California High Speed Rail Project

SPUR's call to action
SPUR Report
November 1, 1999


SPUR has undertaken an analysis of the proposed High Speed Rail System (HSR) currently proposed by the California High Speed Rail Authority. A SPUR Task Force, made up of transportation experts, addressed seven basic questions, regarding the system and its impacts on the San Francisco Bay Area:

Do our state and its travelers need a HSR system? The answer is an emphatic, "Yes!" Projections for population growth and demands for increased highways and airports and their impacts on the environment are staggering.

Which north-south corridor should be used? A corridor along State Route 99 (SR-99) has already been chosen. It serves the already developed areas and will gain the most support. A comprehensive statewide rail network should be developed to feed the proposed system in conjunction with the HSR development.

Where should stations be located? They should follow existing rail rights-of-way in the city, and where possible, serve the city centers to avoid sprawl.

How should the system be funded? Preferably through an addition to the gasoline tax, justified as a user fee to help relieve traffic on the highways and airports, or some combination of gas tax, sales tax, federal and state grants and private participation funds.

What is the best Northern California route? Fresno to Pacheco Pass to San Jose and San Francisco. Includes an under or over bay connection to Oakland and on to Sacramento.

What is the best station location for San Francisco? The Transbay Terminal is currently the City's preferred site but subject to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's (MTC's) more detailed feasibility studies.

What technology is appropriate? Steel wheel on steel track is "state of the art" and can achieve the required speeds of 220 miles per hour. Maglev, while technically capable of reaching higher speeds, is not "state of the art" and would cause more delay to the planning and design of the system.

In conclusion, SPUR supports the design and construction of a statewide system of very high speed passenger rail service in California now being considered by the California High Speed Rail Authority. SPUR urges immediate action by the Governor and the State Legislature to expedite the final planning and design through the preparation of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) with a sense of real urgency. The details and specifics, including those considered above by SPUR, can and will be worked out in the final process, through public participation and engineering studies. SPUR also urges attention to developing a comprehensive "cost benefit" analysis to demonstrate the costs of not building the system, due to increased auto truck congestion, major highway and airport construction, environmental costs of pollution and energy consumption, as well as time savings related to travel times. In addition, planning should be completed on a comprehensive statewide rail plan to be integrated with High Speed Rail.


In 1993, the State Legislature created the California High Speed Rail Commission to study the feasibility of a High Speed Rail system connecting the southern part of the state with the Bay Area and Sacramento, with particular emphasis on connecting central Los Angeles with San Francisco. The stated objective of the study was to determine the preliminary feasibility of HSR to relieve automobile and air traffic congestion by serving as a viable alternative to both. The study concluded with cautious optimism that HSR can work in California, but to be successful, the system would require travel times and fares which are competitive with air travel between the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

After completion of preliminary studies by the Commission in 1998, Senate Bill 1420 created the California High Speed Rail Authority to replace the Commission. The Authority has been directed to finalize a system plan (route, technology, and funding) and to undertake final engineering and implementation. The Authority consists of nine members, five appointed by the Governor, two appointed by the Senate Rules Committee, and two by the Speaker of the Assembly.

The Authority began public hearings in 1999. At its July, 1999 meeting in San Francisco the Authority board voted to adopt the staff report selecting a preferred "corridor" (Figure 1). Not surprisingly, corridor selection has been influenced by politics and perceived public votes for funding a system as well as by technical criteria. This "Recommended Mainline Corridor" is as follows:

• From San Diego Qualcomm Stadium to Riverside, along the I-15 – I-215 corridor with intermediate stations in Mira Mesa, Escondido, and Temecula.

• From Riverside to Los Angeles Union Station, along the Union Pacific Railroad corridor, with stations at Ontario Airport and in the eastern San Gabriel Valley. (An alternative to be included in the preliminary engineering and environmental review follows the coast "Lossan" route from San Diego to Los Angeles Union Station.)

• From Los Angeles Union station along the I-5/Grapevine corridor with stations at Burbank Airport, Santa Clarita, and Bakersfield. A parallel and somewhat circuitous alternative to be further studied serves Palmdale via the "Palmdale/Mojave" corridor joining the main line at Bakersfield.

