We need the right tracks
A high-speed network relies on three different types of tracks.
High-speed lines are flat and straight, with gentle curves, allowing trains to travel at 220 mph or faster. There are no intersections and no crossings, since all roads and other railroads go over or under the line. Heavy freight trains run on separate tracks. The line is electrified with overhead lines to power clean, fast, high-tech trains.
Urban trunk lines use existing rail corridors through cities to create electrified tracks for modern lightweight passenger trains (both commuter and high-speed). They use separate tracks for heavy freight trains. Preferably, there are no highway crossings. Trains travel quickly, but not quite as fast as on dedicated high-speed lines. Upgrading these existing railroads through cities reduces the initial cost of building a viable high-speed rail line and offers more benefits for the city and wider region.
On shared-use lines, passenger trains mix with heavy freight trains. (Most trains in America today, like commuter and Amtrak trains, use shared-use lines.) Because there are level crossings with highways and other railroads, and slow freight train traffic to contend with, passenger trains are usually limited to 79 mph on shared-use tracks. Some shared-use lines have upgraded safety systems to allow trains to travel faster, up to 110 mph, or even 125 mph if there are no level crossings. Notable examples include Amtrak’s Michigan Line, the Lincoln Corridor in Illinois, and Virgin Rail (Brightline) in Florida.
The 170-mile Central Valley line running from Bakersfield to Merced—the spine of California’s high-speed rail system—is under construction, along with improvements to connecting services. It is projected to begin service in 2028.
Combined with upgrades to connecting Amtrak and commuter lines, it will slash travel times and deliver benefits to California long before the full Bay Area to Los Angeles high-speed line is finished.
Although the Central Valley line has been mocked by critics because of its distance from the coasts, mountain ranges make it the only plausible corridor, in the near term, to demonstrate the power of 220-mph trains in the state.
And the Central Valley is hardly a backwater. By itself, it’s more populous than many states. It’s also home to a variety of universities and medical institutions that are vital to California’s economy.
Construction of the line is already making a big impact. By moving forward with the project, California is driving key changes to transportation policy and planning in the U.S. by:
- Forcing changes to outdated federal regulations. For example, railroads can now run lighter trainsets that are safer—and start and stop faster—than heavier trains.
- Applying international lessons to the North American environment.
- Establishing a supply chain for high-speed rail manufacturers.
Once it opens, the line will drive huge ridership increases to the connecting routes and drive down the cost of operating those routes.
With one urban trunk line under construction and another in the design and engineering stage, California’s high-speed rail project is driving innovations to commuter rail service.
Those innovations show the importance of thinking of a transportation system as an integrated system that includes many different elements—rail and transit—working together.
Urban trunklines, for example, maximize the investment in high-speed infrastructure by mixing fast local trains with high-speed express trains. Some examples:
San Jose – San Francisco Caltrain Modernization
Caltrain—the commuter rail system that serves San Jose, the Silicon Valley, and San Francisco—is being modernized. It will be the first in the country to use European “RER” concepts and safety standards (such as high-frequency departures and lines that run both local and express trains).
The upgrades are an integral part of California’s high-speed rail project. But even without that impact, Caltrain’s innovations and upgrades make it one of the most important transportation projects underway in the U.S.
The innovations and upgrades include:
- High-capacity, modern, electrified trainsets that start and stop faster and reduce harmful emissions.
- Fifty-one miles of electrified tracks that accommodate high-speed trains, in addition to local and express commuter trains.
- A coordinated schedule that creates effortless connections between the systems and maximizes ridership.
- New platforms that allow level boarding, which is more convenient for all passengers and is critically important for the elderly and people with strollers and luggage.
These and other improvements will make Caltrain the first truly modern passenger rail line in the U.S. It is already among the most heavily used rail lines in the nation. Ridership has nearly tripled since 2004 and is expected to double after the project’s projected completion in 2021.
A similar, equally transformative project is planned for the other “bookend” of the high-speed rail project—the Burbank – Los Angeles – Anaheim Mobility Corridor.
In 1990, California voters provided the seed money for a transit system that connects most of the state, approving a multi-billion investment in better tracks, new trains, and improved stations.
This transit network created the foundation for California’s high-speed network, since the high-speed lines will drive traffic to the local transit routes—and vice versa. Strong, productive partnerships with privately-owned “freight railroads” proved crucial to the network’s success.
For example, the Capitol Corridor between San Jose, Oakland, and Sacramento is a shared-use line (that is, both freight and passenger trains use it) and one of the most heavily traveled routes in the nation.
The Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority has partnered closely with a private railroad—the Union Pacific—to hit a 95 percent on-time goal while growing the service to 15 daily roundtrips.
The service now carries 1.7 million passengers a year—a 10-fold increase from the service launch in 1991. California’s other Amtrak routes—the San Joaquins and Pacific Surfliner—have followed similar paths.
Key factors in the success of a high-frequency, shared-use line include:
- Adding track capacity to improve both freight and passenger service
- Annual investments to maintain the tracks to a high-standard
- Significant financial incentives for on-time performance