Friday, June 13, 2008

Clueless in Contra Costa County

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

Today's Contra Costa Times editorial on high speed rail is one of the most ignorant things written about the project in the state media this year. There really is no other way to put it.

CALIFORNIA FACES A huge budget shortfall, a weakening economy, a home foreclosure mess, a drought and the need to expand its reservoir system. Tax increases loom even as businesses are downsizing and inflation threatens a comeback.

Problems are apparent right from the start. They frame the budget shortfall as a force of nature, instead of a product of political failure. The deficit can be closed with some tax solutions here and there - it's not a difficult project. More importantly, as I explained last month, the budget deficit and the high speed rail bonds are totally separate. The CC Times isn't the only outlet to conflate them - all the time when discussing the project with Californians I hear folks say "sure, but what about the budget deficit?"

The problem we face in California is the mistaken assumption that the budget deficit is the product of a spending problem. The LA Times is the most egregious offender here but it's a problem shared by the rest of the state media. The result is that even though California faces a profound crisis - our economy is on the verge of a severe and prolonged recession thanks in large part to the high cost of transportation, not to mention the impact of climate change - our unwillingness to solve the budget deficit is going to lead us to not undertake necessary projects for our long-term future. Because California's political leaders and the media that cover them prefer the slow decay of the status quo to positive change, they would have us sit here and do nothing.

Amid all these challenges, California voters will be asked to approve $10 billion in bonds in November to open the way for the Boondoggle Express. It's a high-speed, high-hopes rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles that is short on planning and long on fantasy.

This suggests the editorial writer does not know what he or she is talking about. At all. It's a growing problem with newspaper editorials, which are becoming seen as an area where normal journalistic standards and basic intellectual honesty no longer apply. The HSR project has been the subject of extensive studies, none of which the editorial writer bothered to read. The notion that HSR is "fantasy" ignores decades of global HSR success. The only fantasy here is that California can avoid catastrophe by NOT building HSR.

Of course, $10 billion is only the beginning. Another $23 billion will be sought from a deficit-ridden federal government and private investors wary of a recession. The cost of the high-speed train is estimated at $33 billion for the main line, with an additional $7 billion for spur lines to Sacramento and San Diego.

Does anyone who has followed the saga of the Bay Bridge debacle really believe the high-speed rail system will cost less than $60 billion, $80 billion?

But even at $40 billion, this is a boondoggle that would dwarf the Big Dig in Boston and the Bay Bridge fleecing combined.

This is part of the usual carelessness with facts that we see from the state media. They assume that big projects inherently run over budget, just because they're big. But they don't. The Bay Bridge East Span, which is being referred to here, soared to a $1.4 billion cost because of a series of design changes and errors, as well as inflation in the cost of construction materials. They ignore the rail projects, such as LA's Gold Line or Seattle's CenterLink, which are being delivered on-time and on-budget. Further, they cannot just pull random figures out of their air - there will be inflation in construction materials, that impacts projects around the globe, but where do they get off using $60 or $80 billion?

The US government maybe "deficit-ridden" but that should not stop a necessary infrastructure project. If that logic had applied 70 years ago we wouldn't have even built the Bay Bridge. Nor the Hoover Dam. Nor the Grand Coulee Dam. Deficit spending to provide jobs in a recession and long-term growth to ensure economic recovery is smart economics. Spending billions on HSR will have exactly the same long-term impact that the bridges and dams did.

The fantasy of duplicating a 200-plus mph rail system like the one in Japan or France through the Central Valley has been around for awhile. But soon voters will be asked to approve real money to fulfil it.

Again, the only fantasy here is that California can survive without building an alternative to oil-based transportation. Nowhere in this editorial are gas prices mentioned. Nowhere is the airline crisis mentioned. This editorial sounds like it was written in 1995, not 2008.

One might think by now that the high-speed rail plans for construction, operation and investment have been worked out in great detail with considerable confidence in their success. Even after spending $58 million over a decade in planning, that is decidedly not the case.

A week ago, a California Senate panel blew what should be a warning whistle for voters. Its report questions the financial assumptions made by the California High-Speed Rail Authority and urges significant changes to its plan to develop a 700-mile bullet train system.

"Neither the authority's 2000 business plan nor any of the agency's subsequent documents discuss the risks that might be associated with the project," charges the 27-page report by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

As we discussed last week that Senate report is extremely flawed. Its assessment of financial risk is worthless, because it did not actually assess financial risks. Had it done so it would have graphed the supposed risks of HSR against the risks of not building it - of letting our airlines collapse and the state become paralyzed by a lack of affordable transportation. That the HSR deniers at the Contra Costa Times are using that report to attack HSR suggests how flawed the report was, and how important it is we push back against it.

The report says the rail authority needs to demonstrate greater financial transparency and accountability. In addition, the report urges CHSRA to present an updated business plan prior to the November election so that voters are fully aware of financial risks before they vote on the $10 billion bond measure.

We support an updated business plan, although we do not believe it to be necessary for approval of the November bond. Of course, being "fully aware of financial risks" involves including an assessment of the cost of doing nothing - which neither the State Senate nor this editorial offered. By their logic, the editorial is flawed, since it lacks that risk assessment.