• From Bakersfield in a corridor west of state highway route (SR) 99 to Visalia and Fresno. South of Merced, turning westward through Pacheco Pass with stations in Los Banos and Gilroy.

• From Gilroy to Diridon Station in San Jose following existing railroad alignments.

• From San Jose north to San Francisco along the existing Caltrain alignment with stops at Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Francisco International Airport, terminating at the Fourth and Townsend Streets Caltrain Station. (Another "recommended" segment to be included in preliminary engineering and environmental review is from San Jose through the East Bay to Oakland.)

• An additional recommended mainline corridor also goes from Merced to Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento. San Francisco to Sacramento travel by high speed rail would require following this long route to San Jose, Gilroy, and Merced to reach Sacramento.

The Authority is scheduled to complete a business plan by the end of 1999 and present its report to the Governor and the Legislature in January 2000. At that time the Governor and Legislature can adopt the proposed business plan and proceed with implementation, or they can make changes to the plan and then adopt it, or they can decline to act.

The major questions are: (A) Is there a need for an HSR system in California? (B) Which north-south corridor should be used and what feeder service routes need to be upgraded? (C) Where should the stations be located? (D) How should the system be funded? (E) What's the best Northern California corridor? (F) What's the best station location for San Francisco? and (G) What technology is appropriate?

A. Is There a Need?

This HSR program would be one of the most significant and largest transportation and public works projects during the next 20 years. Consequently, the first questions to be asked by citizens of the state will be: "Is a High Speed Rail system really needed and is it economically justifiable?" The answers to these questions must take into consideration a wide variety of factors, including assumptions about future population growth and travel projections, future highway and airport congestion and economic and environmental impacts on the state with or without the HSR system. Some of these factors can be stated as follows:

• Substantial economic and population growth is forecast for the foreseeable future in California, with population projected to increase from our current 33 million to almost 45 million by the year 2020.

• Increased highway congestion, particularly within the major metropolitan areas, is quite evident. In most locations there is limited space for highway expansion, which also would entail high construction costs and major environmental impacts. Many citizens have begun to question the wisdom of the self fulfilling prophecies of increasing roadways which leads to increased automobile usage which in turn brings even more demand for highway expansion.

• Our major urban airports are reaching capacity. Delays are bringing demands for runway expansion and more automobile parking, even in the face of limited space for expansion.

• Worsening air quality in the San Joaquin valley is damaging crop production.

High Speed Rail is proposed as an effective way to accommodate travel between the centers of major urban areas in California. HSR powered by electricity results in less fossil fuel use and green house gas emissions compared with the automobile and air travel it would replace. Part of its appeal is that travel time would be comparable to air travel, when ground transportation time to get from airport to city center is included. When compared to both air travel and automobile travel, High Speed Rail holds the promise of being time-competitive, safer, less environmentally damaging, and ultimately cheaper. These factors and others have been extensively studied by the High Speed Rail Authority, and others, and make a compelling case for HSR.


SPUR believes there is an definite need for a High Speed Rail system. This project, which is planned to link the major urban centers of northern and southern California, is important to the state's future. The projected population growth during the next 20 years will generate increased mobility demands. This in turn will result in major expenditures for highway and airport expansion and maintenance. High Speed Rail, properly done, can in part mitigate these demands.

HSR is of special importance to San Francisco if it is to maintain its place as a major commercial and cultural center of northern California in the new century. High Speed Rail would enable people to access downtown San Francisco with ease without having to deal with or contribute to our already serious problem of automobile access in the city. It would also reduce the already-stated urgency for constructing additional airport runway capacity.

B. Which North/South Corridor Should be Developed?

Two major corridors as well as a number of variants have been considered. The two major corridors are:

The HSR Authority's preferred corridor is along SR 99, through Bakersfield, Visalia and Fresno, thence west through the Pacheco Pass to Gilroy and San Jose to San Francisco. (Figure 1)

The other (rejected) route would follow the I-5 corridor north from Los Angeles, thence through the Panoche Pass to Hollister and San Jose to San Francisco. This corridor would not include Bakersfield, Visalia, or Fresno on the main line.

