A couple of weeks ago, the Ventura County Star published an article on California HSR that we mentioned, but only in the context of a negative response to it. What sort of fell through the cracks are these intriguing paragraphs in the original article and their possible implications for Amtrak Pacific Surfliner (APS):
Because the stimulus plan defines "high-speed" as trains capable of traveling at least 110 mph, more traditional rail systems in the Northeast and Midwest might be able to qualify for some of the funding — as might commuter systems in California.
"Some trains in Southern California corridors are pushing 110 mph," said Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission. "Some of my peers in Southern California are looking at that stimulus money to improve the Los Angeles-to-San Diego line and get that up to 110 mph."
Pacific Surfliner: Service Frequency, Speeds and Punctuality
The Pacific Surfliner route is primarily a semi-local train service between San Luis Obispo and San Diego via Santa Barbara, Los Angeles Union Station and Anaheim. The full route is 350 miles long, but the schedule shows that only a single daily train serves all of it. The LA - San Diego section is served by 11 daily trains (12 on Friday through Sunday), Santa Barbara - LA by 5, Santa Barbara - San Diego by 4 and San Luis Obispo - LA by 2. Many trains skip some of the smaller stations.
To get a sense of the speed profile along the route, I looked at the line haul times for a slow semi-local train (#774 southbound), which takes 8 hours 41 minutes from SLO to San Diego. Typical average speed between stations is 35-55mph. The busiest section, LA - SD, takes 2h40min to 2h50min, regardless of which train you take, at an average speed of 45-50mph. Average speed for SLO-Santa Barbara is comparable, the slowest section is Santa Barbara - LA at ~36mph average.
The upshot is that APS isn't really time-competitive against car travel in terms of speed, so its modal share of total trips along the South Coast is probably less than 1% right now. Its popularity relative to other Amtrak services is probably due to population density, the fairly long distances, the cost of driving if you're alone and, avoiding the stress of stop-go traffic in some sections. For business travelers, the most important factor may be punctuality, which for LA - Fullerton (BNSF section) has improved from 92% in the 2007 (Aug YTD) to 95% in 2008 (Dec YTD) and 97% in 2009 (Mar YTD).
Unfortunately, Amtrak's figure for the route as a whole was only about 85% in the last 12 months. According to the Glossary of Terms link off that page, Amtrak defines "on time" as less than 10 minutes late for routes up to 250 miles long and less than 30 minutes for routes of 550 miles or more. Interpolating linearly, the threshold for the full 350-mile Pacific Surfliner route is presumably 17 minutes. However, since many Surfliners actually implement part of the route, it's possible that the the threshold is computed separately for each train. If so, it would be closer to 10 minutes for most. That would mean 15% of all trains arrived more than 10-17 minutes late at their final dstination in the last 12 months. These details are relevant because rail operators in other countries use their own thresholds, so the numbers aren't directly comparable.
The primary causes listed are train interference, i.e. lack of capacity and - somewhat alarmingly - tracks and signals, i.e. infrastructure failures and maintenance impacts. Note the relatively high fraction of passenger-related delays, which would be reduced with improved on-time performance generally (reducing knock-on effects at transfer points) and level boarding platforms. These three leading causes reflect 84% of the total number of minutes of delay.
The most troublesome section is Moorpark to LA Union Station (not LAX airport), mostly because of Metrolink has to maintain the infrastructure and run a lot of trains on a shoestring budget. The San Clemente - San Diego section is a close second, because NCTD has to do the same. Only the top three segments contributing to each type of delay are listed, they don't add up to 100%.
Amtrak Ridership Statistics and Oil Prices
In FY 2008, Pacific Surfliner was the nation's second most popular Amtrak service with 2.89 million passengers (up 7%), after 3.3 million for Acela Express (up 6.5%). However, the revenue numbers paint a very different picture: $51 million for APS (up 6%) vs. $468 million for Acela Express (up 16%). APS serves a larger number of stations per mile than Acela Express, many passenger trips are probably shorter. Nevertheless, the numbers suggest that US consumers - at least those on the East Coast - are willing to pay a hefty premium for rapid over conventional rail service when short-hop flights become unattractive, as they did last summer. For 2009, Amtrak is offering discounted fares on Acela Express in a bid to sustain ridership. This is a reflection of reductions in short-hop air fares in response to falling jet fuel prices.
