Did Some Political Pork Give a Boost to High-Speed Rail?

State Sen. Anthony Cannella's Demand for $500 Million May Have Greatly Accelerated HSR

A Siemens High-speed train touring behind a conventional diesel in California. This kind of operation could be used to greatly improve California rail services in interim phases. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A Siemens High-speed train touring behind a conventional diesel in California. This kind of operation could be used to greatly improve California rail services in interim phases. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It took a bunch of compromises, but Governor Brown passed his $52 billion transportation bill, which included a gas tax increase. To make the political math work, Brown had to get the vote of one Republican. That Republican was Anthony Canella from Ceres, who was promised $500 million in local spending.

$400 million of that is for extending the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) rail service, which runs via the Altamont Pass between Stockton and San Jose, to Ceres and Merced.

It was classic political blackmail. But while Canella was busy leveraging his vote to bring home the pork, without realizing it he may have greatly accelerated the California High-Speed Rail (HSR) project–if the California High Speed Rail Authority (CaHSRA) is clever enough to exploit the opportunity.

As Streetsblog readers are probably aware, HSR is currently under construction between Bakersfield and Merced. After that, work will begin on building across the Pacheco Pass to reach San Jose. From San Jose to San Francisco, HSR trains would share tracks with Caltrain under the so-called “blended approach.”

The CaHSRA had determined that Bakersfield to San Francisco is a long enough distance to start running bullet trains, while California awaits construction of the last and most difficult link, the southern end from Bakersfield to Los Angeles.

A map of the current ACE corridor, plus the extensions funded under the new transportation bill. Image: ACE
A map of the current ACE corridor, plus the extensions funded under the new transportation bill. Image: ACE

Meanwhile, the California Republican delegation to congress, in a bid to stop HSR’s plan, wrote a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging her to jam up $647 million in federal funds for Caltrain electrification, which she did. The Republicans did this because they think that without electrification, HSR trains can’t operate north of San Jose, and that will kill the project.

But the fact is that electrification, while desirable, isn’t always necessary for HSR. Trains all over the world alternate between diesel and electric power. Most notably in the US, this is done in New Haven, Connecticut and Washington, DC as through Amtrak trains leave and enter the electrified Northeast Corridor. And New Jersey Transit and Montreal’s commuter trains operate “dual-mode” trains that can run off an on-board diesel generator or draw power from overhead electrical wires, albeit with less power and acceleration when running in diesel mode. In Europe, sometimes bullet trains will run, towed by a diesel, onto non-electrified tracks. It’s even been tried in California, as seen in the lead photo of a demonstration run with a German-built HSR train, towed behind a conventional Amtrak diesel locomotive.

That means that when ACE goes to Merced, it will be possible to run a High-speed train from Bakersfield to Merced on electric power, at over 200 mph. Then, by coupling with a diesel locomotive, the train could run at conventional speeds and use ACE tracks to get from Merced to San Jose. From there it could continue to San Francisco on the Caltrain corridor, regardless of whether it is electrified.

In other words, by using this new ACE extension, you could offer a medium speed, one-seat ride from Bakersfield, Fresno and the other cities of the Central Valley to Downtown San Francisco. It wouldn’t require any transfers and it would save hours off the current trip, making it competitive with driving.

A map of construction phases of High-speed rail.
A map of construction phases of HSR. Note that the blue segment from Merced going south is already under construction. Extending ACE to Merced would let trains continue directly to San Francisco. Image: CaHSRA

The CaHSRA calls its plan to mix commuter and intercity rail at the project’s “bookends” with HSR its blended plan. Adding ACE to the blending would be a natural extension of that concept–call it the blended plan on steroids. And by the way, the Altamont pass was seriously considered for the primary route to get HSR to the Bay Area, so there’s no reason it couldn’t be used as an interim service until the faster and more direct Pacheco tracks are built.

Now that a state appeals court has upheld the state’s carbon cap-and-trade program, funding looks more secure for HSR. But it’s still going to be a long slog to getting a fully built-out service. But the CaHSRA thinks it can get the first phase of HSR, from Bakersfield to Merced, finished as early as 2019 with existing funds. That means that with ACE’s extension, which uses existing tracks, it will be possible to get some interim service all the way from Bakersfield to San Francisco right away, but only if Sacramento and the Authority get to work on figuring out the operational details now. By working with the funding picture in hand, and exploiting the ability of HSR to slow down and run on conventional tracks under diesel power, the Bay Area and the Central Valley can enjoy vastly improved rail service much sooner than anyone imagined possible.

All thanks to an anti-HSR Republican from the little town of Ceres.