These risks go to the heart of the system, including construction cost increases, less-than expected ridership or revenue, difficulty attracting private financial backers or acquiring land and the possibility that the state might have to subsidize the service.

Construction costs WILL increase if we delay. Approving the bonds now is actually the far less risky approach, as it would allow contracts to be signed sooner and locking in more affordable prices.

But here they give away their real concern: omg subsidies!

EVERY form of transportation in this state is subsidized. Every last one. Amtrak CEO Alex Kummant, in an excellent Reuters interview I'll cover more this weekend, has a brilliant response to this:

"I think it is absolute mythology that there's any national system that is profitable. And I think the naysayers just have to get over it. There is no example. If you peel apart the British rail privatization, there were a tremendous numbers of problems with that. People say Oh look at these wonderful new trains running around here. It's all because of the miracle of the private market.' That's complete nonsense. There's a bunch of new trains running around there because they spent five times as much tax money today as they did in 1990. And actually if you look at the subsidy structures, we are awash in subsidies for all modes of transportation. There's a $10 billion a year cash transfer from the general fund to the Highway Trust Fund. FAA gets $2.7 billion. We pay all security at Amtrak and yet there is a $1.5 billion subsidy that goes beyond any user fees for security in air travel.

There's $8 billion that goes into security and life safety for cruise ships. There's four-plus billion dollars that goes to waterways. Let's not even get into airport construction which is a miasma of state, federal and local tax breaks and tax refinancing and God knows what. And then there's private aviation which gets huge subsidies in accelerated depreciation loss for small aircraft. So I always get a good chuckle, if I'm in a good mood, when people talk about subsidized Amtrak. It's always a lot of fun then to reel off every other mode that is subsidized. And one final point. If you actually look at the amount of public capital that flows into the rail network per passenger, it's like $40 a passenger for Amtrak and $500 to $700 per automobile out there through the highways.

Of course, their concern is that HSR subsidies might break the CA budget. But all other HSR systems in the world generate surpluses and do not require subsidies - in fact they subsidize other rail services. There is every reason to expect this will occur here in California - unless of course you're the Contra Costa Times and ignore $4.50 gas. More from their silly editorial:

f the Senate panel that studied the high-speed rail system is uncertain of its costs, investors, federal aid and income, certainly voters should be.

We have long been wary of high-speed rail in California. It would make more sense in a more densely populated area like the Boston-to-Washington, D.C., corridor than in California.

Nonsense. Spain's AVE system, which has high ridership and generates surpluses, serves a much less densely populate corridor. And of course this assumes that folks won't ride HSR between California's major metro areas, even though the State Senate HSR report they put so much stock in claimed this would generate the most riders and profits for the system.

Besides, this state has a poor record of completing huge construction projects anywhere near budget or estimated date of completion.

We do? Care to give some examples? There are one or two outliers - like the East Span of the Bay Bridge - but they ignore those I mentioned above that were quite successful, such as the West Span of the Bay Bridge or the Metro Gold Line.

We also have no confidence in claims that the train could carry passengers at a lower price than the airlines without subsidies, nor nearly as quickly.

Of course you don't have that confidence - because you're ignoring the fuel price problem that is causing the airline industry to enter its most severe crisis since 2001. And during that crisis, how did airlines survive? With a $15 billion subsidy. Even Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher doesn't think affordable airfare is going to last much longer. What does the Contra Costa Times know that he doesn't?

Then there is the major problem with the route, which serves the 1.3 million people in San Francisco and the Peninsula far better than the 2.5 million residents of the East Bay.

A statement conveniently ignoring the HSR corridor along the Altamont route, or the millions of others in California who this will quite easily serve.

Adding to the uncertainty about the bullet train project is Union Pacific Railroad's unwillingness to sell its right of way for high-speed rail routes. That could delay construction and be a major financial setback.

And if the editorial writer knew what he or she was talking about he might know that the CHSRA never counted on that ROW.

This report is a loud and clear warning to all California voters not to be too eager to get aboard the Boondoggle Express.

Whereas this editorial is a loud and clear warning to all California voters that the state media cannot be trusted to reliably report on and understand the high speed rail project, and would prefer to protect a failing status quo by ignoring the transportation crisis being created by high fuel costs. The editorial fails to assess the true risk of the project - the risk of doing nothing. It's the equivalent of editorializing against the Bay Bridge in 1933 or the State Water Project in 1959 - shortsighted and damaging to this state's needs.


Anonymous said...

The State housing and transportation committee and now the Contra Costa Times are ignorant and don't understand.

If you make your postings just a little longer, Robert, then maybe everyone will come around to your viewpoint.

Everyone, that is, except me and hopefully millions of other California voters.

What you should be pushing for, is delay and new leadership. What is now coming to light is how miserably CHSRA has directed this project. They need to be replaced.

If this bond measure is voted down this fall, HSR will be dead in California for another 20 years.

Tony D. said...

