Cost effective proposal for rail in California and from Boston to Washington

Significant improvements to the trip times of the San Diego to Los Angeles rail connection could be affordably made. Alon Levy is a public transportation expert and writer at Pedestrian Observations. He described what could be done for California and on the east coast.

The Los Angeles-San Diego corridor is 128 miles long and mosty straight. Target trip times of two hours should be achievable even with the frequent stops on the Pacific Surfliner. Trip times of about 1:45 or 1:50 are possible which would be competitive with driving even outside rush hour. The investment required for this ranges from the high hundreds of millions of dollars to the very low billions.

In 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration released new regulations for passenger rail safety, which allow lightly modified European trains to run on U.S. tracks. Previously, ancient U.S. rules required trains to be heavier. In 2010, US trains were allowed to run faster on curves, subject to safety testing.

* electrifying the corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles, and as far north as San Luis Obispo would cost about $800 million. Electric trains have far better acceleration than diesel trains. An electric train can reach 100 mph in 76 seconds which is 90 seconds faster than a diesel train can reach 60 mph.
* a tunnel at Miramar Hill would shorten the trip by 4.5 miles and save 7 minutes. This would cost $500 million

Boston to Washington train trip times could be cut from 7 hours to 4 hours for a few billion dollars

Buy faster trains and more of them. A 16-car train every 15 minutes from Washington to Boston, with a one-way travel time including turnaround of about 3:30, would require 30 sets, or 480 cars, or $2 billion.
* Speed up commuter trains instead of bypassing them.
* Upgrade every station to allow for full speed operations. A slow station like Penn Station means 1000 meters at 50 km/h when it could go 200. This costs 54 seconds.

A total cost in the single-digit billions would cut travel time nearly in half.

22 thoughts on “Cost effective proposal for rail in California and from Boston to Washington”

  1. I specifically compared a single bore of the caldecott tunnel because it was recently complete and diameter is similar to that of a two track rail tunnel. Rail will likely need to be a little larger, but I simply wanted to focus how big the disconnect is between the price mentioned in the article and cost of actual tunnel built about 5 years ago.

    You’re right that conditions are a big factor, but I don’t think $500 million will get you even a single track rail tunnel that’s 5 miles long.

  2. 1) You wouldn’t have random people in there ‘together’.
    2) Medical emergencies would mean stopping at the next station, just like a train would do.
    3) The rest of your issues clearly display your lack of ignorance on how PRT systems like SkyTran are designed. The ‘P’ in PRT means ‘Personal’. Or even what they are used for (not intercontinental travel).
    (sorry, but true)

  3. The freeways are predominantly used for shipping.

    High speed passenger rail would not be. Slow freight rail that has existed for over 100 years would still be.

  4. There is no supervision in the pods. If you have random people in there together, there could be assaults, rapes, murders, all sorts of crap. Also, how would it deal with medical emergencies? Even if you only had one person, what is to stop and hold people accountable for destructive acts in the vehicle? Even if they get out and it is immediately noticed that there is damage, how do you prove that person did it without having a monitoring system that invades privacy and allows security to view private interactions or look down blouses and such? What about the next occupant seeing something accidentally left in the vehicle and stealing it? People might even be able to put animals in there unaccompanied by their owners, and those animals could severely injure people or damage interiors…even intentionally. Then there are people leaving trash in the vehicles, or intentionally making the seats or handles sticky, leaving infected snot, vomit, poop, urine, used condoms, bandages, scabs, lice, scabies, needles, drugs, etc. in the vehicles.
    Some of the hyperloop concepts have these same issues.
    For public transportation you need a walkway within the vehicle and at least one person to see what is going on…making sure everyone has their stuff, and making sure things are presentable/sanitary for the next occupants, etc.
    It is not an accident that most of the interiors of public transportation are similar in buses, trains, and planes: a walkway, an operator, maybe a person looking after people’s needs, a large enough seating area to offset the cost of operator and any other personnel…

    If the cars are privately owned, most of these concerns drop away. Though some remains with taxis and other ride services…where ether the operator or the rider may assault the other.

