Quick Note: California HSR Could Save $4 Billion on the Grapevine

California HSR’s just-released July progress report, as reported on bakersfield.com, contains the pleasant surprise that switching the alignment from the Tehachapis and Palmdale to the I-5 alignment on the Grapevine could save $4 billion.

Furthermore, the study indicating such cost savings “identified more than one feasible alignment over the mountain pass.” The Grapevine option was rejected in 2005 because the preliminary engineering found only one feasible alignment that crosses known faults at-grade and has a maximum tunnel length of 6 miles and maximum 3.5% grade, compared with hundreds through the Tehachapis. Therefore finding multiple alignments, such that even if further meter-scale geological studies discover new faults then some option will make it through, is likely to tilt the field back toward the Grapevine.

Robert Cruickshank is surprisingly pessimistic about the Grapevine, on the grounds that Palmdale is an important market to serve. In reality, Palmdale is a small commuter market – i.e. it has a strong peak and low revenue per rider – so giving it up is a small deal, probably fully canceled out by the gain of about 10 minutes’ trip time on the shorter Grapevine.

But most importantly, it’s most important to get an initial operable segment ready, and this means connecting the Central Valley to the LA Basin. As I’ve explained before, a major advantage of the Grapevine is that it allows connecting to the legacy Metrolink line at Santa Clarita rather than at Palmdale, avoiding tens of kilometers of sharp curves on the climb between the LA Basin and Antelope Valley.

I’m unable to find the progress report, so I don’t know to what extent “$4 billion in savings” literally means coming in $4 billion under budget. If it does, it means that theoretically, the money available suffices to build from Los Angeles to a point between Bakersfield and Fresno; Obama’s now-moribund $4 billion for HSR, matched 50:50, would be more than enough to build from Los Angeles to Fresno.

Update: here is the progress report. The relevant section is on page 27. It says only that “an alternative via the Grapevine may save between $1B and $4B in capital cost” – still unclear whether it means coming $1-4 billion under budget, or staying within budget while avoiding a $1-4 billion cost overrun on the Tehachapis.

It’s too bad the approximate amount remains unclear. The required budget is on the same order as the amount that may become available in the next two years depending on Congressional machinations, and so it’s important for California to know how much it should be asking for. For example, if it were made clear that an additional $2.5 billion in federal funding were enough to complete LA-Fresno, then Dianne Feinstein might try to include the full amount for high-speed rail in the transportation bill for 2012 rather than just $100 million.

14 comments

  1. jim

    Here’s the relevant paragraph from the report:

    RC has completed almost all engineering analysis of corridors for the Grapevine I5
    Alternatives, indicating the existence of feasible alignments which meet project criteria
    (gradient, crossing active fault zones at-grade etc). Corridors pass on either the east or west of
    the I5 impacting the proposed Tejon Ranch Mountain Village development, or conservation
    lands. However, these environmental impacts are considered to be similar to those for the
    Antelope Valley Alignment options. While the engineering detail for the Grapevine
    Alternatives is still limited, these have been estimated using general unit rates for tunneling,
    at-grade, viaduct etc. Following Value Engineering to both the Bakersfield to Palmdale and
    Palmdale to Sylmar alignment options, quantities have been developed and confidence exists
    in the current priced alignments. This indicates that an alternative via the Grapevine may save
    between $1B and $4B in capital cost. More detailed analysis of ridership and revenue figures
    is required to complete the analysis between the Grapevine and Antelope Valley Alternatives.
    The Board presentation planned for September will include a proposal to progress the
    Grapevine alternatives to the same level of engineering and environmental detail as the
    Antelope Valley alignments for overall comparison in an all-encompassing Alternatives
    Analysis document.

    It’s a lot more tentative than the newspaper article (duh!).

    There’s also schedule slippage concomitant on the studies:

    If the Board approves the proposal to continue studies of the Grapevine alternatives
    to the same level of engineering and environmental detail as the Antelope Valley
    alignments and allows overall comparison of options in an all-encompassing
    Alternatives Analysis document, this may add an estimated nine to twelve months to
    the schedule. The added time will be required for scope development and full
    environmental analysis/engineering design completion. This will need to be
    incorporated in the overall Master Schedule and the FY 11/12 AWP scopes for both
    Palmdale to LA and Bakersfield to Palmdale.

    I’d add that currently CHSRA is legally required to run through Palmdale. To get the legislature to change that will require that they get all their ducks in a row. Full revenue and ridership analysis will be necessary, given that several powerful political interests back the Palmdale route.

  2. anonymouse

    The true reason behind wanting to serve Palmdale has nothing to do with providing a useful service to commuters, or increasing the system’s revenue. It’s really about fueling another boom of land speculation, a goal which has acquired a bit more urgency after the previous, subprime loan-fueled, one has burst rather hard.

    Also, the cost savings of going via Grapevine will be had not only on that section of the route, but throughout the rest of the system as well. By having a route that’s 50 mile shorter and doesn’t have the long section of restricted speed due to a long down grade, the trains will save a fair amount of time on the end to end trip. And since that’s mandated to be 2 hours and 40 minutes, that means that expensive engineering to save a few minutes will be less necessary elsewhere, saving both on costs and fights with NIMBYs

    • Alon Levy

      The roughly ten minutes saved by the Grapevine are precious for Phase 1 engineering, but for Phase 0 the main effect should be on ridership rather than cost. Bakersfield and Fresno’s engineering is not going to be made cheaper by reducing the top speed – at least, there are no plans to try to do so. The main saving would be on the Peninsula – or, better yet, by being able to construct LA-SJ on Altamont and meet the required timetable – but if there’s enough money to get both there and to Los Angeles, the system will be mostly complete anyway.

