It’s well known that California is building a 220-mph high-speed line from the Bay Area to Los Angeles—the first true high-speed rail project in the U.S.
But that’s only a small part of the story.
Like France, California is using the Phased Network Approach, a "building block" strategy, to create the nation’s first truly integrated rail network.
“Integrated” is the key. That’s because a high-speed rail system is much more than just fast trains using dedicated tracks. It’s different kinds of tracks and different kinds of trains—all connected, coordinated, and working in sync.
California went as far as to create a train and bus timetable for the year 2040 that allowed for better infrastructure design, plus better phasing and coordination between implementing agencies. The base network of trains will operate on a clockface schedule—for example, stopping at Bakersfield at 10 minutes past the hour, every hour. At major hub stations, all trains and buses from the various routes arrive at the same time, so it’s easy for people to transfer from one to another.
California’s most recent—and revolutionary—innovation is its 2018 Rail Plan, which looks out as far as 2040.
Most states have some kind of plan, at least in theory. But it’s typically just a wish list of projects, and little thought is given to how they could support one another, or how each project fits into the big picture.
But California brought together all the state’s transit agencies to create a coordinated development plan.
Transit planning is typically limited to very narrow market segments, so individual route segments are evaluated independently, and each has to justify large infrastructure investments on its own.
California’s Rail Plan is revolutionary because it creates a framework for agencies to work together, building a system that is a true, thriving system—versus a lot of individual segments operating in isolation.
When there’s a plan, each segment is viewed in the context of the whole, rather than the projected ridership of just one segment in isolation. Viewing the system in holistic terms helps justify more frequent service on each segment. That increases ridership, which increases the value of the system overall.
It’s a virtuous cycle: A well-coordinated system feeds more riders into the individual segments; and when riders use the individual more, the more the broader system thrives.
The ridership comparison below demonstrates the value of that coordinated network. The bottom (green) is rail ridership in 2010 without a coordinated network. The top (blue) is ridership in 2040 with the completed statewide network. The difference is so striking there's almost no comparison. And notice that the Los Angeles – San Francisco market is just a small fraction of the ridership.
The multiplier effect of this coordinated scheduling is mind-blowing. As the diagrams to the right demonstrate, if California completes all the projects currently in the pipeline, ridership and revenue will grow dramatically. If it coordinates the projects, ridership and revenue will be off the charts in 2040.
That synergy creates excellent opportunities for new public-private partnerships, especially on the network’s feeder and branch lines. California has innovated in this area as well.
For example, Virgin Rail is preparing to build a Victorville to Las Vegas segment of the California high-speed rail network. The line would be successful on its own. But its value and ridership will increase dramatically as part of the California system, since it can be built to be compatible with the main high-speed spine.
And, by generating more traffic in the system overall, it will make building the spine itself more feasible.