped to 21-24 mph average speed during Rush Hour. Average speeds during Rush Hour in San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego Metro Area freeways were equally bad.
Sunny days, fertile soil and canal water make California Central Valley one of the world’s great agricultural regions. Economic bounty from freight rail and freight trucking transporting agriculture, and three major universities helped Central Valley towns sprout into metro areas ranging from 200,000 to 1,000,000+ population. The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts Central Valley metro areas (Stockton, Manteca, Modesto, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Hanford-Visalia-Porterville, Bakersfield, Palmdale) adding 10 million people between 2010-2040. Without California HSR, Rush Hour congestion on SR-99 Freeway and I-5 Freeway would likely get as bad as LA freeways by 2040.
Yet, airlines to/from Los Angeles Metro Area and San Francisco Bay Area are skipping over the Central Valley to instead, focus on more profitable long-distance flights. Since flights are a vanishing option, more Single-Occupant Vehicles contribute to Central Valley freeway congestion, Smog & GHG emissions.
Intra-state driving is also a significant component of traffic congestion that costs California residents $28 billion/year in lost time and wasted fuel.
California Transportation Greenhouse Gases Contribute to Climate Change
California acquired the nickname “Golden State” due to sunny days tanning brush on its majestic hills and mountains. Since 2000, California has seen rising temperatures produce more frequent drought conditions. They in turn, create an abundance of dry brush that’s fuel for wildfires. In case you haven’t guessed, wildfires are bad for Global Warming.
America is a participant in the Paris Climate Agreement whose goal is enough GHG emission reductions to limit Global Warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. To Americans that means, we must limit Global Warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than pre-industrial levels.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that America is the world’s second highest Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emitter and Transportation sector is America’s largest GHG emitter. In descending order, oil-powered cars & small trucks, freight trucks, regional flights and cargo ships produce the most GHG emissions in Transportation sector.
France and other advanced nations have proven that HSR cuts regional flights in the same corridor by 70-90%. France and other nations have also proven that HSR reduces drives on parallel highways. Single-Occupancy Vehicle drivers quickly learn that fuel, mileage wear & tear, parking and long non-productive journey times cost more than train & transit/taxi/Uber fares. Fewer cars congesting highways permit freight trucks to average higher speed and lower emissions per mile.
California, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania can make meaningful GHG reductions, when their upcoming HSR, Regional Rail and Rapid Transit projects mode-shift more people from regional flights and Single-Occupancy Vehicle drives.
Transportation Smog Lowered, But Not Enough
Smog has bedeviled Los Angeles since automobiles rose to prominence in 1943, then spread to other California cities as they grew. Diesel fuel burn from freight trucks, cargo ships and agricultural equipment are the main causes of Smog particulates. Burning diesel fuel emits particulates that contain elemental black carbon, the main cause of Asthma.
South Coast Air Quality Management District confirms that most smog & GHG emissions in Los Angeles Metro Area is transportation-related. In 2014, 5.2 million people or nearly 14% of Californians, had asthma. That remains a health issue of magnitude for the state.
Government regulations to reduce automotive smog helped, but only to a degree. Excluding wildfire days, the air in Los Angeles Metro Area is no longer brown.
Yet, California cities still dominate the American Lung Association list of metro areas suffering the nation’s worst Smog (ozone & particulate emissions). The association also reports that high smog levels within a mile of highways, airports and seaports trigger higher levels of asthma and other lung diseases.
California Central Valley has more conditions tormenting air quality. Agricultural equipment, diesel freight trucks and diesel freight trains move agricultural products that feed a nation. The cost includes significant Smog and GHG emissions.
Clouds from the Pacific Ocean climb over the westside mountain range. When those clouds combine with smog and warmer temperatures, they trap inversion layers over the Central Valley between westside and eastside mountain ranges. As California’s average heat level rises, inversion layers hover longer.
From a societal equity perspective, we should also remember that the majority of California’s black and brown citizens live closest to highways, airports, seaports and agricultural areas.
California Needs More Electric, High Speed, High Capacity Transportation
By 2008, a majority of voters realized that freeway widening and airport expansion did not relieve traffic congestion. Nor does it reduce Smog & GHG emissions. Voters approved funding to kickstart the building of electric-powered California High Speed Rail System to reduce traffic congestion and to cut Smog & GHG emissions. Voters authorized a $9.95 billion bond measure towards a High Speed Rail (HSR) system estimated to cost $42 billion in 2008. California State Transportation Agency, parent of California HSR Authority, also committed more funding to upgrade Amtrak California services.
