California rail renaissance or reluctant locomotion?

150 150 Niki Woodard

California may be moving closer to this. (Photo Credit: Luke Zeme)

Have you noticed that news headlines seem to be taking a friendlier approach to California’s high speed rail system, which is slated to begin construction this summer in the San Joaquin Valley?

Whereas a year ago the buzz about the expensive train system rumbled with hostility and doom, today’s buzz bears a melodious tenor of optimism.

Amtrak California has seen significant rises in ridership. In the last 15 years, ridership has grown 66 percent on Amtrak’s San Joaquin line, which basically overlaps the backbone of the planned high speed rail route.

Editorials around the state, particularly in the Central Valley, are using such data to rationalize support for high speed rail. “Figures for Amtrak and passenger rail service on the San Joaquin line — from Bakersfield to Sacramento — indicate that ridership in the valley is increasing, a welcome sign for supporters of high-speed rail,” wrote the Bakersfield Californian on March 7, 2013.

“American passenger rail is in the midst of a renaissance,” wrote the Brookings Institution in a recently released report.

The Brookings report focuses on the future of U.S. passenger rail, which they conclude, “is on the track to success,” as a result of budding partnerships between federal and state governments to improve rail operability and financial stability.

As a positive sign for the future of passenger rail, the report finds that Amtrak’s national growth (55 percent) significantly outpaces more popular methods of transportation: domestic aviation grew 20 percent since 1997, and driving grew 16 percent. 

Perhaps this undeniable growth is why California seems to be more readily (if not reluctantly) embracing the idea that rail is and will have to be a major component of the state’s 21st century transportation infrastructure.

Fresno County recently joined eight other counties in the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA). Kern and Kings Counties have stated they do not plan to join their Central Valley counterparts.

The intent of the SJJPA is to take on the day-to-day management of the San Joaquin line, which has historically been handled by CalTrans. A similar governance model was adopted by the Capitol Corridor line, connecting Oakland and Sacramento, which has quadrupled the number of daily trains it runs since 1998.

Dan Leavitt of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, pointed to the Capitol Corridor line as a model of successful regional governance. Leavitt told the Fresno Bee, “We think that by doing this, Caltrans will still be a big partner, but we’ll be able to be more responsive to the needs of passengers and to people who don’t ride trains but might if we can reach out to them.”

In preparation for high speed rail, indeed, attracting new passengers is what it’s all about.

To that end, CalTrans has been spearheading the development of the California State Rail Plan, a statewide vision for enhancing passenger and freight rail service in California. The final plan, currently in draft form (and weighing in at 380 pages), is expected to be released in June 2013 and will address issues raised during the public comment period, which closed on March 11, 2013.

The plan introduces the concept of the state’s “blended system” of rail, integrating plans for high speed rail along with improved regional commuter systems already in place, or slated to be built.  

The blended system includes a plan to increase the frequency of trains travelling on the San Joaquin line and to utilize the high speed tracks between Madera and Bakersfield (the first phase of high speed rail construction) for Amtrak trains to travel at speeds of up to 125mph. Such integration of the rail systems will greatly decrease travel time and connect more Californians with their travel destinations by rail, ahead of the full launch of the high speed rail system. The plan also outlines several other rail service expansions in California.

California Forward plans to continue monitoring developments in the state’s ongoing railroad saga, including any noteworthy news that emerges from the first meeting of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority on March 22 in Merced.


Niki Woodard

All stories by: Niki Woodard