Does California have more options than it realizes for first high-speed rail segment?

April 12, 2018

Over the past few weeks we’ve taken a look at California High-Speed Rail and how it’s coming together, including how the state is using the phased network approach. In a recent letter to the Sacramento Bee, High-Speed Rail Authority CEO Brian Kelly called this a “building-block approach.”

Using the phased network approach means California is following in the footsteps of successful high-speed rail systems around the world, and this is something public officials and advocates should continue to tout. But has California evaluated the many route options that a true phased approach makes possible?

The first phase of construction will complete 119 miles of high-speed tracks from Bakersfield as far north as Madera. That’s just short of Merced, where there are three existing routes that would let trains continue to major destinations. (See our map above.) What’s more, public officials are already working to improve existing commuter service on these routes, which presents an unbeatable opportunity to leverage these commuter investments to maximize the potential of the first phase of the high-speed line.

One route is the existing San Joaquin service, which heads north to Stockton before turning west and then looping south to Oakland. With new equipment, trains could move seamlessly from the high-speed line to serve Oakland and East Bay destinations.

A second route is to shift the existing San Joaquin branch from Stockton to Sacramento to a little-used freight corridor. This would create a dedicated passenger route, allowing more frequent San Joaquin trains linking Sacramento to Bakersfield and intermediate cities. This would open up Sacramento as a destination for high-speed trains.

A third route follows the Altamont Corridor Express, or ACE, a commuter service that currently links San Jose to Stockton through the Altamont Pass. ACE is planning a southern extension of its service from Stockton to Merced, near Madera. They have also planned an upgrade to their tracks through the pass to allow faster and more frequent trains.

At the moment, ACE is prioritizing its extension, not upgrading its existing line through the pass. However, all of its work has been planned with high-speed rail compatibility in mind. If the upgrade through the pass were completed, it would allow trains from the high-speed line to follow the ACE route right into Silicon Valley. From San Jose, they could even continue up Caltrain to San Francisco.

With the right equipment, trains don’t need to stop—and passengers don’t need to transfer—at the north end of the high-speed line. They can take advantage of planned upgrades to commuter tracks and continue onto any of these three routes, opening up a big range of destinations to faster trains long before the entire high-speed system can be completed.

With more trains to more places able to take advantage of the first high-speed segment, more people will ride, and it will be easier to fund and finish the subsequent segments. That’s the power of the phased network approach.

This week at Midwest High Speed Rail Association

The Global Railway Review published an article about the Phased Network Approach written by Midwest High Speed Rail Association Executive Director Rick Harnish.

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