The choice between these two alternatives hinges on a choice between:

• travel through more populated areas with more stops, serving more communities (the recommended corridor), versus

• travel through a less densely populated area, with fewer stops, higher speed and shorter travel time (the rejected corridor).

The former Commission selected and the current Authority adopted the SR-99 corridor, since it would serve a number of important urban centers, and hence might be more likely to gain support. Since the Authority is focusing its final planning and design exclusively on the SR-99 corridor, SPUR is concentrating its comments on the SR-99 corridor.

Relative to the route from SR 99 to San Francisco, the Authority selected a corridor from Merced to Los Banos instead of the existing West Valley rail line that goes directly from Fresno to Los Banos. The stated reason is that this would shorten trip time between the Bay Area and Sacramento. However, this indirect routing between San Francisco and Los Angeles is both more expensive and longer, hence slower. Also, SPUR does not believe a San Francisco, San Jose, Merced, Sacramento routing is viable because of the circuitous route. SPUR recommends a new Bay Crossing to Oakland and direct service to Sacramento.


The real purpose of an EIS/EIR is not just to project impacts, but to weigh alternatives against each other to determine the best project with the fewest impacts. This of necessity requires weighing the tradeoffs among different alternatives and different impacts.

1. SPUR supports immediately beginning the EIS/EIR process with the Authority's SR-99 corridor as the preferred alternative. SPUR has one important proviso to this recommendation, which differs from that of the Authority, and that is that the right-of-way should follow existing rail corridors, preferably the Union Pacific Railroad Route, through the center of the towns, with appropriate noise mitigation efforts (see C – Station Locations, below).

2. The HSR program should include a complementary state-wide inter-city rail improvement program as part of the total funding package which would be put to a state-wide vote. The major routes for non-HSR should be upgraded to speeds in the range of 110 mph to 125 mph with frequent service. These routes are shown on Figure 2.

3. The Authority should define a Phase I program to provide an initial operable system as soon as possible, i.e. by 2005. This could consist of constructing the new lines through the Tehachipis and Pacheco passes, while upgrading other existing lines to use the new high speed turbine powered locomotive, currently being developed by the Federal Railway Administration and Bombardier Corporation.

4. As permitted by SB 1420, the program should include a comprehensive upgrading and enhancement of all of the commuter rail and urban rail transit lines that connect with the HSR system. These include: Caltrain, Metrolink, Coaster, Sacramento LRT, Muni LRT, San Jose LRT, Los Angeles Red Line, and San Diego Trolley.

C. Station Locations

Assuming High Speed Rail were to use the SR-99 corridor and serve the Central Valley cities, a major land use concern needs to be addressed: will High Speed Rail reinforce town centers or will it induce more sprawl? The answer depends largely on whether the stations are located in town centers (where land and construction is more expensive) or on the periphery (where land is cheaper and there are fewer impacts on neighboring developed uses). Although it would cost more to take HSR rail into existing city centers, the payoffs could be great. If the stations are located in historic town centers, it is possible that ridership would be higher. Perhaps more importantly, "downtown" rail stations could become a tool for supporting good planning and begin to reinforce existing communities instead of reinforcing the inexorable sprawl currently being experienced in and around central valley towns. Even though the up-front construction costs of peripheral locations are cheaper, (in part because there would be fewer demands for noise protection), eventually new neighbors will move adjacent to the rail line and the sound attenuation will have to be added. Also, stations in town centers would make it possible to better coordinate HSR service with local inter-city train and bus service and share facilities with these modes.

The Authority states that the center vs. periphery station location question is beyond its purview, something that each local jurisdiction will have to decide. This is partly true, as all land use decisions in California, ultimately, are made by local jurisdictions. But the Authority does have the power to provide some strong incentives. For example, it could only fund routes through the center and not on the periphery. It also has the power of eminent domain to acquire the required station sites. Furthermore, if the State were to invest millions of dollars in providing service to a city with a relatively small ridership, then that town could at least be required to support the state's investment with transit-supportive land use policies to increase ridership and payback.


5. SPUR believes the HSR system should have stations in the downtown cores of the cities it serves, instead of suburban or peripheral locations.

