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Unified Service: California’s high-speed rail solution

February 12, 2019

Unified Service means:

1) 220-mph trains on the Bakersfield - Merced high-speed line as soon as possible.

2) High-frequency 79-mph trains between Merced, Sacramento, the Bay area and Silicon Valley.

3) Trainsets that can operate in both environments.

California’s high-speed rail project faces a serious challenge.

Completing the whole system—direct, 220-mph high-speed rail from Los Angeles and San Francisco—will require extensive tunnels that aren’t yet funded. Securing that money depends on building political support. Doing that means demonstrating the system’s value to a broad constituency before the tunnels are opened.

It’s a classic catch-22. Getting the full system built depends on the popularity of high-speed rail. But high-speed rail’s popularity depends on making the system usable—and politically feasible—before the system is fully built out.

Fortunately, that solution is available. Combining the initial high-speed line through the Central Valley with several commuter and Amtrak routes into a unified network will generate immediate benefits for communities all over the state. It’s an approach that’s been proven in other parts of the world.

Instead of either/or, the solution is both

The California High Speed Rail Authority is looking at two options for initial operations of Central Valley segment before the tunnels are constructed.

One option is to create a high-speed demonstrator in the Central Valley that runs at 220 mph and is contrained to the high-speed track. Passengers would change to other trains or buses at Bakersfield and Merced.  This should be a high priority.

The other is to reroute the current Oakland/Sacramento–Bakersfield Amtrak San Joaquin trains to the new line.

With the right train equipment, California wouldn’t have to choose one or the other: it could do them both and do them better.

That means moving past the binary of conventional vs. high-speed rail. It means following the Interstate Highway model where sections of high-speed highway were added to the existing network over a 40 year period. It means unifying the high-speed line with the existing Amtrak and commuter rail systems.It will require a train design that operates at high-speeds on high-speed track and smoothly at conventional speeds on freight track.

Unified Service: a proven idea

This idea borrows from the European model, which seamlessly blends elements of both high-speed and conventional rail.

France, Germany, and Italy are especially good at this. Their trainsets operate above 200 mph on high-speed lines, and they go conventional speeds on older tracks.  As a result, the TGV and other high-speed trains serve hundreds of cities not located on high-speed lines.

Conventional tracks in Europe usually have the advantage of being electrified and smoother than our freight track here. For California, the right train will need to switch quickly from electric to diesel operation, and its suspension will need to be flexible enough for freight tracks but stable enough for high speeds.  This may mean that these trains will be limited to around 160 mph. But, by removing the wasted time and effort of changing trains, the trip is still shorter and easier.

Spain has a problem similar to California’s. Spain’s conventional track is a different gauge: the rails are spaced differently than high-speed track.  A trainset capable of changing gauges is not rigid enough to operate at very high speeds (200+ mph) on the high-speed line. So, its rail authority created two separate high-speed brands to accommodate the different service levels.

AVE trains—the fastest in the system—operate exclusively on high-speed tracks, with a cruising speed of 205 mph. In the California example, AVE trains would run from Merced to Bakersfield.

ALVIA trains, which are currently limited to 155 mph but may go faster in the future, can change gauges quickly. So they use both high-speed and conventional tracks. That allows them to reach deep into the rail network and feed traffic from all over the country to the high-speed lines. ALVIA-type trains would unify California’s new high-speed line with existing Amtrak and commuter routes to spread service to many cities beyond the Central Valley.

Borrowing from Spain’s model is the best path forward for California.

Benefits for both long-distance travelers and daily commuters

The right train will be able to switch quickly from electric to diesel operation, and its suspension will need to be flexible enough for freight tracks but stable enough for high speeds. A lightweight trainset will accelerate faster and take turns more nimbly on conventional tracks than our current trains—meaning it will slash transit times, even without going faster speeds.

If such trains were in use on the Amtrak San Joaquin and ACE commuter routes, they could travel faster over existing tracks. More importantly, they could join the high-speed line at Merced and really open the throttle to create a same-seat, high-speed ride from the Bay Area and Sacramento to Bakersfield.

That’s huge.

And to be clear: These trains would supplement, not replace, the 220-mph trains that the rail authority will run from Bakersfield to Merced when the first high-speed segment is complete.

Nothing builds political will like demonstrating concrete benefits to taxpayers. This plan does that in spades.

Another plus? With the new trainsets, a partnership with the Union Pacific to upgrade the Tehechapi Loop for a few trains a day from Bakersfield to L.A. becomes more viable. These peak-hour trains would complement the bus service there and demonstrate same-seat runs from the Bay to LA.

Problem solved

Unified Service is a solution to California’s dilemma that puts trains on the tracks sooner—with same-seat rides from Northern to Southern California—at auto-competitive trip times. At the same time, it greatly improves commuter service for the most densely populated regions of the state, giving a wide swath of the population an investment in the system.

It is the game-changer that California can’t afford to ignore. It builds the ridership base—and the political will—to get the whole system funded and built.

For a pdf version of this text, click here.