California HSR Authority divided the HSR mega-project in two phases:
Phase 1: 520-mile (San Francisco-SFO-San Jose-Gilroy-Fresno-Hanford-Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank-Fullerton-Los Angeles-Anaheim)
Phase 2: 280-mile (Merced-Modesto-Stockton-Sacramento & Los Angeles-Ontario-San Bernardino-Riverside-Escondido-San Diego)
When the Interstate Highway program began, the federal government funded 85-90% of projects. When the Urban Mass Transit Program began, the federal government funded 60-70% of Rapid Transit projects. On that basis, California HSR Authority and most state politicians hoped the mega-project would receive at least 60% of project funding from the federal government. Their hopes were burned.
In 2009, President Obama granted $8 billion of Economic Recovery funds towards HSR projects — $3.5 billion of it went to California HSR. He envisioned large Congressional support for HSR in the next U.S. Surface Transportation Bill. Aside from fixing Highway & bridge repair, Obama wanted to invest $55 billion in a broad expansion to Interstate HSR program. In 2011, the new Congress dashed his vision. They would not increase funding for Highway & bridge repair, nor Rapid Transit. They halted additional HSR project funding.
California HSR Authority also made terrible rookie mistakes. It mis-communicated $42 billion project cost without explicitly reminding the public that costs could rise over $20 billion due to federal funding delays, unknown geological conditions, and lawsuits causing property acquisition delays. As those delays unfolded, it triggered project inflation and attracted valid criticism of project management.
Delays also attracted cheap-shots by some critics who called California HSR a boondoggle. Traffic congestion and population growth eliminates the “No Build Transportation Alternative.” Further below, I’ll explain why the “Highway-Airport Alternative” has far worse negative impacts and is ineffective compared to California HSR.
That said, enough environmental clearances, engineering and property acquisition completed for the California HSR project to break ground in 2015. HSR infrastructure remains under construction.
Though Central Valley viaduct is the most costly component of California HSR System Phase 1, long mountain tunnels have the most unknowns. Surprise geological conditions, underground rivers, uncharted mines and buried historic artifacts can undermine expert cost estimation and project schedules.
Over 2017-20, California HSR Authority transparency increased. New management was brought in. The state hired experienced geologists who took deep core samples of mountain alignments. Swiss tunnel engineers who worked on the longest rail tunnels under the Alps were consulted. Other experienced HSR consultants were hired to implement the respected industry practice of risk modeling for hundreds of construction scenarios via Monte Carlo Simulation.
2020 California HSR Business Plan includes their “Best Practice” consultation to reduce unknowns and Monte Carlo Simulation to prepare for all likely outcomes. Rather than wait for Phase 2, experienced HSR consultants revealed that Phase 1 construction should have two northern spurs: One previously planned spur pointing west towards Gilroy; a second spur pointing north towards Merced. Together, they form what California HSR Authority calls the “Merced Wye”.
There are 119 miles of California HSR construction underway in the Central Valley and enough projected state funding to extend that to 171 miles between Merced Wye and Bakersfield by 2029. Amtrak San Joaquin has two lines. One runs from Oakland to Bakersfield, the other from Sacramento to Bakersfield. Both lines top at 79 mph.
Amtrak San Joaquin Oakland and Amtrak San Joaquin Sacramento will connect to California HSR Merced Station 2 years before California HSR service opens between San Jose and Bakersfield:
• Open Merced-Fresno-Bakersfield California HSR & transfers to Amtrak San Joaquin Oakland & Sacramento by 2029
• Open San Jose-Merced & San Jose-Fresno-Bakersfield California HSR & transfers to Amtrak Capitol Corridor by 2031
• Open San Francisco-Merced & San Francisco-Bakersfield California HSR rides by 2033
In the stretch between Merced and Palmdale, parallel to SR 99 Freeway, California HSR speeds are planned to run 200-220 mph. Speeds between Merced Wye and Gilroy will likely run 160-180 mph. Speeds from Gilroy to the urban edge of San Jose are TBD, but higher than 110 mph.
As higher speeds shorten Amtrak ride times to the Central Valley, patrons increase. More patronage will lower the state’s operating subsidy for Amtrak San Joaquin train service. By 2033, fewer Single-Occupancy Vehicles will congest SR-99 Freeway, SR-152 Highway and US-101 Freeway.
