Why not try a ‘faster’ speed rail system first? It could work now

By Jim Gonzalez, Special to CALmatters

Claims by President Donald Trump and other naysayers aside, Gov. Gavin Newsom provided clear analysis and direction regarding the stalled California High Speed Rail Project.   

The governor’s message was twofold: finish the Central Valley link between Merced and Bakersfield, and continue planning to complete high-speed rail within sensible and fiscally prudent guidelines and phases.

To this, I have a modest suggestion:

Gov. Newsom should consider a statewide faster-speed rail system. It is innovative and can be accomplished sooner and cheaper.

California has the technological means to provide passenger rail service which can travel at 125 miles an hour, an increase in speed of 58 percent over the 79 mph speed limit which governs most of the rail lines now serving California.

Already in service in California are six Siemens Clean Diesel Electric locomotives. They’re designed to safely operate at 125 mph.

These environmentally-friendly locomotives are the first of their type to have received Tier IV emissions certification from the Federal Railroad Administration, and are part of a multi-state procurement.

These faster speed locomotives already operate on the Capitol Corridor between San Jose and Sacramento, and could be mated with new passenger rail cars being, which are being built by a Sumitomo/Siemens partnership at Siemens’ rail car manufacturing facility in Sacramento.

You read that right. The railcars are being made in California, providing well-paying manufacturing jobs for our middle class.

When these train sets are rolling, California will have the potential for 125 mph faster speed rail service. This will instantly put California in the same league as rail services in Europe and Asia where 125 mph service is routine.

True, this isn’t the 200-plus mph rail service promised in the 2008 bond campaign for the California high speed rail. But 125 mph passenger trains would offer service similar to the United Kingdom’s Inter-City 125, which has been in service since 1976.

These 125 mph capable train sets could be put in service on the high speed rail line being built between Merced and Bakersfield.

This represents a sensible, cost-effective solution that would allow faster-speed rail to operate immediately and spur the economic success on the Merced to Bakersfield line that Gov. Newsom envisions.

These same trains could be a solution for an upgraded line between San Diego and Los Angeles Union Station and north to San Luis Obispo. Riders would use faster-speed rail in even greater numbers if tracks were upgraded to support 125 mph service.

Technology exists today to employ faster-speed rail service as soon as the tracks, right of way, and system controls are in place. This would be the most cost-effective approach toward making the Central Valley portion of the high speed rail project fully operational.   

It also would also dramatically increase passenger service and revenue on many other lines, including the 128-mile link between Los Angeles and San Diego, a welcome alternative to the grinding congestion of Interstate 5 and expensive air travel.

Anyone who has driven between the Bay Area and Los Angeles along Highway 5 knows that the real barrier to high speed rail remains the literal barrier of the Tehachapis.

Getting through that mountain range with grading, rail tunnels, and bridges will always be a profound and costly engineering challenge.

Someday it will be done. However, until the political will and the dollars match this engineering challenge, the Newsom Administration should consider faster speed rail and embark on providing 125 mph rail service for all of California’s train passengers.

Jim Gonzalez, a former San Francisco supervisor, leads a political strategy and public policy research firm in Sacramento. He has consulted with passenger rail companies, though views in this commentary are not supported or authorized by any past or present client,  [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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