Dennis Lytton is a rail transportation expert and advocate based in Albany, CA

  • hailfromsf

    CAHSR is supposed to run all the way into the lower level of the Transbay Center in downtown SF through a 1.3 mile long tunnel. Won’t that necessitate electrification?

  • thielges

    The DTX extension is still a long way off, don’t expect that for at least five years. Expect Caltrain electrification to be done by the time DTX is complete, despite the political meddling.

  • thielges

    I like the resourceful thinking but wow, that will be quite a lopsided journey. Blast from Bakersfield to Merced in 30 minutes. Then spend the next 5 hours to reach San Francisco from Merced.

    While that will give more fuel to the HSR naysayers at least it will provide a vivid contrast to what HSR means in terms of travel times compared to conventional rail.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    With respect, this is a bit fanciful. An ACE takes forever to get from stockton to SJ and will take long if it originates from Merced. 2:10 is a really long ride to tack on the end of a Bakersfield run. Perhaps a better fantasy would be HSR to Tracy, since that could be very easy, and change to diesel there?

  • AJ

    This argument doesn’t add up. It would take 3hr 15min to get from Merced to SF via the existing San Joaquin alignment to Richmond BART, versus over four hours from Merced to San Jose to SF.

    The bigger issue is why the heck did we commit half a billion dollars to an ACE extension that will carry a couple hundred riders a day, versus putting that money toward the Pacheco Pass to cut travel times between Merced and San Jose in half. Incredibly wasteful, redundant, and short-sighted.

  • Roger R.

    https://youtu.be/MIQpCm0OjFA sorry about the lack of a translation, but basically everyone’s saying how nice it is not to have to transfer.

  • John Murphy

    “Fancilful” is charitable. The San Joaquin route would be faster to SF (you’d switch to BART at Richmond – so not “one seat”).

    There are a lot of really gnarly single track sections in Niles Canyon, and single track near GAC that shares trackage with Capitol Corridor and freight. Then you are talking about rolling into Diridon and then turning the train to head up to SF, not exactly the best use of rolling stock.

    Any service disruption on the line is basically fatal due to so many single track sections.

    ACE is a useful service for what it is but just because there is a line on the map doesn’t make it super competitive. From the times I’ve ridden it a huge chunk of the ridership is basically Santa Clara to either Fremont or Pleasanton – the sections at which this rail line can nominally compete with complete and utter gridlock.

  • John Murphy

    I’d be shocked if it’s that many. If Trump doesn’t release the Caltrain funding and we spend 400 million on Ceres but don’t electrify Caltrain, holy crap.

  • jonobate

    Never going to happen. Even if Caltrain electrification is indefinitely postponed, HSR will still be able to build Bakersfield to San Jose with their current funding. A fast ride to SJ plus a transfer to a Caltrain Baby Bullet will easily beat trundling over the Altamont behind a diesel locomotive. Additionally, BART will probably be built out to San Jose Diridon by the time HSR service opens, providing another frequent and fast connection to SF via the East Bay.

    Finally, this plan is legally questionable because Prop 1A requires all service using HSR tracks to operate without subsidy. A slow ride to SF via Altamont would never break even, and neither would HSR service confined to the Central Valley. High speed service to one of the coastal metropolitan areas is a necessity for HSR to make a profit.

  • “At almost $70 billion dollars, construction of a high speed rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles and Anaheim is certainly an expensive project. But it will cost a fraction of what the state would have to spend to achieve the same level of mobility for a population expected to reach 50 million people by the year 2030. To move an equivalent number of people would cost $170 billion in new freeways and airport runway expansions in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, assuming those projects would have both the necessary public support and environmental clearance. And while others have said we should wait for newer technology, high speed rail is a safe, reliable and cost effective system of transportation, proven around the world.” –San Francisco Examiner

  • To say nothing of the vast mobility improvement that it will provide to the cities in the Central Valley which currently do NOT enjoy the same level of air service (and might actually have it cut under Trump’s budget) as the LA Basin and Bay Area.

  • This plan makes no sense. Even if Caltrain electrification is delayed indefinitely (which I doubt will happen now that SB1 has passed), it will still be more logical to transfer at Diridon and take either Capitol Corridor or Caltrain to points north. Additionally, the current business plan delays construction of the eastern leg of the Central Valley Wye that would enable a straight trip from Merced to Bakersfield until later in the project.

  • DG

    Too bad that the Altamont Pass alignment wasn’t, chosen over Pacheco Pass, (ultimately they have to go through Modesto). Just seems that it be quicker to get to San Francisco.

