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Tracy to Livermore in five minutes

By enelson
Thursday, September 27th, 2007 at 6:27 pm in Altamont Commuter Express, BART, connectivity, driving, high-speed rail, parking, rail, Transit vs. driving.

japanese_bullet_train.jpg

What if high-speed rail went through the Altamont Pass a teeny bit, and then stopped?

Sounds silly at first blush, but you have to bear with me here.

I heard about this at Wednesday’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission meeting, when a speaker critical of the area’s first comprehensive regional rail plan noted that Scott Haggerty, an Alameda County Supervisor who represents the county on the commission, had his own high-speed rail plan.

One could say, and one would be very sensible to do so, that the time for proposing new bullet train routes has passed. The California High-Speed Rail Authority is in the throes of an environmental impact process pitting the 100-percent Altamont Pass option against the Pacheco Pass options. The routes have been debated for years, the authority is getting a fifth of what it asked for in the state budget and a lack of resolve at this point might be akin to being the lame wildebeest as the lions are closing in.

But sometimes a wildebeest has to zig when the lions expect it to zag.

The odds of California voters, their elected representatives and the private sector agreeing to come up with the initial estimate of around $40 billion seem somewhat slim. As the Sacramento Bee opined this week, bullet trains are a great idea, but there are more immediate infrastructure needs we already can’t pay for.

Why is it so expensive? I’m not a PhD, but it seems that high-speed rail is trying to be all things to all people.

At its core, it’s a viable way to get to Southern California that would be fast enough to compete with the airlines (2 1/2 hours from downtown San Francisco to downtown LA, with little of that waiting you do at the airport) and cheap and convenient enough to compete with the freeways.

But it would be oh, so much more, at least in the minds of the rag-tag coalition trying to promote it.

It couldn’t go straight to Los Angeles. The authority has it going though the Antelope Valley, promising to turn that remote locale into a bustling suburb of Los Angeles.

It would, if a coalition of Santa Clara County and San Francisco officials continues to hold sway, perform a similar conversion for the rural areas around the Pacheco Pass. If you don’t already own a patch of land down there, strike now while the bullet gravy train has nearly ground to a halt.

If the Altamont Pass backers in the East Bay and Central Valley get their way, high-speed rail will be more things to more people.

It will be a posh commuter train, allowing people who can’t afford private jets to fly to Oakland or San Francisco in the time it now takes to drive from one end of Pleasanton to the other in Interstate 580 during rush hour.

And if the Central Valley isn’t growing fast enough, the bullet train will be an engine of commerce like no other. At one end, it would enable people to commute to Los Angeles. At the other end, it would make it feasible for people to work in San Jose and live in Fresno.

But those people dancing around this golden cash calf have made the transportation gods angry. The project is so intimidating that fewer and fewer people are taking it seriously.

We don’t need to put a man on the moon here. We just need to get to LA.

Why not just build a line where it will do the most good — down the Central Valley and over the mountains into LA?

It doesn’t have to start in downtown San Francisco. It just has to cut the time it takes to get from the Bay Area to Southern California from the current 11 or 12 hours that Amtrak’s run-down Coast Starlight takes to, say, four hours.

Two hours by improved regular trains out to or near the Central Valley, then another two hours to LA. I know I’d use it if it meant it would be faster than driving and didn’t involve operating a vehicle for six hours.

Heck, you could even build a vast parking lot for people who’d rather not change trains. They, too, would benefit from cutting short the longest part of their trip.

The idea floated by Haggerty dovetails nicely with my simplistic vision. He proposes building a “Grand Central Station” in Livermore, where people could transfer to high-speed rail from BART, the Altamont Commter Express commuter rail line or an as-yet-to-be-figured-out rail connection to eastern Contra Costa County.

He sees it as complementing a Pacheco Pass-San Jose-San Francisco bullet line, but I say, build your station, make that the gateway to the Bay Area.

Photo from www.japaneselifestyle.com.au.

