The route CHSRA has chosen for the Bakersfield-Sylmar section runs through the Tehachapis, the Antelope Valley and Soledad Canyon. This is substantially longer than the direct route via Tejon Pass. The primary factors in favor of the longer route were total length of the tunnel system (21 vs. 34 miles), the ease of crossing major faults at grade and geology risk. A secondary goal was HSR service for the half-million people who live in the Antelope Valley.
However, this post will focus on the potential for leveraging HSR to finally turn Los Angeles World Airports' (LAWA) vast Palmdale airport (PMD) property into a viable commercial proposition. It is the only location in all of southern California at which additional runways could fairly easily be added in the future, east of the existing ones.
While it is absolutely not CHSRA's job to also take on regional planning on how best to relieve LAX, there is a need for interface planning if LAWA, an LA county agency, and the city of Palmdale want to at least preserve the option of using PMD for that purpose. As discussed below, simply siting an HSR station in the general vicinity of the airport, several miles removed from it, will not be good enough.
The following map shows current plans for the starter line and station plus alternatives discussed below.
View Palmdale Airport HSR station in a larger map
Right of Way for HSR
First, though, there is the non-trivial issue of securing ROW for laying HSR tracks between the Tehachapis and Soledad Canyon at all. CHSRA's current plans assume a dedicated ROW for HSR in the UPRR/Sierra Hwy corridor (red line).
Palmdale-Mojave is part of UPRR's core ROW from the LA/LB harbors up the west coast. This rail freight corridor is much busier than the one up the central coast. At first glance, it looks plenty wide but UPRR's has in fact already quad-tracked some sections. The Sierra Hwy frontage road runs about 50 feet west of the tracks north of Palmdale Metrolink, where it cuts over to the east. There's a linear park and also businesses to either side of UPRR ROW in Palmdale itself. There are also several freight spurs and the turnoff to Hesperia to contend with.
If UPRR hasn't already informed CHSRA that its own ROW is not available for HSR, expect that it will. This is going to be a recurring theme. The area isn't as densely built up as south San Jose or Gilroy, but actually securing a greenfield ROW in the UPRR/Sierra Hwy corridor could still prove surprisingly difficult. CHSRA's Google Map of the route (pls zoom in) shows the alignment in the Lancaster-Palmdale section as dead straight and entirely at-grade, with no flyovers for the Sierra Hwy nor the UPRR tracks that cross the planned alignment. These are relatively small details, but their omission is noteworthy.
However, given that the Tehachapis route has been identified as the one with the shorter tunnel system and lower tunneling risk, I expect that CHSRA will in the end be able to obtain a ROW, even though speeds will need to be high to compensate for the extra 40 miles the High Desert route entails. Worst case, there's always plan B: the extra-wide hwy 14 median (pink line). That would be longer, limit feasible speed, preclude the desired intermodal with Metrolink and require future detour tracks to connect to the airport at all. However, as we shall see, a wye off the main line might not be a bad idea in any event.
Relief for LAX: Palmdale, Ontario or both?
Palmdale airport began life in 1940 and has always been used by the US Air Force and defense contractors. Between 1966 and 1995, LA county acquired a total 17,750 acres of land east and south of the Air Force property via eminent domain, for the specific purpose of developing a civilian "Palmdale Intercontinental Airport". However, that never came to fruition, precisely because there was no high speed ground transportation link into the Los Angeles basin. In December 2008, United Airlines canceled the only remaining route to SFO in December after subsidies ran out.
LAWA has even surrendered its commercial aviation license for PMD to the FAA, at least for the time being. It is considering using part of the facility for a solar power farm. That's great for the environment, but perhaps not the best location for that technology. As reported in Future So Bright, that could potentially blind pilots. As long as the city of Palmdale remains the only cheerleader for PMD, it is likely to remain a ghost airport, much like SBD.
