Rail Series: CA should consider Medium-Speed Rail alternative

Rail Series: CA should consider Medium-Speed Rail alternative

Cagle Cartoon High-Speed RailEditor’s Note: The following is a complete compilation, in one posting, of the six-part series we ran on Medium-Speed Rail as an alternative to High-Speed Rail.

Dec. 26, 2012

By Stan Brin

By now, everyone in California knows the voter-mandated High-Speed Rail project is a boondoggle. In fact, the HSR appears to be a boondoggle that actually exceeds the meaning of the word.

Not only will it cost as much as $80 billion to complete. The latest information from the United Kingdom indicates that the HSR is unlikely to even reach the speeds that the voters were promised in Proposition 1A, which was passed in 2008.

Attempts to cruise above 200 mph produce a tremor strong enough to throw trains off their tracks. Called “Critical Track Velocity,” this phenomenon causes rails to vibrate and buckle dangerously. British engineers consider Critical Track Velocity to be the steel-on-steel equivalent of the infamous sound barrier that tore apart early jet fighters and still limits the speeds of commercial airliners.

CTV is a major reason why China won’t allow its high-speed trains to travel more than 185 mph. In Britain, engineers are working on the CTV problem, but they don’t expect a quick answer. Meanwhile, the French allow their TGV (“Train à Grande Vitesse” which translates, oddly, as “Train to the Big Fastness”) to exceed 200 mph and keep their fingers crossed.


That being said, are there any alternatives to mind-numbing hours behind the wheel or the humiliating mess at the major airports? The voters are clearly frustrated with crowded skies and highways designed in a time when the state’s population was less than a third its current size.

Perhaps there is a non-rail alternative. Here’s one suggestion that’s been bandied about that avoids roads, airports, and rails entirely:

A decade or two from now, those with a lot of money to burn may be able to take elevators up to high-rise heliports. There, they could board tilt-rotor aircraft similar to the Air Force’s V-22 Osprey. These odd-looking contraptions would be able to fly them from San Francisco to Los Angeles, downtown to downtown, in 90 minutes or less. No tax money invested in infrastructure, no taking of private property, just private enterprise.

A tilt-rotor aircraft, flying from downtown high-rise to downtown high-rise, could work — for perhaps a few hundred daily custom-tailored members of the country-club set.

Especially those who could stand the ear-shattering noise and don’t mind paying a thousand bucks a ticket. Or maybe two thousand bucks a ticket. It’s impossible to say. So far, tilt-rotors are an exclusively military toy and aren’t certified for civilian use.

If it happens, I say, good for them. It’s their money.

Medium-Speed Rail

But for the rest of us, barring the development of beam-me-up teleportation, the only practical alternative to cars and airports appears to be what I call Medium-Speed Rail — conventional trains, running on conventional tracks, but at 90 to 135 mph.

That would be two to three times the current rail speed limit of around 45 mph, which is only a tad faster than trains powered by steam engines hauled around the horn on clipper ships 150 years ago.

What? You didn’t know that California’s trains only run at a speed of 45 mph? If you didn’t, you probably also didn’t know that the same trains can reach 80 mph with a free stretch of open track, or that conventional trains — not sleek, high tech streamlined thingies — operating in Pennsylvania cruise at 110 mph every day.

British steam engines reached 120 mph on conventional tracks back in the mid-1930s.

What does this mean? A steady 120 mph ride means a one-hour trip from Los Angeles to San Diego, downtown to downtown, certainly fast enough to compete with planes and automobiles. Most business travelers would prefer to have a leisurely breakfast in the dining car, read the paper, or unfold their laptops, and rent a car at the end of the line than waste two to three hours fighting boredom and traffic.

So why are California’s trains so slow?

The answer is simple: Our present system was designed and completed in the middle of the eighth decade of the 19th century, in an age of wood-fueled steam locomotives, while Ulysses S. Grant was president of the United States, and Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were still fighting General Custer.