Don't worry Robert, many California voters, including myself, DO SHARE YOUR VIEWPOINT regarding HSR! (As oppossed to what anon 8:31 wants to believe). By November millions of other Californians will also know how important this project is for our states future. Besides, let's not get to riled up over what's said in the Contro Costa Times; it's not as if it's the SJ Mercury or SF Chronicle...someone over in CoCo is obviously still pretty pissed that Pacheco got the nod over Altamont.

無名 - wu ming said...

well, as a northern californian, i'm not so sure about the long term wisdom of the water project, but the rest of the response is spot on.

Anonymous said...

A statement conveniently ignoring the HSR corridor along the Altamont route...

Robert knows full well that there will be no Altamont route. This kind of propaganda really doesn't help advance HSR in California.

With no tangible benefit evident from the Pachecho alignment for voters in Sacramento and the East Bay, it is really no surprise that Editorial boards in those areas have come out against the project.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The water project is imperfect, but it is an example of a long-term investment that produced economic growth. Whereas the Contra Costa Times, and apparently our anonymous friend, think such investments are a bad idea - even though we owe what economic prosperity we still cling to today to the investments made in the 1930s, the 1950s, and the 1960s.

I do agree with anon that if the bond measure is voted down this fall, HSR won't be coming back anytime soon. That would have a destructive impact on our economy and our state budget - not voting for these bonds would be an unbelievably risky thing to do.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The CHSRA plans a vaguely defined "HSR corridor" through the Altamont pass. It's not an actual routing for the HSR train and I did not claim it was.

The notion that the train has to serve a region directly to earn support is foolish. I live in Monterey, which is MUCH further from the HSR line than Oakland will be. But I understand its value for the state and for my future. One would hope that editorial boards would grasp that as well.

Besides, it's not difficult for folks living in the East Bay to get to an HSR station even without an Altamont alignment. Feeder networks are the key, including the communities the route does serve.

Rafael said...

@ bikerider, robert cruickshank -

according to the infamous High Speed Commuter Rail/HST Overlay (page 9) would absolutely be capable of supporting high speed trains.

The presentation summarizes the reasons Mehdi Morshed and his staff recommended Pacheco Pass as their preferred alternative. Slide 21 describes the "HST overlay" as an "independent though related project" whose "purpose & need [are] different from HST". Talk about contradiction in terms.

Note that according to a recent radio interview with Rod Diridon, "the CHSRA board did not object to the recommendation, which is all the law requires".

Considering the language in AB 3034, which passed 60-3, the Assembly clearly does not accept CHSRA's position that Altamont Pass is independent or that it serves a different need.

Lets look at this in more detail.


The arguments Morshed cited against Altamont as the part of the starter line are:

(a) construction of a new rail bridge or tunnel at Dumbarton, near the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge

(b) high impact of a 4-6 track alignment on Fremont, Pleasanton and Livermore

Objection (a) does not apply to the Authority's Altamont variation 9, which serves both San Francisco and San Jose without aBay crossing.

Objection (b) elevates these three cities above those elsewhere in the state, where HSR will also involve laying 2 or 4 new tracks alongside existing freight track(s). Are places like Palo Alto and Burbank suddenly chopped liver?

Volume 1 Chapter 8 of the Bay Area to Central Valley Final EIR/EIS discusses the variations described in Chapter 7. Of Altamont variation 9, it says

"this alternative has greater environmental impacts and greater costs ($4.5 billion more) than
the Oakland and San Jose Termini Altamont Pass alternative [variation 2] since it requires over 62 additional miles of HST alignment to be constructed along the San Francisco Peninsula."

This is a completely bogus argument in that this variation is only compared to one other also involving Altamont and none involving Pacheco. CHSRA did not double-check it's arguments after having decided on San Francisco and San Jose via Pacheco as the preferred alternative (Table 7.2-12: $12.4 billion).

If a double-check had occurred, they would have modified Altamont variation 9 to exclude the spur to Oakland. Let's call that variation 9a. Its cost can easily be computed by combining the estimates for variations 2, 4, and 9:

$14.6-($10-$7.7) = $12.3 billion, i.e. the same as the preferred alternative for the starter line.

However, that's not the whole story as the overall plan also calls for a future spur to Sacramento. Variation 9 already includes about half of that, whereas Pacheco base does not.

Specifically, Table 7.3-11 estimates the cost of Stockton-Madera along the preferred UPRR alignment at $2.7 billion, including stations at Modesto and Merced but not Merced (see figure 7.3-11). Considering Stockton-Sacramento is a little shorter but the station at Sacramento a lot fancier, figure that a spur from Chowchilla to Sacramento - implied by Pacheco base - would cost around $5 billion. This makes the estimate of $7 billion for this spur plus the one to San Diego highly questionable.

By contrast, a spur from Lathrop/Manteco to Sacramento would cost more like $3 billion - a savings of $2 billion.

For reference, the price tag of Pacheco Pass plus overlay as far as Lathrop/Manteca (Table 7.2-20, Figure 7.2-20) is a $20.4 billion.

