After high-speed rail demise: Downtown SF to Downtown LA trains?

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

The U. S. Census counted 10 million Californians in 1950.

Today the California Department of Finance says there are some 40 million of us.

In the years around 1950, Downtown San Francisco and Downtown Los Angeles were connected with a day- and night-long stream of storied, streamlined trains. The Morning Daylight, the Noon Daylight, the Starlight, the all-Pullman Lark, The Coasters, the San Francisco Passenger, and others sped up and down the 470-mile corridor carrying millions of Californians annually. The fastest trains took less than ten hours.
Today, with California 400 percent bigger, the two downtowns are connected with zero trains. And last week Governor Newsom pulled the plug on the high-speed rail project that would have linked them as often as every 15 minutes.

While five airlines provide almost hourly service between LAX and SFO, might there be a train market among those 40 million for people who are not in a hurry or who want to save a few bucks?

• The scenic route hugs the Pacific for 200 miles.

• The line links universities in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Palo Alto, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, the San Fernando Valley, and Los Angeles and virtually touches the boundaries of airports in San Francisco, San Jose, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Burbank.

• It connects the two largest financial and cultural districts in the west and goes within blocks of two of the world’s major medical centers. Busy arenas and stadiums are steps away.

• It tends not to be delayed by fog or rain, as airports are.

• It allows for such pleasantries as meals, wi fi, strolling, napping, sight-seeing, and pickup/drop-off right at passengers’ home cities, eliminating trips to airports, parking, security, and long walks.

An experiment in SF-LA train travel could start as early as next week, since no new infrastructure is needed.

• The tracks and signaling systems are all there and are in better shape today than they were in 1950. The stations are all there, too.

• There is very little conflicting freight traffic on the portion of Union Pacific-owned tracks.

• The system between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles-San Diego alone carries three million passengers annually on a publicly-owned right-of-way. So the market is already proven. Imagine how many would stay on for the San Luis Obispo to San Francisco segment if it were offered…today to Fourth and Townsend and eventually to Salesforce Transit Center.

(The San Joaquin train between Bakersfield and Sacramento/Oakland carried 1.1 million passengers last year and the Capital Corridor line between San Jose and Sacramento tallied 1.78 million. The population served by those routes is far less than that of the SF-LA market, so the numbers for a new coast extension to San Francisco seem portentous.)

The infrastructure exists. There’s almost nothing to spend. It would seem simple to figure out how to extend a few trains beyond SLO and re-schedule personnel hours for those who already work on the railroad. A contract signed by UPRR, Caltrain, and the California Department of Transportation is almost all that would be needed.

Until high-speed rail is born again, way down the line, low-cost, medium-speed SF-LA train service would fill an obvious void – and it would be $77 billion cheaper and 30 years sooner.

Stanford M. Horn writes on transportation and development issues.

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