The stretch from Los Angeles to San Diego is one of America’s busiest travel corridors. The I-5 is among America’s busiest interstates, and Los Angeles-San Diego is the top corridor for high-speed rail in California, according to the America 2050 report by New York-based Regional Plan Association. The Pacific Surfliner, the line that connects San Diego and L.A. and goes north to Santa Barbara, is already the second busiest Amtrak route, after the Northeast Corridor.

Yet the plans for California’s high-speed rail prioritizes the route from Los Angeles to San Francisco instead. It will take decades for high-speed rail service to reach San Diego. There are steps Southern California officials could take in the meantime, however, that would drastically improve rail services and encourage more people to ride.

Existing upgrade plans leave something to be desired – they’re both low-cost and low-impact. These include some track upgrades that would let trains travel faster and more frequently. Several additional projects are part of the California high-speed rail program. The so-called blended plan involves incremental improvements to track speed and capacity between Los Angeles and Anaheim, especially on a short segment with heavy freight traffic. This is intended to allow future high-speed rail from Los Angeles to San Francisco to use the existing tracks to serve Anaheim, but at lower speed. The total cost on this segment is projected at $2 billion in the 2016 business plan.

Phase One of California high-speed rail, between San Francisco and Anaheim, will only open in 2029, and the High-Speed Rail Authority has so far done little work on Phase Two, which includes the line between Los Angeles and San Diego, via the Inland Empire. Since high-speed rail service to San Diego is so far on the horizon, it is worth discussing medium-term improvements, which would take several years instead and upgrade service before high-speed rail arrives.

Examples of these interim improvements already exist. For instance, the Northeast Corridor – the East Coast rail line that runs from Boston to Washington D.C. – has been improved slowly over many decades, is electrified and runs at an average speed of 60 to 80 miles per hour. Some European countries, including Britain, Sweden and Switzerland, have not built high-speed networks but instead upgraded legacy lines. In those countries, upgraded lines average between 70 and 90 miles per hour, supporting multiple trains per hour on the busier lines. San Diego is bigger than any Swedish or Swiss city, and the five-county Los Angeles metro area is bigger than Sweden and Switzerland combined. If domestic trains in Sweden and Switzerland can support one to two trains every hour, fast service between Los Angeles and San Diego should support at a minimum a train every half hour, and potentially much more.

The Los Angeles-San Diego corridor is 128 miles long, and is for the most part straight. Target trip times of two hours should be achievable even with the frequent stops on the Pacific Surfliner. The aspirational trip time is about 1:45 or 1:50, which would be competitive with driving even outside rush hour. The investment required for this ranges from the high hundreds of millions of dollars to the very low billions. This is still slower than the eventual trip time envisioned by Phase Two of the high-speed rail project, currently projected at 1:18, via an indirect route through the Inland Empire.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The way to achieve trip times lower than two hours on legacy track is to combine new federal regulations and strategic investments intended to take advantage of the new rules. In late 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration released new regulations for passenger rail safety, which allow lightly modified European trains to run on U.S. tracks. Previously, unique U.S. rules required trains to be heavier. This follows a regulatory change from 2010 that allows trains to run faster on curves, subject to safety testing. The existing diesel locomotives are too heavy to take advantage of this change, but lighter electric passenger trains face no such obstacle.

This means that the region needs to invest in electrifying the corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles, and potentially as far north as San Luis Obispo. Between San Diego and Los Angeles, the likely cost – based on the California high-speed rail electrification cost – is about $800 million.

The benefits are considerable. Electric trains emit no local pollution, while diesel is an unusually dirty fuel, contributing to Southern California’s poor air quality. New EPA rules, the Tier 4 standards, have required rail agencies in the U.S. to buy cleaner-burning diesel locomotives. The Pacific Surfliner has recently bought Tier 4-compliant locomotives, but many intercity and commuter rail routes around the country are interested in such trains, so they could likely fetch a good price by selling them now on the second-hand market. While these locomotives are cleaner than the legacy ones they replace, they are almost as heavy, and are unsuitable for a fast operation.

Besides the environmental benefits, electric trains have far better acceleration than diesel trains. An analysis by local rail activist Paul Druce suggests that on the northern half of the line, a European electric commuter train could average about 60 mph, making many stops on the way. This adds to the ability of such trains to go somewhat faster on curves without compromising safety. The existing plan for the corridor already includes some speed increases; being able to run faster on curves would have a noticeable effect. Better rail transit coming from electrification would have additional environmental benefits coming from reducing driving, such as car accidents, pollution and congestion.

