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my rail plan: abandon all hope

By enelson
Friday, August 24th, 2007 at 8:36 pm in Misc. Transportation.


Focused as I have been on the Bay Bridge (Did you hear? It’s to be closed Labor Day weekend), I’ve felt guilty all week that I haven’t paid much attention to the Bay Area’s Regional Rail Plan that was put before the public Aug. 15 by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, BART, Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

So I called several people that know something about it, including the author of the legislation that made the plan possible, and I must say it wasn’t much better than when those hasty Web reports came out saying that Harry Potter had been eaten by Voldemort.

The short version is that any meaningful improvement in our regional rail network, including BART, Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, ACE and the San Joaquins, would cost so much that there’s no point in worrying about it.

Why do I think that?

Because one of the conclusions to come out of this is that the best hope for major improvements is to piggy-back our local system, i.e., the system that might get people off of those backed-up freeways connecting the Bay Area with the Central Valley and San Jose with San Francisco, is to hitch a ride with the California High-Speed Rail system.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the California High-Speed Rail System is something that will whisk passengers from Oakland to Los Angeles in under three hours, relieve congestion at local airports and remove the “remote” from in front of the Central and Antelope valleys.

It will do this all for less than $50 billion, by current estimates. So far, the entity charged with doing that, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, has received less than a 10th of that, and was lucky to squeeze $15 million past the governor today and another $5 million from Orange County this year.
If $20.7 million sounds like a lot of money, consider that the down payment on this system is a $9.9 billion bond that has a good chance of being removed from the 2008 ballot so we can borrow for some other worthy purpose.

I should disclose here that I think the bullet train is way cool, and I’m partial to trains in general. That’s why this whole regional rail plan thing is somewhat depressing.
Since I now work across Interstate 880 from Oakland Coliseum, my long-distance commute often starts and ends at one of the loneliest and scariest Amtrak/Capitol Corridor stations I’ve chanced to wait at.
There is no office, a malfunctioning arrival information sign and a homeless encampment literally a stone’s throw from the platform.
As sad as I thought this was, I was surprised when a conductor asked me if I was sure I was going there. Why? Because the southbound/westbound trains scheduled to terminate there in the morning don’t actually go there because no one’s riding them.
At some point, people will get the idea that they can take the train to the airport, especially when there’s a BART connector that the federal government just coughed up $25 million for (again, remember how they laughed at Dr. Evil for his $1 million ransom demand).
But until then, I have the shame of knowing that a monstrous huge locomotive is chugging diesel and blowing particulates for 10 minutes every morning just so I don’t have to drive from the Central Valley.
The rail plan for the next 40 years, properly put together, might, I’m told, make such inefficiencies a thing of the past.
If you can make rail transit faster than driving (which it already is during bad rush hours), you can conceivably coax 50 percent of commuters along that corridor out of their cars. Otherwise, it’s more like 2 percent to 3 percent, according to transportation planner Ezra Rapport, <cm cq> who helped write legislation that created the rail planning process.

Unfortunately, he contends, the process didn’t provide any guidance to get us to that point.
After having difficulty getting the data showing future ridership, the process shut down before actual strategy could be worked out, he said.

The MTCommission convinced the other parties to the process that a September legislative deadline needed to be met, and now the public is left scratching its heads wondering what the whole thing means.

It does have some ideas, such as a second BART tube to move more people across the Bay, adding tracks to the commuter rail corridors and building a rail line through Marin and Sonoma counties, a battle that has already been joined in the North Bay.
What does the MTC have to say about this?
“This was a tall order with respect to forecasting of ridership into the future from around California that took longer than originally expected,” said MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler. “It’s a lot less picking things than articulating what things could look like … It’s a big subject and I think a lot of folks would keep talking about it for a long period of time.”