A Hopeless Relic

Rail infrastructure has been upgraded in places, of course, but mainly for the needs of unhurried, steady freight traffic, a sector that it handles well.

But for passengers, trains are a mixture of the bad, the obsolete and the completely missing. Bottlenecks force existing trains to operate at less than freeway speeds; and render it impossible to take a passenger train between Los Angeles and Bakersfield at all, with the exception of a single day per year.

I believe that if Californians cleared away 19th century cobwebs from their current system, the High-Speed Rail project wouldn’t be necessary, at least not for a long time. In fact, passenger service could be brought up to international standards without expending much more than a tenth of the $80 billion that the High-Speed Rail craziness would require.

All it requires is the will to be practical, and, well, capitalist.

Part 2: A capitalist solution for California train travel

Before I go any further, I would like readers to understand that this proposal is strictly a real-world alternative to High-Speed Rail. It isn’t intended to challenge anyone’s worldview.

In making it, I am assuming that there is no other practical answer to a major infrastructure problem, like passenger rail. Every bridge, dam, highway and rail bed requires the taking of private property, and, almost always, the expenditure of tax revenue.

It should also be said that private railroad companies also have the power, through the courts, to take property that they want. In fact, as part of my research for the “double-tracking” section of this story, I discovered that in southern Illinois, seizures of municipal land by private railroads are a major public issue.

Nevertheless, voters clearly want improved rail service. They’ve said so repeatedly, ordering taxes to build subways, light rail and now High-Speed rail.

There might not be a libertarian response to that demand, but there is a capitalist one.

Adam Smith, the master of capitalist economic thought, deeply believed in fostering trade through the development of infrastructure, what he called “public works.” Without safe harbors, sturdy bridges and a system of navigable canals, trade is expensive and unprofitable.

Canal du Midi

Smith’s favorite example of state-financed public works, discussed at length in Book V of the “The Wealth of Nations,” was the great Canal du Midi of France, which was called, in Smith’s day, the Canal of Languedoc. Stretching for 150 miles, passing through mountains and over rivers, the canal was the technological wonder of its age. It united the French Mediterranean provinces with the Atlantic for the first time, allowing the consolidation of the kingdom into a single national economy.

That canal also cost far more than 17th century private capital could provide, so King Louis XIV paid for the bulk of it through taxes. The king then, very wisely, in Smith’s opinion, handed the canal’s keys, and its tolls, to its builder and his heirs. They managed the canal as a profitable business, and in their own interest maintained its complex machinery until the French Revolution took it all away. (The builders had wanted to extend the canal, but King Louis couldn’t afford to help them, as a certain opulent palace had taken his mind off practical matters.)

Smith concluded, in the flowery language of his day, “That the erection and maintenance of the public works which facilitate the commerce of any country, such as good roads, bridges, navigable canals, harbours, etc., must require very different degrees of expense in the different periods of society is evident without any proof.”

Railroads are the modern equivalent of 18th century “navigable canals.” They allow goods and people to move faster, and cheaper, than by roads, but they require substantial taking of private and public land. It’s the only way rails can be laid efficiently.

In that vein, we live in California today because, nearly 150 years ago, Congress did something similar: It provided free public land to railroad companies, inducing them to race each other. The railroad that completed the most track received the most land.

The federal government no longer owns vast tracts of fertile land that it can give away. So it appears that to improve its passenger rail infrastructure, California will have to either go to private capital — which historically hates passenger rail with a passion — or to the taxpayers.

Or do nothing at all.

Let us assume, for the sake of this argument – I’m proposing it as an alternative to the High-Speed Rail, if you recall — that sometimes infrastructure investment works.

As an example…

Freight:  It Works

To argue that point, we need only look at freight, passenger traffic’s rich, and highly profitable, step-brother. (Allow me to digress a little, here. I happen to like trains. People like me are called trainfans, although I barely qualify as one.)

