Sunday Train: Did Governor Brown Save California’s HSR?

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

As I mentioned in last week’s Sunday Train, the California HSR Authority came out with a revised draft Business Plan.

And why do you revise a draft Business Plan? Because some people suggested some modifications to your previous draft Business Plan might be in order … for instance, if there’s a possibility that you cannot get bonds authorized to start work on the part of the corridor where the Federal Government has already put some funding on the table.

The new, revised, draft Business Plan seems to mark the final passing of the baton from the Judge Kopp absolutist vision of the what an HSR “simply has to be” to the more grounded, realistic vision of Governor Brown …

… and in the process of dragging the HSR Authority back into touch with reality, it is quite possible that Governor Brown has saved the California HSR project.

There are two qualifiers here. The first is that without an account of someone privy to the details of the Governor’s intervention, we won’t know what changes were things the California HSR was on track to doing anyway, and what changes were pushed upon them. But even there, what “the HSR Authority wanted to do” was likely heavily influenced by the changing of the guard from Schwarzenegger appointees to Brown appointees at the Authority.

The second is that getting to work is not yet a done deal. Supporters of the project ~ whether ongoing supporters or those won over by the newly revised plan ~ still need to work to help see the project through to construction of the first construction segment.

The devil is in the details, so we go chasing the devil below the fold.

First, some details about Sunday Train

First thing, given the slow blogging rate in the last two months of 2011 and the haitus in the first three months of 2012, there may be a higher than normal number of readers new to the Sunday Train reading, so some background details on the long running Sunday Train series may be in order.

The Sunday Train is not actually restricted to trains. My blogging on sustainable transport as a key part to both an ecologically sustainable and an Energy Independent American Economy evolved into the Sunday Train, and while trains are a strategic part of that, they are far from the sole or even principle component of a sustainable transport system.

The Sunday Train is not a transit blogging series. This follows from the above ~ the Sunday Train is a sustainable economy blogging series. Sometimes transit pops up as an issue, sometimes the focus is on intercity transport, sometimes the focus is on Active Transport, sometimes the focus is on sustainable personal vehicles.

The Sunday Train is not newspaper level coverage. Although I am not an orthodox “if I can’t say it in calculus it does not exist” economist, I am an economist, and I like to dig into the details where I can. So in that light, I can make my first money back guarantee: if you find that the Sunday Train goes into a boring amount of detail, I will gladly refund my share of your ticket price.

The Sunday Train is not a professional Benefit/Cost report. On the other hand, this is a being done in my spare time, so the series chases down questions I am interested in. And of course, because of that, I can make extend the terms of my money back guarantee: if I don’t cover some aspect of a question at hand in exhaustive detail, I will gladly refund my share of your ticket price.

And now, time to get this Sunday Train out of the station.

The Other, Other Plan, Which They Decided to Call the Other, Other Plan…

So, what is the plan? From the Midwest HSR Association site:

The California High-Speed Rail Authority released a revised Business Plan to launch the nation’s first true HSR service, capable of traveling 220 miles-per-hour from Merced to the San Fernando Valley. The new plan implements service within ten years, cuts project costs by $30 billion, and utilizes existing rail lines on the northern and southern ends of the system.

Under the revised draft 2012 Business Plan, construction begins this year on the 300-mile Initial Operating Section, stretching from Merced to the San Fernando Valley.

Construction of the entire 520-mile rail system will finish in 2028, with service to begin in 2029.

Following the release of a draft plan in November, the California HSR Authority received comments from a broad range of interested parties, including the general public.

This new plan also improves the safety and efficiency of existing urban rail systems. These improvements will bring immediate benefits to commuters and ultimately allow the integration of local systems with high-speed rail.

Key changes in the revised plan include:

  • Constructing 300 miles of electrified railroad from Merced to San Fernando Valley in ten years.
  • Improving existing rail service in the Bay Area and Los Angeles regions to integrate those systems with high-speed rail service.
  • Cutting $30 billion in costs.
  • The potential to access cap & trade funds as a backstop to federal funding.

The improved system will cost $68.4 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars, a $30 billion reduction over the previous plan. Six billion dollars in funding has already been identified for the first segment of the Initial Operating Section, including $3.3 billion in federal funding and $2.7 billion in voter-approved Proposition 1A bond proceeds. Cap and trade funds are also available as a backstop against federal and local support to complete the initial operating section. No operating subsidy will be required.

How does this save $30b? Most of that is lurking under the phrase, “integrate those systems with high-speed rail service”. From the Mercury Bee last week:

The updated business plan also devotes up to $2 billion to improve existing urban rail. Linking with those systems rather than pushing the high-speed rail line into California’s major cities is one of the biggest cost-savers in the new plan.

“We are not sitting here saying that we ‘saved’ $30 billion,” rail authority chairman Dan Richard said Saturday. By using existing railroad rights of way, he said, “We can deliver high-speed rail, as the voters voted for it, for $30 billion less than if we had to build our own system the entire length of the way.”  

