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By Casey Christie / The Californian
BY JOHN COX, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Just in case the skeptics are right and high-speed rail never fully materializes in California, project officials are discussing a back-up plan with Amtrak, BNSF Railway Co. and Caltrans that would still attempt to shorten passenger train travel times along the initial, 65-mile Central Valley segment approved Thursday.
The federally required back-up plan would tie the new route's northern and southern ends to BNSF lines already used by Amtrak's San Joaquin service, allowing passenger trains to go 105 mph or more over at least 54 miles of new high-speed track.
That's a little less than half the speed true high-speed rail can achieve, but it's about a third faster than the 79 mph Amtrak's Central Valley service is limited to now because it shares the route with freight trains.
The rail authority estimates that running the route's existing locomotives over the segment would shave 22 minutes off a trip between Bakersfield and Sacramento or the Bay Area. It says 125-mph locomotives used elsewhere could push the savings to 28 minutes.
Amtrak said close to 1 million passengers traveled through the Central Valley on the San Joaquin service last year.
Important details remain to be worked out. One unanswered question is who would run and maintain the segment under this worst-case scenario, and who would pay the bills.
Rail authority officials acknowledge that the fall-back plan remains mostly conceptual at this point, partly because they are more focused on building the entire 800-mile system, and because they see plenty of time to make adjustments if it became clear there was insufficient funding to complete the overall project. Construction of the first leg is expected to begin in 2012 and finish in 2017.
Also, the authority says it cannot finalize a back-up plan until a decision next year between two proposed rail alignments for the project's first leg, between the communities of Corcoran and Borden.
"This worst-case scenario is not one that people are focused on because it's not really the intent," said Jeffrey Barker, deputy executive director of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.
But doubts about the larger rail project have grown in recent months as congressional Republicans have resisted committing federal dollars and observers have scoffed at the rail authority's revenue projections and business plan. Some critics are calling the first segment, projected to cost $4.15 billion, a "train to nowhere" that could discourage future investment in the system.
The Federal Railroad Administration required the rail authority to have a fail-safe plan ensuring that the proposal would have "independent utility" -- that it would be functional even if the rest of the project is not fully built. California inter-city rail passengers in particular would have to benefit.
Aside from helping train passengers, greater use of rail transportation at any speed in California would reduce pollution and wear on the state's freeways. Also, thanks to linking rail cars, it's less expensive to boost the capacity of a train system than it is with most other major forms of transit.
Amtrak reviewed and certified the authority's back-up plan on a conceptual level before it was accepted by the federal agency, said Pat Merrill, the passenger rail system's assistant vice president of policy and development. He said Amtrak did not examine projected time savings if the fail-safe were put into place.
A high-speed rail advocate who has been critical of the authority, Richard Tolmach, asserted that the proposed fall-back plan would save only five or 10 minutes, and that it leaves open the question of who would pay for track maintenance he predicted would cost $3.5 million a year.
"It's a fraud on the public, this idea of independent utility," said Tolmach, president of the nonprofit California Rail Foundation, which advocates for expanding transportation options in the state.
Merrill offered no estimate on how much travel time the plan would save but said, "I have to believe it's not a five or a 10 minute" savings. He explained that faster trains sell more tickets and make more money.
Recent talks between the rail authority and Amtrak, he said, have looked at who would pay to maintain the new tracks. Currently, the state pays BNSF to keep up the San Joaquin line for Amtrak.
Another issue in the discussions is who would dispatch Amtrak trains on the new line. While BNSF does this on the San Joaquin line now, Merrill said it is unclear who would be responsible for dispatching trains on a segment owned by the state.
There have also been conversations about what kind of locomotives to use on the line in case high-speed trains never arrive. Although the line's existing engines top out at 105 mph, the cars they pull can go 125. Amtrak operates locomotives on the East Coast that do 125 mph or more, but it has not said when or whether it would begin using the faster engines in California.
BNSF could experience freight traffic improvements through the valley even if the high-speed train project were not built out as proposed. The segment approved last week would remove passenger trains from stretches of BNSF tracks, potentially improving arrival-time reliability on freight deliveries.
A company spokeswoman said BNSF had received little information on how the question of independent utility could affect the railroad.
"As we have been with previous segments that have been under consideration by (the rail authority), we are open to exploring with them and Caltrans whether it would be feasible to connect the two services," spokeswoman Lena Kent wrote in an e-mail.
Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco affirmed that the discussions about how the first segment could be used for anything other than full high-speed train travel are "all very premature at the moment."
"I think the plan is that the high-speed rail is going to move forward," he said.
CHOOSING THE ALIGNMENT
One factor in how expensive the authority's fail-safe plan would be may hinge on an environmental review scheduled for consideration by the authority's governing board in about six months.
The environmental study looks at two proposed track alignments, one of which would run roughly along BNSF tracks; the other, generally beside the Union Pacific Railroad. Linking high-speed rail over to the BNSF would be much easier than extending the new route to BNSF from near the Union Pacific.
If the alignment near the Union Pacific is chosen, Barker said the authority would be vigilant to avoid an unnecessarily expensive tie-in. He said the authority would monitor financial interest in the project so as to know whether to cross over early to the BNSF -- or even begin with construction at all.
"My gut tells me," he said, "that over the next two years we will know very clearly whether additional federal funding is coming."