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24 Responses to “Tracy to Livermore in five minutes”

  1. Reedman Says:

    Bullet trains are expensive to build because trains in general are expensive to build,
    and bullet trains are expensive trains. The hoped-for trade-off is that trains are
    less expensive to operate. As I’ve commented before, this is the opposite of
    putting a bus system together, where the initial investment is low, but the operating
    costs are high. Based on the history of public works projects like the Bay Bridge, the probabiity that the actual construction cost would be anywhere near what the present estimates are would seem to be rather low. I agree with the Sac Bee that a bullet is a good idea, but ‘the devil is in the details’, and getting an agreed-to route would seem to be a big detail that needs to finalized.

  2. MikeTeeVee Says:

    The alternative to HSR is spending at least as much money expanding the status quo: airports, runways, I-5, etc.

    Airports and freeways are public works projects, with the same cost estimate vs. reality problem as any other public works project.

    A bus ride to LA doesn’t sound all that appealing, even for $1 on Megabus.

  3. Mike Says:

    MikeTeeVee,

    Yes, and this week we have heard much blustering about the sad state of air travel. While the focus has been in NY, LAX-SFO is another of those very congested air corridors. Having a HSR option would be appealing to this frequent flier.

  4. murphstahoe Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. Seems to me they could just run the HSR to San Jose, and
    run a Caltrain “real” Bullet from SF->SJ timed to the departure of the HSR with
    no stops – not even Palo Alto. Without stops, that run would be in the range of
    45 minutes. It would have to meet with a “dent” in the regular Caltrain runs
    but I predict they could pull it off, especially for midday runs. Oakland would not be served very well initially, but the planned Caltrain extension to downtown would probably be cheaper than the retrofit to get the HSR rail trains all the way to SF – allowing people to then transfer to BART. While somewhat roundabout, this would still be more attractive to a Walnut Creek denizen than taking BART to the airport and then starting that boondoggle.

  5. v63sfo Says:

    High speed rail is expensive because we’ve failed to develop High Speed rail. Every year we wait it’s just going to get expensive. We’ll spend billions on highways that are defunct by the time they’re finished.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    V, I agree that the system would have been cheaper had it been built it in the 1960s, when Japan was building its system.

    On the other hand, you have to weigh costs and benefits as they exist right now. You could make the increasing costs argument for not delaying construction of a transit village floating on the Bay, too. The question is, do we need it so badly that we should sacrifice all else that could be done with that $40 billion? If you limit the debate to transportation, or even rail service, the question becomes, how much could we improve our existing rail service if we invested a fifth of that money?

  7. Reedman Says:

    It’s tough to compare planes, trains, and automobiles. The freeways and airways are
    struggling because they are operating at their maximum capacity. Train systems have
    problems reaching high throughput because of the high cost of implementing,
    controlling, and scheduling “passing lanes”. As an example, BART’s Transbay Tube
    is described as being at-capacity with a train every two and a half minutes (coincidentally,
    this is about the same spacing that is allowed for jumbo jets taking-off and landing at
    airports).

  8. Capricious Commuter Says:

    The jumbo jet comparison is mind-blowing. One would think that vehicles on a track going 79 mph could be spaced a little closer than that.

    BART is working on a system, or rather locked in a lawsuit with the company developing the system, that would replace the current block system of separating trains. Now, there has to be an empty block of track between all trains, which means 2 1/2 minutes between trains.

    The new system, if it’s ever implemented, would cut that to 2 minutes, according to BART’s Linton Johnson, or an extra six trains an hour.

  9. brett Says:

    how do we add another 15 million people, another LA, to California without more transportation options? $40 billion to add HSR to get from SF to LA…. or $20 billion to the Bay Area and $20 billion the LA region for expand commuter transit. Seems like the regional transit, rather than intercity, should be more of a priority.

  10. bikerider Says:

    Good grief…so many errors in one blog…where to start?

    1. The cost to State taxpayers would be $10 billion, not $40 billion (Feds and private investors pick up the rest)

    2. Stopping in Livermore defeats the whole purpose of HSR. What makes HSR time-competitive against the airplane is that it delivers you straight to the urban core — not some remote location way out in the ex-urbs.

    3. Every high-speed rail system in the world is used for both long-distance and commuter service. That is the beauty of the technology. So what you call “trying to be all things to all people” shows a misunderstanding of how high-speed rail works; i.e. it is not just a $40 billion replacement for the Southwest shuttle.

