California HSR: Where Now?

California is going ahead with construction of the Central Valley segment, and has just publicly released an email saying it will solicit bids in 3 months, totaling about $6 billion from Bakersfield to just south of Merced, a distance of about 200-210 kilometers. The alignment bypasses some small towns but not all, avoiding some of the scope creep that happened in the years leading up to the Business Plan, which required more elevated segments; however, some towns will still require many grade separations and viaducts, and so will Fresno and Bakersfield.

The HSR Authority has just released environmental impact reports for the Bakersfield-Fresno and Fresno-Merced that point out to higher costs: the sum of the two cheapest alternatives is $10 billion, in 2010 dollars, for 300 km; although the cost per km is not much higher, the Fresno-Bakersfield segment is much more expensive, whereas the extra bits included in the EIR but not the bid request are the cheapest.

There is some additional room for value engineering, especially in Fresno, where the currently preferred alternative calls for viaducts, but the potential for cost saving is not that great, especially relative to the $6 billion estimate; projects run over budget much more frequently than they come under. The main interest here is not the cost overrun: the current stage, the bidding, is the one most prone to overruns, and no matter what, we will know in three months what the projected cost is. The interest is the breakdown of costs, which, as expected, are primarily infrastructure and tracks, including grading and grade separations. The cost overruns come from scope creep, with more elevated segments than originally expected (but, due to value engineering, less than expected in 2009).

At any case, there is money to proceed, at least from Bakersfield to Fresno – there is $6.3 billion available, half from federal spending (which has been spared in the latest austerity plan) and half from Proposition 1A’s matching funds. There is another almost $6 billion locked in Prop 1A, but it has to be matched 50:50. Matching funds will almost certainly materialize, if not from the federal government then from foreign governments anxious to pay California to buy their products (for example, Japan’s ambassador to the US offered half the money, and Japan expects China and Korea to offer funding as well). It should be enough to build an initial operable segment, though probably not to build from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The question is then how to prioritize. The gold standard here should be building all the way from Sylmar to San Jose and electrifying the legacy lines at the two ends. At the Bay Area end, the Caltrain FRA waiver ensures this wouldn’t cause regulatory problems, and while it would limit initial capacity, it would not increase travel time by more than a few minutes. At the Los Angeles Basin end, it would require Metrolink or HSR to seek a waiver, along the lines Caltrain has already gotten; the speed reduction, while still not very large, would be larger, because the travel time simulations assume higher operating speed in the LA Basin, and there will be fewer speed limits due to curves.

Unfortunately, while cutting the initial segment to San Jose-Sylmar will save a large number of billions of dollars in urban grade separations, it may not save enough, though it’s fairly close if one believes the 2009 Business Plan numbers. If California has half the money from foreign sources, then matched with Prop 1A and existing federal money, it has a total of $24 billion, which is not enough. The question then boils down to where to go first from the Central Valley – south or north. North would involve going over Pacheco Pass to San Jose (or, better yet, over Altamont Pass to Livermore and thence Redwood City). South would involve going south to Sylmar, either through Palmdale or directly through Tejon Pass, which carries I-5; although Palmdale is the preferred alternative, the HSR Authority is looking at Tejon again. For a slide show using the existing preferred options, see here. Either alone should be doable with the money available under such a circumstance, which is about $18 billion.

I claim that the southern option is the better one – in fact, that LA-Bakersfield is more important than Bakersfield-Fresno. The reason is, first, a pure numbers game: LA is much larger than anything else in California. And second, Tejon is where the existing legacy transit options are the worst: Amtrak can’t go between Palmdale and Bakersfield at all because the Tehachapi Loop is at capacity, ensuring that a mixed legacy-high speed operation in the mold of the initial TGV runs is not possible even under reformed FRA regulations.

Northern options suffer from different problems. The Pacheco option’s problem is that it uses Pacheco, and is therefore inadequate at linking the Bay Area to Sacramento. This means nothing further can be done until enough money materializes to connect to the Los Angeles Basin. The Altamont option’s problem is that the Phase 0 option connects to Livermore and requires a transfer; connecting to Redwood City is possible, but requires all of the most expensive elements of Altamont, especially crossing the Bay in the vicinity of the Dumbarton Bridge.

Once the southern option is selected, the question is how far to go. Bakersfield-Sylmar is expensive, and although it’s easily doable given 50% foreign funding, lower levels of funding may not suffice. Bakersfield-Palmdale is much easier, and could be done on existing Prop 1A money if it were not required a 50:50 match; however, Palmdale is not in the LA Basin, and the legacy rail line to LA is curvy and steep. Express Metrolink trains do Palmdale-LA in 1:28, versus 0:27 projected for HSR. Higher cant deficiency and acceleration with electrification could cut the travel time somewhat, but not enough to make HSR competitive for travel from LA to the Central Valley. Travel from LA to the Bay Area is another issue, but a situation in which it’s possible to build all the way to San Jose is one in which there’s money to build to Sylmar.

