Jun 23 2014

Sunday Train: Improving the Conventional Amtrak California services

(4 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

I’m a terrible tease ~ that is, in the sense of “not terribly good at it” ~ since I teased more on Texas Rooftop Solar, both two weeks ago when I talked about Texas Utility Scale Solar, and last week when I talked about California assuring the funding to start building it HSR, using Cap and Trade funding. However, here I am, talking about California trains again … because while wearing my Sunday Train editorial hat, I wanted to force the author to follow through on the tease, wearing my Sunday Train author hat, I refused, because I wanted to write about both plans and opportunities for existing “conventional” intercity passenger rail in California.

That is, in general I am talking about:

  • The San Joaquin, from Bakersfield through Fresno with on leg running to Oakland and another leg running to Sacramento;
  • The Capitol Corridor from San Jose / Oakland through to Sacramento;
  • The Caltrain from San Jose though “Silicon Valley” to downtown San Francisco;
  • The ACE from Stockton via Tracy and Livermore through to San Jose; and
  • The Surfliner, from Santa Barbara through LA Union Station and Anaheim to San Diego.

For a Buckeye who has experienced a not too dissimilar variety of intercity rail services when living and teaching in New South Wales, Australia, a collection of intercity services to make me green with envy, given our two nightly trains between midnight and 6am in this part of Ohio three late night Cardinal services per week in Cincinnati, and ZERO FREAKING SERVICES PER DAY, PER WEEK OR PER FREAKING MONTH FOR COLUMBUS OR DAYTON, THANK YOU VERY MUCH HOPEFULLY ONE-TERM GOVERNOR. KASICH … {deep breath} … and here I’m going to talk about making those conventional California services better … below the fold.

The Overall Phase 1 Plan

To avoid getting lost below, let me summarize the main plan of attack for the HSR construction, which consists of five stages:

  • (0) Before beginning to list the stages, the basic strategy in the phasing is to always make sure that every segment is immediately useful, no matter what role it plays in the finished system.
  • (1) “Initial Construction Segment“: Build the cheap, fast track in the Central Valley. That can be used right away by existing Amtrak trains and gives a place to test the HSR trains in advance of starting the operating service.
  • (2) “Close the Gap“: Close the gap between Bakersfield and Palmdale, where people can catch a rail connection between the Amtrak train and a Metrolink train to LA Union Station.
  • (3) “Starter HSR Service“: After closing the gap, leapfrog the slow Metrolink train by getting to Burbank Airport and start running bullet trains to a station where people can get transfer onto existing services, preferably the Surfliner from San Diego, Anaheim and LA Union Station.
  • (4) “Bay to Basin: Get from the Central Valley line to San Jose, where people can catch connections all around the Bay Area, including downtown SF and Oakland, and to Sacremento on the Capitol Corridor.
  • (5) “Finish the Bookends“: Finish the work from the San Fernando Valley to LA Union Station and Anaheim, and from San Jose to San Francisco’s downtown Transbay Terminal, to get the bullet trains to downtown LA and downtown SF.


Conventional Intercity Passenger Trains & The Early Returns on HSR Funding

In HSR’s history in High Income Industrial economies, building bullet train corridors take time. That’s a general observation, in addition to an incessant complaint about the California project. The first French corridor, the Paris-Lyon service, began construction in 1976 and began its first services in 1981, on only a partial southern section, with the northern section coming into service in 1983. And the TGV used existing intercity passenger rail corridors to run its Paris terminal station. The first bullet train, the Japanese Shinkasen, received government approval in 1958, with the first bullet trains coming into service in 1964.

And it is to be expected that the California HSR is going to take time, when taking into account the additional regulatory requirements of national EIS and state EIR analysis and the quite challenging terrain between the San Joaquin Valley and the LA Basin to its south and the Bay Area to its northeast.

That’s one of the reasons that its important to move ahead to breaking ground … because going “back to the drawing board” and adding an uncertain three to five to however long to this project is too great a risk of being stuck with the climate suicide intercity transport options of air and car that California is presently dependent on … when from the time that the project again gets funded to restart, California has to add:

  • eight years from that point before Merced/Fresno to the LA Basin is in place
  • thirteen years from that point before there is a single seat connection between the LA Basin and the Bay Area
  • fifteen years from that point before there is a single seat connection from LA Union Station to San Francisco Transbay
  • and additional time on top of that to complete the Merced/Fresno to Sacramento and LA Union Station to San Diego segements.

