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Another 30 miles of California's bullet train route must run at lower speeds, documents show

Another 30 miles of California's bullet train route must run at lower speeds, documents show
Construction continues on the bullet train's San Joaquin River Viaduct in December 2017. (California High-Speed Rail)

The California bullet train will have another slow segment of track as part of a new cost-savings measure, state rail authority documents reveal.

Technical documents attached to the authority's 2018 business plan show that it no longer plans to have dedicated tracks designed for speeds of up to 220 mph over a 30-mile stretch south of San Francisco.

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Instead, the system would operate between San Jose and Gilroy at 110 mph on ground-level tracks on or adjacent to an existing right of way owned by Union Pacific. The route would make 32 highway crossings, requiring sophisticated barrier gates and sharing a corridor that carries freight and commuter rail.

The decision is the third compromise the rail authority has made for money or politics that would create slower sections of track, each incrementally adding travel time to an alternative form of transportation promised to link Los Angeles and San Francisco in less than three hours.

In this case, adding several minutes to the trip is estimated to save about $1.7 billion, a significant sum for a project critically short of funding. The 2018 business plan, released last week, acknowledged there is not enough money to build a partial operating system from San Francisco to Bakersfield by 2029.

The original design for the San Jose to Gilroy segment had lengths of costly elevated track and would have taken significant private land. A rail authority spokesperson said the new plan also will minimize community disruption and environmental impacts.

Whether the new plan succeeds hinges on whether Union Pacific agrees to allow use of its right of way, according to the documents. It is unclear whether the railroad company will go along — and if so, at what cost.

"There is no formal agreement in place regarding the 2018 business plan or its contents," said Union Pacific spokesman Justin Jacobs, though the parties regularly discuss the state's "evolving plans."

In a 2010 letter, Union Pacific warned the rail authority it would not agree to allow the high-speed rail system to use any part of its right of way or to be so close to its tracks that it would impair safety or its freight movements.

Frank Vacca, the rail authority's chief of rail operations, said the state is making progress from Union Pacific's original position and hopes he can have an agreement by the end of this year.

The rail authority has for half a dozen years been cutting deals that would nudge up travel times.

In 2012, the rail authority agreed with political leaders in the Bay Area to eliminate a controversial elevated viaduct through wealthy Peninsula communities. Instead, over a 50-mile stretch from San Jose to San Francisco, the system would share existing tracks owned by Caltrain, a commuter service operated by a local joint powers authority.

Several years ago, the rail authority said it would share about 11 miles of right of way, if not tracks, with the Metrolink system between Burbank and downtown Los Angeles.

In total, there are about 91 miles of rail above ground that involve shared track or right of way that will restrict speeds to about 110 mph. Even that speed is questionable.

Grady Cothen, an attorney and former chief of safety regulations at the Federal Railroad Administration, said in an interview about the California project with The Times last year that 110 mph speeds are unrealistic in dense urban areas.

In statements to the public, rail officials have also suggested they would not run trains at full speed through urban residential neighborhoods.

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Tunnels are another area of restricted speed. In 2016, the rail authority said in a technical document that it would save money by reducing the diameter of tunnels, which would necessitate slowing trains to about 200 mph. In one curved section of a Southern California tunnel, train speeds would be as low as 130 mph, according to a 2014 technical document. In total, there are 45 miles of tunnels planned for the system, according to the business plan.

Of the roughly 434 miles of track between Los Angeles and San Francisco, 136 miles — nearly one-third of the total — could have at least some speed restrictions.

Exactly how much time the San Jose to Gilroy slow section would add to a trip is not disclosed in the documents. At 110 mph over 30 miles, the passage would take an additional eight minutes compared with 220 mph. But Vaca, the rail official, said the speed reduction only amounts to three to four minutes, because the original design for the route had some curved sections that also slowed the speed.

The authority is legally required under the 2008 Proposition 1a bond act to design its system to get a train from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes, though it is not required to operate trains on that timetable. Vaca said the system will beat that design requirement with some time to spare, though he did not disclose the exact travel time that the rail authority's model now predicts.

Outside rail experts say it is improbable that the rail would ever meet the 2 hour 40 minute trip time in actual operations. In the business plan's supporting documents, the rail authority lists a timetable "example" that shows the fastest full-length trip would be 3 hours and 30 minutes. Trains with more stops would take 4 hours and 5 minutes. Nonetheless, Vaca said he is confident that a one- or two-stop train will make the trip in under three hours.

Issues of cost, speed, ridership and fares are intertwined in a project facing mounting political and financial challenges. Internally, the rail authority is undergoing a management shake-up with the arrival of new Chief Executive Officer Brian Kelly and several other key executives, who are trying to restore credibility as the price tag rises and construction falls further behind schedule.

In one of his early acts, Kelly ordered an immediate review of the authority's new cost estimates, which price the project at $78.3 billion with the potential to fall as low $63.2 billion or rise as high $98.1 billion. In the business plan itself, Kelly ordered "a further assessment of the reasonableness of the cost estimates and the ranges."

Such cost estimates are supposed to take into consideration every yard of concrete and every pound of steel needed for construction, as well as many other factors — a laborious task that can take one or two years for a team of estimators.

An authority spokesperson said the cost estimates were developed before Kelly took over the project on Feb. 1 and the new review is aimed at making sure the cost range includes factors that could increase or decrease costs.

Among those factors could be the electrical power grid in the Central Valley, which the business plan revealed may not have enough juice in some areas to operate the electric trains.

As a result, the rail authority is in discussions with PG&E, the electric utility that serves the area, to build new transmission lines, the plan said. The authority's spokesperson said those discussions have been going on for five years and involve who will pay for it.

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