California Governor Gavin Newsom spoke his piece, and California HSR is most likely dead. His state of the state speech tried to have it both ways, and his chief of staff insisted that no, he had not just canceled the HSR project, but his language suggests he’s not going to invest any more money or political capital in going beyond the Central Valley. Lisa Schweitzer put it best when she talked about his sense of priorities.
I actually don’t want to talk about the costs of the project; an article about this topic will appear in the Bay City Beacon any day now, and I will update this post with a link when it does. Rather, I want to talk about alignments. For those of you who’ve been reading me since the start, this means reopening some topics that involved tens of thousands of comments’ worth of flamewars on California HSR Blog.
What they should be building
As before, red denotes HSR with top speed of 350 km/h outside the built-up areas of the largest cities, and blue denotes legacy lines with through-service. I ask that people not overinterpret pixel-level alignments. The blue alignment in Southern California is the legacy route taken by Amtrak, the one in the Bay Area is a legacy line from Fremont to San Jose that some area transit advocates want a Caltrain extension on (and if it’s unavailable then it can be deleted with a forced transfer to BART), the one in the far north of the state is the freight line up to Redding.
The mid-2000s environmental impact study claims that Los Angeles-San Francisco via Altamont Pass would take 2:36 nonstop. The Tejon route I’m drawing is 12 minutes faster, so in theory this is 2:24. But three express stops in the middle, even in lower-speed territory right near Los Angeles and San Francisco, lead to somewhat longer trip times, as do various design compromises already made to reduce costs. My expectation is that the alignment drawn is about 2:45 on LA-SF and somewhat less on LA-Sacramento, on the order of 2:15 nonstop.
Why Tejon and not the Tehachapis
There are two ways to get between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. The first is the alignment taken by the I-5, called the Grapevine or Tejon Pass. The second is to detour far to the east via Palmdale and Tehachapi Pass. The alignment I drew is Tejon, that chosen by the HSR Authority is the Tehachapis.
Clem Tillier made a presentation about why Tejon is far superior. It is shorter, reducing trip times by about 12 minutes. It is less expensive, since the shorter length of the route as well as the reduced tunneling requirement means fewer civil structures are required; Clem’s presentation cites a figure of $5 billion, but with recent overruns I’ve heard a figure closer to $7 billion.
The exact cost of either alignment depends on standards. Unlike Northeastern passenger rail efforts, which are based on bad American design standards that recommend very shallow grades, ideally no more than 1.5-2%, California HSR uses a generic European standard of up to 3.5%, the same as in France. However, 3.5% is a conservative value, designed around TGVs, which almost uniquely in the HSR world have separate power cars. Distributed traction, that is EMUs, has higher initial acceleration and can climb steeper grades. One German HSR line goes up to 4%, and only the EMU ICE 3 train is allowed to use it, not the ICE 1 and 2, which have power cars like the TGVs. Even 5% is achievable far from stations and slow zones, which would reduce tunneling requirements even further.
In the mid-2000s, it was thought that the Tehachapi alignment could be done with less tunneling than Tejon. Only one 3.5% alignment through Tejon was available without crossing a fault line underground, so Tehachapi seemed safer. But upon further engineering, it became clear more tunneling was needed through Soledad Canyon between Los Angeles and Palmdale, while the Tejon alignment remained solid. The HSR Authority resisted the calls to shift to Tejon, and even sandbagged Tejon in its study, for two reasons:
1. Los Angeles County officials favored the Tehachapi route in order to develop Palmdale around the HSR station.
2. A private real estate company called Tejon Ranch planned to build greenfield development near the Tejon HSR route called Tejon Mountain Village, and opposed HSR construction on its property.
As Clem notes, the market capitalization of Tejon Ranch is about an order of magnitude less than the Tehachapi-Tejon cost difference. As for the county’s plans for Palmdale, spending $5 billion on enabling more sprawl in Antelope Valley is probably not the state’s highest priority, even if an HSR station for (optimistically) a few thousand daily travelers in a region of 400,000 exists to greenwash it.