Maybe, perhaps, some time could be sliced from the back end of those timelines if the US as a whole adopts a pedal-to-the-metal approach to carbon neutral, energy independent transport … on the other hand, under current political conditions, we might have an added delay until 2020 and the collapse of the Great Gerrymander of 2010 before we are able to unlock the kind of urgent pursuit of long term viable intercity freight and passenger transport that we urgently need.

So when a there is an opportunity to make progress, that opportunity must be seized. And that is what the State of California has done with its decision to commit $250m, in the coming fiscal year, and 25% of Cap and Trade revenues, on an ongoing basis, to the High Speed Rail project.

However, in addition to pushing forward on the main HSR project, the State of California has also committed to both complementary investment in rail services that will connect with the HSR system, and cooperative investment in rail corridors that will be used by both the HSR system and by local systems. This is the “Connecting Service & Bookends” strategy that was such a critical part of the plan that the California State Legislature voted to proceed with in 2012.

Taken altogether, it was an $8b total plan of work approved back in 2012, and which can now proceed with confidence due to the passage of the recent 2014 California Budget. This includes the $3.3b in Federal funding for the Initial Construction Corridor, connecting to the current San Joaquin corridor in Merced and running through Fresno to connect back to the current San Joaquin corridor north of Bakersfield, the promised $2.6b in state matching funds, the funding of $900m included for complementary rail in the $9.9m Prop1A proposition passed in 2008, and funding by the CHSRA of the “bookends” plan of work.


Investing in the Bookends

The “Bookends” are the shared sections of corridor. These are the functional equivalents of the French reliance on existing Express Intercity electric passenger rail corridors in Paris to bring their first HSR trains from then end of the bullet train section in the French countryside into a terminal station close to central Paris. In California, they are the Caltrain corridor in the Bay Area, and the “LOSSAN” corridor from Burbank through to Anaheim.

The Caltrain Corridor runs from San Jose through to downtown San Francisco. It is presently a diesel commuter rail service running on publicly owned rail corridor, and electrifying the trains and switching to lighter weight, faster to accelerate and faster to brake “EMU” (Electric Multiple Unit) trains will increase performance and capacity of the corridor.  This is also used as a freight corridor with fairly light traffic … but is, naturally, the only freight corridor running into downtown San Francisco (SF being on the water end of the peninsula that has San Jose at the throat). Construction of the Transbay Terminal “train box” was part of what was funded by the Stimulus in 2009, and the northern “Bookend” investment will help with the early electrification of the corridor, for immediate usefulness, as well as investing in making it ready for shared use by the HSR services when the “Bay to Basin” segments are extended into the “downtown LA to downtown SF” services to finish the first phase of the HSR.

The “LOSSAN” corridor (Los Angeles / San Diego / San Luis Obispo) is the corridor that the Surfliner operates on from San Diego through Anaheim, LA Union Station, Burbank and on to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. It is also used by the long distance Coast Starlight (often called the “Coast Starlate” for very good reason) from Seattle through Portland, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, Salinas, the California Central Coast through to SLO, Santa Barbara, Burbank and LA Union Station.

The Surfliner offers about twelve (12) daily services between LA and San Diego, six (6) between LA and Santa Barbara (some originating or terminating in San Diego).

The “Bookend” section of the LOSSAN is the section from just south of Burbank Airport through to Anaheim, which is the corridor that the HSR will use to complete its journey to LA Union Station and Anaheim from its planned initial service terminus in the San Fernando Valley (somewhere from the Burbank Airport through Sylmar).

The Bookend investments come in two big chunks, adding up to just over $1.2b:

  • Part of $705m to help fund the electrification of Caltrain
  • $500m toward Bookend investments on the LOSSAN corridor, which will be matched by another $500m from other funding sources

Since these were investments that the California HSR was supposed to use by the end of Phase 1, these were planned to be funded by a part of the $9b in HSR Prop1A bond authority that was part of actually building Phase 1. That meant this was part of the work that was under threat of a lawsuit on whether the California HSR Authority Business Plan met the requirements of Prop 1A.

However, last Sunday’s action by the State Legislature, these projects are no longer under threat, as the Cap and Trade funding is enough to meet the funding that the State Legislature already directed to come from HSR funding, back in the summer of 2012.


