Opponents of former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to bring California into the transportation 21st cen­tury by building a mod­ern, true high-speed rail system in this state are chortling over his suc­cess­or’s decision to hold the line to one con­nect­ing Ba­kers­field and Merced for now.

As an avid advocate of HSR, I believe that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision is probably right in the long term.

The Valley segment is already under con­struc­tion and will be a sig­nif­icant improvement to existing Amtrak “San Joa­quin” train service in the San Joaquin Valley by increasing speed and elim­in­ating delays due to freight trains on its pres­ent BNSF Railway route using current equipment for now.

The next step in im­pro­ving rail pas­sen­ger ser­vice and trans­por­tation in general in the state will be to construct grade-sep­arations along the rest of the San Joaquin route be­tween Merced, Sac­ra­mento and Oakland.

Current San Joaquin trains are held to a 79 mph maximum speed be­cause of all the at-grade cross­ings in the valley. In states where these cross­ings have been eliminated trains operate at 110 mph using current equipment.

Early high-speed trains

As I have noted be­fore, the Santa Fe’s Gol­den Gate streamlined trains running between Bakers­field and Richmond be­gin­ning 80 years ago in 1938, reached speeds of up to 110 mph using first-gen­er­ation lightweight stainless steel trains pulled by streamlined die­sel locomotives. As a child I rode those clean, mod­ern, diesel-powered trains and have ridden modern HSR trains in the East, the U.K., and Europe.

The first trains were able to reach 110 mph be­cause of far fewer grade cross­ings along the line, along with many fewer motor vehicles, and dri­vers who in those days paid attention to what they were doing.

Opponents claim that new, electric-powered trains must be purchased for the new track under con­struc­tion in the Val­ley along with a heavy main­ten­ance facility, but that can wait until the system is completed between L.A. and the Bay Area, using existing equipment that can run on existing track and the new line without changing trains.

Facing the future

Some day down the line, so to speak, Californians will face the future and com­plete this service as originally planned, with rails through the nearby moun­tains and under the Bay.

I won’t be around but I’ll bet it will happen.

This is not a matter of technology. I read sev­eral in­ternational rail news­let­ters daily and HSR sys­tems are popping up all over the planet, many of them in places we smug Americans consider “prim­itive.”

Folks in Europe and Asia have been enjoying true HSR travel for dec­ades with trains that connect to local trans­portation services.

In the 1980s we flew from Washington and New York to London and on to Germany twice where we easily and con­ven­iently connected to ground transportation, never once getting behind the wheel of a car and rare­ly riding in one.

Tunneling through the Tehachapi Mountains is not the challenge many un­informed folks seem to think it is.

Tunneling has im­proved by orders of mag­ni­tude since Chinese work­ers dug the 16 orig­inal tunnels and laid rails be­tween Bakersfield and Te­ha­chapi in the mid-1870s.

Using high-tech com­pu­ter controlled equipment tunneling is underway all over the globe under cities like London, where the 73-mile Crossrail tunnel is extending subway ser­vice in that city. (You can also walk under the Thames using a handy tun­nel.)

The Swiss recently com­ple­ted the world’s longest and deepest railway tun­nel to transport big trucks trav­eling through the Alps to Italy on trains, taking them off busy high­ways. With a route length of 57.09 km (35.4 miles), the Gotthard Base Tunnel is the first flat, low-level route through the Alps.

Politics and ignorance

Perhaps the biggest chal­len­ges to the Cal­ifornia project have been politics and ignorance.

Politicians used HSR, pro­moted by Governor Brown, to score political points rather than sup­port­ing something that will be able to handle huge increases in traffic pro­jected in coming years.

That sort of behavior is one of the biggest bar­riers to progress, with pol­i­ticians more in­ter­ested in protecting their own rice­bowls rather than serving us.

Along with a stunning lack of familiarity with mod­ern transportation ser­vices.

Few Americans have rid­den trains since the 1960s when the auto­mo­bile was going to make ev­ery­thing better. We all know how well that’s worked out.

We also seem to have an aversion to planning for the future.

Governor Newsom’s re­marks generated some con­fu­sion, made worse by media coverage by re­port­ers who know little or nothing about the sub­ject. HSR opponents de­clared victory while know­ledgeable supporters who paid attention to what the governor said stayed calm.

“We’re going to make high-speed rail a reality for California. We have the capacity to complete the rail between Merced and Bakersfield. We will con­tinue our regional proj­ects north and south, finish Phase 1 en­vi­ron­mental work (and) Con­nect the Central Valley to other parts of the state,” Newsom said.

HSR opposition mirrors that of earlier opposition to freeways and the Cal­if­ornia Aqueduct, which have helped the Antelope Valley grow.

Boosting valley

This new approach to HSR will be a big boost for the San Joaquin Valley, which is often sneered at by people on the coast and in L.A. and the Bay Area.

Folks in the big coastal cities look down on the Valley, California’s most po­lit­ically conservative re­gion, which, by the way, feeds and fuels much of the rest of the nation while distributing much of the state’s water.

Valley residents are be­gin­ning to recognize the advantages of mod­ern transportation as in­creas­ing numbers of north Valley residents commute to jobs in the Bay Area riding Altamont Corridor Ex­press, a rail service sim­ilar to our Metrolink that connects with the San Joaquin trains in Stockton.

Adding faster trains that can be boarded in the middle of cities and towns rather than at airports in the boondocks and unable to operate in the Valley’s winter fog will boost the economy and health of the residents of this fertile region and benefit all of California.

(1) comment

Rail Provocateur

A very insightful summary of the political environment and how Northern and Southern California look askance at the Valley.

Although the intent was to link the Valley with the north and south to facilitate mobility and economic development in the Valley, I cannot help but wonder if the initial proposal by France to build a true HSR infrastructure parallel to I-5 and running non-stop between LA-SF would not have been the wiser model, as its speed would have truly made it airline competitive. Such success would have garnered the requisite support to build what is obviously now contemplated as only a higher speed line linking the major Valley cities with LA and SF.

In reality, zig zagging to catch every city in the Valley, while still contemplating how to clear Tehachapi Pass, and gaining entry into LA and SF was never going to be a true HSR line, as it avoids HSR #101-build in the most straightest line and travel non-stop as fast as possible. As well, this should be a lesson how state government cannot substitute for private business, as evidenced with the proposed HSR line between Dallas-Houston (Texas Central Railway) and the operational higher speed line between Miami-West Palm Beach (Brightline).

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