HSR Ready For Big Leaps in California
California HSR’s Bakersfield-Palmdale segment received Environmental Clearance in August 2021. Burbank Airport-Los Angeles HSR segment is on course for Environmental Clearance in December 2021. That will constitute 291 miles of California HSR route Under Construction or Environmentally Cleared, the latter meaning “Ready To Build.” Environmental Clearance is anticipated for remaining California HSR project segments over 2022-23.
A privately funded HSR project branded “Brightline West”, has Environmental Clearance for 170 miles between Las Vegas and Victor Valley in Southern California. Phase 1 of that HSR project consists of 40 miles in Nevada and 130 miles in Southern California. Construction starts in early 2022. Brightline West plans to use electric High Speed Trains compatible with California HSR System.
The City of Palmdale is approaching construction of a new Palmdale Multimodal Station to host Metrolink commuter trains, High Speed Trains and local buses. Once California HSR’s Palmdale-Burbank Airport segment is fully funded, more funds will be raised to extend Brightline West HSR 53 miles from Victor Valley to Palmdale. From Palmdale Multimodal Station, Brightline West would then lease time-slots on California HSR track to run in Palmdale-Burbank Airport-Los Angeles corridor.
For more insights about the vision for Las Vegas-Los Angeles HSR, see Brightline West HSR.
California High Speed Rail Cost & Capacity Advantages
Let’s examine how the Highway-Airport Alternative compares to California HSR Alternative for regional travel.
Increasing airport capacity for regional flights was the easiest alternative to dismiss. Eight of the nine busiest California airports have no adjacent open land. Only SMF Airport for Sacramento has open land to expand. SFO Airport and OAK Airport would each have to bay-fill for a runway addition, but voters are firmly against further shrinkage of San Francisco Bay for several reasons. They object to more jet noise & smog emissions over residential communities and environmental impacts on bay marine life. More recently they notice sea level rise is impacting bay coastlines, including San Francisco.
Building another north-south freeway between San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Metro Area is equally bad. It would require wide highway tunnels or gargantuan earthmoving through San Gabriel and Pacheco Pass mountain ranges. In a California HSR Authority report that accessed to State of California highway and aviation data, the cost of adding equivalent capacity from highways and airports is estimated to be double that of California HSR. California Department of Transportation, whose budget is mostly highways, concurs that the highway cost and capacity numbers are accurate.
California HSR is a high-capacity bonanza. It will start at 3 trains/hour. California HSR’s Central Valley infrastructure is being designed to handle up to 12 High Speed Trains/hour. Tunnels will be high enough for double-deck trains. California HSR Authority plans to license a High Speed Train Operator that will pay to use its HSR infrastructure.
If the High Speed Train Operator starts with a 8 cabin + cafe car in single-deck configuration seating 386 passengers, capacity will double that of Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 regional planes that seat 162-192 passengers. As ridership grows, they gain profit incentive to expand, like Amtrak, who recently purchased Nextgen High Speed Trains for the Northeast Corridor. The train operator can later expand to 11 cabin + cafe car in double-deck configuration for 740 passengers.
Even if the Highway-Airport Alternative matched the cost of California HSR, ability to multiply train capacity & frequency without additional infrastructure cost & disruption makes California HSR better for population growth and taxpayers.
California HSR Environmental, Health & Safety Advantages
California HSR Authority has already captured or avoided more than 180,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions through planting more than 6,000 trees and other forest projects. That is an order of magnitude better than any California freeway project of similar length. California HSR’s first 21 years operating from 2029-50 will significantly reduce corridor smog and GHG emissions, in accord with the Paris Climate Agreement.
After each speed boost, TGV has increased ridership. Current TGV trains run up to 199 mph (320 kph) on the fastest HSR routes certified to let High Speed Trains operate up to 249 mph (400 kph). TGV initially planned to introduce Nextgen High Speed Trains (“Avelia Horizon“) running up to 224 mph (360 kph) during the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics.
Due to France’s leadership in the Paris Climate Agreement, TGV recently toned down plans for 224 mph. Yet business and environmental incentives remain to go faster than 199 mph. I believe TGV Avelia Horizon will be introduced at 211 mph (340 kph) top speed to mode-shift more travelers from regional flights to trains, increase profits and to further cut GHG & smog emissions. As more wind & solar energy make French electricity greener and cheaper next decade, anticipate TGV Avelia Horizon boosting to 217 mph (350 kph).
TGV speed deserves accolades, but it’s high ridership with safety deserves equal praise. Since 1981, the TGV has transported 2 billion riders WITHOUT a single fatality in commercial operation. As a result, the French experience less social loss and economic cost due to people killed or injured by auto accidents. Excluding the elevator, no other high-capacity transportation mode can make such a claim.