The Pacific Surfliner trains compete primarily against car travel rather than short-hop flights, but gasoline prices are nearly as exposed to oil price volatility as jet fuel due to the relatively low level of taxation (compared to Japan and Europe). Diesel is exposed as well, but trains make more efficient use of the energy at comparable seat capacity utilization rates.
Any high speed rail proposal in the US must therefore consider forecasts of future oil prices. In the coming months and even years, prices will remain depressed as the world economy deals with the aftermath of a massive burst asset bubble in US mortgages and derivative products. However, in the medium and long term, prices will rise again as China, India and other emerging economies achieve higher living standards. This will be exacerbated by peak oil considerations, i.e. the notion that the world will gradually run out of easily produced oil going forward.
Eligibility for Federal HSR Funding
If you take a really long view, as anyone contemplating upgrades to rail infrastructure ought to, it's a fairly safe bet IMHO that prices of oil-based fuels are going to rise faster than purchasing power in coming decades - exactly the opposite of the long-term historic trend. That's precisely why California has chosen to hedge its future by building an all-electric bullet train network that can run off a wide variety of primary energy sources, including the renewables favored by CHSRA.
Prop 1A reserved $950 million for HSR feeder services, with a generous slice of that reserved for the Amtrak California routes.
However, the federal concept of HSR is broader than the one promoted by CHSRA. Rapid rail, with top speeds of 110-125mph and some grade crossings retained, is also potentially eligible for federal funding. The South Coast is arguably an excellent candidate for such an upgrade, even though CHSRA has planned bullet train service between LA and San Diego for phase II. That's because funding for phase II extensions will depend on the commercial success of the starter line, which in turn depends in part on effective feeder services. Besides, no direct bullet train service is planned between Anaheim and San Diego so the two would not exactly compete against one another. In addition, plans do not include bullet train service to Santa Barbara.
Note that as e.g. Caltrain has shown with its "baby bullet" semi-express service in the SF peninsula, it isn't actually necessary to increase top speed to attract new ridership. Passengers care much more about line haul time and punctuality. Nevertheless, HR 110.2095 redefines HSR as follows:
"The term ‘high-speed rail’ means intercity passenger rail service that is reasonably expected to reach speeds of at least 110 miles per hour."
In addition, only applications for capital improvements to meet this new federal definition in one the 11 federally designated corridors are eligible for any part of the $1.5 billion that HR 110.2095 allocates for the purpose. Note that FRA's map is out of date with regard to the California system, Texas T-bone and other proposals. Chances are, Congress will fix that in this year's omnibus transportation bill now that there's federal money on the table. I wouldn't be at all surprised if e.g. LA - Las Vegas were added, hopefully as a spur off the California network.
As p136 the Joint Explanatory Statement Division A - part of the conference report - for HR 111.1 makes clear, the $8 billion in the stimulus bill for HSR use the same definition to determine eligibility.
Fortunately, this is vague enough to give USDOT a lot of leeway: neither bill specifies that 110mph or more needs to be sustained over a long distance. In practice, that means Pacific Surfliner would be eligible even if 110mph could only be reached in one short section, e.g. in Camp Pendleton. However, I suspect USDOT bureaucrats would then need to see a strong business case based on realistic forecasts of incremental ridership and fare box returns as a result of significantly improved line haul times and ideally, the provision of terrestrial WiFi on Board (cp recent trial on the Amtrak Capitol Corridor route). In addition, they would presumably want insight into the opportunity costs of sticking with the current service parameters: demand for more highway lane-miles, continued severe exposure to oil price volatility and, productivity loss due to time spent driving.
To get a sense of what might be achievable with appropriate investment, I assumed the primary strategy for improving line haul times would be express service between the primary population centers along the way, i.e. SLO, Santa Barbara, LA, Anaheim and San Diego. Let's call this Pacific Surf Express in analogy to Acela Express.
Next, I figured an express service might achieve an average speed of roughly 2/3 of the specified top speed. That's a very rough model, no more than a first order approximation. At the present top speed of 79mph, that would translate to a minor increase in average speed from ~40mph over the entire 350 miles to just ~53mph.
