Opponents of former Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to bring California into the transportation 21st century by building a modern, true high-speed rail (HSR) system are chortling over his successor’s decision to hold the line to one connecting Bakersfield and Merced for now.
As an avid advocate of HSR, I believe that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision is probably right in the long term.
The Valley segment is already under construction and will be a significant improvement to the existing Amtrak “San Joaquin” train service in the San Joaquin Valley by increasing speed and eliminating delays due to freight trains on its present BNSF Railway route.
The next step in improving rail passenger service and transportation in general in the state will be to construct grade-separations along the rest of the San Joaquin route between Merced, Sacramento and Oakland.
Current San Joaquin trains are held to a 79 mph maximum speed because of all the at-grade crossings in the Valley. In states where these crossings have been eliminated trains operate at 110 mph using current equipment.
Early high-speed trains
As I have noted before, the Santa Fe’s Golden Gate streamlined trains running between Bakersfield and Richmond beginning 80 years ago in 1938, reached speeds of up to 110 mph using first-generation lightweight stainless steel trains pulled by streamlined diesel locomotives.
As a child, I rode those clean, modern, diesel-powered trains and have ridden modern HSR trains in the East, the U.K. and Europe. The first trains were able to reach 110 mph because of far fewer grade crossings along the line, along with fewer motor vehicles and drivers, who in those days paid attention to what they were doing.
Opponents claim that new electric-powered trains must be purchased for the new track
under construction in the Valley along with a heavy maintenance facility, but that can wait until
the system is completed between L.A. and the Bay Area, using existing equipment that can run on existing track and the new line without changing trains.
Facing the future
Some day down the line, so to speak, Californians will face the future and complete this service as originally planned, with rails through the nearby mountains and under the Bay. I won’t be around but I bet it will happen.
This is not a matter of technology. I read several international rail newsletters daily and HSR systems are popping up all over the planet, many of them in places we smug Americans consider “primitive.”
Folks in Europe and Asia have been enjoying true HSR travel for decades with trains that connect local transportation services.
In the 1980s we flew from Washington and New York to London and on to Germany twice
where we easily and conveniently connected to ground transportation, never once getting behind the wheel of a car and rarely riding in one.
Tunneling through the Tehachapi Mountains is not the challenge many uninformed folks seem to think it is. Tunneling has improved by orders of magnitude since Chinese workers dug the 16 original tunnels and laid rails between Bakersfield and Tehachapi in the mid-1870s. Using high-tech computer controlled equipment tunneling is underway all over the globe under cities like London, where the 73-mile Crossrail tunnel is extending subway service in that city (You can also walk under the Thames using a handy tunnel!). The Swiss recently completed the world's longest and deepest railway tunnel to transport big trucks traveling through the Alps to Italy on trains, taking them off busy highways. With a route length of 35.4 miles, the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the first flat, low-level route through the Alps.
Politics and ignorance
Perhaps the biggest challenges to the California project have been politics and ignorance. Politicians used HSR, promoted by Gov. Brown, to score political points rather than supporting something that will be able to handle huge increases in traffic projected in coming years. That sort of behavior is one of the biggest barriers to progress, with politicians more interested in protecting their own rice bowls rather than serving us.
Along with a stunning lack of familiarity with modern transportation services, few Americans have ridden trains since the 1960s when the automobile was going to make everything better. We all know how well that’s worked out. We also seem to have an aversion to planning for the future. Gov. Newsom’s remarks generated some confusion, made worse by media coverage by reporters who know little or nothing about the subject. HSR opponents declared victory while knowledgeable supporters who paid attention to what the governor said stayed calm.
“We're going to make high-speed rail a reality for California. We have the capacity to complete the rail between Merced and Bakersfield. We will continue our regional projects north and south, finish Phase 1 environmental work (and) Connect the Central Valley to other parts of the state,” Newsom said on Twitter.
HSR opposition mirrors that of earlier opposition to freeways and the California Aqueduct, which have helped the Antelope Valley grow.
This new approach to HSR will be a big boost for the San Joaquin Valley, which is often sneered at by people on the coast and in L.A. and the Bay Area. Folks in the big coastal cities look down on the Valley, California’s most politically conservative region, which, by the way, feeds and fuels much of the rest of the nation while distributing much of the state’s water.
Valley residents are beginning to recognize the advantages of modern transportation as increasing numbers of north Valley residents commute to their jobs in the Bay Area, riding Altamont Corridor Express, a rail service similar to our Metrolink that connects with the San Joaquin trains in Stockton.
Adding faster trains that can be boarded in the middle of cities and towns rather than at airports in the boondocks and unable to operate in the Valley’s winter fog will boost the economy and health of the residents of this fertile region and benefit all of California.
Bill Deaver served as a special assistant to the Federal Railroad Administration during the Reagan administration in 1982-83. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece originally appeared in the Antelope Valley Press.