Let's add all this together:

- Altamont variation 9a plus spur from Lathrop/Manteca to Sacramento: $12.3 + ~$3 = ~$15.3 billion

- Pacheco base plus spur from Chowchilla to Sacramento: $12.4 + ~$5 = $17.4 billion

- Pacheco base plus overlay plus spur from Lathrop/Manteca to Sacramento: $20.4 + ~$3 = ~$23.4 billion.

In other words, Altamont variation 9a is the only one that saves enough money in the north to permit construction of the San Diego spur and still stay roughly within the $40 billion total budget for the entire network.

CHSRA's preferred alternative would bust that by $2 billion without the overlay and by a whopping $8 billion. It will be very hard to convince Congress and private investors of the value added over-and-above Altamont variation 9.


Chapter 8 goes on to assert of variation 9:

" In addition, this alternative results in non-competitive travel times from San Francisco [...] to [...] Los Angeles [...]"

First, let's consider that express travel time between SF and SJ is the same for Altamont variation 9 and Pacheco base, i.e. 29 minutes.

Table 7.2-9 lists the following express travel times:

SJ-Tracy 0:25
SJ-LA 2:19
SF-LA 3:17

Compare that to the preferred Pacheco base variation (table 7.2-12):

SJ-Gilroy 0:15
SJ-LA 2:09
SF-LA 2:38

Altamont variation 9 does apparently involve a 10 minute penalty between SJ and LA, presumably because of lower speed limits.

However, the penalty for SF to LA is supposedly 39 minutes. This implies that in variation 9, trains would have to dwell at San Jose Diridon for a whopping 29 minutes.

Now, it is true that trains would have to reverse direction there. Since HSR trainsets have identical power cars at either end, each with a full cab, there is no need to shunt a locomotive. All that is needed is for the train engineer to transfer from one end of the train to the other, a distance of at most 1/4 mile. Walking would take ~8 minutes, this could be cut in half with a Segway, folding bicycle or other aid.

Ergo, the total SF-LA penalty should be around 14 minutes, not the 39 claimed. This could be reduced to ~8 minutes if the Silicon Valley station were moved to Santa Clara/SJC (variation 9b) so trains would not have to reverse. The cost difference between 9a and 9b is negligible.

CHSRA previously accepted a 10-minute detour via Palmdale as inconsequential for competing against short-hop flights. It's not immediately clear why adding another 8-14 minutes would cause large numbers of travelers to choose flying instead. The ridership forecast would need to be re-evaluated for variations 9a and 9b.

After all, the train would offer greater convenience, comfort, punctuality, safety, cell phone coverage plus (almost certainly) tables, courtesy electrical outlets for laptop chargers and terrestrial broadband internet access - all at half the cost.



- on closer inspection, none of the arguments CHSRA has put forth against Altamont variation 9 hold water if the spur to Oakland is eliminated.

- SF-SJ line haul times ridership projections for both the starter line and the spur to Sacramento need to be revised for Altamont variations 9a and 9b.

- CSHRA estimates total networtk cost at $33 billion for the starter line plus $7 billion combined for the spurs to Sacramento and San Diego. Altamont variation 9a or 9b would permit construction of the spur to Sacramento for ~$3 billion, whereas Pacheco base would increase its cost by ~$2 billion. It's not clear if a spur to San Diego can be built for $4 billion, but a budget of just $2 billion is not credible.

- CHSRA's suggestion of an overlay through Altamont pass would add $6 billion to its currently preferred network configuration.

- I therefore have to revise my previous position of neutrality on Altamont vs. Pacheco (without overlay). Altamont variation 9a or 9b would minimize total network cost, serve many more communities earlier and sharply reduce travel times from Sacramento to the Bay Area.

Switching to Altamont variation 9a or 9b only might very well increase the chances of the bond measure passing in November.

Rafael said...

"including stations at Modesto and Merced but not Merced"

should of course read

including stations at Modesto and Merced but not Stockton

Rafael said...

I over looked this little nugget in CHSRA's discussion of Altamont variation 9 (page 8-10 of Vol 1 Ch 8 of the Bay Area to Central Valley Final EIR/EIS):

"[...] it requires over 62 additional miles of HST alignment to be constructed along the San Francisco Peninsula."

The railroad distance from San Francisco to San Jose is only 48 miles. That means the cost estimate CHSRA gives for Altamont variation 9 is inflated. Without a spur to Oakland (variations 9a and 9b), it could be as much as $1 billion cheaper to construct than the preferred Pacheco base option.

This is in addition to the ~$2 billion in indirect cost benefits for the Sacramento spur.

Is getting to LA just 8 minutes earlier (variation 9b) worth an extra $3 billion to you?

Robert Cruickshank said...

This is a very interesting line of thinking, rafael. Let's game it out further.

1) Would the cost of ROW acquisition be higher along Option 9 than along the Pacheco route? Fremont and Milpitas are pretty densely populated along the route, with Pleasanton and Livermore less so - but the route south of San José, along 101 to Gilroy, is mostly open agricultural land. The city of Fremont is particularly opposed to an east-west alignment, and many of the important members of Congress whose work will be needed to get HSR funds support Pacheco.