California has an excellent, and improving, rail infrastructure specially developed for the carriage of stuff. In fact, portions of California’s freight rail system are leading-edge and should be a source of immense pride and satisfaction for Californians.

California also happens to be one of the few places in the world where two private railroads, the Union Pacific and the BNSF, actually compete for the same business.

How they manage do it without paralyzing local communities in southern California is a little known infrastructure marvel created by a unique, and very expensive, partnership between business and local governments, called the Alameda Corridor.

Alameda corridor

The Alameda Corridor starts at the gigantic Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor complex, where a local private railroad, the Pacific Harbor Line, assembles as many as 130 cars into trains 10,000 feet long, the legal maximum. The PHL turns these assembled trains over to the Union Pacific or the BNSF, which pull them, non-stop, through a massive set of steel bridges to a deep concrete trench. The trench stretches from the harbor, across the southern LA basin, to rail yards just south of downtown, and eliminates some 200 grade crossings.

Completed in 2002, the Corridor brought an end to the infamous gridlock along the region’s freeways and surface streets — at a cost of $2.4 billion. Cars no longer have to fight vast convoys of trucks bearing harbor freight, or wait as two-mile long trains block streets at crossings.

For drivers and surrounding communities, freight trains are out of sight and earshot, and out of mind. Streets pass right over them. For the railroads, their trains can move at a steady, uninterrupted speed of 45 mph, north and south, without fear of plowing into a school bus or derailing into a shopping center. At the end of the line, southeast of downtown, the cars are reorganized and sent on long, steady and slow journeys throughout North America.

A rail passenger, or a car owner, might look at the 45 mph speed of trains passing through the Alameda Corridor and sneer, but to the freight railroads and their customers, that speed, constantly and evenly maintained, is a really big deal, a massive boon to their bottom line. Half of the cost was paid by a federal grant, the rest by shippers. (In my humble opinion, all of it should have been paid by shippers — most of the goods that the Alameda Corridor transports are imported. I see no reason to subsidize imports.)

The railroads and their local government partners plan to expand the corridor with a new line through the San Gabriel Valley to Ontario.

The Alameda Corridor also illustrates the problem of passenger rail. Freight railroads have no need for the kind of tracks and other infrastructure that would make passenger traffic more convenient. Their customers have no need to move containers that took months to cross the Pacific at speeds that cause drivers to leave their cars at home.

Their concern is cost, and rightly so.

Railroads are not in the passenger hauling business. They haven’t been for a long time, and they’re glad of it. That business was a loser, a money pit, and they want nothing to do with it.

Consequently, they have failed to invest in the one thing that would make inter-urban passenger traffic competitive again: speed.

Traffic permitting, you can drive between Los Angeles and San Diego as fast as you can travel by train, with a pit stop in San Juan Capistrano included. Only Third World trains are that slow, and even that condescending fact is coming to an end. A friend of mine hails from a town north of Lagos, Nigeria that will be connected to the sea, in two years, by a brand-new, ultra-modern, double-tracked railroad built by a Chinese company. The government is paying for it with oil revenue. A private Nigerian company will operate it.

Adam Smith would definitely approve.

Part 3: Single-track bottleneck slows CA trains

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.

Part 4: Medium-Speed train tracking costs less than High-Speed Rail

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.

Part 5: Surmounting the Tehachapi Barrier

Tehachapi Loop - wikipedia

Now comes the hard part. As Ned Ryerson, that great observer of infrastructure complications, would say, it’s a doozy.

Most Californians pay little notice to the Tehachapi Mountains, the great barrier isolating Southern California from the rest of the state.

They’re just a place to pass through when driving up and down the Grapevine on I-5. They aren’t as high or as scenic as the Sierras, and are full of wind farms. Sometimes our ears pop. No big deal.

Back in the 1870s, however, those mountains were a big deal.