For an idea of how the original plan was going … uhhh, “off the rails” … well, anyway, not going well, and how a constant cost estimate of a bit over $30b in mid-2000’s dollars which was a “Year of Expenditure” cost of around $45b had nearly doubled in cost to around $98b … we can turn to the scathing reaction of Judge Kopp, former chairman of the California HSR Authority:

“I call it the great train robbery,” said Quentin Kopp, a former state senator and rail authority board member. “Because they plan, if they can get away with it, to take money out of high-speed rail and bestow it on to commuter rail systems,” he said.

“This isn’t high-speed rail,” Kopp said, “High-speed rail runs on dedicated tracks.”

… which seems, sadly, intended to be a factual statement, no matter how divorced from reality it may be.

See, Express High-Speed Rail runs on dedicated track when it is going at Express High Speed Rail speeds, but the sections from San Jose to the San Francisco TransBay Terminal, and from the San Fernando Valley to LA’s Union Station were never planned to run at 220mph. Even during the period when Judge Kopp played a leading role in the California HSR Authority, they were always planned to be the 110mph to 125mph speed corridors that are, in US federal law, also designated as “High Speed Rail”, but which Europeans and Japanese would simply consider to be normal express urban passenger rail corridors.

After all, the near universal nationwide 79mph rail speed limit in the US was the result of a failed policy to force freight rail operators to upgrade their mainline systems to include Positive Train Control (PTC) signal systems. The rule, put in place half a century ago, was that anything 80mph or more had to have PTC installed. In reaction, the freight rail operators cut the top speed on most corridor that they owned to 79mph. Meanwhile in Europe and Japan where passenger rail played a far more important role in deciding where new Express track would be built, there was no artificial speed limit, and so “normal” express passenger rail speeds have moved incrementally upwards over time.

However, if you are going to upgrade a corridor to 125mph in the 50 miles between San Jose and San Francisco, or the 12 miles between Burbank and LA Union Station … why would you make that a corridor that can only be used by Express HSR trains? It makes all the sense in the world to share that corridor with Express “Electric Multiple Units” (EMU’s), which are designed around the world with top speeds of 110mph and 125mph.

Well, on this point, Judge Kopp is wrong, and either Governor Brown’s appointees or Governor Brown himself is right. And that is really no surprise, since back in the 1980’s, Governor Brown knew more about High Speed Rail than it seems like Judge Kopp ever bothered to find out.

Consider the highly successful Spanish HSR “AVE” line between Madrid and Barcelona. Nobody can look at the first year results of ridership when the Madrid to Barcelona corridor was finally completed and say that the Spanish are clueless regarding HSR. Given these results, the Spanish are “cluefull” indeed:

And now consider how many HSR trains they operate per hour (tph = trains per hour) on that corridor, leaving Barcelona for Madrid on a regular weekday schedule:

  • 6am-7am: 4tph
  • 7am-8am: 3tph
  • 8am-9am: 2tph
  • 9am-3pm: 1tph
  • 3pm-7pm: 2tph
  • 7pm-9pm: 1tph  

Judge Kopp’s plan was to grab big chunks of existing public rail right of way to run dedicated exclusively HSR 125mph corridors. Anywhere there was an obstacle, the “Rapid Rail” urban HSR corridor would go over the obstacle on a viaduct or under the obstacle in a tunnel. Now, while this strategy might make civil construction contractors mouth water, it does have the small drawback that it is an insane waste of resources. What the HSR provides is speed. Efficiency, speed and flexible operation does require a corridor that is free of freight trains and the heavy weight penalty that Federal safety regulations imposed due to the risks of collisions with freight trains. But  there’s no sane reason in the world why a 125mph urban stretch of corridor cannot be shared by HSR trains and by lightweight, fast, EMU trains providing effective local express passenger service.

That is, after all, how France built their highly successful network: using the Urban Express Passenger Rail corridors to get from the center of large cities to the outskirts, and then entering the dedicated Express HSR corridor to go from the outskirts of one large city to the outskirts of another.

Now, sure, large US cities do not normally have those “Urban Express Passenger Rail” corridors in place. But that is no excuse to build them and then fail to use them efficiently.

Merced to Burbank? Really?

The interwebs they were buzzing with some spokesperson or other using the phrase “Merced to Burbank”.