2) Could money set aside for BART to San José be redirected to HSR, which would help close the transit gap between Fremont and San José? I'm not nearly as familiar with that project so I don't know how much if anything has been set aside. It may also be the case that rejecting Option 9 was partly out of a desire to keep BART to SJ alive.

And finally, though this isn't so much about assessing Altamont vs Pacheco, the EIR you linked to in your most recent comment goes into some detail on UPRR right of way issues, noting the "high" risk that CHSRA would fail to get that needed ROW. That should put to bed the lie that CHSRA had no clue about this issue or was somehow hiding it from the public.

無名 - wu ming said...

truth be told, i'd much rather see the altamount route, since it would cut down significantly on the overall trip time to LA or the bay area from sacramento. mostly, though, i just want the damn thing built, and the spur to sac completed ASAP.

Anonymous said...

The US government maybe "deficit-ridden" but that should not stop a necessary infrastructure project.

True. In fact, if you're worried about funding, an austere fiscal environment means less spending. A deficit ridden one is great if you want spending (Just look at the military or Medicare part D). I'm not a deficit dove by any means, but don't draw the wrong conclusions. The federal budget is not going to be balanced for a long time. There will be plenty of spending in all areas.

Anonymous said...


In all fairness, you can't really attack the legitimacy or credibility of the EIR/EIS statements that the CHSRA has produced, including the Bay Area one that has evidence in favor of Pacheco over Altamont. These documents were produced by outside agencies, conform to state standards for such reports, and are based in engineering fact that can be backed up by industry standard calculations, surveys, demographics, etc.

While we can all agree that the East Bay absolutely needs to have service and will benefit tremendously from High-Speed Rail, this is a statewide system, and no one region deserves priority over any other. As a San Diegan, it will be many years before the train makes it to my city, but the project is much greater than serving me individually. The state benefits enormously as a whole, even if we are serviing the LA-SF route only initially. I think the best bet is to initially provide ACE upgrades, and then as third phase (after SD and Sacramento) make the Altamont into a true high speed rail corridor.

FYI, Altamont Commuter Express rail has an average daily ridership of 2,000. For comparison, San Diego's Coaster has 6,000 daily riders, and serves a much more automobile-centered market, and one that has a lower population density along the line. Further, the Coaster is a 40 mile long line with 6 stations, while ACE is 85 miles with 10 stations. How big of a demand is there really along the ACE corridor? Caltrain's ridership is much higher, 37,000 riders daily. That corridor, from an investment basis, definitely deserves upgrades before the ACE does. I think the CHSRA knows what they are doing in choosing Pacheco over Altamont initially.

Anonymous said...

Rafael writes:
b) high impact of a 4-6 track alignment on Fremont, Pleasanton and Livermore

4-6 tracks was never part of the Altamont alternative, except (possibly) at station stops. Yes, Morshed (and Quentin Kopp) keep claiming this, but it simply isn't true. Yet another reason why even the advocates are becoming fed up with the CAHSR "leadership".

Michael asks:
How big of a demand is there really along the ACE corridor?

The issue isn't so much the ~2000 daily riders on ACE, but the fact that Sacramento is no longer a viable destination. Travel time between SF and Sacramento via Pacheco would be no faster than today's very slow Capitol Corridor service. As well, there are other issues:

-Altamont adds a new transbay rail crossing, to take pressure off the overloaded BART transbay tube

-Altamont takes HSR trains off the busy Caltrain mainline much sooner; i.e. following standard practice for HSR projects and avoiding many NIMBY pitfalls.

-Altamont obviates any need to build the $3 billion BART extension to Livermore, or the $8 billion extension to San Jose. In other words, Pachecho is at least $11B more expensive.

Tony D. said...

Hey Robert,
Over at SJ/SV Bizjournal there's an article titled "Study: U.S. airlines 'have never faced a darker future.'" (6/13) Yet the anon HSR naysayers, including CoCo times, are still trying to convince us that HSR is a bad idea for the state?!! Redirect BART to SJ funds to the Altamont we're talking Robert! I believe that the VTA's Measure A BART tax will raise about $8 billion over its 30 year life (from 06?), with $6 billion pegged for the BART/SJ project. Those local funds, in conjunction with bond/federal monies, could do wonders in terms of HSR in and out of the Bay Area. And for the record, I'm pro Pacheco, mainly because I reside in Gilroy and excited by the prospects of local HSR service.

Rafael said...

@ Robert Cruickshank -

I have no way of knowing what ROW acquisition will cost, especially if UPRR refuses to play ball and CHSRA has to negotiate with a large number of individual landowners.

Therefore, I stuck to the data that CHSRA produced and used them to demonstrate that it is questionable on line haul time comparisons and that Pacheco does in fact lead to higher cost for the network as a whole.

If the recent ROW and other issues have substantially changed the ratios of CHSRA's various cost estimates relative to one another, then they currently have no basis for expressing a preference at all.


My understanding is that the BART extension to Fremont Warm Springs along the Western Pacific Milpitas Line will happen regardless. Of course, the business case for it would be much stronger if there was an intermodal with HSR there.

