What High Speed Rail Funding Bill Means for Southern California in the Next Decade

(High Speed Rail is a hot topic on the Streetsblogs.  For more check out CA Senate Approves Funds for High-Speed Rail, Commuter Rail Upgrades at Streetsblog San Francisco, A Victory for CA High Speed Rail but Still a Long Fight Ahead by  “Streetsblog.net” director Angie Schmitt)

Last week, the State Senate and Assembly passed legislation that approved the sale of $4.7 billion in state bonds to begin construction of the California High Speed Rail project that will one day provide high speed travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles.  The $4.7 billion will fund 130 miles of high speed rail service between Bakersfield and Merced in the Central Valley and “local improvements” surrounding Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The "blended route" calls for full High Speed Rail route through Palmdale all the way to Los Angeles. While the funding for that gets worked out, there will be full high speed rail between Bakersfiled and Merced, with the L.A. area seeing modest, but needed improvements between Palmdale, Union Station and Anaheim. Double tracking for Amtrak and Union Pacific rail lines are also in the works.

Most press accounts of California’s High Speed Rail victory last week spends a paragraph, maybe two, saying something along the lines of, “The bill provides $2.1 billion to upgrade the Metrolink and Amtrak systems in Southern California and electrify Caltrain in Northern California.”

While it’s nice to hear that Metrolink’s aging infrastructure is going to receive a boost, at this point the $950 million isn’t yet dedicated to specific projects.  For example, we know that the project will provide for upgrades to Palmdale Station, which could potentially be a HUB for Metrolink trains, Amtrak, and both the California High Speed Rail project and Desert XPress.  Pending how Metrolink grows, it could also provide rail access to both the Palmdale and Burbank airports.  At this point, it would be very difficult to make an acurate prediction on how the $950 million would be spent.

To create a specific plan for those funds, a team of staff for many Southland transportation agencies (page 2-7) signed a Memorandum of Understanding and agreed to create a project list that will be completed by 2020, the same year that High Speed Rail in the Central Valley will come online.  The agencies on the task force are the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), Southern California Regional Rail Authority (aka Metrolink), Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (aka Metro), San Diego Association of Governments, Riverside County Transportation Commission, San Bernardino Association of Governments (SANBAG) and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.

This isn’t to say that the Senators and Assembly Members that voted last week had no idea what the project list for the region would include.  SCAG announced details of the MOU earlier this year, which was a key point in gaining the support of politicians and leaders in the San Gabriel Valley.  The plan included major upgrades to Palmdale and Anaheim’s Metrolink/Amtrak stations to handle high speed trains in the distant future and increased local service in the near-term.  On the rails, money could be used to “double track” Union Pacific Rail Lines in Industry, West Covina, Irwindale and Alhambra.

For Metrolink rail, a series of crossings will be grade-separated, better safety features will be put in place, and the oldest of the current tracks will be modernized.  At this point, there is no discussion of electrifying the Metrolink rail tracks in local plans, so for the forseeable future, passengers on the official High Speed Rail train would be transferring at Palmdale to signifigantly improved local service to Los Angeles and Anaheim or faster Amtrak service to San Diego.

One of the reasons that this project has stronger local support in the San Gabriel Valley than the original, more expensive, plan to electrify the entire route is that it doesn’t require much improvement outside of Metrolink’s current footprint.  Plans that required the seizing of private houses to supply the route 100% electrified route all that it needed were wildly unpopular in the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County.  Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who chairs the Metro Board of Directors for the next year, publicly praised the current route and plan despite it’s unpopularity with many of his fellow Republicans.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich dreams of a day when a modernized Palmdale Station is the hub of California's rail system. Photo: Metrolink

Antonovich, who represents Palmdale and other communities in the San Gabriel and Antelope Valleys, is also a proponent of the Desert Xpress alignment that ends in Palmdale.  The Supervisor envisions a future with Palmdale at the center of a new rail system that serves California.  While the Board Chair is a villain to many Westside transit supporters for his opposition to the Westside Subway and the proposed extension of the Measure R transportation tax, Antonovich stands out among his Republican colleagues for having a progessive vision for transit and rail for the people he represents.

