First regional, then high-speed rail
by Sam Matthews
Jul 06, 2014 | 4096 views | 5 5 comments | 23 23 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tracy travelers Joan and Sam Matthews ready to board the ICE — Inter City Express — train in the Munich main train station.  Courtesy photo
Tracy travelers Joan and Sam Matthews ready to board the ICE — Inter City Express — train in the Munich main train station. Courtesy photo
While I was in Europe on my recent vacation trip, I rode the rails on several occasions, and the best ride was a sleek, fast German ICE (Inter City Express) train.

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

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July 09, 2014
Having also been abroad recently and enjoyed the TGV from London to Paris and the BritRail system...I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Matthews.

Many opponents of rail in general (never mind high speed!) in America have never experienced anything more than crowded commuter lines (think of BART here)...and therefore don't realize how amazing and efficient a well thought out rail system can be.

There will not "always be more motorists" if there are options! I love the ACE train...clean, has restrooms, comfortable (doesn't smell like urine like BART)...but it runs 4 trains per day during the each direction. If you miss the last train home from are stuck. If you work in San Mateo (like I did) you have no good options except for driving.

Regional rail that connects to other regions could make this country have a usable and functional rail system...which benefits everyone!

I'd much rather take a 2 hr high speed train to LA than drive 1.5 hrs to the airport, be there 2 hrs early, go through security, fly for an hour, hope my bags made it...any day, any time! Rail is amazing...and we're missing out by having closed minds about it.
July 06, 2014
When are they going to get it through their head there will only be more and more motorists every year. Doesn't matter what the cost is now, the cost later versus not having it or even worse, doing it later anyways at a more expensive rate is the only way to fix this.

Any of California's highways are constantly going down for way, way late repairs year round. Railways are they only way we're going to manage the growing population on the roads unless there is a sudden mass exodus from California..shame lawmakers always talk big picture yet never see it.
July 06, 2014
Not only that but, if YOU think high speed rail will come to this little town think again!!!!!!!!!!! there's not enough money to be made here, and if you think that little 12mil $ eyesore downtown will handle it NOT!!!!!
July 06, 2014
Emma, I think you got it wrong about money to be made. Rail does not make money. It reduces pollution and congestion. I can never understand why you people constantly expect to squeeze money from rail.

At any rate, it is the other way around. There is money to be saved by putting HSR through Tracy.

The ACE is already here. Just make it faster so that driving to the BAY takes longer than the train trip.

If you can speed up the ACE I will save money and time by taking the train to the BAY.
July 07, 2014
Yes, let's try to "save money and time." Let's try to reduce pollution. Let's try to be more environmentally conscious. Let's increase our human population. Let's increase the pet population--instead of owning four dogs, let's own a dozen. Let's develop more 'time-saving' technologies, etc. Let's be more fanatic about our consumption.

I think we can do it.

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