For now at least, LAWA appears to have given up on ever making PMD a successful proposition and is concentrating on the active Ontario airport to relieve LAX. It is slated for inclusion in the phase 2 spur, but it's not yet clear which ROW will be used to run the tracks. UPRR is not interested in sharing its primary ROW out to Arizona and points east. The alternative, getting to from LA Union Station to I-10/Archibald, is also non-trivial. Among other considerations, the I-10 median is where the Anaheim - Las Vegas maglev line was supposed to run. Using it for steel wheels tracks would officially kill that project, though IMHO that might not be a bad idea. There is absolutely no need nor ROW for two mutually incompatible HSR lines through the San Gabriel valley.
On the face of it, LAWA's preference for Ontario appears sensible enough: there may be not be a need for two relief airports for LAX. That said, perhaps the agency is taking a bit of a gamble in abandoning PMD quite so soon now that the phase 1 HSR starter line is going to run so close to it. More to the point, LA county isn't thinking beyond its borders, given that HSR could mean a fast single-seat connection to Anaheim, Bakersfield and even Fresno. The southern Central Valley is poorly served by airlines and, there are currently no plans for a shuttle train between the Fresno HSR station and FYI airport.
Moreover, if both California HSR and DesertXPress tracks are built and then connected via the existing SR-58 transportation corridor, PMD could even relieve McCarran airport in Las Vegas and eliminate the need for a brand-new airport between Jean and Primm. The potential catchment area for PMD isn't so much a circle based on driving distance as a (set of) very long high speed rail line(s) connecting it to multiple large population centers. That the Antelope Valley has a sizable underserved population in its own right is almost gravy on top, at least if Palmdale is smart enough to prevent encroachment on the airport in the future. The whole point of PMD would be to get away from noise ordinances etc. and run the airport 24/7 for passenger and cargo flights.
LAWA's position illustrates what happens when you allow a single county - albeit a huge one - to make decisions that anywhere but California would be the business of many counties, the state or even multiple states.
HSR is a potential game changer for PMD
With HSR, non-stop line haul time to Palmdale is estimated at 27 minutes from LA and 46 from Anaheim. Those sorts of times are needed to give PMD a fighting chance of ever relieving LAX, but keep in mind they are for non-stop trains and station-to-station. In terms of connecting transit, LA Union Station is already a busy and growing regional transit hub. Anaheim ARTIC is supposed to serve a similar function, but Orange county has no subway, light rail or BRT service. The Disneyland monorail will be extended and OCTA bus service improved.
In Palmdale, the current plan of record is to build the HSR station at the "Palmdale Transportation Center", i.e. the local Metrolink station/bus stop (see map at the top of this post). The city's modest plans for transit-oriented development considered only Metrolink, not high speed rail as that was still a very uncertain prospect at the time. They also did not consider that HSR would need a dedicated ROW to run in. Unfortunately, the Metrolink station and PMD's existing small passenger terminal at 41000 20th St E are separated by a 3.1 mile drive. With zero flights out of PMD, there is of course no shuttle bus to the passenger terminal.
For now at least, the Antelope Valley evidently doesn't have a sufficiently large and/or affluent regional population to sustain any commercial air service at all on its own. The US government forces airlines to offer its employees deeply discounted fares. Therefore, if it wants to revive its airport, the city of Palmdale needs to leverage the HSR project to bring in additional airline passengers for the LA basin and the southern Central Valley. Given that HSR will serve the major population centers within the state and possibly even connect to Las Vegas on day via co-operation with DesertXPress, the whole notion of a strictly regional airport just for LA county needs to go out of the window. Either there is a strategic decision to develop Palmdale into an HSR-centric "LAX East" or, CHSRA has to stop talking about Palmdale as an airport. It takes a lot more than idle runways three miles down the road.
Trips by plane + HSR are still a foreign concept in Southern California. If it is to catch on, the end-to-end experience in Palmdale and/or Ontario must receive high marks from passengers.
Focus on big birds
A well-run and frequent shuttle bus service to and from the existing terminal might seem like a useful loss leader to get the ball rolling, but very quickly further growth would depend on much closer integration with the primary feeder service, i.e. high speed rail. More to the point, it will require a strategic decision to aggressively relieve LAX of certain types of traffic, e.g. the A380 that it simply wasn't built to handle. LAX gets by, but only with special measures that reduce its throughput.