But Wait, There’s More: “Connectivity” Projects

However, the “Bookends” investments are just the two biggest chunks of investment, because, as noted above, part of the $9.9b authorization of Prop1A was $900m (that is, “the $0.9b part”) for funding “connectivity”. And this is slated to go to a variety of intercity, regional, and local public transport services:

  • In Northern California
  • $145m out of a total $290m investment for BART to buy new railcars and to lengthen platforms at Millbrae Station to connect with HSR service;
  • $61m toward the completion of the SF Munic Central Subway, a $1.6b project
  • $47m in track improvements to increase the San Jose / Oakland Capitol Corridor services (connecting through to Sacramento) from seven (7) weekday round trips to eleven (11).
  • $42m out of $102m total to add Positive Train Control to the Caltrain Corridor (in addition to the Bookend investment above in Electrification)
  • $41m for the San Joaquin service to double track 8.4 miles of corridor from Merced North to allow increased service and reduce delays caused by freight traffic
  • $30m to relocate existing infrastructure in Sacramento to connect with the new Sacramento Inter-Modal Station and HSR Terminal
  • $16m of a total $28m for track and station improvements at Roseville Station on the Capitol Corridor to support additional services and reduce delays caused by freight traffic
  • $11m out of $25m to extend the Stockton terminal platform of the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) to connect with Amtrak passengers on the San Joaquin
  • In Southern California,
  • $114m in funding out of a total $1.4b for the 2 mile light rail connector to connect the Metro Gold, Metro Blue and Metro Expo lines to LA Union Station
  • $89m of $203m for Metrolink to repower or purchase new locomotives and refurbish and upgrade passenger cars
  • $58m of $152m to update and modernize San Diego’s Blue Line, including support for shorter headways and improved reliability; and
  • $7.3m added to an already appropriated $10.5m of Prop1A connectivity funds for Positive Train Control in the San Diego North County Transit District.

So in brief, they are a combination of projects primarily aimed at either fund the direct interconnections with the HSR system, so that connecting to the HSR system is not a financial drag on the local, regional and intercity rail services, and to improve quality, reliability and frequency of services connecting into the HSR system.

And of course in any such a long list of funding, there are some projects that local transport activists want very much, alongside some projects that do not represent either the first priority in funding or the approach to the project that local transport activists would prefer.

But altogether, the funding of these projects means that a large number of passenger rail investments that were dragging along because of difficulties in gaining funding are going to be moving toward project completion.


But Wait … Couldn’t There Be Still More?

So, that is the 2012 slate of projects, including some projects already underway, and some projects that were facing a threat to their ability to proceed.

But … the 25% of Cap and Trade funding was only part of what went to passenger transport. 15% was allocated to public transport, with 10% going to capital investment in transit and intercity rail, overseen by the California Transportation Commission and Caltrains, and 5% for transit operations local transport, administered by Caltrans and the Air Resources Board. And with that in mind, a couple of different projects come to my mind.

Until (some would say “unless”) the California Bay to Basin corridor is completed, intercity rail access to the Bay Area has a strong Oakland slant. The San Joaquin takes a northerly alignment to come in from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area, branching off of the corridor up to Sacramento near Stockton, and coming through to Martinez and Richmond to come in to its terminal at Jack London Square from the north.

In that map, its the middle of the three light blue lines running in from the San Joaquin valley to the Bay. And looking at that map, it looks like the southern one offers a shortcut … but that runs through two very slow sections, the Altamont Pass and the Nile River Canyon, so the route that the San Joaquin takes offers the faster connection to most parts of the Bay Area.

There are connections from Oakland to a range of locations … but the primary connection to downtown SF is via a bus connection at Emeryville station. And so getting to the South Bay or Silicon Valley via the San Joaquin can involve one or sometimes two transfers … to a Capitol Corridor to the southeast Bay or San Jose, or a bus to San Francisco to the Caltrain southbound, or a Capitol Corridor or other connection toward the south end of Caltrain to head north.

