Rail series: Single-track bottleneck slows CA trains

Chatsworth train collision 2008, wikipedia

This is Part 3 of a series on Medium-Speed rail alternatives to California’s High-Speed Rail project. Click to read Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 and Part 6.

Dec. 13, 2012

By Stan Brin

So why are California’s trains so sluggish?

Aside from political inertia, there are two reasons.

The first should be an embarrassment to every Californian:  To this day, California’s inter-urban rail routes are limited to a single pair of tracks.

A single pair of tracks is like a one lane highway forced to accommodate two lanes of traffic moving in two directions. Trains can rarely operate at full speed, and only for limited distances. They have to stop and wait at sidings while other trains, moving in the opposite direction, pass them by. If a train stops to take on passengers, trains traveling behind it also have to slow down or stop.

This is the major reason why Amtrak trains between Los Angeles and San Diego require two hours and forty minutes to travel a route just over a hundred miles long. There simply isn’t room on the tracks for them to go any faster.

This limitation is considered woefully obsolete in the rest of the developed world, where double and quadruple tracking are the norm between major cities.

As my Nigerian friend says, “If they can do it in Nigeria, why can’t they do it here?”

Indeed, why haven’t California’s tracks been doubled? The answer is simple: Freight doesn’t need double tracks. Freight trains are very, very long, and very, very slow, and they don’t run very frequently.

Why single-tracking is unsafe: The Chatsworth disaster

The second reason why California’s passenger trains are so slow derives from the very nature of single track rail:  It’s not safe. In fact, the use of single-tracked routes for passenger traffic is a time bomb.

Single-tracking forces trains to head toward each other on the same set of rails, and inevitably, someone will misread or ignore a signal with disastrous results.

This is what happened in Chatsworth, north of Los Angeles, on Sept. 12, 2008. A northbound Metrolink commuter train ran smack head-on into a southbound Union Pacific freight, killing 25 people and maiming 135 more, apparently because the engineer at the controls of the Metrolink train was sending text messages. (Picture of the crash is above.)

This collision forced the feds to order a further reduction in train speed. But it also led to the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, a joint industry and government initiative. The act requires railroads to create and implement “Positive Train Control” systems that would surround trains with a GPS envelope that would automatically shut them down if they approached another train.

PTC will be great, if and when it works.

Reducing collisions

But had the Ventura County Line in Chatsworth north of Los Angeles been double-tracked in Sept. 2008, the disaster is unlikely to have happened at all. The two trains, approaching from opposite directions, would have simply passed one another on neighboring tracks.

It is still possible to have accidents on double tracks — a train might head-butt another standing still at a siding, for example — but there would be fewer collisions, and they would happen at much lower speeds.

Nevertheless, even today, four years after the accident, the Chatsworth-to-Ventura line is still single-tracked, aside for one-mile-long sections north and south of the Chatsworth station. Apparently, there are hills in the way, and new tunnels would have to be dug alongside those built, perhaps, when Andrew Johnson was president.

The cost of cleaning up the disaster, compensating the families of the dead, and caring for the permanently maimed, would easily have paid for new tunnels.

18 comments

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  1. Flax
    Flax 13 December, 2012, 10:08

    What many may not know is the owner of the track has the right of way. Amtrak does not own the rail between LA and San Diego, that’s why they constantly have to pull over for freight trains.

    This begs the question, how much of the states High Speed Rail line will be using track they do not own?

    Reply this comment
  2. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 13 December, 2012, 11:46

    I say double track em! Except for the beaches!!

    Reply this comment
  3. BobA
    BobA 13 December, 2012, 12:24

    Flax:

    It’s going to cost the state billions of dollars and 7 years worth of studies to come up with a bureaucratic answer to your simple question. Count on it.

    The alleged $100 billion dollars for the high-speed rail fills the public trough with a lot of slop. Government hogs and their pot-belly porker friends will be feasting on that money for years to come.

    Prediction: $100 billion dollars will buy maybe 200 miles of track at most and then the whole project will get cancelled once all the money is gone. By that time the new flavor of the month will be electric buses, solar powered big wheels and wind powered cars!!

    Reply this comment
  4. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 13 December, 2012, 12:40

    “I say double track em! Except for the beaches!!”

    Teddy – You’re a moron.

    Most – if not all – of the line from Dtwn LA to San Juan is already double tracked.

    It is precisely that part of the line, from San Juan south into San Diego County – much of which hugs the coastline, btw – where bottlenecks are most likely to occur.

    So you favor the idea except when you are against the idea, is that correct?

    Unbelievable.

    Reply this comment
  5. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 13 December, 2012, 13:24

    I say double track em! Except for the beaches!!
    ==
    “I say double track em! Except for the beaches!!”

    Teddy – You’re a moron.

    :)……..Teddy is getting destroyed-again! Maybe we can “triple track” teddy with his two sock puppets, uhaul and queeg 🙂

    Reply this comment
  6. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 13 December, 2012, 14:05

    LOL— You clowns will NEVER double track the beach! Too sensitive and important of an environment/etc…The citizens won’t allow it–sorry—- thanks for playing though!!

    I have to laugh— these knuckleheads spend thousands and try every few years, only to be shut down yet again! LOL

    0 for 14 ™ !

    Reply this comment
  7. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 13 December, 2012, 17:48

    Teddy – You’re a child.

    Reply this comment
  8. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 13 December, 2012, 21:01

    a child? a moron? Yikes you guys get spun up, no? Are you spun up because you disagree with the environmental position re — no double tracking on the beach? If so….those epithets seem kind of silly and childish….no?

    Reply this comment
  9. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 14 December, 2012, 08:00

    As my Nigerian friend says, “If they can do it in Nigeria, why can’t they do it here?”
    I wonder if our brain child moron Tedd Steals can answer this question ???

    I guess he might be too busy claiming his “spun” status, pr spamming the board with his usual ad hominem attacks.

    Reply this comment
  10. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 14 December, 2012, 08:00

    Nigeria Teddy, even Nigeria is doing it better.

    Reply this comment
  11. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 14 December, 2012, 09:02

    Poodle— you seem more agitated than usual? Is there enough o2 in the bunker?

    0 for 14 ™!

    Reply this comment
  12. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 14 December, 2012, 15:16

    Hi Teddy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You are in major meltdown mode 🙂

    Reply this comment
  13. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 14 December, 2012, 16:56

    Poodle— What do ya say? Let’s let the grownups have this blog….ok little buddy?

    Reply this comment
  14. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 14 December, 2012, 19:45

    Poodle— What do ya say? Let’s let the grownups have this blog….ok little buddy?
    ======
    Yikes you guys get spun up, no
    ==

    :)…… oh brother!!!

    Reply this comment
  15. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 15 December, 2012, 09:02

    The poodle is still spun up! LOL

    Reply this comment
  16. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 16 December, 2012, 15:54

    Teddy stop spamming us or John will put you in a Time Out, like he did to OCO.

    Reply this comment
  17. The Ted Steele System
    The Ted Steele System 17 December, 2012, 09:53

    LOL !!!! isn’t your post a spam little buddy? Hmmmmm

    any predictions today?

    0 fro 14 ™!

    Reply this comment
  18. gideon
    gideon 17 December, 2012, 20:51

    While it’s true that Amtrak does not own any of the track it runs on out here, us freight haulers get parked for it to pass.

    Reply this comment

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