    4. Expensive is a relative term — you need to compare cost of expanding runways and highways. Also, something that does not get a lot of press is that archaic Federal regulations jack up the cost of rail in this country relative to what comparable systems cost in Europe and Japan.

  11. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Bikerider, I’m not dissing the usefulness of a high-speed rail system. My suggestion is that there might be a more moderate way of starting out rather than creating this huge monster that scares people away because of its cost.

    As for these billions in federal grants and private investment, I’m all ears if you can cite examples of commitments by either party to choke down even a quarter of that cost.

    If someone builds a system, I’ll be one of the first in line to buy a ticket. But in this field of dreams, the spectral mantra seems to be, “if you come, they will build it.”

    Problem is, we don’t know who “they” are yet.

  12. TrainFanButFrequentFlyer Says:

    I like the idea of linking to BART, but BART would have to get an express-train strategy implemented — which of course is also required for SFO service. CA’s HSR boondoggle is just another example of our politicians putting their local interests above the Common Interest. Here’s an idea: move SFO to Livermore :)

  13. Capricious Commuter Says:

    TrainFan, we may have to move SFO, what with the sea level rising.

  14. bikerider Says:

    The Capricious Commuter suggests starting out with a smaller, more moderate part of the HSR project. But that is exactly what is being proposed. The $40 billion figure is for the full build-out, with all the various extensions. That is not what is being proposed right now; rather the more modest LA-SF segment (i.e. phase I) would be a $20 billion project, with CA taxpayers paying $9.5B of the cost.

    As for the Federal grants, they would come from the same program that is helping pay for the $17 billion 2nd Ave subway project in NYC, the $1.5 billion BART-SFO extension, and (possibly) the $6 billion BART-SJ project (to name a few examples). FTA provides 50/50 matching grants for qualified projects. Since HSR is expected to generate farebox revenue greater than 100%, it is expected to be at the top of the priority list (even without Pelosi having to make it an earmark).

  15. Reedman Says:

    I don’t think there is a way politically to build a smaller, ‘starter’
    system connecting the three largest cities (San Diego, LA, San Jose). The other
    parts of the state would never vote for this, and their legislators wouldn’t
    allow it to happen. Part of the problem with a project like CASHR is that to get
    it approved, its an all-or-nothing proposition.

  16. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Reedman, I think you have a good point about Californians supporting HSR. The problem is, all-or-nothing propositions rarely wind up in the “all” basket.

  17. MikeTeeVee Says:

    The first phase of HSR would serve a lot more than just three cities. It’s not just an endpoint-to-endpoint system.

    http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/implementation/ImplementationPlan.pdf

    “The High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act (SB 1865/SB1169) directs that the first portion of the high-speed train system to be funded will be San Francisco to Los Angeles. Even along that route there may be regional segments that can be opened before construction is complete on the entire north-south line.”

    For a lot of people, the nearest HSR station is going to be closer than the nearest airport.

  18. TrainFanButFrequentFlyer Says:

    When will someone in the media write a story about how the “SF-LA in 2:30″ line is a fraud? There are no high-speed rail routes in the world that are more than 200 miles and average more than 150mph, let alone one between two built-up cities that are ringed by mountains. Being very generous with the proposed routes makes SF-LA around 400 track miles. Paris-Lyon (about 220 miles) is probably the best example we have: non-stop, flat, lots of dedicated TGV track. This trip takes just about 2 hours. Yes, you get to go 180mph in the middle … but average speed is not at all the same as top speed. It seems everytone thinks of the distance between SF and LA as being the air mileage of ~330 miles and the top speed of TGV being ~200mph and comes up with two and a half hours. If it takes until after we spend $20B for the mayors of each city on opening day to find that this is a 4+ hour trip, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

  19. Guy Span Says:

    It might be interesting to look at another story, “Big Fat Lies” that describes how local engineering projects get accomplished, and then go way over budget. It’s a bit cynical, but the facts were researched.