Another potential investment is a cutoff of Miramar Hill. Right now, the tracks meander on a curvy alignment, wasting valuable time. Local medium-term plans for the corridor include a tunnel under the hills, which would shave about 4.5 curvy miles off the route, saving perhaps seven minutes. The projected cost of the tunnel is about $500 million. But electric trains can climb steeper grades than diesels because of their more powerful motors. They could run on new tracks alongside I-5, with some viaducts but no tunnels.

All of the above improvements work together. New regulations allow the corridor to use more powerful trains. This encourages electrification, in order to immediately buy the best standard-speed trains available, and run faster on curves. Electrification, in turn, encourages a cheaper Miramar Hill realignment than the proposed tunnel.

The result of such investment would be that frequent, rapid trains could efficiently connect Southern California by the mid-2020s. With trains doing the trip between Los Angeles and San Diego in less than two hours, many people would choose to leave their cars at home and ride rail. Trains would leave every half hour, all day, every day. Travelers could connect from anywhere on the San Diego Trolley system to anywhere on the expanding Los Angeles Metro Rail without using road-based transportation. This would not only shift travel away from highways and toward mass transit, but also encourage taking more trips, for tourism as well as business. The Los Angeles and San Diego metro areas would become closer and better-integrated.

Alon Levy is a Paris-based mathematician and public transportation policy writer.

    This article relates to: Land Use, Must Reads, Public Transportation, Transit

    Written by Alon Levy

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    Very fast NON STOP  between LA and San Fran makes some sense.

    Also mid city San Diego where the people are to/from LAX , NON STOP..

    But plan LA station via Ontario airport have dozen stops; migght as well drive. 

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    Makes much to much sense for California to do. Until the train journey is under two hours and reliable there will be no ridership. Get the train off the Coast and stack it down the center of the freeway.

    Jay Berman
    Jay Berman

    This won't happen, too many at grade crossings too close together, cities won't want to have the overhead electric grid either.  We don't have the density anyway.  Fix the highways, the new hyperloop technology should be built by the private sector adjacent or under the current corridor.  

    John Jefkins
    John Jefkins

    @Jay Berman Hyperloop is just the same old Victorian idea - that got rejected 150 years ago.  It didn't work then and it won't work now.

    Steel rail on steel track is a lot simpler, cheaper and more reliable.   Fixing your roman roads costs a lot more and uses tonnes more land.

    But you are right that any new rail line should hug and straddle the current Freeway corridor where possible - although it'd be straighter.

    Getting train journey times down is vital.

    Right now too many US passenger trains have to wait behind freight trains.  

    In Europe its the opposite case.  Freight runs overnight.

    Jay Berman
    Jay Berman

    @John Jefkins @Jay Berman  Hyperloop testing is going on now, it works.  There is no friction or drag as it runs on air in a vacuum.  Pods can carry people or freight at estimated speeds of 400 to 700 MPH.  For high-speed rail to work it must be electrified, Diesel locomotives carrying fuel and massive motors / generators are just too heavy.  I can't imagine the folks in coastal towns wanting the overhead electric required or want trains crossing, at-grade at high speeds, this simply won't happen.  You can't compare the west coast, especially SD / Orange counties to Europe or the Northeast Corridor, we simply don't have the density and we most likely won't either.  Here is a nice article about successful hyperloop testing, this would be built by the private sector, not government (taxpayer).  

    John Jefkins
    John Jefkins

    Unfortunately parts of this story count as "FAKE NEWS".

    I'm from London, Great Britain, and it is not true that Britain, Sweden and Switzerland don't have high speed trains (ie 150mph + trains).

    We already have a 200 mph line from London to the Channel Tunnel (HS1) and construction of our HS2 Y shaped line to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds/York is being approved right now in our parliament.   Sweden's trains run at 130mph now and they too plan a high speed line before California opens its line.  Switzerland will open its new high speed route from Zurich to Milan (via a new tunnel) in 2 years time.

    Of course you should be able to upgrade your existing line too.   Here in London we have 24 trains per hour about to run through our new Thameslink route across London and another 24 trains/hr will run on the Crossrail route too.   15 trains per hour per track is normal.

    I'm afraid the good old U S of A is a bit in the past tense on this.  I wish you luck, but it sounds like you need to invest in BOTH high speed rail AND some decent upgrades for your existing lines.

    One of the main reasons we in the UK are building our 2nd high speed line is that we tried upgrading the old West Coast Mainline (London-Glasgow). 