The Central Pacific completed its part of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, but the railroad needed another seven years to link central and southern California. That was in 1876, the nation’s centennial year. In 1876, Custer faced the Sioux at Little Big Horn, Thomas Edison hadn’t yet invented the light bulb, and the population of the entire state was only about 750,000.

That seven year trip South wasn’t easy. The route became a maze of spaghetti-like loops, turns and switchbacks. That it could be built at all in the age of wooden sailing ships was considered an engineering miracle. There are plaques and monuments to the men who designed it.

For the first time, people could reach Los Angeles from the East without traveling by covered wagon, stage coach or steam ship. Millions flocked West to enjoy snow-free winters. La-La land was born.

Snakelike tour

One small stretch of this route, known today as the Tehachapi Loop, is still famous among railfans all over the world.

On YouTube, you can watch a dozen or so videos of Union Pacific trains — the Union Pacific eventually bought out the California-based Central Pacific — taking a mile-long, snake-like tour all the way around a hill between two mountains. The trains then pass over their own tails having gained a precious 77 feet in elevation — without actually going anywhere. One such video of the Tehachapi Loop has received, at last count, more than 191,000 hits.

The reason for this tortuous route is the underappreciated fact that steel wheels running on steel rails aren’t very efficient at grades over 1 percent, a rise in elevation of one foot per hundred feet traveled.

A route as long, and as convoluted, as the current Tehachapi line clearly can’t be expected to meet the needs of 21st century rail passengers.

In fact, the Tehachapi route is so steep, and so slow, and so congested, that the Union Pacific permits passenger traffic to use it only one day per year. On every other day, Amtrak passengers are required to take buses over the Grapevine, and re-board trains at lower elevations.

Hardly an alternative to High-Speed Rail.

And, of course, as the videos clearly demonstrate, the Tehachapi Loop still allows only a single pair of tracks to pass through it. Trains can chug up and down the mountains in only one direction at a time which, as I have said before, is acceptable for freight, but lousy for passengers.

Contemporary engineers would simply abandon the current route and follow I-5, and to allow traffic to move quickly, they would electrify at least that portion of the route.


What? Electrification of railroads? That probably hit a nerve. Most Americans think that electric trains belong on ping-pong tables in garages.

In fact, all diesel locomotives are actually electrically powered. Their on-board diesel engines don’t provide torque directly to their wheels; they simply generate electricity that is sent to a set of electric motors that drive the wheels. A purely electric train receives its power from overhead cables, and doesn’t need a diesel engine. The motors can be heavier and more powerful.

One American line that has already been electrified is the Keystone Corridor in Pennsylvania, where ordinary trains routinely travel from Harrisburg to Philadelphia at 110 miles per hour without fancy, streamlined locomotives and the “high-speed rail” cachet. They just get from one city to another really quickly.

Once the conceptual problem of electric trains is out of the way, we can consider the cost.

A new line between Chatsworth, north of Los Angeles, and Bakersfield would be approximately 100 miles long. It would be mostly rural, but would have to be double-tracked entirely, so we’ll assume that it would cost $2 billion. Electrification, consisting of an overhead power line, would be a secondary cost. I have no figures for this.

Once the trains reached their Bakersfield stop, the locomotives would be switched. Or maybe the entire line could be electrified, allowing trains to zip non-stop.

But even if the cost of electrification were hundreds of millions, and even if the process had to be completed along the entire length of the line, the total cost of the new line from San Diego to Sacramento would still be, realistically, under $9 billion. Which happens to be the low-balled price the HSR advocates threw at Californians in the first place.

I know that this plan leaves out two metropolitan areas that the HSR plan is supposed to reach, Riverside County and the San Francisco Bay Area. Both regions are detours away from the Sacramento-to-San Diego corridor. To add them to a non-stop line running over 100 mph would boost the price well above $9 billion.

