ICE is the German equivalent of high-speed rail, although on most routes, the speed doesn’t reach high-speed levels. As I rode through the Bavarian countryside between Munich and Wurzburg, I couldn’t help pondering the chances of high-speed rail in California.
On my return, the question was answered: The chances are slim to none, at least for what is now proposed. There are just too many obstacles in the way: ever-increasing costs, waning public support, a plethora of lawsuits and diminishing chances of federal support anytime soon.
The elevation of Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield to be Republican leader in the House doomed any chance of federal support when he vowed he would make certain no appropriations for high-speed rail would be approved by the House.
And McCarthy isn’t alone. Other San Joaquin Valley Republican congressmen, including our own, Jeff Denham, are adamantly opposed.
Facing those bleak prospects, wouldn’t it be wise for California to take a new approach to promoting passenger-rail service?
A possibility would be to strengthen regional rail service that eventually could be tied together with existing and dedicated lines to form a hybrid, almost-high-speed rail system. It wouldn’t be high speed in the purest form, but it would at least be a boost for passenger rail service and would lead to incremental changes that someday could result to high-speed rail — probably decades from now.
After all, Europeans and the Japanese didn’t create high-speed rail systems from scratch. They first developed local and regional service and then express trains running on existing lines. They then added dedicated tracks to augment traditional tracks, but I noticed that the ICE train I was on shared tracks with regional trains on several stretches of our journey.
On returning home, I found a ray of sunshine in the passenger-rail situation. I was pleased to read in news stories that the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which operates the Altamont Corridor Express system, is taking over management of Amtrak service in the San Joaquin Valley. The commission, headed by Stacy Mortensen, has shown how to operate a successful passenger-rail system.
She told me several years ago that one realistic option for high-speed rail in California would be to use the money from the successful 2008 $9.95 billion bond issue and other state and federal funds to build dedicated tracks in places other than connecting Bakersfield to Chowchilla. For example, the stretch between Bakersfield and Palmdale through the Tehachapi Pass is a real bottleneck with heavy freight use of existing tracks. A parallel dedicated line for passenger rail could relieve that long-term problem.
Right now, if you want to take Amtrak from Stockton to Los Angeles, you have to board a bus in Bakersfield for the last stretch.
That brings us to Altamont. The high-speed rail route that has been selected between the Bay Area and Southern California is over the Pacheco Pass between Hollister and Chowchilla.
That route makes sense if serving both San Francisco and San Jose is the overriding consideration, but it would be expensive and difficult to construct over rugged terrain.
The Altamont route was given auxiliary status in the 2008 bond issue and is the favorite of environmental groups. It could very well be the best and most cost-effective way to connect the Bay Area to the San Joaquin Valley and then to Los Angeles in a hybrid system. The connection to the existing Cal Train route on the San Francisco Peninsula could be at San Jose or even Santa Clara. It’s something worth considering, especially because ACE would use the same tracks, shortening commuter travel time between the Central and Silicon valleys.
I’m sure there are a number of problems involved with concentrating on regional rail and using both existing and newly constructed dedicated tracks as a first step toward a full high-speed rail system. But considering the options, it just might be the only way to go.
It might even gain some level of support from our congressman, who — while no friend of high-speed rail — knows first-hand the value of ACE commuter-rail service to his constituents in San Joaquin County.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at email@example.com.