But considering that the thing was done in large part to see how our regional rail system would mesh with High-Speed Rail, “this is not going to be the last time this subject is going to be discussed.”
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6 Responses to “my rail plan: abandon all hope”

  1. Leslie Stewart Says:

    Hey, Erik, thanks for confirming my impression of what was going on here. I have been researching this plan and was surprised to find that the full text was only available on the Regional Rail Plan site on Aug. 27 or 28 when the deadline for comments was Aug. 29. And there weren’t very many specifics on the next steps — grand scope is one thing but implementation is apparently left pretty much up in the air. I suspected the deadline might be to blame and that seems to be what you heard also.


  2. Hayden K. Says:

    I’d like to have high hopes for high-speed rail between the Bay Area (and maybe even Sacramento) and LA, partly because I’d take it, but also because it provides a great opportunity to increase north-south travel without further increasing flights from Bay Area airports. If it really worked, perhaps it would even reduce intra-California flights!

    Benefits include not only (potentially) convenient and less-air-polluting rail travel, but also room for the airports (OAK and SFO) to increase flights without requiring additional (OAK) or moved (SFO) runways in the Bay.

  3. Capricious Commuter Says:

    It seems to me that the biggest obstacle to high-speed rail is that it’s too big a mouthful for any electorate to swallow. We already have airports built and jets flying. We have freeways and no shortage of cars. Expanding capacity in those modes seems much more possible than creating an entirely new mode from scratch, with a price tag in the tens of billions.

    Here’s my bright idea: build a huge parking lot in Tracy and run the line down to LA from there. That way, you can introduce people who would normally be driving to the idea that they can cut off the longest part of their trip. Also, people could take regular Amtrak trains to connect to HSR, only the trip would four hours instead of 10-15.

    That way, you can get the whole thing started at a less astronomical price, and show people the beauty of the idea, without worrying about the whole Altamont/Pacheco pass fiasco or trying to raise $50 billion right away.

    Of course, I’m in no way qualified to fix this problem, and I realize that my idea could just as well lead to a big parking lot with tumbleweeds blowing across it.

    The thing that my basic common sense tells me is that if we, today, posess the resources to build an ultra-fast rail system into all the major downtowns in California, you’d think that at least one of those cities would have already built even a moderately faster rail system serving its suburbs.

    None have, and they haven’t because the money just hasn’t been available.

  4. Reedman Says:

    The largest city in Northern California is San Jose. Any high speed rail project has to deal
    with this. Going to Sacramento, Oakland, and San Francisco needs to
    be second priority. The HSR group has been choking on this reality since it was formed.
    They have done everything possible to avoid committing to the Pacheco Pass route, which
    is the most logical one from a population and geography standpoint, because it would be
    perceived as a slap in the face to the above mentioned cities which are hugely more
    powerful politically.

  5. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Reedman, I hate to rain on your rant, but you do the HSRA wrong when you say it’s avoided committing. The authority was so committed to Pacheco alignment that it didn’t include it in its first environmental impact study. Because of that decision, the athority had to spend another couple years studying both options.

    As for Pacheco supporters, you’ll find them everywhere except the East Bay. The most recent word on this was San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who came out unequivocally for Pacheco. The MTC voted to support Pacheco and no other alignment in 2003, notwithstanding four votes from “hugely more powerful” Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

    Oh, they’re committed, all right. The only reason you’re not hearing anything from the authority members right now is that they are supposed to keep quiet until the environmental process is done. Otherwise, the process might not seem to be weighing all alternatives equally.

  6. Aaron Priven Says:

    “San Jose is the largest city in the Bay Area”

    yes, because before Proposition 13 it annexed neighboring areas and even whole cities like Willow Glen and Alviso, something San Francisco wasn’t allowed to do because of the county boundary. If San Francisco had annexed land the way San Jose did in the postwar years then Oakland, Berkeley, Daly City, etc. would all be part of San Francisco and San Francisco would be the largest city.

    Having said that, both cities are important and should be served by high speed rail.

    The Altamont route is better not because it serves the East Bay but because it is the only route that will provide a high speed link not only between San Francisco/San Jose and Los Angeles but also between San Francisco/San Jose and Sacramento. Going via Pacheco throws this potential market away.

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