High-speed rail must tame California’s tricky terrain

A bullet train linking Northern and Southern California will be an audacious engineering feat because the line must cross two mountain ranges and a half-dozen earthquake faults, according to experts.

Planners foresee the 141-mile segment from Bakersfield to Los Angeles running through vast tunnels, diving through the Tehachapi and San Gabriel mountains, plunging 500 feet underground in some places and soaring over canyons on viaducts 200 to 330 feet high, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“It is the project of the century,” said Bill Ibbs, a civil engineering professor at UC Berkeley who has worked on high-speed rail projects around the world.

The $68 billion first phase of the project is expected to run more than 500 miles between San Francisco and the Los Angeles and Anaheim areas by 2029. Eventually, supporters hope to see high-speed lines running all the way from Sacramento to San Diego.

Conditions set for the project say it must be able to reach San Francisco from Los Angeles in no more than two hours and 40 minutes. The top speed for the Bakersfield-to-L.A. segment could be 220 mph.

In September, the Federal Railroad Administration approved construction of the first segment, a 65-mile stretch from Merced to Fresno in the Central Valley. Construction is expected to begin next year.

California hasn’t considered such an immense north-south rail link since the 1870s, when Southern Pacific Railroad bored through the Tehachapis. Thousands of Chinese laborers dug and dynamited the way up and through the mountains, creating 18 tunnels on a route that climbed more than 4,000 feet.

Today, only freight trains use the route. Passenger service through the Tehachapis was discontinued in 1971. The high-speed train won’t be able to use the twisting loops of that route; it will need a straighter, flatter path to maintain its speed.

The exact route won’t be chosen until next year, but about 200 people already are working on the southern segment. Among other things, the tracks will have to cross a half-dozen earthquake faults, including the infamous San Andreas, which could produce a 7.5-magnitude temblor.

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