SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A year behind schedule because of three COVID-related delays, the board of California’s High-Speed Rail Authority voted 6-3 Thursday to send a business plan to the state legislature calling for an initial operating segment between Central Valley cities of Merced and Bakersfield, with the possibility of opening that segment as a single-track railroad.
Excluding the populous Los Angeles Basin and San Francisco Bay Area metropolitan regions from the early service means trains will incur an operating loss, according to the authority’s own projections. That, combined with the uncertain prospects for more state and federal funding for the expensive and extensive tunneling needed to reach those metro terminals, accounted for the board’s no votes.
Last summer, the California Assembly passed a non-binding resolution calling for redirecting the remaining $4.2 billion available in state bond authority to other rail projects, primarily in Southern California. Thursday’s negative votes came from Southern California members Ernest Camacho and Martha Escutia, and from Andre Boutros, who was appointed a year ago by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Los Angeles, author of the resolution.
The agency released the updated business plan in February [see “Revised California high speed rail plan …,” Trains News Wire, Feb. 9, 2021]. The board voted that month to request the legislature to spend the bond money to finish the Central Valley line.
But more of the board’s discussion was taken up by a presentation from the authority’s chief of rail operations, Frank Vaca, who detailed a yet-to-be approved proposal to begin high-speed service on a single-track line to cut costs and speed construction for a 2029 opening.
Initial single-tracking “does not diminish or change any of the operational requirements for the interim service that … includes the 18 trains per day per direction for the service, as well as the 90-minute travel time savings that we’ve relied on,” Vaca said.
He said a single-track railroad could save $1 billion in initial construction costs because it would delay laying 150 miles of rail.
The planned service — trains running up to 220 miles per hour in each direction with almost three times the frequency of Amtrak’s parallel San Joaquin trains — would be operated by a third-party entity. That would keep the authority from violating the no-operating subsidy restriction imposed on it by Proposition 1a, the 2008 voter-approved initiative that approved state construction bonds.
The railroad would be double-tracked as demand dictates or when the line is extended from the 171-mile initial service segment. Single-track service is now operated on some high-speed lines in Spain, Germany and France, Vaca said.
North- and southbound trains would meet at one of six places: stations at Merced, Madera, Kings/Tulare and Bakersfield, or maintenance-of-way sites south of Fresno and Corcoran. All station trackage would be built as originally planned, with two mainline tracks and two platform tracks. The catenary, signaling, switches, and interlockings for a double-track line would be installed at the beginning, leaving only a second set of rails to be laid when the conversion to double-track operation is begun.
The rail authority plans to receive bids later this summer, which it expects will provide further cost savings information because bids are to cover both double- and single-track construction scenarios.
At Merced, high-speed trains would connect with the San Joaquins to Sacramento and Oakland and with Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) trains to San Jose with 10-minute timed transfers.
The expected 2 million annual high-speed train riders at the beginning of Central Valley service would help generate an increase in projected 2029 San Joaquin ridership from a current expectation of 1.8 million to 3.1 million and ACE ridership from 2.2 million to 4.6 million, according the authority’s projections. With an increase in bus connections from Los Angeles and other points along the line, the combined bus and rail system in the Central Valley is projected to go from 4 million to 8.8 million riders
Vaca said the risk that San Joaquin and ACE trains would be delayed by freight trains on the Union Pacific and BNSF lines they use, causing cascading delays on the high-speed line, is “the single largest and significant area of concern for us in single-tracking.” That could cut high-speed rail ridership 19% of its projected ridership and connecting trains 5.6% of theirs.