Of course, despite the high price-tag of the entire High Speed Rail route, the project will actually save the Southern California region that Antonivich represents billions of dollars Metrolink service in the Los Angeles region has been found to remove the equivalent of one lane of traffic off of Interstate 5 and other highways.   Caltrans’ estimatea that it costs $30 to $50 million per lane-mile for the construction of urban interstate highways.

Adding a lane for each direction of the full 45-mile length of I-5 in Orange County would cost from $2.7 to $4.5 billion, to say nothing of wideing projects that would surely spring up in L.A. County without an improvement to Metrolink.  The estimated cost of the Metrolink upgrades that will dramatically increase its service and service speed is $450 million.

As more information about how High Speed Rail funds will be spent in the region becomes available, Streetsblog will continue to follow the story.

  • Jim61773

     I’m no fan of Antonovich, but I’m hoping he gets this wish.

    Actually, I’m hoping he gets his Palmdale rail hub, but with the addendum that there’s no reason why a region such as Southern California can’t have multiple hubs.  Palmdale would be a regional transfer point linking travelers from Northern California, Las Vegas and Southern California.
    Union Station would continue chugging along with its current Metrolink to Metro Rail links, and the Westside really needs a hub of its own for when the Purple Line meets up with the Sepulveda Pass rail line.

    There are plenty of other potential mini-hubs.

  • ywhynot

    Are you really saying that under the current CAHSR plan, some one would have to board a High Speed Train at 4th and King Streets in SF (since the Transbay Terminal Tunnel is not included in this plan) and then get off the train at Palmdale and transfer (buying a new ticket, grabbing all of their luggage and carry-on gear, and moving across who know what type of station) to a slower diesel powered Metrolink train (that might possibly be full of commuters or Vegas folks) and then get off at Union Station? 

    And this is still supposedly going to take 2 hrs 40 mins. This is a terrible plan.. wow now I see why so many of the proponents are so dicey on this new waaay watered down plan

  • ywhynot

    I am sorry to be so blunt, but Palmdale is a terrible place for a rail hub. The city really has nothing to offer in attractions, retail, or residential. Its generally hot, dry, and uncomfortable and honestly isn’t pleasing to the eyes in anyway. This watered down plan really make me sad.

  • zstern

    Someone please correct me if I am wrong but this is the watered-down initial plan.  Your statements above are correct for service up until 2022. Under the revised business plan, in 2027 we will see dedicated HSR from SF to Palmdale.  By 2029, dedicated high-speed infrastructure will exist to Union Station.  So the 2 hrs and 40 min required time will not occur until 2029 it appears.

    It is very watered down from the original proposition.  However that original proposition was passed in 2008. The combination of the economy tanking, all HSR rail money being taken out of the transportation bill, and fragmentation of the bipartisan support this used to have, it has become the best available option.

    I think best-case scenario is that once construction begins (most likely not until operations begin) private investors, Californians, and the nation see the tangible benefits and potential of the project and investors come and the above timetable gets accelerated.

    The key for a long-term project like this is to stay the course through rougher times and capitalize when private money is available.

  • What’s missing from the conversation on the HSR monies mean the Regional Connector gets funded as about $115M of Prop1A -HSR  monies to go towards one of the most cost-effective projects in the nation

  • Jim61773

    um, pretty much by definition, a hub is someplace that you pass through on the way to somewhere else.

    while it is wonderful that Union Station has excellent architecture, a firm place in Los Angeles history, a Famima and other useful attractions, what really matters is that you can get from the Red Line to Amtrak or from Metrolink to the Gold Line relatively quickly.

    it doesn’t really matter what the town of Palmdale is like as long as the station is good. 

  • I also hope Antonovich will get this wish that his Palmdale rail hub. And, I hope there will be more mini-hubs

  •  ywhynot- Yes… until we finish the line. The plan is to start running trains from SF-Palmdale *while building HSR from Palmdale to LA*. That way, instead of waiting 17 years for any kind of service, you’ll be able to take a two-seat, all-rail ride from SF to LA in 15 years. And, two years later, you’ll be able to skip the transfer.

    Personally, I think that we should plan instead for something like SNCF does in France, where TGVs are hauled past the end of wire by diesel locomotives. So, instead of having to get off the train and transfer (possibly with luggage and possibly with a new ticket), you’d simply wait at Palmdale while a locomotive was hooked to the front of your train, and it would be hauled at conventional speeds all the way to LA. Not a 2:40 ride, but a one-seat trip.

