Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Merced County Approves Castle Area HSR Study

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Rafael has long called for Castle Airport in Atwater, just outside Merced, to become a relief airport for the Bay Area by using HSR to bring passengers to and from the airport. While not exactly endorsing that specific plan, Merced County has approved a study of putting an HSR maintenance facility at Castle:

Merced County leaders junked their contract with the private investment firm that had been pegged to transform Castle Commerce Center into a thriving economic hub.

In another move aimed to stimulate the local economy, supervisors authorized money to be spent to show that the Castle center could work as a maintenance hub for the statewide high-speed rail project....

Plans to build a 700-mile passenger rail system that would connect Los Angeles to the Bay Area were first proposed more than a decade ago. With the November approval of a $10 billion bond measure to pay for the first phase of the project, it now appears it may actually be built.

On Tuesday the Board of Supervisors voted to revive the county's dormant High Speed Rail Citizens' Committee and spend $40,000 to prepare a feasibility study on building a train maintenance hub at Castle.

County officials hope both moves will help convince the state's high-speed rail board that Castle is the right choice for the hub. Several nearby counties are also vying for the designation.

On its face this seems like a very smart move for Merced County. Turning an old airport facility into an exurban office and service hub is no longer a viable economic proposition. The Merced region will soon have a glut of office and light manufacturing space, if it doesn't already. An HSR maintenance facility, however, would provide long-term green jobs for Merced County, the kind of economic base that the San Joaquin Valley desperately needs.

I'll let the more technically minded among us debate the practicalities of putting an HSR maintenance facility at Castle. From a political and economic perspective it seems like a sound concept, and could leave open the possibility of developing Castle Airport in the way Rafael has long advocated.

So I like this move by Merced County. The San Joaquin Valley governments, particularly Fresno, have been especially proactive in looking at how to make HSR work well for their economy, their landscape, and their residents. It's exactly the kind of sensible planning work that HSR ought to be encouraging around the state.

18 comments:

Rafael said...

This is good news IMHO, though a maintenance facility would require just a spur off the main line

It would do nothing to leverage the primary asset of the location: a single, extra-long, hardened runway previously used by fully laden B-52 bombers, right next to both the BNSF freight line and the new HSR line.

What I had in mind was therefore more ambitious:

1. HSR maintenance facility +

2. 24/7 High Speed Cargo airport (US Mail, FedEx, UPS etc.) +

3. heavy air lift special operations (outsized manufacturing parts, HSR R&D platforms, humanitarian aid, firefighting equipment, earthquake disaster relief etc.) +

4. small 24/7 passenger terminal with an HSR station right inside, to support a modest number of long-haul flights (e.g. to East Coast, Hawaii, other continents) based on large aircraft like 747s and A380s.

Point 4 would require that the Merced county HSR station be at the airport rather than in downtown Merced. While it's possible to detour from the preferred UPRR alignment, a station at Castle Airport would be easier if CHSRA ended up doing a deal with BNSF in the Central Valley.

Running a bus line from downtown Merced to the Airport and into Atwater is small price to pay considering the jobs that would be created by putting the facility to good multiple use for three shifts a day, every day.

Moving the Merced county HSR station has the added advantage of allowing the HSR station to use the airport's IATA code (MER) such that flights through this airport would appear as a single transfer (from/to HSR train) rather than a much less desirable double transfer.

Note that any passenger flights into and out of Castle Airport would essentially be icing on the cake. With the starter route bypassing Merced to the south, the airport would not attract enough passengers until the spur to Sacramento is completed.

An Altamont-only alignment would have allowed castle Airport to relieve all three Bay Area airports - especially SJC and fog-prone SFO - much sooner and also provide better commercial airline service for Amador and Central Valley communities.

Pacheco gives SJC and FAT a temporary reprieve, but IMHO it is of questionable value. Commenter Tony D. in particular has long argued that the opportunity cost of operating SJC may be very high in terms of real estate blight. Fresno is likely to attract a significant number of high speed commuters into Silicon Valley, so a new transit-oriented district where the airport is today might be a prescient urban planning move.

A big downside of my proposal is that Merced county would have to agree to 24/7 operations in perpetuity and adjust its population growth plan accordingly to structurally avoid future complaints about noise. The objective would be to attract employers to Castle Airport and have some fraction of the workforce there commute in on HSR. That implies a strategic decision to link Merced county's urban and economic development to HSR.

Final note: if Castle Airport is upgraded to support air cargo operations initially and long-haul passenger flights later on, the BNSF spur should be extended to a full detour with turnouts in both directions at both ends to support Amtrak San Joaquin and other non-HSR rail services incl. conventional freight trains to support heavy air lift operations.