6. Also, based on studies to date, it appears that the system should utilize the existing Union Pacific rail corridor and downtown station locations. Trackage for local freight service will also have to remain, with through freights rerouted to the existing Burlington Northern rail corridor, which may require added capacity.

D. Cost and Funding

Assuming the demand and benefits justify the need for the HSR, as SPUR believes is the case, than a critical issue which will influence the level of public support will be the total cost and method of funding. The current estimated capital cost of the entire system from San Diego to Sacramento is $25 billion, with an estimate of $12 to $14 billion for the critical Los Angeles to San Francisco segment. Since operation of the system, once built, is projected to be self-sufficient and in fact to generate a surplus, some of the funding alternatives suggest that only the first phase be built initially. Then with a proven operating system, revenues generated by that system could be used to help finance subsequent segments.


7. SPUR believes that a combination of funding sources is likely to be the preferable means of financing construction of the HSR system. Detailed financial studies need to be completed. The funding sources under consideration, and likely to be used in combination, would include:

• State Gasoline tax - the capital expenditures are an alternative to highway and airport expansions.

• State Sales tax – currently used throughout California for transportation improvements.

• Federal Transit Capital Grants - the HSR system represents a project of national importance, similar to the federally funded Northeast Corridor Project.

• Private Funding - that can be achieved through manufacture participation, station development and operating partnerships.

E. Northern California Route

Present plans show San Francisco as the northernmost terminal of the "main line", with another branch route from Merced through Stockton to Sacramento. Yet another branch is shown, up the East Bay from San Jose to Oakland.

SPUR believes a continuous line running from San Francisco through a tube under the Bay (or alternatively, on the Bay bridge) to Oakland and then to Sacramento (See Figure 2) is preferable. While not inexpensive, this solution would have the distinct advantage of connecting San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland with direct, fast service to Sacramento.


8. Additional study is needed to determine costs and benefits and financing options for all the alternatives under discussion. It is one thing to propose routes that will attract the maximum number of voters and another thing to actually be able to afford constructing and operating them. This is another reason to begin the EIS/EIR immediately to focus in on the hard choices now.

F. What is Best Location for the San Francisco Terminal?

An issue of direct interest to San Francisco is whether the city's terminal should be at the existing Fourth and Townsend Caltrain terminal site, or continue on to the Transbay Terminal site. There are strong arguments for and against either location.

The Transbay Terminal site has the following pros:

D. It is centrally located, directly serving the historic core of the city.

E. It has direct connections to BART and Muni Metro, AC Transit, Sam Trans and Golden Gate Transit, and dozens of Muni bus lines.

F. It is within 10 minutes walking distance to downtown with 30,000 hotel rooms, hundreds of thousands of jobs and other activity destinations.

G. If San Francisco is ever to have an integrated interconnected transportation system, this is the opportunity.

The Transbay Terminal site has the following cons:

C. It has high construction costs (almost $1 billion).

D. It requires a difficult and potentially disruptive construction effort.

E. There is limited operating and storage space, especially if Caltrain is also brought downtown to the same terminal.

F. It would add terminal traffic in an already congested area, because of the passenger drop-off and pick-up demands.

The Fourth and Townsend Terminal site has the following pros:

B. It is outside of the zone of major traffic congestion today.

C. It is immediately adjacent to Caltrain platforms, whether or not Caltrain extends to the Transbay Terminal.

D. It has more space for the station and train storage, as well as for parking, car rentals, postal and other ancillary facilities.

E. It is adjacent to the new Muni Metro E-line and the proposed Third Street light rail line.

The Fourth and Townsend Terminal site has the following cons :

H. While today construction might be easier and less costly, the area is developing rapidly and this advantage may soon disappear.

I. It potentially impedes development of some Mission Bay properties which the developer plans to develop long before scheduled HSR (or Caltrain) construction.

J. While it is pointed toward the Bay and the alignment for a potential transbay tube, the land surface above such an alignment is likely to be fully developed before HSR construction.

K. While SOMA is rapidly developing, the site would require a shuttle to the Transbay terminal and/or Fifth and Market. It will never be located in the core of San Francisco downtown or the core of Muni routes, requiring a transfer to reach the "historic" core of downtown and routes to most neighborhoods.