  • Ugh, really? Grade separations? I hate when transit planners use transit money to build grade separations, and it’s all too common here in SoCal. Grade separations are only marginally for the trains– they’re mostly for the cars. Build quad gates and median curbs and you have most of the safety benefits of grade separation for train passengers. But that would make cars wait, so we can’t have that… let’s spend the transit money on making cars go faster.

  • Nc_barlowco
  • Gjohns1

    Is electrification part of the upgrades planned for Metrolink?

  • Manu

    Grade separations are not just to make trains/cars faster, but to prevent some idiot that feels like committing suicide from leaving his car on the tracks like when it happend in Glendale CA and lives were lost and many were injured.

  • Manu

    @ywhynot: you are right. Plus in Palmdale they sell no chi-mocha-non-fat-soy-lattes, nowhere to take in our puddles to the spa, no wifi, nor running water, toilets, tanning salons, and we have to deal with does kids asking for money all the time and there is always the danger the train my get robbed by mask robbers in horses. Please get over your self.

  • Dennis Hindman

    The current planned route of the CA HSR from San Francisco to Los Angeles is 432 miles long and driving on the I-5 to these two destinations is a distance of 347 miles.

    According to a Wikipedia article, a French TGV high-speed train held the record for a scheduled trip, until December of 2009, with an average of 173.6 MPH

    To meet the mandated time of travel from the bay area to Los Angeles, the HSR would have to average over 162 MPH, which is only 11.6 MPH slower than this world record that TGV held.

    The California High Speed Rail Authority has decided to save money by sharing track with freight and passenger trains in urban areas. Which means that it will be almost impossible for this HSR route to meet the mandated time of travel between the bay area and Los Angeles.

  • MarkB

    It’s more grey than it appears.

    1. The time requirement for is upon the completion of Phase I. The revised business plan uses the blended approach as an interim until demand and money enable the full completion. Thus, the 2:40 requirement doesn’t kick in until waaaaay down the rails.2. I believe the language is that CAHSR has to be “capable” of 2:40, not that it has to run that in regular service (although that’s likely still a goal). By the time of full build-out of Phase 1, run a single train at 3:00 a.m. with no stops between SF and LA. Get it to LAUS in time, then call it a day.3. The language is tied to Prop 1A funds, which will be spent in the Central Valley building the fastest sections of track, infrastructure which could support a 2:40 time. By the time the peninsula and the LAUS approaches are built-out, the authority will be using other funds that don’t have the same speed encumbrances.

    4. Bad comes to worse: 25 years in the future, when Phase 1 is fully built, the fastest trip takes 2:41 or longer. What’s going to happen? Will the state say, “Oops! We missed! Everyone go home; we’ll start dismantling the system tomorrow.”?

  • Dennis Hindman

    Its doubtful that CA HSR will atrract many passengers wanting to travel between the bay area and Los Angeles. The route is the most indirect way of getting to these two points and therefore probably much slower than alternative choices such as driving or flying. They may gain some passengers from making a direct connection to the smaller communities, but the less direct connection between the most populated regions will lose overall ridership such as the bay area, Los Angeles region, Orange County and San Diego area.

  • Anonymous


  • Guest

    We’re leaving LA and shopping for a new home in Palmdale.Yup, one of those builder-designed neighborhoods east of the 14. We’re going to join the ranks of hard-working people who believe that if more of us continue to move into the currently-affordable Palmdale/Lancaster area instead of bagging on it and talking about the area in public forums as if it’s hopeless, the brighter its future may become. 

    We hope the eventual transportation hub there will serve to increase the employment rate in our new neighborhood, add to our investment potential, as well as create an upswing in the quality of living there. Obviously, it wouldn’t take long for a flux of travelers to draw more amenities to the immediate area if they do have stops and leave their trains. 

    You know, more optimistic commuters could become brave, stop stereotyping, and get involved in these communities. I hope more folks will rally to take risks to help upgrade the reputations of these and other LA-surround areas (Inland Empire from Montebello to Pamona, for example) instead of continue to covet certain areas that are ridiculously overpopulated, overpriced, elitist and lack fresh maintenance and space. 

    Then maybe, just maybe, the cynics will eat their pessimistic words later. 

  • guest

    “optimism” or willful ignorance?  good luck to you.


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