Why follow the coast to San Diego
Two years ago I wrote an article for the Voice of San Diego recommending electrifying the Los Angeles-San Diego Amtrak line and running trains there faster, doing the trip in about 2 hours, or aspirationally 1:45. Amtrak’s current trip time is 2:48-2:58 depending on time of day.
The alignment proposed by the HSR Authority instead detours through the Inland Empire. The good thing about it is that as a greenfield full-speed route it can actually do the trip faster than the legacy coast line could – the plan in the 2000s was to do it in 1:18, an average speed of about 190 km/h, on account of frequent curves limiting trains to about 250 km/h. Unfortunately, greenfield construction would have to be postponed to phase 2 of HSR, after Los Angeles-San Francisco was complete, due to costs. Further design and engineering revealed that the route would have to be almost entirely on viaducts, raising costs.
If I remember correctly, the estimated cost of the HSR Authority’s proposed alignment to San Diego was $10 billion in the early 2010s, about $40 million per kilometer (and so far Central Valley costs have been higher). Even excluding the Los Angeles-Riverside segment, which is useful for HSR to Phoenix, this is around $7 billion for cutting half an hour out of trips from Los Angeles and points north to San Diego. Is it worth it? Probably not.
What is more interesting is the possibility of using the Inland Empire detour to give San Diego faster trips to Phoenix and Las Vegas. San Diego-Riverside directly would be around 45 minutes, whereas via Los Angeles it would be around 2:20.
However, the same question about the half hour’s worth of saving on the high-speed route can equally be asked about connecting San Diego to Las Vegas and Phoenix. These are three not especially large, not especially strong-centered cities. The only really strong center generating intercity travel there is the Las Vegas Strip, and there San Diego is decidedly a second-order origin compared with Los Angeles; the same is even true of San Francisco, which could save about 40 minutes to Las Vegas going via Palmdale and Victorville, or 55 minutes via Mojave and Barstow.
Ultimately, the non-arboreal origin of money means that the $7 billion extra cost of connecting Riverside to San Diego is just too high for the travel time benefits it could lead to. There are better uses of $7 billion for improving connectivity to San Diego, including local rail (such as a light rail tunnel between city center and Hillcrest, branching out to Mid-City and Kearny Mesa) and a small amount of extra money on incrementally upgrading the coast line.
Why Altamont is better than Pacheco
I’m leaving the most heated issue to last: the route between the Central Valley and the Bay Area. I am not exaggerating when I am saying tens of thousands of comments have been written in flamewars on California HSR Blog over its ten years of existence; my post about political vs. technical activists treated this flamewar as almost a proxy for which side one was on.
The route I drew is Altamont Pass. It carries I-580 from Tracy to Livermore, continuing onward to Pleasanton and Fremont. It’s a low pass and trains can go over the pass above-ground, and would only need to tunnel further west in order to reach Fremont and then cross the Bay to Redwood City. Many variations are possible, and the one studied in the mid-2000s was not the optimal one: the technical activist group TRANSDEF, which opposes Pacheco, hired French consultancy SETEC to look at it and found a somewhat cheaper and easier-to-construct Altamont alignment than the official plan. The biggest challenge, tunneling under the Bay between Fremont and Redwood City, is parallel to a recently-built water tunnel in which there were no geotechnical surprises. Second-hand sources told me at the beginning of this decade that such a rail tunnel could be built for $1 billion.
Pacheco Pass is far to the south of Altamont. The route over that pass diverges from the Central Valley spine in Chowchilla, just south of Merced, and heads due west toward Gilroy, thence up an alignment parallel to the freight line or US 101 to San Jose. The complexity there is that the pass itself requires tunneling as the terrain there is somewhat more rugged than around Altamont.