That class of aircraft is intended for transcontinental and transoceanic hub-to-hub traffic, so a large fraction of passengers will transfer to connecting service at one or both ends. Typically, that means connecting short-hop flights, exactly the kind HSR is supposed to replace in California, perhaps - one day - out to Las Vegas. However, connecting flights to other states are also needed, so PMD has a very deep hole to climb out of. In practice, that would mean certain airlines or airline consortia would have to switch from LAX to PMD, at least for part of their long-distance operations in Southern California. Relative to the status quo, that implies low airport taxes, unrestricted night flights, a cargo forwarding facility plus a major leap of faith in the California HSR project. The risk will be much lower once the first trains are up and running.
No airline will fly big birds into PMD solely to serve passengers who want to catch connecting flights. The airport has to be perceived as a destination in its own right as well, there has to be a large "local" catchment area. What HSR could do is redefine "local" to well beyond the Antelope Valley and even beyond LA county.
Note that the upcoming Boeing Dreamliner and Airbus A350 aircraft are intended to provide affordable, direct long-distance flights between secondary destinations, precisely to avoid having to connect to another flight. However, since connecting ground transportation is always necessary for any airport, it's possible airlines would prefer to use PMD - or ONT, for that matter - for flights based on these planes, in conjunction with onward travel by HSR.
New passenger terminal with HSR tracks
Around the world, several airports have heavy rail train stations integrated into their terminal buildings, e.g. Atlanta Hartsfield, London Heathrow, Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, no doubt others as well. Some have standard-speed, some also high-speed train connections.
There is a chance LAX might get a standard-speed heavy rail shuttle along the Harbor Subdivision Transit Corridor, but that will do nothing to relieve air traffic congestion there. Note that in Vienna (Austria), there is a special point-to-point shuttle train service that let airline passengers check in and even drop off baggage at a downtown location. Security screening and baggage pick-up is still at the airport, at least for now. I'm not aware of other examples of integrated baggage handling, though IIRC the Dutch railways used to offer it at selected train stations at one point in time.
Some airports, e.g. Birmingham (UK), have people movers that shuttle passengers between the terminals and a separate but nearby train station on a main railway line. Similar solutions are planned for OAK and SJC, one already exists for SFO though not out to the multimodal station at Millbrae. ONT may also get a people mover but the very remoteness of PMD means nothing less than an HSR station physically inside a new passenger terminal may work there.
In terms of timing, the HSR starter line may well be completed before there's any commitment to invest in any new integrated terminal at PMD. If the HSR connection at ONT pans out, there may never be. To at least keep the option open at this stage of HSR planning, the city of Palmdale could decide to go for broke and move its HSR station to a site further north, where a new terminal could be built right next to it at some indeterminate point in the future.
If CHSRA manages to secure a ROW in the UPRR/Sierra Hwy corridor, the preferred location for such a new terminal is already occupied by the huge USAF plant 42, shown in red on the map. Since that's a major cluster of employers in the area, it's very unlikely it could be moved. Any plan for the airport will have to work around that constraint. There is room for a modest terminal with ~15 JB gates just north of the plant, shown in green on the map. However, its future growth would be constrained on all four sides, since the end of the runway must remain clear for safety reasons. Also, this terminal would be far removed from the airport's other, longer runway, so we'd be back to shuttle buses or people movers for future expansion.
Besides, the north runway is actually part of the USAF property and may not even be available for restarting/expanding civilian aviation. Even the south runway is technically only leased in an effort to kick-start commercial aviation. Future expansion would definitely have to occur east of the existing runways.