See, the staging of the plan is like this:

  • First, when the Initial Construction Segment is finished, from a bit south of Merced to just north and east of Bakersfield, the San Joaquin will get to start using the corridor
  • Then the corridor will be exiended in two segments, first to Lancaster/Palmdale and then south to the San Fernando Valley and north to Merced
  • And then the first HSR service will run from the San Fernando Valley to Merced and back (under two hours each way), connecting with the existing Northern California intercity rail services in Merced
  • And then the HSR will be extended to the Bay area at San Jose, running the “Bay to Basin” route from San Jose to the San Fernando Valley
  • And then the HSR will be finished at the bookends, to run from San Francisco TransBay Terminal to Los Angeles Union Station

A couple of points jump out. First, “San Fernando Valley” is not automatically Burbank. However, Burbank seems likely, since it is between the Burbank Airport and Downtown Burbank that the Antelope Valley Line, in a publicly owned corridor, junctions with the Amtrak and Ventura County line running west, which is 40% publicly owned, 60% owned by Union Pacific. The 12 mile or so section between Burbank and LA Union Station requires upgrades to handle the higher speed traffic, including grade separations all the way, and the way that the substantial freight traffic in the corridor will share the corridor with local and intercity passenger rail still has to be hammered out.

Note that this is where the California HSR Authority was first planning on taking half for itself for an exclusive HSR corridor, leaving two tracks for the local public owners of the corridor to share with the freight trains. The owners of the corridor said, “uhh, no, over the next twenty years we are going to want more than just two tracks in that section”, and so the plan became to build a HSR viaduct over the trenched or elevated local rail corridor, or else an HSR tunnel under an elevated local rail corridor. Dropping the arbitrary “exclusive to HSR use” plan means that the corridor can be developed into a normal integrated local and express corridor, with the express corridor capacity with a 125mph speed limit and having ample capacity to allow the HSR through.

However, the terminus in the San Fernando Valley is one of those planning contingencies: if development of the upgraded Burbank to LA Union Station segment allows it, obviously one would be happy to keep the “Initial Operating Service” running through to LA Union Station, even if you had to haul it there with a diesel locomotive. In reality, whether the San Fernando Valley station will end up being in Sylmar, Burbank Airport or Downtown Burbank is still up in the air, especially since its the end of the Third Construction Segment. Planning for the Second Construction Segment is going to have to be finalized while the ICS is being constructed, and then after the funds for the Second Construction Segment are scraped together, planning for the segment that will end in the San Fernando Valley somewhere, maybe stopping there and maybe with through running to LA Union Station … will have to be finalized then.

Another thing that pops out is that the staging sequence doesn’t say whether the San Joaquin will be the first user of the Merced to Palmdale corridor or whether it will be possible to start the HSR from there. There’s language in the business plan that basically says, “maybe”. Certainly if the San Joaquin can get to Palmdale, it can run down the current Antelope Valley Corridor and end its service in the LA Basin itself. And being able to run 110mph between Palmdale and Merced would let it run at a Bay to Basin trip speed that is competitive with or appreciably faster than driving (depending on congestion at the origin, destination or both).

Whether the HSR can run with an assured operating surplus in that portion, relying on connecting rail service on both ends for much of its traffic ~ the revised draft Business Plan is not banking on it, but it leaves the door open. For one thing, if a private franchise operator were to bid to operate such a service with no public subsidy, than that on its own would seem to comply with 2008’s CA-Prop1a. Then the details of how that service would operate would not be exclusively decided by the California HSR Authority in any event.

A third thing that pops out is that Phase 1 was always described as San Francisco to Anaheim. The 2008 CA-Prop1a sets down a target SF-TBT/LA-US speed to meet to qualify as finishing Phase 1, and allows but does not require all sorts of other services to be part of Phase 1 ~ but Anaheim has been the preferred option for the terminus of the Phase 1 corridor from SF to LA for over three years now. What happened to Anaheim?

It seems like what happened to Anaheim is that the cost of a dedicated HSR corridor from LA Union Station to Anaheim was about $6b, to save about 10 minutes of HSR train travel time. It seems like you could electrify some of the existing rail corridor and get PTC signalling on a 79mph portion of corridor from LA Union Station to Anaheim for a lot less than $1b. Indeed, it seems likely that a potential franchisee bidding to operate SF/LA service might work together with local rail authorities to make sure that precisely that happens. However, while the Burbank to LA Union Station is going to be common to the Central Valley and LA to San Diego route in Phase 2, so that every minute counts … Anaheim seems to be off that critical path, and spending an extra $5b or more on clipping 10 minutes off of LA Union Station to Anaheim might not be worth the money.

So, that’s the Plan. Waddya Think

As always, on-topic discussion in the Sunday Train is not limited to specific issues or points raised in the diary, but is also open to any sustainable transport topic that may come to mind.

But with that said, what are your thoughts on the “Other, Other Plan”, which they’ve decided to call the “revised Draft 2012 Business Plan” (no matter how much Monty Python fans would have loved it if they had called it “The Other, Other Plan”).

And Now, with the warm up act out of the way, the Headliners

I know, …

    that the sunset empire shudders and shakes

I know

     there’s a floodgate and a raging river

I say

     the silence of the ribbons of iron and steel

I say

     hear the punch drunk huddle as they drive on a hammer and wheel

Sometimes you’re beaten to the call, …


Sometimes you’re taken to the wall …

    But you don’t give in


  1. … begins with a first step.

    (* Not intended to be the distance between San Francisco and San Diego)

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