High Speed Rail well off track, still progresses in Valley

Highspeed Rail Authority CEO Brian Kelly defends that rail progress is gaining momentum in Central Valley

By John Lindt sierra2thesea.com

CENTRAL VALLEY – California is making progress permitting and constructing high speed rail in the state says the CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) Brian Kelly.

Facing the popular view that this project amounts to a boondoggle—a “train to nowhere”  with little progress to show for it, Kelly in his CEO report to the board this month offered details that suggests this thing may fly yet.

Kelly is responding to a common viewpoint not just in the San Joaquin Valley where the project is being built but in newspapers like the Los Angeles Times that regularly lambastes the project.

Reacting to a recent negative story Kelly defended “California high-speed rail is not only making progress, but gaining momentum.” Phase 1 of the California high-speed rail system will connect six of the 10 largest cities in the state. That’s not nowhere insists Kelly.

In a power point presentation to his board a few weeks ago Kelly maintains two years from now electrified high speed rail construction would be underway from San Jose to San Francisco in the north, from Merced to Bakersfield in the Valley and underway at Union Station in Los Angeles. In another development, the new Virgin Trains project connecting Victorville with Las Vegas is now expected to  be well underway in the same time frame.

Kelly says a deal announced in the past few weeks has privately held Virgin Trains, headed by Richard Branson, committing to electrified high speed rail technology with the likelihood of a connection to Palmdale—a key stop promoted by CHSRA to link to the Los Angeles Metro-Line system and into the Los Angeles Basin with eventual electrified high speed rail.

Virgin Trains has the benefit of using already existing public right of way, a luxury that CHSRA has not had, joked Kelly. The speedy Las Vegas to Southern California line could be operational in four years. Virgin runs speedy trains in England and now in Florida.

In September a California agency approved the first step in the plans by Virgin Trains USA to sell $4.2 billion in tax-exempt debt to build a high-speed train to Las Vegas from southern California.

Another sign off progress adds Kelly, by 2022 all of the 520 miles planned for high speed rail in the state to be used by 200mph train would enjoy environmental clearance—San Francisco to Anaheim.

Also at the Oct. 15 CHSRA meeting Kelly discussed the so called side-by-side study now underway on a possible diversion of $4.8 billion budgeted to extend the line from Poplar Ave in Kern County to Bakersfield in the south and Madera to Merced in the north Valley. That money would also fund the rolling stock (trains) to run on  the new electrified track along the 171-mile stretch.

What the board is tasked to do is to compare the benefits of using that $4.8 billion for that purposes or to make more incremental improvements in the Bay Area in the Los Angeles Basin. The board plans to make the decision in the next few months. But wanting to stay far away from the”train to nowhere” criticism it seems clear they will need to decide to make the improvements in the Valley segment.

Asked if that money could be diverted to L.A. to improve ridership on the Metro-Line Kelly said that would leave the  Central Valley  short of money needed to connect both north and south as well as to employ the electric trains on the route.

Board member Daniel Curtin said the Central Valley line has to  link Bakersfield to Merced for a traveler to connect to a planned CalTrain expansion to reach either the Bay Area or Sacramento.

Still Curtin says he would consider possible use of the $4.8 billion in the Los Angeles Basin to get more people out their cars and on the trains in that heavily congested region. Further he suggests  the Valley could start up up with 120mph diesel trains -what we have now in Amtrak.

But other board members disagree as does Kelly, the CEO. Nancy Miller said she “had no interest in diesel” as a technology to operate high speed trains. California is going the other way—looking to have all utilities use 100% renewables.

But there just isn’t the money now to do the whole state. Connecting a 180mph train(adding the stops) to Merced you will be able to travel north at slower speeds the day the trains link. From Bakersfield to Merced there would be HSR every hour,18 trains -up from 7 Amtrak trains now.

There are ten trains a day now between Oakland and Merced, and a couple to Sacramento—Merced. There’s also a cross-platform connection between Amtrak and BART at Richmond, right into San Francisco.

To make a difference public transit has to be “transformative” believes Kelly. ”Right now public transit ridership is flat”but what we need is electrified high speed rail, he argues.

Kelly offers a few more signs of agency progress.

– The Authority board recently identified preferred routes for Northern California including Pacheco Pass — having identified Southern California routes in late 2018 –this is a major milestone in advancing high-speed rail in California.

– Also they recently signed a MOU with Los Angeles Metro, outlining  cooperation and collaboration for the reconstruction of the Los Angeles Union Station. The Authority is providing $423 million toward this project, which will improve regional transit services in the near term and accommodate high-speed rail into Union Station in the longer term.

Meanwhile discussions with Virgin who want to have their 150ph trains connect to California’s, the prospect of collaboration and even partnership is exciting. Here is how the two entities are cooperating already.

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