Wye for detour tracks
An alternate approach would be for the LAWA/the city of Palmdale to at least reserve land for a future wye off the starter line to an integrated terminal at a site that best serves the needs of airlines, i.e. one with more room for JB gates and shorter taxiways to the longer of the two runway. That would mean either expanding or replacing the existing terminal south of it or else, a new one east of it. The detour would be used only by trains that actually stop at the putative integrated terminal instead of the downtown Palmdale station. This could include High Speed Cargo trains, if CHSRA decides to allow those on its network and plans for appropriate transshipment terminals. All through trains would stay on the main line, bypassing the airport.
Note that this wye would have to be fully grade separated and feature fairly large curve radii on account of the high speeds on the main line. Suggested alignments are shown in yellow for the case of a ROW in the UPRR/Sierra Hwy corridor for the HSR starter line and in orange in a hwy 14 scenario. Where the tracks would run east of the wye depends on where the terminal building would go.
If this concept is selected, grade separation structures need to be designed and built to support such a future wye. The actual rails and switches for it could be but would not have to be laid just yet, they can be spliced in at a later date.
The HSR station on the starter line should be modest and sited at the location best suited to serve the people who live in Palmdale/Lancaster. Where exactly that will be depends on the ROW CHSRA ends up with. If and when a new airport terminal is actually planned, it will be an entirely separate project and need to include the construction of the wye and detour tracks to a second HSR station in the area, located directly at that terminal. Funding for that track work would be outside the scope of the California HSR project as such.
Billing the Palmdale HSR station as "Palmdale Airport" is highly aspirational at this point. Without a strategic decision to invest in a new terminal building with an integrated HSR station, a sufficient number of JB gates and room to grow, the fact that the HSR starter line will run past the airport's runways means exactly squat diddley. Since Ontario is in many ways a more promising candidate for the job of "LAX East" on the back of HSR, LAWA's decision to focus on that is understandable. However, it is also risky, since it's not yet 100% certain that an HSR station close to the ONT terminals will actually be feasible.
The city of Palmdale has a chance to revive PMD, but only if it dares to think big and formulate a bold, credible plan for integrating its airport more tightly with HSR than any other in California (with the possible exception of Lindbergh Field). It needs to sell this not just LAWA but also to the state of California and the cities of Bakersfield, Fresno and Anaheim. CHSRA could be a partner in this effort by giving the city of Palmdale some leeway on where its station on the starter line should go.
If current plans are changed to anticipate a future wye and detour tracks, the siting of any new integrated passenger terminal for PMD would not depend on CHSRA securing a ROW in the UPRR/Sierra Hwy corridor. This option would be minimally more expensive up front and limit CHSRA's involvement with regional/statewide airport planning to creating just an interface point.
If, after a careful integrated planning effort, the decision to abandon PMD is upheld in spite of the HSR project, so be it - go ahead and repurpose the land for a solar power plant. But perhaps, that should not be up to LAWA alone. While the good people of Palmdale would no doubt disagree, the hassle with UPRR plus losing the airport would make many voters around the state wonder if the additional tunneling cost and risk through Tejon Pass isn't worth it, after all. Shaving twelve minutes off the SF-LA line haul time or, creating breathing room for CHSRA to avoid UPRR statewide, would be no small prize.
Upcoming CHSRA scoping meetings for Bakersfield-Palmdale
- Where: Red Lion Hotel, 2400 Camino Del Rio Court, Bakersfield, CA 93308
- When: Tuesday, September 15, 2009 3:00-7:00pm
- Where: Stallion Springs Community Center, 27850 Stallion Springs Drive, Tehachapi, CA 93561
- When: Wednesday, September 16, 2009, 3:00-7:00pm
- Where: Chimbole Cultural Center, 38350 Sierra Highway, Palmdale, CA 93550
- When: Thursday, September 17, 2009, 3:00-7:00pm
Scoping meetings for the Los Angeles - Palmdale section were held in April and quite rightly focused primarily on the sections up to Sylmar and through Soledad Canyon. The discussion of if and how HSR could help southern California leverage Palmdale airport is better suited to the upcoming Palmdale - Bakersfield project-level EIS/EIR process.
BTW: I'll be traveling during the week of Sep 7 and may not be able to contribute to the discussions on this blog much.