Friday, July 9, 2010

California Low-Speed Rail

There's been a lot of controversy in the news about the coming California High-Speed Rail system, which you all can follow over at the CA-HSR Blog. The detractors insist that this system will be a "boondoggle" of epic proportions, running empty trains because Californians will simply not leave their precious automobiles, and we should instead focus on building more highway lane-miles on I-5 and CA-99 for our intrastate transport needs.

One thing that doesn't get said enough is that California ALREADY boasts a successful intrastate rail infrastructure. To get an idea of rail ridership in the state, we should look at the trains that are already running here, today. With that in mind, let's take a look at Amtrak California, the partnership between Amtrak and Caltrans' Rail Division that runs trains throughout the state.

The most familiar Amtrak California route to Riversiders and Southern Californians is the Pacific Surfliner. It runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, though not all trains travel the entire route. And it is a WILD success- the Surfliner is the third-most-travelled train in the Amtrak system, and the most used outside of the Amtrak-owned Northeast Corridor (which runs from DC to Boston). The trains get so full that during heavy travel seasons, Amtrak California requires reservations, and even then often pulls in idle trainsets from either Coaster or Metrolink to provide additional capacity. (I wish I had gotten a photo of the Coaster trainset running relief for the Surfliner at Irvine the last time I saw it.) It travels with a station-to-station average speed of around 45 mi/h, making it very competitive with cars during rush hour, and positive train control technology (due to be installed on all SoCal railroads in short order) will improve the running speed of the line dramatically. In Orange and San Diego counties, which utilize Automatic Train Stop technology, the Surfliner can already break 90 mi/h track speeds. With substantial infrastructure improvements, 60-70 mi/h average speeds are not out of the question.

The Capitol Corridor route in Northern California is a similar success. It is the fourth-most-travelled train in the Amtrak system, just behind the Surfliner. Running from San Jose to Auburn, though once again not all trains run the full route, it provides a quick, quiet and comfortable ride between the two metropolitan areas. The Capitol Corridor is slightly unique, because commuter passes are available for the service, and many do use the train as a commuter rail system, but it is still an excellent example of intercity rail done properly.

Last, we come to the red-headed stepchild of the Amtrak California system, the San Joaquins. Southern Californians will be familiar with this route as "the train that only goes to Bakersfield... then you have to take a bus." Despite its poor standing among Angelenos, the San Joaquin is the fifth-busiest train in the Amtrak system, behind the Capitol Corridor. The primary ridership for this train is between the various cities and towns of the Central Valley, and from the Central Valley to the Bay Area, and ridership abounds indeed. All 12 of the daily departures are reserved trains, year-round, and I can testify from personal experience that it is often difficult to find a seat. On my last trip to San Francisco, there were two empty seats in my car for much of the journey, and I have seen times when people have been forced to ride in the Cafe Car because none of the conventional seating options were available. All of this is happening despite long bus connections and relatively high fares- if you book soon enough, it's often cheaper to fly than take the train.

So what lessons are we to take from California's already expansive conventional rail system? Well, for one, Californians are happy to ride trains. They're clamouring on to those routes that we already have, even in car-dependent Central Valley rural areas and Orange County. And it is important to keep in mind that none of these routes serve the big travel market- Los Angeles to San Francisco. Only one train per day offers a 100% rail ride on that route, the Coast Starlight, and it does so unreliably and slowly. I don't doubt that, if the San Joaquins actually ran to Los Angeles via the Tehachapis, we would have a very different opinion about them than we currently do. Also, there is NO intercity rail service to San Francisco at all- all train passengers bound there have to change to a bus at Emeryville. Amtrak has a ticketing office at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, which is notable because it lacks any sort of train tracks nearby, excepting the F Market & Wharves trolley service. A high-speed rail service that serves the San Joaquin route, via the Central Valley, and then actually goes to San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles will be an unparallelled success.

Rail detractors will counter that all three of these routes enjoy public subsidy, and that is true. However, as readers of this blog know, so do automobiles. VTPI estimates that highways are subsidized at around 50-60%, and this doesn't include the subsidies that go into gasoline extraction and production, or automobile construction. The Pacific Surfliner is subsidized at 37%, well below highway subsidies. Rail critics demand that trains make money while they don't mind that automobile infrastructure bleeds money from our public purse like a sieve. I don't have the expertise to know that the CA-HSR system will make an operating profit, though there are credible studies that suggest it will. I do, however, know that it will shuttle Californians around the state using clean energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and encouraging dense, walkable development, all while saving the government the cost of constructing yet more highway and airport infrastructure, and it might even bring redevelopment of struggling Central Valley downtowns. It will also probably destroy the short-haul LA-SF airline market, saving the environmental degradation that those constant daily flights cause. High speed rail is a good deal for the people of California, and it needs to be built as quickly as possible.


Justin Walker said...

I don't think "low-speed rail" is the best term, given that these Amtrak California trains in most places go 80 MPH and 90 MPH in some places.

With that said, I would also like to point out that the San Diegans (the Pacific Surfliners' predecessor) ran with an operating surplus before Metrolink and Coaster were launched in the early 90's. That goes to show you how much demand there has always been in this corridor.

JN said...


"low-speed" is just meant to contrast with high-speed rail... as a frequent rider of the San Joaquins, I'm aware they can manage quite a clip.