  • artnouveau

    I don’t believe this is the way it will work exactly.

    Year 2019 is a bit optimistic. Nevertheless, if pulled by diesels, at least initially, top speeds could realistically be between 110 and 125 mph. The track between Bakersfield and Merced is being designed with a speed capability of 250 mph. But, true HSR top speed in the Valley will be 220 mph. At 110 mph, trains will, presumably, be able to get between Bakersfield and Merced from between about an hour-and-a-half to 2 hours (with stops).

    Assuming ACE serves Merced – which I always believed it should do (regardless of whether HSR sees build-out or not) – it is presumed ACE’s speeds will increase as well. I think faster times are doable between Stockton and San Jose. Putting in Southern Pacific’s old Altamont Pass line could enable this, with improvements.

    There is much promise here. The $400 million for ACE extension to Merced is an excellent start!

  • bobfuss

    Neither SFO nor LAX can have more runways without a massive water reclamation project. The major congestion at LAX is on the ground.

    Future expansion will come at SJC and OAK, which currently are just 2 runways (SFO has four, as does OAK but two of them are short). There may be an argument for a new airport adjacent to HSR and I-5 in the central valley. Yosemite Airport, perhaps?

  • Sluggo67

    Lytton’s concept is intriguing, but doesn’t work under current plans because ACE extension runs on the UP corridor while HSR is adjacent to BNSF corridor. The two corridors are about 1/2 mile apart (at closest) within Merced city limits. It wouldn’t be cheap/easy to connect these two corridors; not impossible, but definitely not a slam dunk.

  • Richard

    I’m not getting it. The ACE is commuter rail, signaled for only low speed travel. 400 million dollars to open this extension isnt going to have much left over to make any improvements.

    Seems CAHSR would be better just finding funds for the electrification needed for Caltrain.

  • crazyvag

    Caltrain will get electrified before HSR reaches SJ, so I don’t see a scenario where HSR can’t get to SF.

    More likely scenario is that HSR won’t reach transbay terminal, but that’s a different battle of SF vs SF.

  • crazyvag

    There are actually many opportunities to improve ACE, but you’re right that none of them will speed up travel time.

    However, if we can get BART to connect in Livermore at a shared station, we could boost usage.

    Also, running trains via downtown Tracy, would shorten the line, save 5 mins and bring ridership up from improved location.

    Adding a 5th train will reduce anxiety of missing last train and increasing flexibility.

    Of course, there are always some curve, bridge and tunnel fixes that can speed up trains that currently slow down for bad track.

  • Richard

    Yes all of that sounds great. So does the extension to Mercer. But all of that is going to cost more than $400 million dollars and will leave you will a line with a max speed of 79mph, much much less in actual operation and with limited capacity(most of the line is single tracked if I am not mistaken)

    Great for that region, great for rail transit in general. Not great for CAHSR.

  • Patrick Jackson

    but CAHSR and ACE could run blended like Caltrain, from Modesto to Union City/Fremont to Redwood City to San Francisco. All you need are a few 4-tracked sections so HSR trains can pass ACE trains.

  • Patrick Jackson

    I think an airport in Tracy, connected by HSR to SF, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Jose in 45 min or less would be great, funded by selling SFO, OAK, SJC, and SMF to private developers. The Northern California 6-8 runway megahub.

  • Patrick Jackson

    but if they built HSR via Modesto, Tracy, Livermore, Union City, and Redwood City, instead of via Gilroy and San Jose, it would be even faster, cheaper, and would use the ACE funds (and therefore bring electrified-Caltrain level service to ACE.)

  • Patrick Jackson

    It’ll get to Transbay eventually.

  • Patrick Jackson

    or we could kill two birds with one stone and run HSR via Altamont, and run ACE as a blended system along side it, and just not serve San Jose and Gilroy with HSR. A convenient BART transfer in Union City is sufficient.

  • Patrick Jackson

    I bet ACE to an extended BART at Livermore is faster than Capitol Corridor to BART at Richmond.

  • Richard

    Presumably you would need the ACE to be 2 tracked before you started adding 4 tracks segments. You would also need to do something to improve the ACE’s speed. It currently averages 40mph between Stockton and San Jose. Between Fremont and Tracy it’s just as slow.

  • Patrick Jackson

    Isn’t that part of the point of the 500,000?