The alternative is to use Tejon and connect to the legacy line in Santa Clarita. It’s more expensive because Tejon is one big crossing whereas the Palmdale route involves two smaller crossings, one to Bakersfield and one to the LA Basin. It should still be affordable, though I have no detailed segment-by-segment breakdown of the Tejon route’s cost. The advantage is that Santa Clarita is much closer to Los Angeles than Palmdale, and the legacy Metrolink route to Palmdale is fairly straight south of Santa Clarita; even now, express trains travel to LA in 42 minutes, half an hour slower than full HSR buildout rather than an hour as with Palmdale, and there’s more potential for an increase in speed.

That said, the debate is most likely academic – Tejon vs. Palmdale is most likely going to be decided primarily on a revisited look at the costs, with other issues (LA County power brokers prefer Palmdale, Tejon is shorter) not much more than tiebreakers. In addition, a situation in which Prop 1A money could be released for the crossing is one in which matching funds have materialized, making the full Bakersfield-LA route realistic with the available money. The primary lesson is that there should be enough money to build a realistic initial operable segment, not going all the way from LA to San Francisco but still serving a fair number of intercity travelers.


  1. anonymouse

    The basic problem is that California politics is regional, and the various regions’ politicians were vying for who gets the first construction. The problem there is that politicians only exist where people do, and that is in the Bay Area, Central Valley, and LA Basin, but not in the places in between. And the important parts of the HSR project are exactly those connections between the populated areas. The Bay Area has its Caltrain, the LA Basin has Metrolink, and the Central Valley has a freight line that can easily be upgraded to double track and 110 mph operation, but between the Bay Area and Central Valley, the only option is going north via Martinez or a slow crawl through a congested Altamont, and between LA and Bakersfield, the only option is a bus. And unfortunately, given the likelihood of additional funding becoming available from anywhere, including Prop 1A bonds, it’s likely to stay that way for a while. But yeah, starting from LA would have made lots of sense in at least getting some more competitive train options for the entire corridor.

    • dejv

      or a slow crawl through a congested Altamont

      What about reactivating disused SP alignment there as a second track? Most of ROW seems intact and the used parts already parallel double track section of current alignment.

  2. Joseph E

    Thank you for this analysis, Alon. After reading about the cost estimate increases, I was starting to give up hope on the system every being completed. But it’s true that the state of California still has 6 billion of bonds, and private funds have not yet been sought. And the cost-saving choices (like reduced viaducts, in favor of at-grade routes or bypasses around towns instead) are a good sign that Van Ark, the new CEO, knows what he is doing.

    As someone who has taken the bus from Long Beach or Los Angeles to Bakersfield, to connect with the San Joaquin there, I agree that getting the system from Bakersfield to LA is the next priority, if it can be done for that price. Even a 5 hour trip from LA to SF, using “legacy” tracks at both ends, would be about as fast as flying or driving, and would show a reasonable ridership and prove the concept of HSR for Californians.

    I also have hope that the new cost estimates are on the high side, so that the Authority can have “surprising” good news when the bids come in below the estimates. That would be the politically smart thing to do.

    • Alon Levy

      The cost increases are smaller than what the AP is panicking about (and, at the highest estimate, still less than the CARRD estimate). $6 billion for the 200 km is reasonable; it may well run over, but it’s not a slam dunk.

      • Danny

        It isn’t terrible for an average cost per km…but considering that this section is likely to be the cheapest of ALL of them, that is cause for concern.

        • Alon Levy

          It’s okay for an average cost per above-ground km. Not brilliant, but the LGV Est’s second phase (with just one short tunnel) is $24 million/km, and the one Belgian line for which I found cost estimates was $29 million/km. And the less said about construction costs in Germany and the Netherlands, the better. I don’t think $30 million/km is an atrocity; it could and should be lower, but the unrealized potential for saving is nowhere near as great as for, say, getting the urban construction and the tunnels right. The SF-SJ segment’s construction cost sometimes makes me (and others who I’m channeling) go apoplectic; the Central Valley’s does not, at least not yet.

  3. Danny

    I know that this is an incredibly political process, and therefore not susceptible to intelligent planning, but I can’t help but think this is a huge mistake.

    The first segment built should catalyze support for the rest to be built. That means it needs all the typical things (high speed, reliability, good price, customer service, etc)…but it also means high ridership.

    The section of CAHSR that has the highest potential for ridership is already proven to have high ridership at low speeds: San Diego to Los Angeles…so high ridership, but maybe not incredible ridership growth.

    But the second best corridor is Fresno-Los Angeles. There is already an established demand for travel back and forth, with the highest traffic levels on the entirety of I-5, and the Fresno Airport incapable of hosting more flights to LA without major improvements in infrastructure. Since most traffic is local in nature, it can catalyze on commuter traffic to LA as well.

    Building full HSR from Bakersfield to Merced is like building an 8 lane highway from Elko NV to Wendover NV…it only almost does something useful.

    • Danny

      sorry, replace Fernley with Elko. Its been a while since I had to drive in that hellhole.

    • Joseph E

      “the [second] best corridor is Fresno-Los Angeles”
      But that corridor would cost well over the currently available $6 billion.
      It would be nice if we could build at least Sylmar (or Palmdale) to Bakersfield first, but that section has long tunnels and will require extensive engineering. It hasn’t even been 100% decided if the route will follow the Tehachapi route or the Grapevine pass. So there was no way to start work by 2012, as required the stimulus funding.