L. It does not directly connect to BART, and instead perpetuates the problem of non-connecting systems in San Francisco.


9. SPUR has long supported the Transbay Terminal site for use as a major transit center, and from an urban planning standpoint, it is the most logical terminal for the HSR system. This is currently the official position of the City and County of San Francisco. However, there is a real feasibility question in terms of whether the physical space is available. Current studies of the Transbay Terminal site by the MTC and others are focusing on definitively answering this question. SPUR believes that continuity and connectivity must be a high priority, and that a central interconnected multi-modal terminal must continue to be the city's goal. Exactly what configuration (e.g., there are currently three major alternatives in study for the Transbay Terminal) the solution takes has room for discussion. However, various steps and missteps have been underway for almost six years, and the technical and design feasibility questions at least should be answered at the earliest possible time so additional time is not wasted while land availability opportunities disappear.

G. Technology

There are two train technologies under consideration. One is the "state of the art" Very High Speed steel wheel on steel rail (VHS). The other is "MagLev," which is an abbreviation of Magnetic Levitation, a trackless vehicle magnetically levitated and propelled by induction motor technology. In December, 1996, when the HSR Commission issued its key findings and recommendations, it included the following discussion on technology:

"The Commission focused on systems capable of maximum operating speeds of at least 200 mph, selecting both the electric traction Very High Speed (VHS) conventional rail and the magnetic levitation (MagLev) technologies for further consideration. Based upon current knowledge and experience in revenue service, the Commission recommends VHS technology. Beyond this, it is premature to specify a proprietary technology or manufacturer. The choices may be determined by the timing of system implementation. If begun immediately, VHS would be the only technology proven in extensive revenue service. If implementation is a longer-term process, however, future technology developments could make MagLev a more attractive option, particularly if manufacturers step forward with performance guarantees, financial incentives, or other offers."

Since then the new Authority has continued this policy of not making a decision on technology until after the voters approve this project. They state that this is to maximize supplier interest and support for the project. Unfortunately this presumes years of further study instead of early implementation. Projections by the Authority showed that MagLev would have the advantage of greater speeds and shorter trip times rendering it more competitive with the airplane. Unfortunately, MagLev is an untried technology and is not in regular revenue service anywhere in the world.

MagLev would also not be compatible with conventional rail systems and would require an exclusive 100% grade separated right-of-way. Thus to reach the center of downtown Los Angeles and the center of San Francisco, entirely new rights-of-way would be needed, probably tunneled or elevated, either of which would be costly.

In comparison, the Very High Speed (VHS) technology would operate on standard gauge welded steel track and therefore could potentially share trackage with existing rail services in some locations. Thus, given solutions to the scheduling and safety considerations of joint use, access into downtown centers could be shared with the existing commuter operations at lower costs than with MagLev. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that this would permit the HSR system to be constructed incrementally and upgraded as funds permitted. It would potentially also allow the HSR trains to be extended to other destinations by operating on existing rail corridors to provide a "one seat" ride (without transfers) to more places.


10. SPUR urges the authority to commit itself now to the VHS, steel wheel on steel welded track technology, and begin the required planning and engineering on that basis to avoid delays. This will allow an early incremental approach to implementing the system by using existing corridors and rail lines to provide Los Angeles to San Francisco service before the entire network is completed. It also will permit high speed trains to directly serve non-high speed segments and to broaden its reach as has been done successfully in France, Switzerland and Italy.

Overall Conclusion

SPUR strongly believes that a statewide High Speed Rail system is needed and fundable. We believe it is very important to link the major urban centers of the northern and southern parts of the state by High Speed Rail as a viable alternative to air and highway travel. We urge the city of San Francisco and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, on behalf of the Bay Area as a whole, to play an active role in bringing this system to fruition as soon as possible, and to include a new Bay rail crossing.

Finally, SPUR strongly urges the HSR Authority to take steps to greatly compress its current schedule, now estimated to take six years for preparing the EIS/EIR. Instead the Authority should push for a three-year schedule with emphasis on an aggressive outreach program so that the general public will understand the urgency of moving ahead with this project.Spur Logo

About the Authors: 

SPUR High-Speed Rail Task Force