Rail planners vote to narrow route, technology options

The Associated Press
Thursday November 15, 2001

BAKERSFIELD — Cutting down their options, California’s high-speed rail planners discarded dozens of potential route alignments and stations Wednesday and ruled out magnetic levitation trains in favor of slower, more conventional alternatives. 

But the planners, members of the California High-Speed Rail Authority board, delayed until January a decision on mountainous routes between San Jose and Merced and Bakersfield and Sylmar until they get more information about the feasibility of tunneling. 

Board members are also scheduled to weed out potential routes and stations between Sacramento and Bakersfield and the Los Angeles airport and Union Station when they meet in January. 

On Wednesday, the nine-member panel agreed to discontinue evaluations of 23 possible alignments and 24 potential station sites in the Bay Area and between Los Angeles and San Diego. 

They kept alive 16 potential alignments and 59 station locations in those two areas of the state. 

The action was like the first cut made by an athletic team to drop unlikely prospects from its roster. It clears the way for more detailed studies needed before state officials can decide whether to build the 700-mile system, which would link California’s major cities with trains running at top speeds of more than 200 mph. 

Mehdi Morshed, the board’s executive director, said the cuts were a normal part of the planning process and were not dictated by the state’s bleak revenue picture. 

“If we had all the money in the world we would be doing exactly the same thing,” he said. 

Lawmakers gave the board $5 million last year to begin the nearly three years of environmental and engineering reviews. But faced with a state budget shortfall that could hit $14 billion, the Legislature approved only $1 million this year, enough to keep the board’s small staff in place. 

Since then the board has gotten $519,000 in unused transportation bond funds and hopes to get $4.5 million from the federal government to keep at least a slimmed down planning effort on track. 

In making Wednesday’s cuts, the board accepted most of a staff report that cited cost, construction difficulties, environmental damage, impact on residential areas, limited right of way and longer travel time among reasons for dropping route alignments and stations from further consideration. 

The board also discarded the idea of using futuristic magnetic levitation trains, saying they couldn’t share track with conventional trains and that adopting them for the California system would bar high-speed rail service into San Francisco. 

Magnetic levitation, or maglev, technology uses powerful magnets to hold trains off the track and propel them at speeds of up to 343 mph. 

There are no maglev trains in commercial use now, although China plans to have a 20-mile maglev line in place by 2003 to carry passengers to the Shanghai airport. 

Instead of maglev, the board decided to focus on using conventional high-speed trains that run on electricity or diesel and can share track with slower trains in heavily urban areas. 

The board also: 

— Said that sharing track with the slower Caltrain commuter trains was the only “realistic alternative” for high-speed rail between San Francisco and San Jose, although that strategy would reduce high-speed traffic on the San Francisco Peninsula. The commuter trains would move onto sidings to let the high-speed trains pass. 

— Decided that only diesel-powered high-speed trains should be used between San Diego and Irvine, saying coastal communities don’t like the “visual impacts” of the overhead wires required for faster electric trains. 

Electric trains can run at maximum speeds of more than 200 mph. The top speed for their diesel counterparts is 150 mph.