America has looked enviously upon the development of high-speed rail routes elsewhere in the world, particularly Japan. The country with among the highest car ownership and some of the busiest roads in the world realised, perhaps late, that alternative forms of transport would be needed to cope with the continued demand for fast, efficient long- and short-distance journeys. The state government of one of the country's fastest-growing areas, California, decided in 1993 to establish an Intercity High-Speed Rail Commission to develop a framework for the implementation of a high- speed rail network in the state. The group focused on potential for inter-city travel, i.e. journeys of between l00 and 500 miles, at speeds of over 200 mph (320 kph).
Under the authority which created it, the commission's first objective was to develop a system connecting the San Francisco Bay Area with Los Angeles, and then consider extensions to San Diego and Sacramento.
It carried out five evaluations. which comprised a preliminary engineering study of the line between Los Angeles and Bakersfield, the corridor and environmental constraints, a ridership demand and market analysis study, modal cost comparisons and possible economic impact, and financing options. Three pubnlic inquiries have been held, and the findings handed over to the High Speed Rail Authority, which has the powers to implement the works needed for the project.
The ability of the state's highway and airline network to continue to cope with future growth was questioned, and the Commission concluded that, while the extreme ends of the proposed route were well served, intermediate markets, such as the cities of Bakersfield and Fresno, enjoyed less frequent and less competitively priced public transport.
Residents of the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas are also all too conscious of other possible major factors which affect existing modes of transport, but from which rail travel is less likely to suffer. The region is prone to dense fog, making travel on the already congested roads even more hazardous. And of course, the area is a wellknown earthquake zone, and the promoters of the scheme are keen to point out that it would offer an alternative means of transport in the event of such a natural disaster.
Airports too, are currently taking a large share in the growing transport market, but there is wide concern over how much longer this can last, given their physical constraints.
With airlines likely to concentrate on developing more profitable long-distance and intercontinental markets, rail is seen as a suitable inheritor of much of the inter-state and domestic traffic.
Signalling and Communications
Initial studies by the commission looked at the possibility of developing either a very high-speed (VHS) or a maglev (magnetic levitation) system, and concluded that the former would be the preferred option if a system was to be built as quickly as possible, using proven signalling technology.
These studies also evaluated the possibility of incorporating commercial freight services along the route. While existing freight services were obviously far too slow and heavy to use a high-speed rail alignment, it was considered that overnight freight and high-speed mail movements could be accommodated, bringing an early estimated revenue of $20 million a year.
Early findings led to the focus of the commission's study being narrowed down to the State Route 99 alignment through the Central Valley.
Within this option, studies involving the use of different mountain passes, services to urban areas, and possible extensions at either end of the route beyond Los Angeles and San Francisco were also undertaken.
This study resulted in the adoption of a series of parameters for any high-speed service:
Primary purpose to serve inter-city journeys of between 100 and 500 miles;
While the main focus would be on systems operated at 200mph and above, speeds in densely-populated urban areas would be limited to 100-150mph;
High-speed trains must be separated from other, incompatible services, such as freight and urban commuter traffic;
However, high-speed services should be fully integrated with commuter rail and urban transit lines.
With the planned network estimated to serve over 90 per cent of California's population, and taking in all the major metropolitan areas, there are many incentives to find the quickest, most cost-effective option for construction.
This can be achieved by carrying out the construction work in two phases over eight years. The first phase, estimated to take five years, will be the Los Angeles-San Francisco Bay Area segment, after which the San DiegoSacramento section could be completed, financed partly from income generated by the completed first phase.
The most significant saving comes, not surprisingly, from reduced congestion on other modes of transport. Backers projected that the high-speed network could save taxpayers around $1 billion a year through cutting congestion alone by the year 2020.
Ownership and operation of the network has been similarly subject to the discussion of various options. The favourite which emerged was a new, special authority, which would oversee implementation, on either a design-build, or a design-build-operate basis in partnership with a private entity.
The high-speed rail authority was given the job of directing the development and implementation of the system, as well as preparing a detailed financing plan, with the aim of gaining approval for the system and its method of base funding by the year 2000. While the authority stressed that this was probably the most exhaustive feasibility investigation ever carried out for a transport project in California, it was also aware that wide public support would be needed, if the project were to compete for State funding alongside other, established priorities.
Potential routes linking Los Angeles
to the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Route 99 corridor and extension