French HSR infrastructure does it with 2 dedicated high-speed tracks, complete over/underpasses & street closures, automated precision of train spacing, superb brakes, nightly maintenance and engineers trained on realistic simulators. California HSR System is being built to similar operational standards as French HSR infrastructure.
California High Speed Rail Door-to-Door Travel Time Advantage
Traveling between city-pairs via High Speed Train in less than 3 hours has a lot more benefits. Security-check, boarding and de-boarding are a breeze. Mobile workers enjoy productive ride time using large seat-back tables, power sockets at each seat, better seat lamps and more dependable WiFi than airplanes. Riders can watch an entire movie, look at landscape through large windows or just sleep better on smooth rides. They can walk to the cafe car and restrooms whenever they please.
More travelers will also stop at Merced, Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield stations, then transfer to Intercity Buses that go to California’s incredible national parks. Families will have more options to enjoy nature vacations with a lower carbon footprint.
Symbiotic High Speed Rail, Regional Rail & Commuter Rail Relationship
Running 220 mph trains through the Central Valley is insufficient to meet California HSR’s 2 hour 40 minute San Francisco-Los Angeles ride time mandate. The Northern Bookend (San Francisco-SFO Airport-San Jose-Gilroy) and Southern Bookend (Palmdale-Burbank Airport-Los Angeles-Norwalk-Fullerton-Anaheim) urban areas must enable passenger trains to run 110 mph. Infrastructure modernization has started in both bookends to make that goal a reality.
San Francisco’s Salesforce Transit Center is open for Intercity Buses, Bus Rapid Transit, local buses, taxis, Uber & Lyft. Its underground level is pre-built for Caltrain and High Speed Trains. Metro Heavy Rail (called “BART”) and Metro Light Rail (called “Muni Metro”) have underground stations only 1 block away from Salesforce Transit Center, enabling short transfers.
At present, Caltrain stops 1.3 miles short of Salesforce Transit Center. By 2029, San Francisco’s Downtown Tunnel Extension for railway into Salesforce Transit Center is slated to open.
Caltrain commuter rail converts from diesel trains to electric trains in 2024. Since electric trains accelerate & brake faster for higher average speed, Caltrain will initially boost to 90 mph in some segments and nearly double train frequencies. Infrastructure modernization will continue adding over/underpasses and select Siding track for commuter trains to stop at stations between San Jose and San Francisco, while express commuter trains breeze by.
The larger challenge in Northern Bookend is 37 railroad crossings currently used by Caltrain and Amtrak, with a couple nightly freight trains. Those railroad crossings need over/underpasses & street closures for maximum safety and schedule dependability. Five street closures at railroad crossings can be done for under $1 million, but 32 railroad crossings need over/underpasses. In 2021, the average cost for a railroad over/underpass for automobiles is $100 million. California HSR Authority must also build a train storage & maintenance facility likely to cost $200-250 million.
SFO Airport Intermodal Transportation Center already hosts SFO Airport People Mover, Caltrain, BART and local buses. Though upgrade details are sketchy at the moment, this center will receive more amenity upgrades to accommodate travelers in all weather conditions.
San Jose Diridon Station is upgrading to a major intermodal transportation center with traveler amenities as well. A preliminary design of Diridon Intermodal Transportation Center illustrates how it will host California HSR, Caltrain, Amtrak Capitol Corridor, ACE commuter rail, BART Metro Heavy Rail, Santa Clara Metro Light Rail, Intercity Buses and Bus Rapid Transit by 2031.
By 2033, Caltrain and California HSR are slated to share electric infrastructure in Gilroy-San Jose-SFO Airport-San Francisco corridor. The Northern Bookend will fully support 90 mph. When Caltrain Modernization completes by 2040, all passenger trains in the Northern Bookend will reach 110 mph and commuter train frequencies will triple 2019 levels.
Work in the Southern Bookend has started, but the lift is heavier. Palmdale is moving a new intermodal transportation center project closer to Environmental Clearance. It will host California HSR and another HSR line coming from Las Vegas, called Brightline West. A 13-mile tunnel from Palmdale to Burbank Airport will receive Environmental Clearance in 1Q 2022.
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 intermodal transportation center walking distance from the replacement air terminal. Burbank Airport intermodal transportation center will host California HSR, Brightline West HSR and possibly, an LA Metro Heavy Rail extension. Two Metrolink commuter rail lines have stations just north and south of the airport.
