California Forum

Viewpoints: A different vision for train travel

There has been a lot of chatter lately surrounding Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to use cap-and-trade revenue to fund California’s high-speed rail program. While there are legitimate questions over the viability of high-speed rail, using cap and trade to fund transportation projects that significantly reduce vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions would provide us with numerous opportunities to make our transit systems more efficient, while reducing their impact on the environment. Nothing about that should be controversial, and it stands to reason that we should be exploring these options now.

Our passenger rail in particular provides an exciting opportunity to deliver greenhouse gas reductions if we invest the resources needed for expansion. The Capitol Corridor serves the same Northern California mega-region population of 13 million as the Interstate 80/680/880 freeway from San Jose to Placer County, and is the third-busiest Amtrak corridor in America. Despite adding dozens of travel lanes, bypass and feeder highways since 1960, these freeways suffer from daily gridlock.

Meanwhile, the Capitol Corridor, using largely the same single/double tracks first built in the 19th century, has been the most successful Amtrak service in America since 1999, growing from four to 15 daily round trips and quadrupling ridership and revenue. With 1.7 million annual passengers, the Capitol Corridor displaces nearly 100 million annual vehicle miles from the region’s freeways, removing 40,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of planting 35,000 trees annually.

The Capitol Corridor continues to fill a crucial niche in our transportation system, but in an era of fierce global competition and rapid climate change, we need to do more. Mobility will be key to ensuring our economic competitiveness as the mega-region grows to 15 million people by 2025 and 20 million by 2050. As regions throughout Europe, Asia and the rest of the developed world outpace us in core infrastructure investments, we lose our edge. Now is the time to develop a bolder strategy for future generations.

There is now a global standard for passenger rail that meets travelers’ time, frequency, safety, comfort and convenience demands in an environmentally sensitive manner. California’s high-speed rail project would meet that standard for travel between Northern and Southern California, but a comparable vision is needed to serve passengers within our mega-region with trains that are safer, faster and more reliable than driving, while saving billions in highway expansion costs and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This is why the Capitol Corridor Board is developing a vision plan for the Capitol Corridor to become the mega-region’s transit “spine.” This will reduce travel time between Sacramento and San Francisco to one hour (90 minutes from Sacramento to San Jose) and increase the frequency of trains to every 30 minutes (more often during rush hours). It will connect passengers to every major downtown, and seamlessly integrate with high-speed rail on both ends, connecting trains and buses such as Sacramento RT light rail, BART and VTA light rail in Silicon Valley with timed, departure/connection times on the hour and half-hour.

The vision plan is not a dream; its principles are based on the way railroads operate throughout the world today. What are the alternatives? There are few economically or socially acceptable opportunities to expand freeway capacity significantly. Experts doubt we can maintain the status quo of 90 to 120 minutes of freeway travel time between Sacramento and San Francisco, let alone reduce it to 60 minutes.

The vision plan will explore options to protect the corridor against sea level rise, including a new route between Martinez and Richmond, and to replace our current drawbridge over the Carquinez Strait, which regularly causes delays. We are also exploring a direct connection to San Francisco and a faster route between Oakland and San Jose.

Fortunately, we don’t have to build this modernized system all at once. We can upgrade incrementally over time. For example, today’s 80-mph trains can go 90 mph with positive train control systems already underway, then 125 mph by upgrading existing tracks and signals, while deferring higher-speed electrified tracks and trains separated from freight traffic in the more distant future.

Similar improvements could reduce travel times for the San Joaquin service in the Central Valley and the Pacific Surfliners between San Diego and Los Angeles, two of the other top five Amtrak corridors in the nation, and the Altamont Corridor Express service from Stockton to San Jose.

In 2014 we will test these concepts, assessing their engineering feasibility and ridership potential, and conducting a cost-benefit analysis to determine the right package and sequence of targeted improvements. Once we have completed the analysis, we will develop a cost-effective, phased strategy to realize our vision over time. Then key stakeholders, communities and partners can decide whether it’s time to get on board, with cap and trade as a key funding source.