In addition, it would make eminent sense for Concord to retain a standard gauge loop track through the inland portion of the former Naval Weapons Station. A station right next to BART North Concord would initially be served only by Amtrak San Joaquins out of Oakland. However, plain old commuter rail from from Concord NWC to Oakley could be added at the county level to avoid the construction of eBART.

Rob Dawg said...

The lure of mission growth. Bakersfield.

Brandon in San Diego said...

Rafael-
"In addition, it would make eminent sense for Concord to retain a standard gauge loop track through the inland portion of the former Naval Weapons Station. A station right next to BART North Concord would initially be served only by Amtrak San Joaquins out of Oakland. However, plain old commuter rail from from Concord NWC to Oakley could be added at the county level to avoid the construction of eBART."

The Contra Costa Transportation Authority studied a similar scenario about 6 years ago as part of a BART extension study; making use of existing rail ROW to connect points beyond the Pittsburgh/Bay Point Station to BART, but at the North Concord Station.

As we now know, decision makers selected the extension alignment down the SR 4 corridor, not existing rail row.

njh said...

Off topic, but Canada is talking about high speed rail again:
MP proposes high-speed rail for three cities

While I'm off topic, I went to tehachapi pass last week in my great tour of CA, and am wondering how they are going to get over? Here's my blog post about it (with video of freight going around the loop). I also saw some other interesting tech (huge wind farm, HVDC power line, solar thermal system).

Are they just going to draw a line across the range and build a base tunnel? Eyeballing in google earth I see the bakersfield side at about 300m and the mojave side at 900m in 50km (a very approachable 1.2% grade, but a lot of tunnel). I think people would get rather unwell travelling on the existing route (even assuming the loop was skipped over).

Having now driven up the 99, it's pretty clear this is a good route. Will the train follow the freeway as the current tracks do?

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, the maintenance bases tend to be at the end of lines, not in the middle. If there are examples of locations out there, please post them.

Eurostars are maintained in London, Brussels and Paris, not Lille.

DB has facilities for ICE trains in Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and a specialized shop in Nuremberg.

TGVs have three maintenance depots in Paris and one in Lyon, at the end of the original line.

Even good ol' Amtrak has depots in Oakland and Los Angeles, again at the end of lines.

Deadheading trains hundreds of miles from the end terminals to Merced is not efficient. Just because there's an old airbase there doesn't mean there's a more feasible location elsewhere, even if the land will cost more. Even building a possible spur to the facility seems to be reaching to fit the problem to meet the solution.

And for building a new airport? Come on. San Jose has a hard time maintaining flights, how will Merced do better? Express mail? An hour trip from the Bay Area or LA to a new facility by HSR then loading it onto planes? That's an hour penalty for all packages from the major population centers.

I just don't see the sense in this. Sorry.

Jathnael said...

The Shinkansen has a yard in OSAKA, while it is the end of the like for the Tokaido line, there are a number of trains a day from Tokyo to Hakata. This would put the shop in the middle of the line.

Brandon in San Diego said...

Anon 8:42-

There are to be several maintenance and train storage facilities. One is also planned/proposed near Miramar in San Diego County

Clem said...

They could put a maintenance yard here. I agree it doesn't make sense to put it in the middle.

Last train to Merced! Aaaaaall aboooooooard!!

Brandon in San Diego said...

What about global warming and rising sea levels? <- partially laughing... partially not.

Rafael said...

@ Brandon -

"As we now know, decision makers selected the extension alignment down the SR 4 corridor, not existing rail row."

Yes, and that extension alignment is supposed to use standard gauge diesel rolling stock, forcing passengers to change trains not at but just east of the Pittsburg/Bay Point station. The reason the BART line wasn't extended to Antioch to begin with is that the freeway median ends near Bay Point.

In other words, eBART is a project designed to maximize the pouring of concrete.

BruceMcF said...

"As far as I know, the maintenance bases tend to be at the end of lines, not in the middle. If there are examples of locations out there, please post them."

Given that the northern end is a dual "Y" terminus, this is just about the northern end of the main trunk line, unless there is going to be separate main maintenance facilities in both the Bay and Sacramento.

And I can only go on Google Maps, but I do not see the Bay and Sacramento as hundreds of miles from Merced.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 8:42pm, Clem -

please don't confuse maintenance yards with overnight storage. I agree it would be cheaper and operationally simpler to combine the two functions, but it is not strictly necessary. The primary reason for a maintenance facility in Merced that it would serve CHSRA during the vendor evaluation phase, given that the test track will be in the southern portion of the Central Valley.

The location Clem pointed to in Brisbane (a former rail yard?) and the Taylor Yards in LA may well end up being used for overnight parking. I'm not sure if there is sufficient space for a large yard near Anaheim.

