Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Transport: Yet Less High Speed Rail

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When the initial announcements were made in January, this blog addressed the fact that much of the high-speed funding in the United States is not actually going to high-speed projects. Well, now it turns out that even less of the money will go to high-speed projects than was first thought.

Recently, the San Jose Mercury News reported that Caltrain will electrify its commuter line between San Francisco and San Jose, a project estimated to cost $1.23 billion. This seemed like an impossibility, considering California's near-Greek financial status and a similar shortage of funds at the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board that runs Caltrain. Yet, the "Murky News" revealed that there is funding available for the project--using funds designated for high-speed railways.

The preferred routing for California's high-speed route between San Francisco and Los Angeles uses the Caltrain right-of-way between San Francisco and San Jose, and the line would need to be upgraded for electric power and higher-speed running (currently, the limit on the line is 79 mph, lower in a number of locations) in order to host the high-speed service. Thus, Caltrain qualifies to use a portion of the high-speed funding for its upgrade.

As a practical matter, this is probably a very good use of stimulus funds. Caltrain is already one of the best commuter rail systems in North America, with rush-hour "baby bullet" trains running between San Francisco and San Jose in under an hour (try driving it in that!) and regular service throughout the day. Converting to electric propulsion will reduce emissions and noise in the residential areas along the line and allow for faster service that will be cheaper to operate (allowing the operation of more trains). It will also allow eventual extension of the line deeper into San Francisco through a tunnel which realistically could not have hosted diesel trains. The peninsula will have a truly world-class commuter rail system that, if supplemented with other transit connections, will attract riders and have an impact on highway mobility.

Yet, the idea of a high speed rail initiative was to link cities not currently connected with a viable alternative to the automobile and commuter aircraft, not to upgrade a commuter rail service. I'm personally in favor of the Caltrain electrification initiative--and have been since the mid-1990's--but think this smells like dishonesty in federal funding (and state funding through the high speed rail bonds). Maybe it's time to stop pretending there is such a thing as high speed rail funding, and just start calling it "Rail Transformation Funding" or something along those lines. Caltrain will be transformed, but it won't be high-speed any more than the existing "baby bullet" express trains are high-speed. Selling the funding as something else just breeds the anti-government cynicism that is already far too prevalent in the United States. It's time to stop feeding it.

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