California's Visionary State Rail Plan

The visionary California Rail Plan will produce a stunning increase in ridership and revenue.
California's 2018 State Rail Plan connects cities large and small, north and south. Click for larger.

In 1990, a group of concerned citizens worked with the California legislature to create – and fund – a statewide railroad program. Now, after steady investments in better tracks, new trains and rehabbed stations, the train is an attractive choice for daily commutes, business trips and family visits.

This set the stage for the continent’s first 220-mph high-speed line – which will slash travel times throughout the state.

California’s most recent—and revolutionary—innovation is its 2018 Rail Plan. It creates a framework for agencies to work together, building a true, thriving system—versus a lot of individual segments operating in isolation.

Most states have some kind of rail 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.

California brought all the state’s transit agencies together to create a coordinated development plan. It even created an integrated train and bus timetable for 2040. That kind of detailed planning helps justify more frequent service on each segment, which increases ridership – and the overall value of the system.

The plan lays out a phased approach, starting with immediate tasks like electrifying Caltrain and upgrading other existing lines and equipment. As parts of the new high-speed line are finished, the plan emphasizes providing timed connecting services and easy, single-ticket travel. By 2040, high-speed rail will go all the way from the Bay Area to the L.A. basin, with trains also serving Sacramento, the Inland Empire, and San Diego.

This Phased Network Approach has worked around the world, and it will work here, too.

The multiplier effect of this coordinated scheduling is mind-blowing.

As the diagrams demonstrate, if California completes all the projects currently in the pipeline, ridership and revenue will grow dramatically. If it invests in the integrated plan, ridership and revenue will be off the charts in 2040.

The plan puts current ridership on California’s intercity rail system at about 110,000 riders every day. With the fully-functioning high-speed network in 2040, they expect that to grow to 1.3 million riders every day. That's 10 times more people getting around by train every day, a testament to the transformative power of fast, frequent, reliable trains.

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.

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 boosts the value of the overall system.

It’s a virtuous cycle: A well-coordinated system feeds more riders into the individual segments; and when riders use the individual segments more, the broader system thrives.