As for high speed cargo, CHSRA has yet to flesh out the extent to which that will be part of the business model. So far, all they've done is mention the possibility. Note that Castle Airport is roughly 40 minutes from San Jose by HSR. The time penalty would be compensated by unconstrained nighttime operations.

Noise constraints are already in effect at SFO, at SJC (incl. a noise-based curfew), at
OAK and at FAT (incl. subsidies for sound abatement for individual homeowners).

Rob Dawg said...

The primary reason for a maintenance facility in Merced that it would serve CHSRA during the vendor evaluation phase, given that the test track will be in the southern portion of the Central Valley.

You mean ending in Bakersfield?

Clearly everyone here (including me) understands at some level that the service yards are not going to be a purely technical decision. Merced only exists as a political ploy to ultimately ensure a Sacramento line is added to the backbone of SF-LA.

Rafael said...

@ Rob Dawg -

my understanding is the test track will indeed extend to Bakersfield. The northern end will be either in south Fresno or preferably, at Castle Airport. The decision depends on how the ROW and noise issues play out inside Fresno.

"Merced only exists as a political ploy to ultimately ensure a Sacramento line is added to the backbone of SF-LA."

Considering that this is a state project that everyone is paying for, I don't see why a spur up to Sacramento in phase II would be inappropriate. There's no need for any "ploy", this objective was made quite explicit prior to Nov 4.

If there is a political component to siting the maintenance yard at Castle Airport - which CHSRA has not yet decided - then it's the decision in favor of Pacheco over Altamont.

Jim said...

Merced is a good location for this. It has been talked about for quite some time. It will help ensure that little bit of northward progress to make the leap to SAC more desirable and obvious. Also they have the room. you certainly are going to wast expensive downtown SF real estate for and "end of the line" facility. For maintenance, the train will be rotated our of circulation and into the facility. I like the previous mentioned idea of have a large airfreight facility tied in at castle. High speed freight could be a real money maker for hsr. You could have UPS and FEDEX hubs there where for statewide distribution for instance.

Rob Dawg said...

Considering that this is a state project that everyone is paying for, I don't see why a spur up to Sacramento in phase II would be inappropriate. There's no need for any "ploy", this objective was made quite explicit prior to Nov 4.

Ahhh but the yard is needed for phase on. Running up to Merced is mission creep and adds expense.

I understand why there is a push for Merced but it really is breaking a promise for spending the first $43.2 billion on LA-SF.

IMO mission growth is the most dangerous threat to CAHSR. Other people think things like constantly talking about Sacto and SD and Anahiem is inclusive. To each thteir own. I think with $9.0b and a public mandate anything other thanSF-LA at this point is courting Florida type reactions.

Rafael said...

@ Rob Dawg -

a) Merced was always part of phase 1 anyhow because of the wye at Chowchilla.

Just look at chapter 7 of the Bay Area to Central Valley Final Program EIR/EIS and study the maps for the Pacheco alignments. You'll see that all of them include a spur up to south Stockton. This was done in part to provide a fair cost comparison basis with the Altamont Pass options. However, since south Stockton isn't a viable destination, the spur was later truncated in Merced county to shift about $1 billion from phase 1 into phase 2.

And it's not as if there wasn't going to be a maintenance yard in phase 1, so I don't really see the mission creep here.

Upgrading Castle Airport to support commercial freight and/or passenger traffic is not essential to the HSR project. Rather, it would be a completely separate - and separately funded - but synergistic effort. So no mission creep there, either, just ridership potential - an airport is more of a destination than a relatively small Central Valley town (no offense to residents of Merced).

With the loop track I suggested, the 25% or so of HSR trains that will be "local", i.e. stop at every HSR station, could include the detour. That way, the airport would not be a terminus even in phase 1 operations.

b) Last I read, phase 1 (SF-Anaheim + stub to Merced) is currently estimated at around $33 billion in 2008 dollars. Not sure where your $43.2 billion number comes from, maybe it was a typo.

Phase 2, i.e. completing the spur to Sacramento and adding the one to San Diego, will cost another $12 billion in 2008 dollars. The idea is to use operating surpluses from operations of the phase 1 line to service fresh debt - private, not CA state! - taken on to construct phase 2.

Jim said...

Where is there room in LAUS ANA or SJC or SFC to put a terminal maintenance facility and think of the real estate cost versus a facility in the central valley. FNO and BFD could want it but it so happens that MCD has what would be a very good spot for it and since they had planned to develop that location in a similar business industrial fashion, and they would likely be willing to invest their own local money, I say give it to them. Trust me Im all about SF to LA as a priority since i live a few blocks from transbay, but I don't sese this MCD facility as any kind of threat. In everything I have read it has always been the plan.