Los Angeles Union Station is currently the 6th busiest train station in America. It features 1 Amtrak Regional line, 2 Amtrak Long-Distance lines, 6 Metrolink commuter rail lines, 2 Metro Heavy Rail lines, 1 Metro Light Rail line, Intercity Buses, Bus Rapid Transit, Taxis, Uber & Lyft near a growing office-resident population in Downtown Los Angeles. Its biggest shortcoming is that trains must pull in & back out of the station.
That architecturally-significant station will complete a massive modernization with passenger amenities and run-thru tracks shortly before the 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics. When Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains passing through with a stop at Los Angeles Union Station, will cut 6-10 minutes of ride time.
By 2033, the 44-mile segment of Burbank Airport-LA Union Station-Norwalk-Fullerton-Anaheim corridor is slated to have 4-tracks, electrification, over/underpasses & street closures to support 110 mph. Train nerds would designate that segment “Regional Rail.”
By 2035, California HSR System Phase 1 is slated to open from San Francisco to Anaheim. But all 64 railroad crossings in the Northern and Southern Bookends may not be eliminated until 2040.
Los Angeles-San Diego Rail Corridor Upgrade Compliments HSR
The minimum speed for High Speed Rail (HSR) status is 124 mph (200 kph). Trains on Regional Rail typically run 87-112 mph (140-180 kph) top speed. Upgrading legacy rail to Regional Rail status costs significantly less per mile than HSR because Regional Rail does not have to be as straighter and flat. Though many Regional Rail routes start with diesel-electric trains, only electric trains on Regional Rail are considered world-class because they run at higher average speeds, frequencies and without smog & GHG emissions.
Like most nations, America is gradually upgrading legacy rail to electric-powered Regional Rail status. That’s because 100 miles of modernization can cost $3 billion dollars and our politicians still prioritize highway projects over passenger railway.
Los Angeles Metro Area has 19 million population and and San Diego Metro Area has 3.5 million population in 2021. Their Central Business Districts are only 128 miles apart. When pass-thru tracks at Los Angeles Union Station open, rail distance from Los Angeles to Anaheim will shorten from 32 miles to 31 miles. By passenger rail, Anaheim is 96 miles northwest of central San Diego. In 2019, Amtrak Pacific Surfliner was the nation’s third busiest Amtrak line at 2.9 million annual riders, mostly due to journeys between Los Angeles and San Diego. That does not include ridership from Metrolink and Coaster commuter trains lines sharing the corridor.
Just south of California HSR’s Southern Bookend, Anaheim-San Diego rail corridor has an abundance of 1-track forcing slower speeds by Amtrak Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink, Coaster trains and occasional freight train delays. That infrastructure constraint also limits Amtrak Pacific Surfliner to 44 mph average speed, 2 hour 56 minute Los Angeles-San Diego ride time, and 13 daily roundtrips.
California State, Orange County and San Diego County transportation agencies are gradually modernizing Anaheim-San Diego infrastructure to Regional Rail status. At current state & county funding levels, 95% of Anaheim-San Diego corridor to will have 2-4 tracks and 90% of needed railroad overpasses & street closures and one new tunnel by 2035. Those upgrades will enable 90 mph on most of the route for a 2 hour 35 minute ride time and 18 daily Amtrak round trips.
The current 2035 construction pace needs a speed up to 2029. The Anaheim-San Diego corridor segment should qualify for $2.5 billion/8 years of Federal Amtrak and Federal Transit funding to speed up the Regional Rail upgrade. If that level of federal funding arrives, Los Angeles-San Diego ride time on Amtrak Pacific Surfliner should reduce to 2 hours 30 minutes, along with an increase to 22 daily roundtrips.
If Amtrak receives another large round of federal funding for Regional Rail upgrade projects in 2029, Anaheim-San Diego corridor modernization can complete by 2037. Two more tunnels should open. Amtrak Pacific Surfliner can convert to electric trains and run 110 mph over most of the route and 125 mph through Camp Pendleton for 2 hour 10 minute ride time. Metrolink could also introduce an electric train overlay service in Los Angeles-Anaheim-Irvine-Mission Viejo-Oceanside segment. Coaster could introduce an electric commuter rail overlay service in San Diego-Encinitas-Carlsbad-Oceanside segment as well.
With approximately 28 daily roundtrips by Amtrak Pacific Surfliner and 42 daily roundtrips by Metrolink, many more passengers from Orange County and San Diego County will transfer at Anaheim and Los Angeles intermodal stations.