    Oddly enough, BART now wants another $12 billion or so to do what they already did. Here’s the link:

    http://www.baycrossings.com/dispnews.asp?id=399

  20. Reedman Says:

    At today’s (Oct 24, 2007) MTC meeting, the MTC formally
    endorsed BOTH the Altamont and Pacheco routes for bringing
    high speed rail to the Bay Area. Picking one route or the other
    would be politically too difficult and/or unpopular …

  21. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Reedman, they didn’t endorse both. They endorsed Pacheco, with a suggestion for a second line coming through the Altamont Pass and stopping at Livermore. It will be a miracle if anything gets built, let alone bonus spur that dead-end in some town few people outside the Bay Area or nuclear weapons circles have heard of.

  22. Inside Bay Area > The Capricious Commuter > hopeless? try the Middle East Says:

    [...] when I said high-speed rail could be all things to all people, I wasn’t [...]

  23. Reedman Says:

    The MTC has a slide in their Powerpoint presentation for
    the October 12 meeting which tries to explain their thinking. I don’t think
    it does very well because what they want, and the vocabulary they use,
    is both bureaucratic and pie-in-the-sky. They want Altamont to be part of a “regional”
    (Northern California) rail network, but they want it to “HSR ready” and
    they want HSR bonds to pay for it, and they want the west-from-Livermore
    part built first (Phase One). They then describe Pacheco as the link to Southern California,
    and put it into Phase Two, while the Altamont piece from Livermore east to
    Manteca is Phase Three.
    Looking at their map, there is a lot of duplicated services and corridors
    with both Regional and Statewide systems – very expensive.
    reference:
    http://apps.mtc.ca.gov/meeting_packet_documents/agenda_929/HSR_10-12-07_PC_v.2.ppt

  24. Michael Krueger Says:

    The idea of high-speed rail “stopping at Livermore” and forcing passengers to transfer to BART or ACE has to be one of the worst ideas I have heard come out of the whole sorry discussion of the Bay Area high-speed rail alignment. The fact that anyone is even discussing such a scenario betrays a real lack of knowledge of how conventional high-speed rail works.

    I’m no expert myself, but anyone who has ridden the European high-speed rail system knows that the trains are able to travel on conventional tracks, which is almost always the case when they approach major cities. That’s the beauty of using conventional rail technology (steel wheels on standard-gauge track, with overhead electric power) instead of an exotic technology like magnetic levitation or even a conventional but non-standard technology like BART (non-standard-gauge track and third-rail power). Existing lines like ACE and the Capitol Corridor could be upgraded to accommodate high-speed trains at conventional speeds at a tiny fraction of the cost of building dedicated high-speed lines parallel to the conventional ones. Even though the high-speed trains would have to slow down to use the conventional tracks, the full trip would still be much faster than it would be if passengers were forced to transfer.

    Of course, once the initial connection is made, it’s always possible to go back and do track upgrades and add additional tracks. That’s one of the reasons European high-speed rail has been so successful: the track network has been expanded and upgraded incrementally, as ridership and demand grows. If European politicians had assumed that the entire system had to be built at once, from scratch, with all-new tracks and rights of way, it probably never would have been built at all.

    The other mistaken assumption floating around is that cities along the alignment would only benefit from the high-speed trains themselves. This is often used as an argument against the Altamont Pass alignment: “Are commuters from Tracy really going to pay to take a high-speed train to work in San Francisco?” They won’t have to. The upgrades to the line to accommodate high-speed rail will make it possible to run faster, quieter, more frequent electric commuter trains along the same alignment. Some of these trains can be locals that make all stops, and some can run express. All of this can be in addition to the the long-distance high-speed service itself, which would be more expensive, less frequent, and would make the fewest stops of all. All of the layered additional service that would be possible along an electrified, upgraded right of way is what makes the Altamont route so much more cost-effective than Pacheco.

    By contrast, the Pacheco route runs through the middle of nowhere, so there would not be nearly enough local riders to make full use of the expensive infrastructure in the corridor. People argue that development along the Pacheco alignment could eventually bring more local riders, but why drive development into largely empty areas instead of intensifying existing development along the already-developed Altamont corridor? Viewed in light of its recently announced commitment to fight sprawl, supporting Pacheco (or even “Pacheco first,” for anyone who actually believes that the “dual alignment” approach is anything more than a cynical political ploy) is height of hypocrisy for the MTC.

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