Nevertheless, even that would worthwhile: 19min gained from SLO to Santa Barbara, a whopping 53min gained between Santa Barbara and LA and a further 19min between LA and San Diego. Closer examination reveals that the largest single gain (~23min) would result from investment in the six-mile section between Glendale and LA Union Station. Average speed there is currently an abysmal 11.6mph, perhaps because of wait states associated with congestion in the throat of LAUS.
Run-through tracks for FRA-compliant equipment would benefit not just Amtrak Pacific Surfliner but other Amtrak and Metrolink services as well. These would be separate from those for the bullet trains. Considering the final EIR/EIS was completed over three years ago, the problem appears to have been a lack of funding. In a joint press release last May, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced that the state of California would invest $290 million into this and closely related rail projects as part of the Strategic Growth Plan. Of course, the state's finances are now in worse shape than ever, so it's unclear if the related appropriation of prop 1B (2006) bonds will happen in 2009.
All the more reason then to re-label those $290 million as a state contribution toward making Amtrak Pacific Surfliner an HSR service in the federal sense of the word. Other sections with low average speeds include:
- Moorpark - Van Nuys (37mph)
- Burbank Airport - Glendale (32mph)
- Fullerton - Santa Ana (33mph)
- San Clemente Pier - Oceanside (50mph, Camp Pendleton section)
- Solana Beach - downtown San Diego (36mph)
In most of these cases, double tracking and/or signaling upgrades would be the primary approaches to improve line haul times. In Fullerton - Santa Ana, noise mitigation and bypasses at stations may be needed to increase existing speed limits. CHSRA also has a vested interest in that, because the last section to Anaheim is too narrow to accommodate dedicated bullet train tracks and, FRA currently permits mixed traffic only if there is sufficient and guaranteed time separation. South of Solana Beach, a short tunnel between Torrey Pines and University city would rectify and shorten the route.
North of Burbank, two approaches are conceivable for a Pacific Surf Express: a second tunnel bore between Chatsworth and Simi Valley or, switching the route to run through Santa Clarita and Santa Paula (CA-126 corridor).
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The ROW along CA-126 also belongs to UPRR but is probably little-used and in fact, abandoned between Fillmore and Santa Clarita. It contains some tight curves that would need to be rectified in order for trains to run through this mostly rural valley fast enough to overcompensate for the greater distance. Note that both the regular Pacific Surfliner and Metrolink would continue to serve the Simi Valley. Once the starter line for the bullet trains is operational, a Pacific Surf Express service via the CA-126 corridor could add a stop in Sylmar.
All of the above applies for an express service with a top speed of 79mph, except in the Camp Pendleton section (and that only to become eligible for federal HSR funds). If the entire 350 miles were upgraded such that average speed jumped from ~40mph for semi-local to 73mph for express service, there would obviously be even greater time gains relative to the present situation: 58 minutes less between SLO and Santa Barbara, 86 minutes less between Santa Barbara and LA Union Station, 14 minute less minutes between LAUS and Anaheim and 47 minutes less between Anaheim and San Diego. That last section would then take 1h20m and LA - San Diego 1h45m. Improvements on this order of magnitude would be game changers.
For comparison, CHSRA is promising 20min for LA - Anaheim and 1h15m for LA - San Diego via Riverside. Considering that dirt probably won't be turned on phase II of the bullet train network before the 2023-2025 time frame, wouldn't it make a lot of sense to avoid the regulatory complication of mixed traffic in the Fullerton-Anaheim section? Is it wise for California to equate HSR with bullet trains at a time when the federal government is offering money for rapid rail projects as well?
In closing, this video shows how long all Surfliners might have to be to satisfy demand, if only they were substantially faster. The second locomotive is only needed because FRA compliance adds a lot of mass to passenger trains; enable mixed traffic via appropriate signaling, buy some lighter cars and one loco will be plenty for a Pacific Surf Express. Note that smoke and other emissions from diesel locomotives will be down sharply once EPA Tier 3/4 locomotive engines become available and operators switch to ULSD. As for those infernal bells and horns - mercifully brief in this case - quiet zones and grade separations, please!