    Pods like these could work in certain circumstances like within a vast factory complex, mine, military base, or moonbase. But when open to the common jerk, drunk, pervert, lunatic, criminal, teen or child, it will not work.

  5. Well, there are lots of ways you can get a bunch of loose stuff mostly erosion. But faults do interesting things to. Out by the Salton sea the is a large hill of finely ground brown dirt in the middle of the desert like someone just dumped a load of dirt. It is all from the rubbing of the plates right below.

  6. Cost of tunnels varies widely, partly because of what you are digging through. Chalk is easiest. The worst is digging under foundations of very old expensive buildings or a seabed especially with under ground stuff of significant archaeological/paleontological value or risk of natural gas explosions or hot steam explosions. Next is solid rock. Plain loose dirt (faults can pulverize rock) is much harder than you would think, because of collapse risk. Chalk is great because it is strong enough to hold itself mostly. The Chunnel did not go as fast as everyone would have liked, because you have to be very careful when digging under a seabed. Salt, though of similar strength to chalk, is not so great, because it can easily dissolve and it can accelerate the corrosion of most metals. Softer sandstones are nice. Limestone can be very difficult. It is like concrete only stronger and can go on for miles. It dissolves in acid, but that would be a very hazardous way to go about getting through it.
    Conglomerate (in our case, mostly rounded rocks anywhere from finger sized to beach ball sized lightly cemented together. The stuff is usually yellow or orange here) is fairly common in southern California but we have a wide variety of formation types because different stuff has accreted to the continent (mostly old islands smeared like clay). Far from California falling into the sea, stuff is brought to it. Whatever they will be digging through, it will very likely be sedimentary and probably a sandstone, or conglomerate. Odds are sandstone. That should go pretty easy. Big boulder conglomerate can be be aggravating because it is usually not safe to use explosives underground but some of the rocks can be tough to get loose. But it probably will not be the really big stuff. I know some geology (fulfilled the degree requirement) but my mining and tunneling is quite far from expert and is mostly historical rather than state of the art.

    Road tunnels are more expensive partly because of size, and partly because of venting, and fire suppression. All the cars put out exhaust which can fill the tunnel. An electric train does not have that issue. Even diesel ones need less venting than road traffic because trains are not constantly in the tunnels and are more efficient. You also need advanced fire suppression stuff, because autos are prone to fires and a fire can kill a lot of people in a tunnel. The smoke obstructs vision and there are accidents blocking all lanes nearly instantly. When the fire burns it uses most of the oxygen and starts burning where it makes carbon monoxide rather than carbon dioxide…then people start dying. But an electric train has exceedingly low risk of fire, and the train itself can have the fire suppression stuff. Freight has slightly higher fire risk but still very small.

    I would guess the figures are reasonable, but people will do selfish, foolish and unreasonable things to increase costs as usual.

  7. Actually there is a big problem with the Hyperloop. It’s call Physics. Comparing two modes of transportation. If the first mode goes 10 times as fast as the second mode then that first mode is going to required curves with a radius of 100 times that of the second mode. By the way, you could slow the Hyperloop down a lot on curves but since that would be most of the time what’s the point. Note, even a gentle rise on what you’d think of as flat land would exceed the radius requirements needed to keep the Hyperloop from turning into a vomit comet.

  8. A small percentage of the population drives back and forth between LA and SF yet we have two freeways (the 101 and the 5) connecting the areas… so using your logic we shouldn’t have those either…

  9. If it was busy road traffic, it would certainly be worth it. 20 trains a day each way, no.
    100,000 cars saving 0.30 gallons of gas each @ $3.50 a gallon. (and I did not calculate the higher rate of consumption up hills) $105,000 a day saved. Pays for itself in 13 years just in fuel saved. Time is at least as valuable. Assuming 20/hour average, which is probably low, and only counting the driver, that is $2.33 worth of time per driver. I think we are at less than 5 years pay off, and then it is just paying everyone who uses it. $100m+ a year. At 100,000 cars a day. Perhaps you think 100,000 cars is an absurd amount? That is 69 cars a minute total of both directions…not really crazy, but say 50,000 if you wish; the payoff is still very quick.

