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California High Speed Rail Revised Business Plan of April 2, 2012

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The California High Speed Rail Revised Business Plan of April 2, 2012

In November 2011 the California High Speed Rail project provided to the public an updated business plan. The plan provided new estimates of the cost, which can be accessed here . For details about the route itself and other background information, please refer to my previous article on California High Speed Rail . For details about the phasing of the plan, see here . For details about the ridership estimates of the plan, see here .

After a slew of comments, many of them negative, the High Speed Rail Authority revised its business plan, and a new one came out on April 2, 2012. Here are highlights of the revisions:

Initial Operating Segment (IOS) Change

Instead of an initial construction segment (ICS), which was derided by critics as a "train to nowhere", the plan revision now envisions an IOS rather than an ICS. Within ten years, the IOS will be complete from the San Fernando Valley to Merced. Passengers would take existing Metrolink commuter rail service from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to what would likely be a terminus at Sylmar. Later extensions would serve San Francisco, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego. While many observers were disappointed by this change, I believe it was smart to leverage existing resources instead of providing duplicative service.

Improvements to Existing Commuter Rail Networks in the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California

Some money from the Proposition 1A High Speed Rail Bond approved by California voters will be used to make immediate improvements to existing commuter rail lines in the state. These improvements include additional grade crossings and sidings for Metrolink, and the long-awaited electrification of the Caltrain line in the Bay Area. These improvements come from the adoption of a blended approach. In the blended approach, existing infrastructure is to be made use of where possible instead of the construction of new duplicative tracks.

Change in Cost

The overall changes will result in an estimate cost savings of $30 billion, reducing the overall expected cost to $68.4 billion. These savings result from the planned utilization of existing tracks in urban areas, sparing the acquisition of expensive additional right of way. While existing passenger trains operate much slower than the high-speed rail network is expected to, urban area congestion was never going to allow for maximum speed in populated areas. Of course, even with the cheaper cost most of the funding sources are still unidentified. If you have no money, it doesn't matter if you need $20 billion or $50 billion.

Overall

One of the drawbacks is that the benefits of the high speed rail project would not be realized for many years into the future, as late as 2040. The change to a blended approach brings these benefits into the immediate future, by, as described in the Executive Summary of the revised Business Plan:

  • Dividing the program into a series of smaller, discrete projects that build upon each other but also provide viable high-speed rail service independently
  • Making advance investments in regional and local rail systems to leverage existing infrastructure and benefit travelers by providing interconnecting blended services

Rome was not built in a day, and neither will be the California High Speed Rail project. By investing in existing systems and dividing the program into small discrete projects we can construct Rome one block at a time - and guaranteeing that if future financial problems prevent the entire project from being completed we will still benefit from what has already been built. Despite these improvements, critics still believe the project is too expensive. Some argue that by spending the money on existing rail lines that the High Speed Rail Authority is violating Proposition 1A. In contrast to the critics, I believe that this change is a very pragmatic way to deflect criticism and make sure the project can move forward. Not only were the urban sections going to be the most difficult to construct, but they also were likely to lead to costly litigation. By focusing on connecting with existing services, the High Speed Rail Authority is making sure California state residents get "the most bang for their buck". For example, the IOS is expected to shave 45 minutes off the one-way travel time on the San Joaquin AMTRAK line, and will for the first time in many years provide passenger rail service between the Los Angeles area and Bakersfield. While the promise of a 2 hour 40 minute trip to San Francisco may be a long ways off, we will be able to see concrete improvement in the state train system in ten years.

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