However, there is an alternative alignment option that shortcuts a lot of these into a much short final connection. This goes back to the long saga, which I promise I will not go into in depth tonight, of the Dumbarton Rail Corridor. The Dumberton bridge is the southernmost road bridge across the bay, connecting Union City / Fremont on the east side of the Bay to East Palo Alto / Redwood on the west side. Just south of the road bridge is an abandoned rail bridge, originally a low, single track swinging rail bridge that was opened to allow boat traffic traffic through and then back to let rail traffic through. The Dumbarton Rail Corridor project was a proposal to reconstruct the damaged rail bridge and use it to run hourly trains during the peak commute to both San Francisco and San Jose from a transfer station in Union City / Fremont connecting with BART, the ACE (Altamont Commuter Express), and Capitol Corridor.

And while there were at various times commitments of funds, there was never sufficient funding to complete the project.

However, the plan is now to have the San Joaquin start operating on the HSR Initial Construction Segment when it is finished. The Amtrak California services cannot travel at the 220mph that the HSR trains will go when the Initial Operating Service begins … but they are capable of 125mph, while being limited to 79mph at best by the rail corridor they use, and substantially less than 79mph for a number of parts of the corridor.

And on the Initial Construction Segment they will enjoy no interference from freight, so they can be scheduled to operate at 110mph and use the opportunity to go faster if need be to catch up on schedules that fall behind due to freight rail delays.

Which means they can run farther into the Bay Area. And looking at the connections, the best extension would be from Oakland down to Union City and then across to terminate at Redwood over the Dumbarton Rail Corridor. That gives them connections throughout Silicon Valley from Redwood, connections to San Jose / Santa Clare on the Capitol Corridor and the BART extension under construction, connections to the Pleasanton / Livermore side of the ACE corridor at Union City … basically, all of the reasons that the Dumbarton Rail corridor is an appealing corridor, except terminating at Redwood for connections there on the Caltrain corridor.

Now, despite the appeal of the project, which led to preliminary studies and multiple funding commitments from both transit agencies and via ballot measures, bringing an abandoned freight corridor back into operation for passenger operation … including rebuilding a rail bridge that had one of its approaches destroyed by fire years ago … is an expensive proposition. But with the opportunity to terminate the San Joaquin right in the middle of the electrified segment of the Caltrain Corridor, while the Capitol Corridor runs substantially more services through to San Jose at the southern end of the electrified section, it boosts the appeal of a rail corridor project that was already interesting as a commuter connector.

The second project that came to my mind starts out a much smaller one, out toward the eastern side of the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE). This is the proposed ACE Extension to Modesto and Merced. This requires $161m to build 20.3 miles of track between the existing ACE corridor and Modesto.

What makes this particularly appealing is that BART is at the same time pursuing an alignment to support a diesel rail “eBART” corridor to extend BART service from the current BART terminus at Dublin/Pleasanton. It seems that this extension is likely to run through the north edge of Livermore on an I-580 highway median alignment.

And the ACE corridor runs under I-580 just east of Livermore, as it comes out of its winding Altamont Pass alignment to run through the middle of Livermore on the legacy freight rail corridor.

So if the ACE had an extension to Merced, it would be possible to consider not just operating services from Merced through Livermore, Pleasanton, Union City through to San Jose, for a connection north to Silicon Valley … but also from Merced to north Livermore to Dublin/Pleasanton BART, which is the end of a service that runs straight to Oakland, then under the Bay to San Francisco as far as Daly City.

Now, I have to admit that I am a bit skeptical about the eBART rail shuttle, but if that rail corridor also serves a through service connecting Merced and Modesto to the outer end of a BART service through to downtown San Francisco … which in the future will be a connection to the northern end of the HSR Initial Operating Service … that at least seems a better use of the rail corridor that BART seems like its going to go ahead an build.


Conclusions & Conversations

Now, I admit that my discussion has had a Northern California tilt, here, but then again under the proposal to first connect the Initial Construction Segment through to Palmdale and then to the San Fernando Valley in order to establish the Initial Operating Service …

… so there is going to be a first increase in demand for conventional rail connections when the San Joaquin through to Bakersfield (and the through bus to LA Union Station from there) starts using the Initial Construction Segment, and then additional increases when there is a first rail connection available through to LA and then the first HSR service from Merced/Fresno through to the LA Basin.

But another side of the story is the improvements to the LOSSAN and with it opportunities for further improvement to the Surfliner. So there will be more on the conventional rail side of the HSR project for me to come back to.

Until then, what is your favorite part of the current package of investments in conventional passenger rail … and if you could have your wish, how will you like the coming Cap and Trade funds for transit and intercity rail to be spent?

The Sunday Train only really begins when you hop and board and join the conversation.

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