(I would like to look into this subject further in another story. A planned expansion of the Alameda Corridor will lead the way to Riverside County, but the Bay Area is already crowded with tracks and passenger trains, Caltrain and BART. Reaching San Francisco from the South might prove to be difficult. Route planners might have to add an elevated platform or an underground trench, similar to the Alameda Corridor, before residents of the area would be willing to allow a new high speed line through their communities.)

Still, the price of a very fast, but conventional rail line devoted to passenger traffic is likely to be a tiny fraction of a rarified, specialized and probably unfeasible 210 mph-High Speed Rail.

And when this medium-speed project is done, there is little doubt that it would actually work. It already works everywhere else.

Part 6: Who will own it? Who will pay for it?

n any discussion of rail expansion, two gorillas always appear: How do we pay for it? How do we keep the government out of it?

I’m not a politician. I can only accept that the people of California, especially in the areas that would be served by faster rail service, have spoken. They want it and appear ready to pay for it. They were simply sold a technically impossible can of worms at a ridiculous price.

Here comes the hard part: Private enterprise isn’t interested, at least not in financing it.

In fact, railroad companies, often willing to go to heroic lengths to improve their freight traffic, feel about passenger service the way most people feel about disease-bearing insects. It’s death.

Overregulation and price manipulation by the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission nearly wiped them out.

While the federal regulators that kept fares low and unprofitable lines open have been abolished, I don’t see anyone stepping in to invest his own money. So if the taxpayers want trains, they will have to pay for them out of the public purse, the way Louis XIVfinanced the Canal du Midi.

Who is to own it?

As planned, the High-Speed Rail project is to be an independent, state-owned system operating entirely on its own.

My alternative, on the other hand, would be mostly a modernization of existing routes — the Tehachapi segment being the exception — and a part of the national railroad system. The track owners are likely to be the companies that own the existing right of way, Union Pacific and BNSF, or a combination of the two — or a consortium along the lines of the Alameda Corridor agency.

Perhaps a new company will operate the trains that will run on the new tracks, but perhaps no one but Amtrak (sigh) will want to operate it.

There is no question that Amtrak loses money on every line it runs. There is no question that Amtrak could probably break even on its East Coast “sorta high speed” Acela Express line if politics didn’t intercede to keep fares about five bucks per ticket below cost.

There is also no question that its long distance routes across the prairies and deserts can never break even because the ridership isn’t there. Political pressure keeps those lines rolling.

A divested Amtrak would face the same issues.

I believe that that Amtrak can be divested, but Congress would likely force the private operator or operators to maintain unprofitable lines, and the private operators, in turn, would expect federal subsidies to do so, bringing us back to square one.

In fact, it’s hard to find a precedent for this problem. The British divested their state-owned trains in the 1990s, and created a bloody mess which they still haven’t been able to clean up. Even Richard Branson couldn’t make a go of it. His Virgin Rail Group system and was about to lose his franchise until it was extended until November 14. After that, it’s uncertain what will happen.

The Federal Government successfully divested its cobbled-together Conrail system in the 1980s, but its assets were undervalued and the taxpayers were taken to the cleaners. The two private railroads that snapped up Conrail made a fortune.


Perhaps the whole thing should just be turned over to the French. Against all logic, their TGV trains make a profit of a billion dollars a year, even if they can’t regularly run above 200 mph. The French also obtain 75 percent of their electricity from nuclear facilities, but have never had a major accident.

Go figure.

In 2010, the managers of the French high-speed rail system made some suggestions to the California HSR authorities that they said would make the line profitable, but they were rudely ignored.

Perhaps someone thought such behavior was a form of payback — Americans being rude to the French, for a change.

Whatever the case, the French went home in a huff, and we’re stuck with a boondoggle. And certainly no one is going to pay any attention to all my talk about double-tracking.

Medium-Speed Rail?

It’s too easy, and too cheap.

Forget about it.

1 comment

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  1. simon
    simon 27 December, 2012, 11:29

    Good article

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