    I generally see less than 100 people get off or on the train, and I pick up someone regularly at the Santa Fe depot (downtown San Diego), so it is not just one observation. But lets say with increased speed and cool electrification 200 people use it each time. And lets go crazy and say it comes and goes every 15 minutes. 400 people (2 directions) x 96 trains. That is only 38,400 people, and almost a wacky optimistic number. Reality would probably be less than half of that. Fuel saving would be trivial on a per person bases. So it would be just the value of time. And that presupposes that the time is wasted, but it is less likely to be. You can do things on the train like use your phone or laptop, perhaps other things or just relax and take a nap.
    And currently it still can be hard to pick people up at the train depot. A bunch of cars all show up at the same time to pick someone up but there are only about 10 parking places all marked for immediate loading and unloading. If there really were 200 people getting out and 200 people getting in then that is close to 350 cars (maybe 50 will just walk over to the trolley…those with no one to pick them up or they don’t want to bother anyone and don’t have any luggage and happen to live near a trolley station). But 10 cars at a time loading or unloading passengers and their luggage? Things will get very unpleasant if there are 350 every 15 minutes. As it is, I generally have to go around the block 3 times before I can get a space. So in that future scenario maybe 12 times! And of course the pushy and reckless will get spots easier. The polite cautious people may have to circle the block 30+ times to pick up grandma.

  10. Yes, we give up a lot not using a car. Cargo, going directly, not paying extra or very little for more passengers, not being somewhat stranded when you reach your destination, unless you rent a car.
    We need to improve that system: more lanes! There is a theory that says, if you build more lanes it will become more congested. And that is true, but only if desperate for more lanes and you don’t add more lanes elsewhere. We need more lanes on lots of freeways, then congestion will subside. We need to move freight that is going between states or from boarders to rail or barge by law. It is much more energy efficient, reduces wear and tear on the freeways dramatically, and reduces congestion. Most cars have reasonably clean emissions. Pickups, motorcycles, semis, and some large vehicles are very dirty, making driving less appealing and healthy. We need to address that. Cars too old to have catalytic converters, and motorcycles should be limited to use on weekends and holidays. And for cars, make it obvious. Give them a different color license plate. Electric, propane, or natural gas motorcycles are fine. All new pickups need to be natural gas, propane or electric. Many old ones bought up and crushed. And if ineffective, make them illegal for commuting unless the driver’s job makes use of its utility or they use natural gas, propane, or electricity.
    And stinky 40 year old ice cream trucks need to go or be converted to something cleaner. Kids don’t need to be breathing that stuff. And they don’t need the positive psychological association.
    We need to build lots of tunnels in California for road traffic. Bypass all the switchbacks and other nonsense to get over mountains, and steep hills. Not all states but many others could use more tunnels as well. Large prizes should be offered for radical rapid cheap tunneling technologies seeding the patent rights to the state. Offer a $500m prize. The savings could be 500 times that across the whole country. It saves a lot of lives, fuel and time. Twisty mountain roads can be very dangerous.
    Leave the twisty roads themselves for motorcycles and sports cars. One or the other can use it on specified days.
    Cars need to be safer, that means handing higher velocity impacts, safer roads, and better systems to catch and punish bad/rude driving. Road rage needs to be a far more serious crime. I am referring to loons who get angry and generate near miss accidents and put on breaks for no other reason than to try to punish a driver behind them often repeatedly often to a stop or near stop on ramps, freeways and other higher limit roads and such. Common in San Diego. Other cities? Hardly anyone uses their horn anymore in San Diego, because of the fear of these psychos. One light toot if someone is asleep at a traffic signal…that is all anyone dares. If they pass on the right or sweep over several lanes and inches from your car, you do nothing. They should loose their license 2 years+.

