New California high-speed rail business plan relies on phased rollout

March 15, 2018

California’s High-Speed Rail Authority unveiled the draft of an updated business plan last week. It’s the first major plan from the authority since its new CEO, Brian Kelly, took over in January. The new baseline cost estimate is $77 billion, with the first segment operable in 2029 and full completion in 2033. Although construction is already underway, the project faces challenges today as a result of choices made years ago. The new plan presents lessons learned based on these experiences, with different suggested actions for the future.

California high-speed rail must be built, in spite of these challenges, because the outcome will be worth it. This one high-speed line is the unifying link in a statewide network with many branches and destinations.

When you look at the effect this one high-speed line has on the whole network, it’s clear that the service will radically transform the state and its economy. Journeys to and from places all around California will be so much faster and easier that daily train ridership will grow from 110,000 (today) to 1.3 million (in 2040). That’s the equivalent of 3,000 jumbo jets full of passengers every single day. That works out to 92 million additional daily passenger miles by train, 88 million of which will be diverted from highways.

The new business plan prioritizes construction of segments that will allow improved service sooner on what’s finished first. The Central Valley portion, under construction now, will allow faster trains on the current San Joaquin corridor from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The next segment will link the Central Valley to an improved and electrified CalTrain corridor, creating a seamless line from San Francisco to Bakersfield.

When people experience the difference between 79 mph on old track and 220 mph on the new high-speed line, they’ll be clamoring for the remaining segments, like Bakersfield to L.A., to be finished as soon as possible.

The High-Speed Rail Authority is also coordinating closely with connecting services like CalTrain and Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) to develop service plans and identify infrastructure upgrades that benefit both commuter and high-speed service. ACE runs from Livermore and Stockton to San Jose, where it connects with CalTrain. ACE is planning to upgrade and extend its service south from Stockton to Merced, where it would connect with the new high-speed tracks.

ACE is planning its new route to be compatible with high-speed rail, opening up more destinations for fast, long-distance trains, and offering them a route into the Bay Area before the dedicated high-speed corridor through the Pacheco Pass and Gilroy is finished.

California isn’t the first to used a phased approach to build high-speed rail. They’re following proven practices from around the world, and the phased approach is a smart way to leverage completed construction to secure support and financing for continuing work.

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