Sunday, November 6, 2011

Where does this leave Caltrain in the new HSR business plan?

This is not my favorite topic. Caltrain is really a distraction from the big problem, which is high-speed rail in California. But, it bears paying attention to and John Horgan is right to do so in his article, below. 

Look, the politician rail promoters always had a full blown scheme to use the Caltrain corridor from San Francisco to San Jose, and then head out into the wilderness of the Central Valley around Merced, after which it would meander south, go through a bunch of towns like Fresno and then on to Bakersfield, head back west to Palmdale, go south again through the mountains, and on to LA, after which it would head to Anaheim because of Disneyland, and also then go back east Inland, (because there are lots of people there), before finally turning south to San Diego.  How this can be called a high-speed rail route is anybody's guess.

Anyhow, we are hereby and forthwith concerned with that first fifty miles or so on the Caltrain corridor.  HSR's original intention was to put four tracks (from the current two) on either a solid retaining wall or a viaduct, which costs more.  They finally opted for the latter.  It, of course, costs lots of money, which they didn't -- and don't -- have.

So, to help them out, Congresswoman Eshoo, State Senator Simitian and State Assemblyman Gordon cooked up a new, low cost plan that didn't require a viaduct or four tracks.  They said that HSR could get away with only two tracks and combine -- the marketing word they came up with is "blended" -- Caltrain and HSR on those same tracks.  Of course, even that wouldn't work without electrification, some additional passing tracks, signalling, PTC and other gadgets and guess what, these cost money also.  Which they also don't have. 

In fact, it would cost, after careful calculations, around $5 billion. WOW. You have to wonder what the full-blown viaduct and four tracks would cost with their newly discovered "honest" and "transparent" calculations.  

What our politicians thought was that with this blended scheme, the rail authority would no longer be pushing the viaduct, their original choice. The rail authority would settle for this blending of the two (make that three with UPRR) rail operators.  They could save themselves embarrassment by calling it "initial construction phase" or "value engineering" which really means we don't have the money to build anything on the rail corridor.

Caltrain was happy to get any crumbs from HSR, even their good intentions, although what they really dreamed about was free electrification and grade separations.  We'll tell you all about that later.

The politicians were wrong.  The rail authority has no intentions of giving up on the four track viaduct.  These rail guys just don't have the funds for it right now. So, their thinking goes, let's get at least one or two of our trains running on this corridor now to hold it for us, sort of like putting your hat on the table and tipping some chairs up to hold it for later.

There's a lot more to explain about Caltrain, which is managed with the same brilliance as the high-speed rail authority, but that's another story for another time. 

The bottom line here is that there are no -- that's NONE -- feasible alternatives for admitting high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor. They are all bad. 

I admit it; I used to think that tunnels under the ground would solve things.  I was wrong and I apologize.

Perhaps the HSR guys are just fifty or seventy-five years too late.  They should have thought about this in the twenties and thirties of the last century, when the Peninsula was only fruit orchards and a handful of summer homes. Shoving high-speed rail into the Caltrain corridor today is like putting a gallon of out of date milk into a quart bottle. 

Of course, if the high-speed rail authority had all the billions they needed, they could just buy the entire Peninsula and run their trains all over it. But, they don't, and they won't. So, let's have no more of this foolishness about HSR on the Caltrain corridor. 

Time to terminate the high-speed rail project as a disfunctional idea from a bunch of greedy and incompetent politicians.

John Horgan: High-speed rail: When's the next fiscal shock?
By John Horgan
San Mateo County Times
Posted: 11/05/2011 08:58:15 PM PDT
Updated: 11/05/2011 09:14:55 PM PDT

The latest business plan for a proposed high-speed rail system was presented last week, and Peninsula residents who oppose it remain wary.

With a fresh price tag of close to $100 billion, the projected cost of the fast-train system is nearly three times what taxpayers had been promised just three short years ago.

So is this latest estimate the final fiscal word on the matter? Of course not. If history is an accurate judge, the bill for high-speed rail from Anaheim to San Francisco, via the Caltrain corridor along the Peninsula (apparently, an original notion to extend the setup to Sacramento and San Diego is on indefinite hold now, and heaven only knows how much those additions will cost), will only continue to rise over time.

That's the nature of any such mega-project, especially this one. We already have plenty of proof of that. And there's more.

The new business plan includes the initial use of a two-track setup here. The idea would be to have high-speed trains use Caltrain's tracks. It's called a "blended" solution. Really?

Dig down into the rail authority's wish list, and you will see that it has not abandoned its earlier proposal for a controversial four-track alignment.

That means the rail authority still clings to its desire for the eventual installation of a series of massive viaducts/berms, which have been vehemently opposed by a variety of politicians, property owners, civic leaders, environmentalists and others.

Caltrain, of course, continues to be in bed with the high-speed movement in the fervent hope that, by doing so, it will secure all sorts of improvements along the local line.

This may well wind up being a devil's bargain. If the bullet-train plan falls apart, where does that leave the Peninsula commute system?

Still, the key for the high-speed advocates is to begin actual construction (set for the Central Valley next year), to get shovels into the ground, to begin spending any available cash, to make the system seem like an irreversible done-deal with a momentum that cannot be stopped.

That's why the aim of fast-train foes should be to halt this financial nightmare once and for all. Now. The state's residents, who would be on the hook for this grandiose exercise in profligate behavior, simply can't afford it.

John Horgan's column appears on Thursday and Sunday. You can follow him on Facebook and on his Peninsula blog, Email him at


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