  • Richard

    400 million isnt nearly enough. And no, the 400 million is to extend the line from Tracy to Merced

  • jonobate

    ACE, CAHSR, and the San Joaquins are co-operating on building or upgrading tracks for improved passenger service between Merced and Sacramento. The idea is that in the interim the tracks would be used by ACE to extend to Merced and Sacramento, and by the San Joaquins to increase service between Merced and Sacramento. In the longer term the tracks would also be used for HSR service between Merced and Sacramento. Initial service might use upgraded UP/BNSF tracks, or new tracks alongside the existing freight tracks.

    This is a good thing. A major problem with rail planning in California is that there has been an unnecessary division between 220mph HSR and molasses slow conventional rail. HSR blending with ACE and the San Joaquins, as well as Caltrain, is big step forward.

    There are lots of presentations on the SJJPA website about these plans: http://sjjpa.com/Meetings/Previous-Board-Meetings

    Two good starting points. This one talks about overall corridor planning: http://sjjpa.com/getattachment/Meetings/Previous-Board-Meetings/PP-CVRWG-Meeting-February-24-2016.pdf

    This one talks about phasing in HSR on the new ACE/San Joaquin tracks: http://sjjpa.com/getattachment/Meetings/Previous-Board-Meetings/PP-CVRWG-Meeting-December-16-2016-Final.pdf

  • jonobate

    Very true, but that ship has already sailed.

  • Mr. Alderson

    way too slow. As someone said in one of the replies, puts how important HSR is. Even if they extend ACE to these central valley cities, its not something that can be commutable on a daily basis. Maybe a weekend trip, but even then why not just drive if it’s going to be a lot faster. Almost no point in ACE.

    HSR on the other hand is actually something that is fast enough to make commutable. An estiimate 40min travel from SJ to Fresno is crazy considering it takes about 2 hours drive. Connecting the 3rd biggest city to the 5th. People in tracy and surround areas drive an average of 2 to 2 and half hours during the work week EACH way to San Jose to put that in perspective. And it is stressful drive. Even after a 40min commute on HSR from say Fresno to SJ or vice versa, add an additional 20 mins to actual destination via other form of public transportation to job or home is still realistic. Heck a lot more realistic when MANY make the 2 and half each way stressful traffic drive from east bay cities to SJ or SF.

  • Mr. Alderson

    Yosemite Airport as in FAT in Fresno. That is what is already considered “Yosemite Airport” Fresno is the 5th largest city in CA but has horrible flights from there. Fresno is right smack in the middle of LA and SF, I mean geographically I believe it might actually be literal. They are also trying to be the hub for the HSR train maintenance or something. There is NOTHING on I5, all the cities are on 99. It makes sense to put it in Fresno. People from there drive 2 hours to catch good flights already in SJC.

  • Mr. Alderson

    But I think they look at the ridership. People in Tracy, Livermore, Union City, for what reason do they have to ride the HSR at this point to Fresno or Bakersfield? Where as Fresno is the 5th biggest city, and currently the most affordable BIG City left in CA. Connecting it to the 3rd biggest city in SJ makes it huge economically for both cities. Huge impact for Fresno to connect more job opportunities, and perhaps for those in SJ who want home ownership in a big city and still commutable. Huge things are going on in Fresno at the moment and they are building a tech sector slowly which makes sense to connect easily to Silicon Valley of SJ. True Straight down the pike on 99 from bakersfield up to merced modesto then through 580 seems cheaper, but who wouold ride it.

    Fresno to SJ makes the most sense because there are a lot of people between the 2 cities alone. We’re talking over 500K in fresno and 1mil in SJ, not including the other metro areas close by in fresno which make up a mil total.

    I understand those who live in tracy, modesto, and other cities you mentioned would have loved the HSR to go through there, as for sure it will ease commute. A commute many along the 580 have to suffer in 2+ hours time each way to the bay. But it’s only fair, that area already has ACE, and already has infrastructure that obviously is no longer enough but it was before for driving. Tracy area to SJ should only be an hour drive. Now its over 2+ hours. A longer drive than Fresno to San Jose. Tracy area has already reaped the benefits of making it a city that is commutable to the bay area. I believe prices in homes there have peaked.

    Now it’s time for the Central Valley to reap some benefits.

  • Patrick Jackson

    Redwood City and Union City Stations are at least as convenient to most of the Silicon Valley job centers as Downtown San Jose is.

  • Mr. Alderson

    I believe the first operating segment is from SJ to Fresno to Bakerfield? Honestly they couldve saved some on the budget to get this thing operational by not finishing at bakersfield. Fresno has more connection to SJ than Bakersfield does. Bakersfield has more of a connection to LA. They estimated the ride from Fresno to SJ to be 40 mins which is nice compared to the many driving 2+ hours within the bay area’s east bay, tracy altamont area etc. And as you mentioned bart for anything else connecting.