      As Alon said in the post above, we might be able to build Fresno to (near) Los Angeles, and run trains all the way from SF to LA on legacy tracks at the ends, but the planning and engineering won’t be finished in time to build the first segment. So Fresno to Bakersfield it is.

    • Paulus Magnus

      Unfortunately, while SD-LA makes the best sense, the legislature decided to mandate that it go through Riverside and the IE and that it be the second phase of the project; as a result it is almost entirely tunnel and viaduct. The expense of that is such that even after Phase I is done, I don’t really expect that line to be built.

  4. Tom West

    The numbers being out regarding the values of the contracts are presumably estimates by CHSRA… unless they are completely ofg, I imagine no-one would bid the full amount if they wanted to win.
    Interestingly, the track-laying contract is completely seperate from all the other work. I assume that’s because there are lots of companies with experience with earthworks/viaducts/bridges/tunnels, but very few with experience of high-speed track-laying. Seperating the two means you get more competition for the first part, and hopefully lower bids.

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  6. jim

    There’s more opportunity for value engineering than you’d at first think. A reduction in scope of the stations, for example, would yield considerable savings. Perhaps, over all four stations, close to a billion.

    Mike Antonov has suggested that an upgraded Antelope Valley line would support a sixty minute non-stop LAUS-Palmdale trip time. A blended system Palmdale-LAUS would be easier to achieve than a blended system San Jose to TBT. Metrolink runs fewer trains per hour than Caltrain and they’re essentially unidirectional — into the city mornings, out evenings. And LAUS has the merit of existing and having spare unused tracks and platforms. It would be harder to get an FRA waiver, of course: the San Fernando Tunnel would have to remain single track and some stretches of the Canyon might not be double-trackable.

    Still, as the first of possibly overlapping phases, an under three hour LA-Palmdale-Bakersfield-Fresno-Merced route (with connections at Merced for Modesto-Stockton-Sacramento as well as Emeryville and Oakland) should attract sufficient ridership. And not cost more than $10B over the already funded construction (assuming the rolling stock is funded from RRIP, like the Amtrak locomotives you deplore).

    If more funds can be found, then high speed from the wye to San Jose and a blended system along an electrified Caltrain into 4th and King would provide an LA-SF single seat trip in on the order of four hours. Again, for something less than $10B over the previous phase.

    Once that’s in place, the rest of the original Phase 1 becomes speeding up and increasing the capacity of an existing service and extending its endpoints to Anaheim and TBT, as funds become available.

  7. Nikko P

    Are you saying it’s actually faster to go via Altamont and then backtrack to San Jose are do you mean crossing the bay at Redwood City?

    • Alon Levy

      I mean crossing the Bay near Redwood City. A rehabilitated Dumbarton Bridge would unfortunately still be unusable at high speed, but it’s possible to build a new bridge, or a tunnel. A water tunnel along the same alignment is currently being engineered, so a train tunnel could piggyback on existing geological studies.

      According to the EIR, Altamont-via-Dumbarton is 2 minutes faster than Pacheco; Altamont is longer but has a higher average speed. The time should be more appropriately thought of as a tie, because both Altamont and Pacheco’s travel times are vulnerable to small changes. Both options assume 200 km/h on the Peninsula and curve modifications that are not being done, but the Peninsula segment is longer under Pacheco; both assume 350 km/h through Central Valley towns, which may prove infeasible due to noise complaints, but Altamont is longer and has a much longer CV segment.

      • Nikko P

        I guess the problem with that is it leaves San Jose off of the HSR mainline which means that 1) you can’t run LA-SF trains through San Jose — you would have to have the trains terminate either at San Jose or SF which means reduced frequency for both 2) it makes it more difficult for Caltrain to piggyback to electrify their line. One idea I’ve never heard is to have HSR cross at Altamont and travel up the east side of the bay to Oakland and cross over to SF there. Obviously, this wouldn’t benefit local transportation but I would imagine it would make acquiring ROW and easier and cheaper and maybe even allow for faster speeds.

        • Alon Levy

          Issue 2) is not really relevant – electrification is cheap, even at Caltrain’s insane prices, and HSR would provide about half the electrification anyway. Issue 1) is more serious, and is the main saving grace of Pacheco; that said, San Jose is much less important than it seems, and leaving it off the mainline to SF is a lesser problem than Pacheco’s inability to serve SF-Sacramento traffic.

          HSR through Altamont and a second Transbay Tube would be ideal, and was studied in the EIR. But it was rejected for cost reasons (even though the cost was not that much higher than for the other options), and subsequently San Francisco built towers over space previously reserved for it. It would actually benefit local transportation more than the other options, since the biggest unmet demand is for more travel within and between Oakland and San Francisco.

  8. Stephen Smith

    …if not from the federal government then from foreign governments anxious to pay California to buy their products (for example, Japan’s ambassador to the US offered half the money, and Japan expects China and Korea to offer funding as well).

    LOL – keep dreamin’, buddy! 😉

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