The one place California should be building high speed rail immediately is between Los Angeles and San Diego. As I’ve blogged before, the two big cities are too close to fly and too painful to drive conveniently, due to traffic. That makes them perfect for high speed rail. The line would likely be the most lucrative of any in the state.
So of course it’s slated to be the last line built in the statewide high speed rail plan. But transportation researcher Alon Levy makes a case in Voice of San Diego that the current line could be upgraded relatively inexpensively, given new federal rules that allow lighter European trains to run on U.S. tracks:
This means that the region needs to invest in electrifying the corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles, and potentially as far north as San Luis Obispo. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, the likely cost – based on the California high-speed rail electrification cost – is about $800 million.
The benefits are considerable. Electric trains emit no local pollution, while diesel is an unusually dirty fuel, contributing to Southern California’s poor air quality. New EPA rules, the Tier 4 standards, have required rail agencies in the U.S. to buy cleaner-burning diesel locomotives. The Pacific Surfliner has recently bought Tier 4-compliant locomotives, but many intercity and commuter rail routes around the country are interested in such trains, so they could likely fetch a good price by selling them now on the second-hand market. While these locomotives are cleaner than the legacy ones they replace, they are almost as heavy, and are unsuitable for a fast operation.
Levy also recommends specific track upgrades, such as running trains along I-5 to avoid Miramar Hill, which slows down the trains considerably as they wind up it. Ultimately, with these improvements, train times between the cities could clock in at less than two hours — competitive with driving even without traffic. And with full high-speed rail service, the estimated travel time would be closer to 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Local leaders in the three affected Southern California counties should act immediately to invest in these upgrades. A multi-county bond issue could probably provide the sufficient dollars, and I’m guessing it could get public support with the right campaign.
Meanwhile, the benefits for the local rail transit systems in the two cities would be immense. Passengers getting off the high-speed trains in Union Station would be more likely to hop on a Metro Rail train to Pasadena, Long Beach, Hollywood or Santa Monica, while train passengers in San Diego could take the trolley around the region, boosting ridership on both systems.
The upgrade is really a no-brainer when it comes to boosting train service. It will just take the political will and the dollars needed to finance it.