BY TIM SHEEHAN The Fresno Bee
While many are chattering about high-speed rail these days, state transportation leaders are quietly planning to drop more than $15 billion into California's existing Amtrak train service -- including a big chunk here in the valley.
Improvements for Amtrak's San Joaquin line are forecast in a draft of a new statewide rail plan that the California Department of Transportation is circulating for public comment through March 11.
The plan offers a vision of how California's system of freight and passenger trains will look in 2020. In addition to high-speed rail -- construction is planned to start this summer in Fresno -- there are improvements to tracks, stations and other features of Amtrak routes and commuter train lines in the Sacramento/Stockton area, the San Francisco Peninsula and Southern California.
With a high-speed line proposed to connect to commuter systems at either end of the state and span a gap across the Tehachapi Mountains between Bakersfield and Palmdale, the plan envisions "connecting the whole state together for the first time in many years with passenger rail," said Brent Ogden, a plan consultant.
The plan identifies more than $560 million in improvements to tracks, signal systems and stations for Amtrak's San Joaquin corridor within the next five years, and more than $1.7 billion in the corridor over the next 20 or more years.
The improvements are intended to increase the frequency and speed of Amtrak trains, improve passenger safety, boost ridership, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, connect to other transit systems and build new facilities for expanded passenger rail service.
In the San Joaquin Valley, the first section of high-speed rail from Merced to Bakersfield is proposed to be the backbone of a bullet-train system linking the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
But in the decade before high-speed trains start running, the plan anticipates that the high-speed tracks could be used by Amtrak's San Joaquin trains that now share tracks with BNSF Railway freight trains between Bakersfield and Stockton.
By 2020, as many as 11 daily Amtrak San Joaquin trains could be rolling on high-speed tracks at speeds up to 125 mph. Up to six additional Amtrak trains would continue sharing the BNSF freight tracks each day, stopping at Hanford, Corcoran, Wasco and Madera.
"It's going to depend on marketing and timing. But we are anticipating that we will continue to serve those communities," Bill Bronte, the rail division chief for Caltrans, said at a San Joaquin Rail Advisory Committee meeting Thursday in Fresno.
Bronte added that Caltrans expects to preserve Amtrak train service in the valley even after high-speed 220-mph trains are proposed to begin operating between Merced and the San Fernando Valley.
He said that in addition to serving smaller valley cities that won't have high-speed rail stations, Amtrak will remain a lower-priced option than the bullet trains for many travelers up and down the state. "We believe there will be demand because there will be a cost differential," he said.
Amtrak's trains would return to the BNSF tracks after the high-speed trains go into service.
The San Joaquin line from Bakersfield to Sacramento or Oakland, and two other Amtrak California routes -- the Pacific Surfliner between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, and the Capitol Corridor between Sacramento and Oakland -- are among the five busiest passenger train corridors in Amtrak's system.
In the final three months of 2012, the San Joaquin trains carried more than 393,000 riders. That was an increase of almost 11 percent from the same period in 2011 -- the largest ridership increase among all of Amtrak's short-distance corridors nationwide.
The draft rail plan calls for investing billions of dollars in track improvements for those Amtrak lines, as well as increasing the number of trains on the routes.
On the San Joaquin line through Fresno, that means "at least two additional trips per day in the near term," Ogden said.
But the number -- and speed -- of conventional Amtrak trains could ramp up considerably once the first high-speed rail construction section is completed between Madera and Bakersfield.
Now, the top speed for Amtrak trains in the San Joaquin Valley is 79 mph, with an average speed of 53 mph between Sacramento and Bakersfield.
Other features of the draft rail plan include the potential to add new intercity rail routes and extensions of existing Amtrak routes.
Those include possibly extending the San Joaquin line north of Sacramento to Redding, and extending the Capital Corridor service southwest to Salinas and east to Reno.
Among the new routes discussed are a proposed Amtrak Coast Daylight train to connect San Francisco, San Jose and Salinas through San Luis Obispo to Los Angeles, and a Coachella Valley line from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and Indio in Riverside County.
The plan also describes the proposed X Train, a privately backed high-speed train between Las Vegas and Fullerton.
Following the public comment period that ends March 11, a final version of the plan is expected in June.
Caltrans is writing the plan to comply with a 2008 federal law that requires states to develop plans, and update them at least every five years, to qualify for federal money for high-speed rail and intercity passenger train systems.
The Obama administration has awarded California more than $4.2 billion for intercity rail projects, including more than $3 billion to start building the state's high-speed system in the valley.
Under state law, Caltrans must update its rail plan every two years to address both passenger and freight rail needs over a 10-year span.
"It sounds like we're doing plan after plan after plan, but the reality is that things are changing so fast in the rail arena that we have to keep up with what's happening," Ogden said.