Rail Series: Medium-speed train tracking costs less than high-speed rail

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is Part 4 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. 14, 2012

By Stan Brin

How much does it cost to lay an additional pair of tracks beside an existing line?

A lot, but not as much as you would think. According to spokesmen for the various railroads, it costs between $5 million and $10 million per mile to double-track an existing line, depending on the cost of land required for the additional tracks and the number of obstacles that have to be crossed.

Urban tracks tend cost on the high end due to land acquisition costs. Amtrak is currently working on a 10-mile, triple-tracking project in the highly urbanized San Gabriel Valley. The final cost is expected to be slightly above $10 million per mile.

Other sections will cost considerably less because the right of way and infrastructure are already in place. Twenty years ago, I lived less than 200 yards from a section of the Los Angeles-to-San Diego line as it was being doubled, but not one home or business was taken, or even disturbed. Railroad workers laid the new steel rails on their modern, concrete crossties right beside the old ones, and no one in the neighborhood even noticed.

That new section of double-tracking allowed faster and more frequent commuter traffic from Laguna Niguel in South Orange County into Los Angeles, but that’s it. From San Juan Capistrano south into San Diego County, a distance of roughly 60 miles, the rails are still essentially as they were in the days of buggy whips, gas lamps, bustles and derby hats.

How much would it cost to completely double-track this line? Split roughly evenly between urban and rural areas, this stretch is mostly level, with a lot of gullies. About half of it is federally owned, part of the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, so there is no need to compensate private owners.

Let’s split the difference between the $5 and $10 million per-mile cost and guestimate that it might cost around $400 million to double-track the remaining 60 miles of single-track between Laguna Niguel and San Diego. Let’s err on the maximum to account for some extra sidings to allow non-stop travel, and adding four or five yards of sand to some public beach areas, and we have $600 million.

That’s well under one percent of the expected cost of the HSR to travel between Los Angeles and San Deigo, non-stop, downtown to downtown, at up to 100 miles per hour, free of traffic and the Transportation Safety Administration; and about a quarter of the cost of the 20-mile-long Alameda Corridor.

The Central Valley

Similar improvements of the 300-mile Central Valley route from Bakersfield to Sacramento would cost on the low end per mile since the route is entirely flat and mostly through farming country. And unlike that of the planned HSR, we can assume that much of the right of way is already owned by the railroad.

But let’s err again on the safe side and assume that passing through Fresno, Merced and other cities would cost $10 million per mile, and we still have a total cost of well under $2 billion. Let’s double it so that passenger trains wouldn’t have to compete with freight traffic, anywhere, and we have well under $4 billion.

All together, the cost of double-tracking the existing portion of the Sacramento to San Diego line is likely to be about double the cost of the Alameda Corridor.

And that’s perhaps percent of the estimated cost of the HSR.

What the hell, let’s add another billion for extra tracks around Central Valley cities so that express trains can barrel through at full throttle the whole length of the line, without stopping, and we’re still well under percent of the HSR.


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  1. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 14 December, 2012, 10:21

    Stop making sense, Stan…..lol

    For those of you who doubt any of this: I live in Irvine, and there are sections of flat, double-track where Metrolink whooshes by at 75 mph already.

    Then there’s San Clemente. I go to Calafia Beach down there on occasion. The Surfliners poke along at perhaps 35 mph. (Safety reasons no doubt) I happen to notice because I, too, like trains. Most people ignore them as they pass by……I perk up like a dog hearing kibbles being poured.

    The civic opposition to pushing through even an 80 mph train through there would be enormous. (It would supposedly destroy the surf break at Trestles, you see….) You COULD re-route it to follow the I-5 ROW, of course,…..

    Ohh hell what am I talking about! None of this could ever possibly happen. The era of doing Big Things in this country is over. Get a good seat, pour a drink and watch the show as we slowly crumble.

    Reply this comment
  2. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 14 December, 2012, 16:54

    I commuted on the metrolink for 15 years out of san clemente and san juan— it is FAST!!! The reason they go slow in San Clemente is that they kill one or two a year on that stretch because of the beach– tons of peds! They will NEVER double track the beach—-public will never allow it to happen……..I have seen 5 attempts in the last 30 years or so…..people need to relax– the train works great and it’s pretty fast— at least fast enough…….

    discuss now— Hurry!

    Reply this comment
  3. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 14 December, 2012, 19:30

    ….Yawn @Teddy’s fables……

    Reply this comment
  4. The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System
    The Africanized Swarm of Ted Steele System 15 December, 2012, 08:59

    I live in your tiny skull….mmmmmmmmm

    0 for 14 ™!

    Reply this comment
  5. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 15 December, 2012, 10:44

    We agree, teddy. It will never happen. Thanks to a handful of “the public” it will still take 2 1/2 to 3 hours to go from LA to SD.

    The rest of the public shepple are too stupid and ignorant to figure out why that is so.

    So as I stated earlier – I’ll grab a drink, a comfy seat and watch as we fade into the sunset…….brought to you by Teddy Steele, and all those who think as he does.

    Reply this comment
  6. The Ted Steele System
    The Ted Steele System 15 December, 2012, 12:16

    LOL— Why don’t you take a chill pill? Grab a cold one and the Amtrack and take a restful ride to LA?

    And— here’s the big bonus! By not double tracking the beach you won’t be further wrecking the environment for future generations?

    Cool huh?

    Reply this comment
  7. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 15 December, 2012, 16:45

    Teddy The Tool:

    It’s Amtrak. Not Amtrack.

    I thought the whole point of HSR was to get people there faster? Without which we consign travelers to autos and planes, burning obscene amounts of fossil fuels and “further wrecking the environment for future generations”.

    Hello? Teddy? You there? Hello hello?

    Reply this comment
  8. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 15 December, 2012, 17:09

    Teddy The Tool:

    It’s Amtrak. Not Amtrack.

    Hhahhahahaa…Poor Teddy, what can you say 🙂

    Reply this comment
  9. The Ted Steele System
    The Ted Steele System 15 December, 2012, 17:51


    nite trolls!

    Reply this comment
  10. Rex the Wonder Dog!
    Rex the Wonder Dog! 17 December, 2012, 18:32

    Teddy, time for bed, you are very cranky today 🙂

    Reply this comment
  11. The Ted Steele System
    The Ted Steele System 17 December, 2012, 22:24

    Poodle— Should you and I let the growups have their blog back yet?

    Reply this comment

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