Putting high-speed rail on fast track may just slow down train 

click to enlarge Dreams of speed: Voters approved high-speed rail with Proposition 1A in 2008, but the new plan changes some of the terms. - COURTESY GRAPHIC
  • Courtesy graphic
  • Dreams of speed: Voters approved high-speed rail with Proposition 1A in 2008, but the new plan changes some of the terms.

California’s high-speed rail would cost $30 billion less and arrive in the Bay Area sooner than once projected under a new business plan released Monday, but some observers fear the system will no longer meet the service standards expected by voters.

In response to a directive from Gov. Jerry Brown to make the project “better, faster and cheaper,” the California High-Speed Rail Authority has reduced the system’s estimated cost from $98 billion to $68 billion, and sped up completion of the system between Los Angeles and San Francisco to 2029 instead of 2033.

At a news conference Monday, authority board member Mike Rossi called the new business plan “credible, reasonable and transparent.”

The cost savings stem largely from heavier reliance on pre-existing rails. Instead of building costly new raised viaducts and underground tunnels, the high-speed trains would run where possible on existing lines, such as Caltrain’s Peninsula infrastructure.

Yet the new approach may conflict with speed, service and funding standards that California voters agreed upon in 2008 when they approved Proposition 1A, a $9.95 billion bond measure to support the project. That initiative stipulated that trains must run every five to six minutes during peak times and be able to go between Los Angeles and San Francisco in two hours and 40 minutes.  It also barred the project from relying on state operating subsidies.

“This isn’t high-speed rail,” said Quentin Kopp, a former state senator who helped create the rail authority. “High-speed trains have separated tracks. That’s how they could achieve speeds and travel times promised to voters in the 2008 ballot measure.”

Instead of using dedicated four-track networks, the new proposal is for high-speed trains to share two-track lines with local transit operators in the Bay Area and Southern California. By sharing the network with slower local lines, it is unclear whether high-speed trains can reach the speed and service standards set by Prop. 1A.

Daniel Krause, executive director of Californians For High Speed Rail, argues that Prop. 1A only required that rail networks be capable of carrying fast-moving trains. When demand is there, the authority can modify the rail system’s design to better accommodate high-speed trains, he said.

But Kopp said Attorney General Kamala Harris could recommend withholding funds from the project if it doesn’t meet the legal mandates required by Prop. 1A. The authority is seeking $2.7 billion in such funds this year.

William Grindley, an economist who has co-authored several research papers opposing the rail plan, noted that system ridership projections have plunged from 55 million in 2008 to just 26 million in the new plan. Since ridership has dropped without any corresponding fare increases, he believes the plan is now financially untenable. Every other high-speed rail system in the world is funded through operating subsidies, Grindley said, and there is no way California’s can be different.

The authority will consider the revised plan at its April 12 meeting.


Revisions to 2011 business plan

- Reduces the overall cost of the project from $98 billion to $68 billion
- Speeds up timeline for service between S.F. and L.A. to 2029 from 2033
- Reduces projected ridership from 37 million to 26 million
- Extends opening segment of network to run from Merced to San Fernando Valley
- Projects total federal funding of $42 billion, with the rest to come from private investment and local sources
- Establishes a dedicated funding system for project from state’s cap-and-trade carbon-reduction program

Source: California High-Speed Rail Authority

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