Functionally, HSR would not compete with true subway between Fremont Warm Springs and Santa Clara/SJC. This should based on generic standard gauge technology and be operated by VTA. Indeed, the three services would complement each other well, as BART could never afford to run its trains with a 3-5 minute headway all day long. Its lines extend all the way to Richmond and Millbrae/SFO, respectively.

This solution would keep Santa Clara county out of the BART consortium, whose funding primacy tends to starve other transit services of operational funding.

As a consolation prize, Santa Clara county could offer to pick up the cost of the BART portion of the multimodal station at Fremont Warm Springs. Note that BART and VTA subway tracks could both run at grade toward single-track stub ends. Passengers would only have to cross the single platform. During rush hour, connections would be timed. Dead-end stubs north and south of the platform could be used to park spare trains. Drivers would have to walk the length of their trains as usual, possibly using a private elevated walkway. Signaling would be used to allow trains to safely reverse out of the station and past the spare trains before cutting across to their other track.

HSR platforms would also be at grade, on the adjacent SPML alignment. However, the express tracks may have to run under the platform, which would be located south and west of that for the other services. BART plans for a subway section under Fremont's Central Par but HSR would need to rise to cross freight tracks at Niles and enter a tunnel through Tolman Peak.


If running both HSR and BART next to one another north of Fremont Warm Springs is not possible because UPRR still needs access for freight trains, the HSR alignment through Altamont would need to be radically different.

For starters, it would have to be raised and run on top of the BART and VTA subway tracks at Fremont Warm Springs station (not south of it). Note that HSR must have bypass tracks through the station, so part of the building would extend over the tail end of the active freight line. One significant complication in the area is the Hayward fault.

On the other hand, raising the HSR tracks would permit veering east at Mission Blvd. (highway 262) and following I-680 to Pleasanton, where it would dive underground cut across to I-580. The objective would be a very valuable intermodal station at Dublin/Pleasanton. To that end, HSR express tracks would dive even deeper to run underneath the platform for the local HSR tracks, itself underneath the BART platform. BART service would have to be terminated at the new West Dublin/Pleasanton station during the construction of this complex intermodal. This express-tracks-under-the-platform trick could be repeated at Livermore Vasco Rd. if a station for local trains is desired there.

The HSR alignment would follow I-580 to I-205 and veer north immediately after crossing the California Aqueduct. A long gentle curve at grade would let it reach the UPRR ROW near W Grant Line Rd. From there, it would run through central Tracy at grade (except for those express tracks under the station platform). The alignment would join up with the UPRR's main Central Valley ROW between Lathrop and Manteca.

In addition to a second BART intermodal, this alternative would run well clear of the downtown areas of Fremont, Pleasanton and Livermore. It would also avoid all tunneling through Tolman Peak and Altamont Pass and, permit both UPRR and ACE to operate normally during construction. Once HSR goes live, ACE service would be canceled and the rolling stock sold to Amtrak.

However, the alternate alignment described above does involve a lot of aerial structures, covered trenches and roller-coaster stations. Moreover, it wasn't part of the Bay Area to Central Valley EIR/EIS process. That may not be a dealbreaker, as that could be continued while other parts of the HSR network were already being built.

If NIMBYs and treehuggers drive up projected direct and indirect construction costs beyond those associated with Pacheco base or, if they cause excessive delays, then Pacheco becomes the fallback option - a valuable trump card for knocking heads together.

Rafael said...

Speaking of knocking heads together, there may be a lot of political value in prioritizing the spur up to Sacramento over the trunk line down to Fresno.

If useful component projects in the LOSSAN corridor and between San Diego and University City are also part of the initial construction phase, then the entire network would be gradually extended from all four of its endpoints. This would give residents in all parts of the state a reason to approve the bond. Also, revenue service could begin well before $33 billion is spent, reducing opportunity costs and financing risks.

In this scenario, the "golden spike" connecting north and south would be hammered into the ground at Tehachapi Pass.

Anonymous said...


You seem to know more than anyone about this project.

Why is the route to San Diego shown to be routed near Riverside chosen, rather than the much shorter and very heavily congested direct route along I-5 from LA to San Diego.

Rafael said...

@ Victor -

CHSRA studied a number of alignment options for the LA-San Diego via Orange County option:

"Of the three dedicated options, B2 (I-5) is the slowest, due to the number and size of curves on the I-5 alignment. It is the second most expensive, due to extremely constrained right-of-way in the corridor, requiring aerial construction."

South of San Juan Capistrano, the existing line runs right next to the beach to Del Mar. From the Staff Report on the statewide Final Program EIR/EIS:

"Impacts on Coastal Communities— Concerns have been raised regarding
potential impacts on coastal bluffs, beaches, views, historic areas, parklands, and sensitive communities along the coast for HST improvements to the existing LOSSAN rail corridor between South Orange County and San Diego. The proposed HST Alternative would extend no further south than Irvine, and options between South Orange County and San Diego along the coast were

Also, the Inland Empire route runs right next to Ontario Airport, providing relief capacity for both LAX and Lindbergh Field.

