An Integrated, Statewide Vision

California's 2018 State Rail Plan connects cities large and small, north and south. Click for larger.

California began investing heavily in rail and public transit in the early 1990s. It now has the most advanced, forward-thinking transportation system in the nation. The system is coordinated and tied together by a statewide rail plan.

A key takeaway from California’s experience is that having a big-picture plan is vital, because it supplies a tool for creating and exploiting synergies throughout the system. The net effect is a massive boost in ridership.

For example, the Bay Area’s commuter rail service, Caltrain, is now being upgraded between San Francisco and San Jose. As part of the upgrade, European-designed, electrified trains will replace diesel-hauled trains. That will mean faster trips and more frequent departures. High-speed trains will share the tracks once a new tunnel from Gilroy to the Central Valley is completed.

Similar work is underway in Los Angeles, where a 45-mile rail corridor from Burbank to Anaheim will be upgraded to improve Amtrak and Metrolink service and prepare for high-speed trains.

In other words, the benefits ripple out. Building a high-speed line incentivizes upgrades to older tracks, and the upgrades aren’t limited to the line itself. High-speed rail depends on and improves every other form of transportation across a state, especially commuter rail and local transit systems. 

And that’s great news. Recent research shows that improving transit service is a big boost to local economies. One study found that “the hidden economic benefit” of even modestly expanding transit service is up to $1.8 billion a year for the largest cities. More people connected in denser areas means more job growth, higher wages, and greater productivity.

Seeing things from a big-picture perspective makes that possible. It’s no longer about how the segments of a system work in isolation. It’s about and how they work as part of a broader plan—how each segment fits into and improves the whole.

This changes everything
A statewide plan for fast, frequent and reliable passenger trains is a game-changer.

A statewide rail transportation plan not only delivers a big economic boost. It’s a game-changer in terms of public safety and environmental sustainability.

That’s because a well-coordinated system, with high-speed rail at its heart, keeps massive numbers of vehicles off the road. It reduces flights as well.

The evidence from around the world is clear and overwhelming. For example, when high-speed trains began operating between Madrid and Seville (330 miles), the percentage of trips by rail increased from 16 percent to 51 percent. For the trip from Paris to Lyon (290 miles), the percentage jumped from 40 to 72 percent.

The California High Speed Rail Authority estimates that the high-speed rail system alone will keep the equivalent of 322,000 passenger vehicles off the road each year.

The carbon-reducing impact of the high-speed line won’t be limited to the line itself, though. Savvy and strategic coordination with other systems will multiply the environmental benefits. It will also reduce accidents. Per mile, fatalities per mile are 17 times more likely in an automobile than in an intercity passenger train, according to the Federal Railroad Authority.

And a well-coordinated system achieves another key goal. It distributes opportunities and prosperity more evenly. As the statewide transportation plan notes, “public transit may be the only mode of transportation” in many disadvantaged communities, so it’s vital that it be both reliable and well-integrated.

On all of these levels—environmental, safety, and shared prosperity—building a better transportation system is key to building a better future. Coordination is the catalyst.