    With so much controversy on the HSR, I think they need something operational, and the Fresno to SJ line is perfect. Connecting the 5th biggest city in Fresno to the 3rd in SJ will be good to showcase the HSR potential. It will allow more employment opportunities for Fresno that has struggled in unemployment rate for such a big city, and will help maybe relief some housing for those in SJ who still want a commutable place to live. As many have done moving out to east bay cities and altamont cities such as Tracy. Fresno at least is a huge city with a lot of things to offer in comparison.

  • Part of the stated goals of the ACEforward plan is to provide a combined ROW for ACE that could also serve as a secondary exit from the Bay Area for CAHSR. However, as pointed out by @disqus_F1yyjvwNAK:disqus, that isn’t what is being funded here, though it can probably draw on the transit capital funds at a later date.

  • Yes, that’s another issue (and which also makes the whole thing all the more maddening). The State should work with the freight operators to just consolidate freight service on one set of tracks and passenger service on the other. That can also help manage the potential issue of duplicate service between ACE and the San Joaquins from Merced to Stockton (though if ACE stops at more cities, it’s perhaps not as duplicative). Ideally, it should operate like Pacific Surfliner and Coaster/Metrolink do in the LOSSAN corridor (including with Rail2Rail passes), but being on separate ROWs complicates that.

  • The Madera-Bakersfield (Wasco) segment will be the longest portion and the first truly high-speed section of rail in the country. The intent is to leverage that for testing high-speed trainsets at their maximum potential. Additionally, it will be usable by Amtrak San Joaquins between Madera and Wasco, probably at 110 MPH, until the rest of the IOS to San Jose is ready for use.

  • crazyvag

    ACE does have a pretty high ridership. I think it’s about 5000 – 6000 a day… across 8 trains, that’s about 750 / train. They haul 6-car bombardier sets, so effective seating capacity of about 800 seats gets very well used. With ridership like that, there’s certainly potential for more riders, and the $400 would be reasonably well spent.

  • Jackson Van Ness

    Those dual-mode trains run at 79 mph or less. There’s no way that you can run a REAL high speed rail system without electrification all the way.

  • Jackson Van Ness

    Maybe this money’d be spent better by supplying water to farmers in the valley who are being ripped off by the gov’t!

  • roderick_llewellyn

    This is a typical irrelevant comment. You can always find some program that someone will think is more worthy. We could, for example, cancel much of the bloated highway program and thus give lots of water to farmers. Sound good?

    Fact is, there are a billion tradeoffs between one program and unrelated programs. I notice, however, that it’s almost always rail that gets attacked this way… never highways, never airports, never …. It’s a tired argument, frankly.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    Diesel-powered trains can run considerably faster than that. It’s amazing what you can discover in 5 secs on the internet. If you bothered to google “fastest diesel locomotive” you would pull up a Wikipedia article on the subject, stating “The InterCity 125, the current confirmed record holder as the fastest diesel-powered train at 148 mph (238 km/h)”. Probably it’s not efficient at that speed, but your 79 mph figure is clearly low-balling it.

    Nevertheless, the author was admitting that this is largely an interim solution that would get us statewide rail service much sooner than waiting for a full build-out of electrified railway.

  • roderick_llewellyn

    See above comment about this being an interim solution.

  • Jackson Van Ness

    The InterCity 125 is in the UK, and it hit 148 on a test run. The fastest diesel locomotives in the US (the Siemens SC-44) can go 125. The dual-mode units are called the ALP45-DPs, and they run in commuter service on New Jersey Transit. They have a top speed of 100 mph, but are limited to 65 in service. Also, passenger trains in the US legally cannot go more than 79 mph without a cab signal system. The ACE lines and CalTrain lines currently do not have cab signals, and it would be a waste of money to equip them with them when it is only an interim solution.

  • Jackson Van Ness

    “A few four-tracked sections” are not possible through Altamonte Pass. It’s a single-tracked line with several sidings. It’s not worth investing that kind of money in it when you could just build a REAL high-speed line on a much shorter route. Besides, the line is owned by Union Pacific Railroad, so it’ll never happen.

  • Jackson Van Ness

    Freight service will never be consolidated. Railroads want their own Rights-of-Way.

  • Of course they do. I’m not proposing that they nationalized by force, just that they be bought and managed by one entity.

  • Jackson Van Ness

    That would never be allowed, even if it did happen. It would destroy competition, and customer service would suffer tremendously (look at what happened with the Seaboard Coast Line merger in 1967!). Also, BNSF is wholly owned by Berkshire-Hathaway.

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