Finally, NCTD identified a number of geological risks such as unstable cliffs, landslides at Del Mar Bluff and tsunamis due to underwater landslides. These were considered manageable for regional rail service but unacceptable for a statewide HSR system.


On a related note, the alignment option across the Grapevine (I-5) between Santa Clarita and Bakersfield was rejected because the construction options were very limited. One to the east of I-5 would have permitted crossing both the San Andreas and the Garlock faults at grade, but only with significant impact on wildlife near Castaic Lake. The one west of I-5 would have require crossing Garlock fault in a fairly long tunnel, which would greatly complicate evacuation in the event of a derailment.

Of course, it didn't hurt that Antelope Valley is growing rapidly and is home to the only airport in all of California that has room for an extra runway capable of supporting the latest generation of long-haul airliners.

The Palmdale detour added 10-12 minutes to the SF-LA line haul time but did not increase total network cost.

On a side note, it would allow Nevada to drop both of its Las Vegas-Disneyland maglev and steel wheels diesel DesertXPress projects in favor of a spur off the California system at the town of Mojave. Connecting to Palmdale Airport via HSR would let Nevada avoid construction of the $4 billion Ivanpah Valley Airport (IVP) near Jean. So far, however, Senate majority leader Harry Reid is still chasing both maglev and IVP. He just got $45 million from Washington for an environmental study for maglev between Las Vegas and the state border.

Rafael said...

@ bikerider -

no-one ever claimed HSR itself would need long stretches of 4-6 tracks. However, there are also freight/commuter rail and BART to consider.

1 - four tracks for HSR are required at all stations that must support express as well as non-express service. Where horizontal space is constrained, the express tracks can dive under the platform, but this obviously costs a lot more.

2 - off-the-shelf HSR trains from Europe or Asia do not meet FRA's extremely tough crash test requirements. International regulators emphasize both active safety (i.e. avoiding accidents) and passive safety (i.e. surviving crashes). FRA relies mostly on passive safety, in analogy to the SUV approach to building cars. As a result, the Acela Express in the Northeast Corridor has been called a Sherman tank on wheels, which makes it expensive to operate.

For this reason as well as the speed difference, HSR trains should avoid sharing track with freight and commuter rail in the US. The California HSR system proposes just that.

The only exception is the SF peninsula corridor, which is owned by Caltrain. There, "baby bullet" trains would make brief excursions onto the HSR tracks, secured by time separation. This requires modern signaling and other equipment that Caltrain is already upgrading to for its own operations, but also in anticipation of HSR.

3 - BART uses dedicated broad gauge dual track and proprietary signaling.

4 - Between Fremont and Milpitas, HSR and BART would each have dual tracks. UPRR might insist on keeping enough land for dual freight tracks. 2+2+2 = 6.

5 - Between Pleasanton and Livermore, HSR would have dual track. UPRR would probably insist on enough land for a future upgrade to dual track. 2+2 = 4.

6 - where there is not enough land to accommodate the required number of tracks, it would have to be acquired - via eminent domain if need be. The only other option is to stack (pairs of) tracks vertically using covered trenches or aerial structures. Both are expensive, especially in earthquake-prone locations.

Note that tracks used by diesel trains cannot be put underground or in long tunnels unless there is ample natural or forced ventilation.

Rafael said...

@ michael -

1 - just because CHSRA chose to outsource the compilation of various reports does not mean it is not responsible for what's in them. State and industry standards provide frameworks for the scope that must be included in such reports and their presentation - no more. Quality assurance means going through the documents line by line and double-checking - that's a big part of what CHSRA was paid to do.

For example, Parsons Brinkerhoff did not explain why Altamont variation 9 should require trains to spend 29 minutes at San Jose Diridon. For whatever reason, CHSRA appears not to have asked them, either.


2 - many of the Central Valley politicians do indeed perceive Altamont HSR primarily as a massive upgrade to the Altamont Commuter Express service. However, Altamont HSR would make long-distance commuting so cheap, fast and reliable that SF peninsula residents could suffer a noticeable downturn in property values there. The cities and counties there could suffer reduced property and sales tax revenue. Unfortunately, it would be considered rude to state this directly, so SF peninsula politicians and their friends in the Sierra Club emphasize environmental concerns instead.

The legitimate concerns raised by exurbanization in the context of California's tax laws could be resolved easily enough: just add legally binding verbiage to AB 3034 that forces operators to collect a 100% sales surtax for westbound trains from Central and Livermore Valley towns to the SF Peninsula during the weekday morning rush hour and eastbound in the evening. Obviously, you'd need to employ conductors to verify the tickets.

Alameda, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced county would be obliged to use surta revenue to provide high-quality HSR feeder services and bicycle infrastructure. Holders of a surtaxed train ticket would not have to pay extra for using these.

Development of transit-oriented residential and commercial development near stations curbs auto-centric sprawl, in line with the HSR projects and AB32. Property in such developments would soon become relatively expensive, reducing the #1 incentive for long distance-commuting: cheap housing.

It would also attract businesses, including e.g. data centers of Silicon Valley firms that worry about earthquake risks and constraints on electricity supply growth in the Bay Area.


