Proposed train demo all show, no go

JUNE 12, 2010

Apparently, 12.6 percent unemployment, a $20 billion budget deficit and half a trillion dollars in unfunded pension liabilities isn’t of a legacy for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now he wants a bullet train running – in just five months.

“The governor has proposed to the federal government that a demonstration project be set up on the rail link between San Diego and Los Angeles, one of the busiest commuter corridors in the nation,” the Los Angeles Times reported on June 12. “He would like it in place by November, two months before he leaves office.”

Well, like all things Schwarzenegger Administration, this isn’t what it seems. Used here, even the word “demonstration” is misleading.

Schwarzenegger wants something quick and dirty to prove to the state that his dream of running high-speed rail trains up and down the state will become reality faster than anyone things. He wants something shiny and glistening that he can point to – hell, even ride on, probably – that will get people thinking that an 800-mile network of bullet trains might actually succeed here.

Of course, a true demonstration of the kind of 220-mile-per-hour trains the California High Speed Rail Authority is calling for is impossible right now. First, and foremost, no one has ordered any actual bullet trains yet. The state is years away from even deciding what the train will look like, much less how it’ll cost. But even if Arnold had an actual bullet train from France or Japan or wherever, he couldn’t use it. That’s because true high-speed rail trains need stronger tracks than those currently used by Amtrak and freight trains throughout the state.

“They cannot use the same tracks,” consultant Wendell Cox of Wendell Cox Consultancy in Belleville, Illinois told me while researching this recent story on the proposed rail project’s impact on landowners.

And yet there was this curious paragraph at the end of the LA Times story:

“As a further benefit, [Orange County Transportation Authority Will] Kempton said the project might show that high-speed trains can share the route with existing conventional trains. If so, it could save billions of dollars in costs to build a separate right-of-way for high-speed rail between Anaheim and Los Angeles. The California High-Speed Rail Authority is now considering whether to study the shared-use concept.”

The only way a bullet train could use the tracks currently used by Amtrak is if the bullet train slows way down, nearly to the speed of current Amtrak trains which kinda sorta defeats the whole purpose of this great demonstration.

The rail authority admits this (well, the part about not being able to share tracks without serious speed reductions) in the following paragraph, written as part of a “frequently asked questions” promotion and posted here on the authority’s website:

“In California, high-speed trains will not share tracks with conventional freight trains anywhere on the proposed 800-mile system. The only areas where the 800-mile California high-speed train system is expected to share tracks with other types of passenger trains are between San Francisco and San Jose (50-miles), and Los Angeles and Anaheim (27-miles). At these locations, the high-speed train system would be operating at reduced speeds that would be compatible with other passenger trains.”

Put simply, the governor’s proposed bullet train “demonstration” – which the Times says he proposed to the U.S. Department of Transportation in early June – will actually demonstrate nothing. It will potentially cost untold thousands of dollars in re-scheduling costs for the trains that already use the track and extra track enhancements like grade separators and barriers, yet it will show California residents exactly nothing about how a real bullet train might operate between San Diego and Los Angeles. In fact, the test train might shave just mere minutes off the current Amtrak time on that line.

In short, it’ll be all show and no go. If Arnold is planning this little stunt as a send-off for his administration, it couldn’t be more fitting.

-Anthony Pignataro

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