As far as connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco goes, the two alignments are equivalent. The old environmental impact reports stated a nonstop trip time of 2:36 via Altamont and 2:38 via Pacheco; Pacheco is somewhat more direct but involves somewhat more medium-speed running in suburbia, so it cancels out. The early route compromises, namely the Central Valley route, affected Altamont more than Pacheco, but subsequent compromises in the Bay Area are the opposite; nonetheless, the difference remains small. However, Pacheco is superior for service between Los Angeles and San Jose, where it is about 10 minutes faster, while Altamont is superior for service between the Bay Area and Sacramento, where it is around an hour faster and requires less additional construction to reach Sacramento.
As with the Tehachapis, the Authority sandbagged the alignment it did not want. San Jose-based HSR Authority board member Rod Diridon wanted Pacheco for the more direct route to Los Angeles, perhaps realizing that if costs ran over or the promised federal and private funding did not materialize, all three of which would indeed happen, the spur to San Jose was the easiest thing to cut, leaving the city with a BART transfer to Fremont. Consequently, the Authority put its finger on the study’s scale: it multiplied the frequency effect on passenger demand by a factor of six, to be able to argue that splitting trains between two Bay Area destinations would reduce ridership; it conducted public hearings in NIMBY suburbs near Altamont but not in ones near Pacheco; and early on it even planned to build San Francisco-San Jose as its first segment, upgrading Caltrain in the meantime.
And as with the Tehachapis, the chosen route turned out to be worse than imagined. Subsequent business plans revealed more tunneling was needed. The route through San Jose itself was compromised with curvy viaducts, and the need to blend regional and intercity traffic on the Caltrain route forced further slowdowns in intercity train speed, from a promised 30 minutes between San Francisco and San Jose to about 45. The most recent business plan even gave up on high speed between Gilroy and San Jose and suggested running on the freight mainline in the initial operating stage, at additional cost and time given Union Pacific’s hostility to passenger rail.
What is salvageable?
The HSR Authority has made blunders, perhaps intentionally and perhaps not, that complicate any future project attempting to rescue the idea of HSR. In both Los Angeles and the Bay Area, delicate timetabling is needed to blend regional and intercity rail. Heavy freight traffic interferes with this scheduling, especially as Union Pacific demands unelectrified track, generous freight slots, and gentle grades for its weak diesel locomotives, frustrating any attempt to build grade-separations cheaply by using 3-4% grades. Caltrain’s trackage rights agreement with UP contained a guillotine clause permitting it to kick freight off the line if it changed in favor of an incompatible use, originally intended to permit BART to take over the tracks; Caltrain gave up this right. UP is not making a profit on the line, where it runs a handful of freight trains per day, but the industrial users insisted on freight rail service.
Likewise, the Central Valley segment has some route compromises baked in, although these merely raise costs rather than introducing forced slowdowns or scheduling complications. A future project between Merced, the northern limit of current construction, and Sacramento, could just spend more time early on negotiating land acquisitions with the farmers.
It is in a way fortunate that in its incompetence, the HSR Authority left the most important rail link in the state – Los Angeles-Bakersfield – for last. With no construction on the Tehachapi route, the state will be free to build Tejon in the future. It will probably need to buy out Tejon Mountain Village or add some more tunneling, but the cost will still be low compared with that of the Palmdale detour.
Ultimately, the benefits of HSR increase over time as cities increase in size, economic activity, and economic connectivity. The Shinkansen express trains ran hourly in 1965; today, they run six times per hour off-peak and ten at the peak. Going back even earlier, passenger traffic on the London Underground at the beginning of the 20th century was not impressive by today’s standards. The fact that national rail traffic plummeted in most developed countries due to the arrival of mass motorization should not distract from the fact that overall travel volumes are up with economic growth, and thus, in a growing area, the case for intercity rail investment steadily strengthens over time.
Chickenshit governors like Newsom, Andrew Cuomo, and Charlie Baker are not an immutable fact of life. They are replaced after a few terms, and from time to time they are replaced by more proactive leaders, ones who prefer managing big-ticket public projects successfully to canceling them or scaling them back on the grounds that they are not competent enough to see them through.