3 - my objectives were, however, different from those of the local politicians:

a - to show that CSHRA needs to be held accountable for the quality of work. If the current board and staff draw far-reaching conclusions from questionable data, it is fair to ask if they are the right people to trust with keeping implementation on time and on budget.

b - to show that CHSRA's assertion that Pacheco costs no more than Altamont is false once you look beyond the starter line and consider total network cost.

This is important because getting the November bond measure passed depends on high voter confidence that the federal government and private investors really will each match the state's investment. Private investors in particular won't do that if they perceive CHSRA as advocating anything other than the cheapest solution that still meets the project's objectives.

San Diego and Sacramento both need HSR spurs. Their construction should not be put in jeopardy just because local politicians in the SF peninsula and Central Valley refuse to apply some lateral thinking to their strictly regional issue of long-distance commuting, in the wider interest of the whole state.

Anonymous said...

Why is the route to San Diego shown to be routed near Riverside chosen, rather than the much shorter and very heavily congested direct route along I-5 from LA to San Diego.

Because the CA-HSR is a real estate venture, not transportation.

If TGVs can run along the French Riviera (
TGV/Sud-Est_modernized/misc/LA_NAPOULE-800.jpg), they certainly can run along Del Mar.

Anonymous said...


You write:

"3 - my objectives were, however, different from those of the local politicians:

a - to show that CSHRA needs to be held accountable for the quality of work. If the current board and staff draw far-reaching conclusions from questionable data, it is fair to ask if they are the right people to trust with keeping implementation on time and on budget."

Considering the revelations of the past week, the highly critical report from Lowenthal's Transportation and Housing commission, and the letter from UP revealing that they have no intention of allowing ROW on their corridor, as well as not obtaining ROW from the Sante Fe RR either, it seems to me the answer to your question of "if they (CHSRA)are the right people to trust with keeping implementation on time and on budget", has been answered.

Clearly they are not the right people. The organization should be dissolved and a completely new process should be implemented. That's hard to swallow, but that is the correct solution.

I also do not agree with your conjecture:

However, Altamont HSR would make long-distance commuting so cheap, fast and reliable that SF peninsula residents could suffer a noticeable downturn in property values there. The cities and counties there could suffer reduced property and sales tax revenue."

Certainly for the cites in the west bay -- Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City, San Mateo etc -- the thought that housing pressures would be relieved by a cheap commute eastward, would be welcomed. These cites are land constrained, are pretty much in the built out state and all recent studies show that while increasing housing stock will lead to increased property taxes, the costs in services (schools, safety officers, recreational facilities), leads to a negative fiscal situation for the cities. That is, the net result of adding more housing adds to a city's financial problems. ABAG's current allocation of housing needs on these cities is onerous, and independent politicians (those not put in place by land developers and speculators) certainly will welcome relief from housing pressures.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The main reason HSR was routed via Riverside wasn't because of some nefarious real estate plot, but because of impossible engineering challenges along I-5 between Anaheim and SD - namely between Dana Point and Oceanside. The bluffs above the tracks near Capistrano Beach and San Clemente regularly come down onto the rails during heavy winter storms. It's all they can do to keep the tracks already there open - and it will be virtually impossible to widen the ROW to add HSR tracks.

The only other option would be to take lanes from I-5 and convert them into HSR. I'm all for that, but it seems to have never been a seriously considered option.

That left routing it through Riverside and down I-15. Given the speeds the trains can achieve that's still going to provide faster travel times than driving between LA and SD and that is what counts. The Pacific Surfliners will continue to handle the load along the existing LOSSAN corridor.

Robert Cruickshank said...

anon, we have repeatedly questioned the assumptions and conclusions of the State Senate report. That report should not be taken as gospel and should absolutely not be used to beat anyone else over the head. I'm not even convinced it's that useful a document. Sadly the state media, which is by and large totally clueless when it comes to HSR, prefers to let the State Senate do the reporting for them. It's a damning indictment of how far the media has fallen that they let politicians do a journalists' job.

Anonymous said...


I believe I read previously that you had put together a map and now with your new route proposals, as presented in this thread could you possibly modify that map to show what you believe would be the best option for the project, say north of Fresno?

Rafael said...

@morris brown -

I've put together three variations on Altamont HSR via SPML in Google Maps. These are best viewed in conjunction, you may need to use a Google account for that.

Use the zoom feature to see the differences, which are all between Milpitas and Tracy.

The base case essentially corresponds to Altamont variation 9 as studied by CHSRA as part of the EIR/EIS, except that the spur to West Oakland BART is omitted and that the Silicon Valley HSR station has been moved to Santa Clara/SJC.

The main purpose of the alternatives is to steer clear of the UPRR alignment between Fremont Warm Springs and Tracy both during and after construction. I decided against using the abandoned SP alignment between Pleasanton and Sunol because UPRR may well need to refurbish that and its continuation along the north slope of Niles Canyon at some point to increase freight capacity.

Base case
Alternative 1
Alternative 2

Anonymous said...


My most earnest thanks for these maps and for all your input on this entire subject.