      In contrast, cutting ten minutes from LA-Bakersfield is significant: it reduces nonstop travel time from 54 minutes to about 44. Since cutting out Palmdale involves cutting an additional stop from local trips (Santa Clarita is likely to replace Sylmar), it has a slightly bigger effect on local trains – say, about 51 minutes vs. 1:04. If LA-Bakersfield were the entirety of Phase 0 then it would make for a beautiful takt with short turnarounds, but as we know all too well, they’re still prioritizing Bakersfield-Fresno, and have no intention of shortening turnaround times.

      • anonymouse

        Wow, 44 minutes nonstop from LA to Bakersfield would be quite excellent. Two trains get you hourly service, and you can get away with short turnarounds on such a short trip. Plus, to save money, this could be built as single track initially, with a long passing siding somewhere in the middle. Even with the long slow ride on the San Joaquin, this would be a 7 hour trip, competitive with driving for LA-SF, and more competitive the closer you get to LA. Faster trips on the San Joaquin would obviously make this better, as would eliminating the transfer, or extending the HSR line further north. And this would provide an immediate end to end benefit, versus the Fresno-Bakersfield run, where part of the travel time improvement would be eaten up by having a second transfer, or mostly negated by running the same old Amtrak trains at a slightly higher speed.

        • Alon Levy

          It’s not really going to save money to build it single-track – all the financially heavy tunnels and viaducts have to have enough room for two tracks, while the trackwork is a small portion of the budget.

          • anonymouse

            That depends on whether the tunnels have both tracks in one bore, or one per bore. If it’s the latter (as seems likely to me), then you wouldn’t have to dig the other half of the tunnel till later, which would save a noticeable if not huge amount of cost for the initial phase.

          • Andre Lot

            @anonymouse: digging the tunnels itself is just part of the cost. A latter excavation of a 2nd bore costs more, because it implies new work sites, new extensive water management and safety system, new geological monitoring, waste disposal etc etc

  3. Danny

    Robert Cruickshank would be 100% correct if we only lived in the type of fantasy world that he doesn’t want to exist. $4,000,000,000 in cost with $4,000,000,001 of benefit would be a perfectly acceptable “go-ahead” situation if CAHSRA were a private company with private funding operating in an environment with few legal and political risks. But in reality it is a public venture using public funding in an environment with nearly unlimited legal and political risks.

    Alon is completely correct given the real world constrants that CAHSRA faces. When you are building an extremely expensive project that is only partially funded, using taxpayer dollars, and in a state with the political environment of California, optimal efficiency isn’t an automatic decision. You build the proof of concept first, by building the highest ridership segments and meeting or exceeding expectations. If you don’t do that, you don’t get the rest of your funding.

    That being said, there is no way in hell that Palmdale is worth the extra expense, at least at its current population and density. It might be worth it in the future…but in that case, a branch line is a pretty good second-best alternative.

    • Alon Levy

      To be honest, I’d have a lot less of an issue with Robert’s post if he talked about relative costs and benefits. But he’s not; he’s saying that if cutting Palmdale leads to any ridership loss, it should not be done, and keeps blowing up Palmdale’s importance and demanding delays in the decision whether to switch to Tejon or not. It’s uncharacteristic of him – as I told him on CAHSR Blog, I’d have expected him to treat a large potential cost underrun as great news.

      But yes, you’re right that independently of costs and benefits, there’s the political need to get a decent initial operable segment going on. Preferably all funding should in place before the 2012 election in case Romney wins and cancels all HSR funding to buy conservative cred (a scenario I find quite likely right now). And although Palmdale-Fresno is operable, it’s not very useful, not with the tens of kilometers of slow, curvy legacy track between Palmdale and Santa Clarita.

      • Paulus Magnus

        The only thing uncharacteristic is his demanding that it shouldn’t be done if it leads to any net revenue loss given his previously demonstrated penchant for desiring operational subsidies. He cheerleads for the project, all news is “Everything is A-OK and hunky-dory!” and so there can’t be a better way to do things, such as cutting out Palmdale.

      • jim

        There’s an inherent delay in deciding whether to switch to the Grapevine. The CHSRA can decide today (well, at next month’s meeting) to stick with Palmdale and the best case IOS stays at 2017 with a well understood (if not yet publicly known) cost. If you want all funding for the IOS in place within the next year or so (from reallocation of residual TARP?), that’s the scenario most likely to achieve that.

        A decision to switch to Grapevine can’t be made for another 9 months to a year, because that’s the length of time it will take to bring the Grapevine analysis up to the level of the Antelope Valley analysis. Once that decision is made, it will take legislative action to enable CHSRA to implement it. Which will require more time. There is no hope for getting funding in place by the end of 2012 in that scenario.

        My guess is that it’s likely Van Ark doesn’t believe there’s any possibility of federal funding in 2012, so it’s safe for him to pursue the possibility of the Grapevine and incur the schedule slips, since it’d slip anyway because of the absence of funding. I suspect that Robert is more sanguine about the possibility of funding appearing and frets at the delay.

        • Alon Levy

          You’re right about the schedule slips – I was thinking more about securing sufficient funding than about opening a useful IOS early.

          On the other hand, depending on how the funding is programmed, CAHSR could move it from segment to segment if there’s a change. The ICS money was programmed specifically for the Central Valley, but that was apparently a specific request by van Ark meant to circumvent the Bay Area and Orange Ounty politicians looking to program money to their respective train stations. If the HSRA restudies Tejon then it can ask for money for “Bakersfield-LA” and have more flexibility.

          • Michael John

            I sent a letter to the governor of California about this exact same issue, as well as the routing of the Fresno-Bakersfield alignment.

  4. Pingback: The CAHSR Bombshell | Pedestrian Observations

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