It’s the $72 billion question — how can the California High Speed Rail Authority win over skeptics and investors?
The answer is actually right in front of them.
The language of the $10 billion bond voters approved for high speed rail included the possibility that some of the money could be used to fund the building of high speed rail tracks across the Altamont for the Altamont Corridor Express.
The tracks require minimum right-of-way acquisition. The operating plan calls for trains to travel at near normal speeds once they clear the Altamont Hills eliminating urban backlash. There is already a passenger base to build on. It can become a reality much quicker.
And given that being able to go 150 mph over the Altamont instead of the current 10 mph on curving Union Pacific rail lines and then going back to normal operating speeds on either side will reduce the travel time from Stockton to San Jose from 2 hours and 10 minutes to just 55 minutes is huge.
Why does that matter to the CHSRA? The current peak rush hour time between Stockton and San Jose by car is also just over 2 hours — if you are lucky. ACE currently takes the stress out of the commute and allows riders to work, relax or sleep instead of being hunched over a steering wheel for as much as four hours each day. Based on average wear and tear of a car with one person versus the price of an ACE ticket, riding the train is less expensive.
At the same time ACE’s fare box recovery of the actual cost of operating the system at times has surpassed 50 percent. The system has the highest fare box recovery for a heavy rail commuter train in the nation meaning it requires a smaller subsidy to operate.
Think what would happen if all of sudden the commuters cramming the Interstate 680 corridor could take a train and cut their commute time by more than half?
It has the potential to swell ACE’s ridership. Packed trains with a high fare box recovery would show high speed rail can work.
As it is the CHSRA has a rough road ahead. It could be another 10 years plus before trains roll between large enough metro markets to generate any significant amount of ridership. That’s assuming they can get the money from skeptical investors or convince voters it’s worth the money so elected leaders are comfortable dishing out more construction funds.
While high speed between San Francisco and Los Angeles calls for trains to push 240 mph — much faster than the 150 mph envisioned for ACE trains on the Altamont — the Stockton to San Jose corridor has a ready market approaching 100,000 commuters (assuming there are more than one person in many vehicles) that a faster train can lure into its seats.
And given the established transit hubs along the ACE line it would be much easier out of the chute to expand existing surface connections.
At the end of the day, there is an established hardcore five-day commute market between the Northern San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. There isn’t a large five-day commute market between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The reason the high speed train system serving Tokyo is so successful is because people take it every day to work not just on a once a week business trip or for pleasure.
In a way, it’s good that the CHSRA is trying to bite off Los Angeles to San Francisco if you are among those opposed to the project.
The long drawn out construction schedule, the cutbacks in design, and difficulty getting money secured to fund the basic backbone segment from LA to SF dramatically increases the chances it will never succeed.
Just because they started it, doesn’t mean it will be finished.
The West — including California — is littered with abandoned railroad right-of-ways where the dream overshot reality. Some of those rail lines operated for years on a limited itinerary falling way short of their grandiose plans.
Also keep in mind high speed rail isn’t the Transcontinental Railroad. It isn’t essential to open up large swaths of the state to development. There are other alternatives out there — jets, cars, and buses — to travel between LA and SF.
Most people going to LA still need cars once they get there. Put two or more people in a car bound from San Francisco to LA and the operating cost per mile plummets to the point high speed rail becomes much more expensive.
People going to and from work over the Altamont use their cars on workdays basically just to go to work and back home.
State Sen. Cathleen Gagliani was on the right track when she successful fought to include language that allowed the CHSRA to put part of the $10 billion bond voters approved toward the ACE corridor.
It’s too bad the CHSRA commission has since squandered the chance to use ACE as a demonstration project of what high speed rail is capable of doing.
It’s much easier to sell investors and a skeptical public using a working and successful system in a bid to secure $72 billion in funding than is a lot of conjecture in the form of analyses and assumptions spelled out in reams of paper.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209.249.3519.