Once Federal Funding Steps Up, Private Funding Typically Follows
As property values around the Transbay Transit Center escalated to build surrounding office-hotel-retail-residential skyscrapers, San Francisco captured that value to help pay for the $1.9 billion intermodal transportation center called Salesforce Transit Center. In San Francisco, Salesforce is paying $110 million for 25-year naming rights over Transbay Transit Center. The coming Downtown Tunnel Extension into Salesforce Transit Center will enable Caltrain and California HSR to enter the heart of DT San Francisco.
Anticipate hotel-office-retail construction around LA Union Station to help pay for that intermodal transportation center’s $2.4 billion upgrade. SFO Airport, San Jose, Merced, Fresno, Bakersfield, Palmdale and Burbank Airport also plan hotel-office-retail development around their intermodal transportation centers.
Private High Speed Train Operators, Transportation Oriented Developers (TOD) and Big Investors demand lower risk to believe they can earn a good Return On Investment. Today, enough of them believe SalesForce Transit Center along with Brightline West HSR, Texas Central HSR and Florida Regional Rail-HSR projects have risk worthy of $27 billion investment.
They know California HSR ridership potential is higher than all of them combined. But they still need to see more public-funded construction underway for big investment in California HSR. In my estimation, California HSR System needs $36 billion more federal funding to build:
• San Francisco-San Jose ($1.6 billion tunnel + $3.5 billion modernization, 43 miles)
• San Jose-Merced Wye ($13.6 billion, 88 miles)
• Palmdale-Burbank Airport ($16.8 billion, 13 miles)
• Burbank Airport-Los Angeles ($1.4 billion, 13 miles)
• Los Angeles-Anaheim ($2.9 billion, 31 miles)
Once Palmdale-Burbank Airport HSR segment is publicly funded, anticipate Brightline West HSR raising more funds to close the 53-mile Victorville-Palmdale HSR gap. Brightline West HSR would then enlarge its ROI opportunity via Las Vegas-Victor Valley-Palmdale-Burbank Airport-Los Angeles rides. Once that happens, California HSR can anticipate raising $17 billion from a private High Speed Train Operator, Transportation Oriented Developers and other Big Investors to close the last segment of California HSR Phase 1:
• Bakersfield-Palmdale ($15.7 billion, 79 miles)
The Politics of Federal Transportation Funding
An Amtrak rider since 1971, “Amtrak Joe” initially proposed that Congress approve $87 billion for HSR-Amtrak-Freight Rail projects. In the spirit of compromise to get things done however, Biden signed the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Bill allocating only $66 billion for HSR-Amtrak-Freight Rail projects. About $30 billion of that funding amount is earmarked to Northeast Corridor HSR.
The Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Bill also allocates $39 billion for Transit infrastructure. Some of those funds will go to commuter rail routes sharing track with HSR and Amtrak Regional Rail.
President Biden is still pressing Congress to approve some form of his Build Back Better Bill. A key of element of the bill proposes funding to slow Climate Change (via HSR, Amtrak Regional Rail, Rapid Transit, EV charging stations). We won’t know the total federal funding amount until the Build Back Better Bill passes. Provided the bill passes, I estimate California will receive $23 to $30 billion in federal grants for HSR-Amtrak Regional Rail projects based on several factors:
• By USDOT Population Formula Grants, California merits the largest “Other HSR” grants
• California HSR has the most “Ready to Build” HSR segments to cut GHG emissions & create jobs faster
• Santa Barbara-Los Angeles-San Diego is the 2nd busiest Amtrak corridor and has major ridership potential
• Vice President Harris is a former U.S. Senator from California and HSR advocate
• Unlike some governors, California Governor invites more USDOT investment in HSR.
• Consistent with past Olympic Hosts, USDOT will award a federal transportation grant for 2028 Los Angeles Summer Olympics
From November 2028 onwards, another factor favors California HSR and Amtrak Regional Rail upgrades.
Generation Y and Z citizens are born after 1981. They prefer HSR, better Amtrak, better Commuter Rail and more Metro Rail for cost savings, time savings and lower air pollutants. Generation Y and Z will will form the majority of national voters in November 2028. With Amtrak Northeast Corridor HSR much improved and the initial operating segment of California HSR near opening, they will vote to fund more HSR, Amtrak Regional Rail and Rapid Transit upgrades.
If our federal, state & local politicians continuously fund sustainable transportation, 2050 California will benefit from this eye-popping network of electric HSR, Amtrak, Commuter Rail, Metro Rail and Intercity Bus options.