  11. The article has good ideas, but the author is out of touch with costs which severely undermines his point. In what year does a 4.5 mile tunnel cost $500 million?

    For comparison, the 4th bore of the Caldecott tunnel in Oakland was 3/4 mile long with 2 * 12 foot lanes.
    It cost $417 million in 2013. How will you get a tunnel 6 times as long for same price?

    Next up, $800 million to electrify 128 miles between LA and San Diego. We have a comparison of Caltrain up north where 51 miles are being electrified for about $950 million. Using actual numbers from a real project, LA to San Diego cost goes up $2.5 billion for track alone. Caltrain is spending another $600 million for trainsets – cost of which is conveniently omitted from the $800 figure.

  12. Spending more taxpayer money, to help a small percentage of people. Amtrak loses TONS of money per year, but, because of the politicians and what not in the north east, continues to be run into the ground.

  13. For a fraction of the price, express busses using high occupancy lanes could make it in two hours. They could even do it with one stop in between. We’re now told to arrive at an airport 2 hours before flight time.

  14. Before any government spends another dime on mass transit, local, regional, or interstate, we need to see what comes of the Boring company’s local loops, and we need to let hyperloop technology develop further.
    Hyperloop could end up giving us excess capacity at airports, at least in terms of runways. Where they are close enough to population centers, airports could make good hyperloop terminals since they already have plenty of parking, and local transit running to them.
    The Boring company may make most other surface transportation redundant, and might take it out of the mismanaging hands of government. What happens in Chicago will be enlightening.
    I live near Charlotte, NC, which just finished it’s first absurdly slowly built, and expensive light rail line. They call it two lines, but it would be one line in most cities. It’s one continuous set of double rails that run north, and south of downtown. I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of dollars of cost overruns there were. Construction was terrible, and put people out of business. Goodness knows how many high dollar overpasses were built. I think it was a poor decision.
    Sure, it’s nice if you live within walking distance, where you’re going is within walking distance, and you don’t have to carry too much, but how many citizens, or trips does that apply to? Maybe 2% of citizens live near enough that could find new professionals to use as in dentists, or doctors, and find new jobs so as to make 50% of their trips light railable?

  15. I have taken the San Diego to Los Angles train. I liked it. Comfortable, not crowed, not expensive. And I liked the twisty stuff at the beginning. What we don’t have is a reasonable train route from San Diego to San Francisco. They sell tickets, but it is 12.5 hours, because it is so convoluted. You can drive it in 8.5 hours.

    I hate driving to LA. Every single time I see the remains of an atrocious fatal accident. Bad luck? Maybe. You can fly but then there is all the scanners and nonsense. And, of course they want more money than is reasonable to go 130 miles or whatever it is. I checked a random date $166. Costs less to fly to San Francisco. Probably not many people want to go through airport security to fly 130 miles.

    Spend heavy dollars on a route that not many people are using and the price will go to $70, or worse. Then most people will take the dreaded crowded Greyhound with the pot smokers, people drinking out of booze bottles in paper sacks and kinky stuff going on in the back. They will drive if at all possible. Not many people riding the train now, when the fees double? I think that is a bad plan.

    Electrifying it? Sure. The rest…not so sure. It really is not very expensive to electrify (unless you have to raise the roof of an existing tunnel). It is moving rails around, building large trestles and tunneling that costs big bucks. If the Fed wants to pay, sure! There is a great trestle in San Diego, but the RR was washed away. look up a great paramotoring video on youtube flying over the carrizo gorge trestle: PPG HUGE ABANDONED TRAIN TRESTLE, CARRIZO GORGE GOAT CANYON TRESTLE

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