    It cost 3 times the budget (compared with new build on Crossrail that stayed on time and on budget) as upgrading old lines are tricky and you have all sorts of disruption costs when you close a working line and disrupt all the passengers for years.  It is cheaper to build a new line in a new place (and make it a 200mph line whilst you are at it (as it costs so little more to just make the new line a bit straighter for speed).

    The other big reason we had for a new high speed line is that the existing line is so busy.  Every intercity train uses about FOUR slow train paths.

    So moving the intercity trains out of the way of the commuter trains means that about FOUR extra commuter trains can be added per train moved.

    When demand for rail travel in the UK doubled in the past 15 years (years in which average car mileage flatlined) and passenger demand is rising at around 4% per year, a new line is very necessary.,....

    So, good luck to you folks in the USA.  But I expect Trump will want to build a wall soon around Los Angeles the way he is going...... :-(

    Martin W
    Martin W

    @John Jefkins This is an opinion piece, so it's not news.  And there's nothing fake.  I think we should save term "fake news" for intentionally misleading statements presented as facts.

    The point the author is trying to make is that neither Switzerland nor Sweden has built dedicated 300km/h+ high speed lines, but many of their lines are upgraded to 200km/h operation.   

    I'm surprised that the author has not mentioned the work in Illinois where the Chicago <--> St. Louis is being upgraded from 79 mph to 110 mph operation.  The work begun in 2011 and is now entering sixth year with completion targeted for end of the year.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    After reading this story, anyone who still supports the current California High Speed Rail projects is certifiable.  There it is in black and white, The L.A. to San Diego corridor is second only to the Northeast corridor in traffic.  

    When you examine San Francisco to L A  vs San Diego to L A, a couple of things stand out.  First, practically no one drives San Francisco to L A, particularly on business,  except 18 wheeler drivers; they fly, and for two reasons.  It takes a long time to drive and the air fares are relatively reasonable.

    The opposite is true L A to San Diego; you can usually make it in 2 to 3 hours even if traffic is fairly heavy, and the air fares are astronomical, relatively speaking.

    So, if you want to get petroleum powered vehicles off the road for environmental and traffic purposes, you go where the auto traffic is.  Note, you don’t get a single 18 wheeler off the road via the bullet train, and if you’ve driven to San Francisco lately you know how many there are.  Conversely, a lot of people would take the train here rather than drive, because our station is right downtown, a quick Uber ride to most destinations. 

    I think Mr. Levy is on to something and I’d sure support this project if we could kill Jerry Brown’s “legacy” achievement that’s in zombie mode but won’t go away. 

    Don Atenow
    Don Atenow

    @Derek Hofmann @Bill Bradshaw I'll agree with Derek. I'd far prefer rail for the stated reasons.

    Plus doing business digitally has allowed us to cut air travel by well over 50%, saving us money more reasonably spent elsewhere. The airline customer service (or lack of it) is something that I don't miss. The cattle herding-like atmosphere at airports is a real downer, too. 

    We take Amtrak up to OC, LA & parts north regularly and far prefer it to driving from SD.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Don Atenow @Derek Hofmann @Bill Bradshaw     Two certifiables, I guess.  

    Seriously, If you'd read my comments again, you'll see that I'm not against high speed rail per se.  I've been to Europe and even Japan, many years ago when they had pretty high speed rail in the 1950s.  You're right, it's a great experience.  I'm just against the current California High Speed Rail Project, a classic boondoggle, and if it's ever completed it will bleed money like nothing before it.  Mr. Levy's idea, although not high speed, makes substantial sense.  

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann @Bill Bradshaw I plead guilty to not knowing about the profitability of "bullet trains" as opposed to passenger rail in general, but most, if not all, passenger rail SYSTEMS worldwide are publicly subsidized operationally.  

    The California project was sold to the public on, among other things,  the promise it would require no operational subsidy and it's construction would be privately financed.  No one has yet stepped forward, even philanthropists Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, to offer to finance construction.  There are, at present, NO takers.  Don't you find this strange if bullet trains are universally profitable?

    Furthermore, there have been numerous concessions already made to communities that will have rights of way going through them, to slow down the train.  The current estimated travel time SF to LA is about 3 1/2 hours but that may rise, just like the construction cost estimates.  No one yet knows how the ticket prices will compare to air travel, but unless the train is appreciably cheaper, who is going to abandon air travel for the train?  I know it's pleasant, but I think we are talking primarily about frequent business travelers.

    I'd offer a wager on this subject, but I'm in my mid-80s and the probability this boondoggle will be finished in my lifetime, if ever, is pretty slim. 

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Bill Bradshaw The High Speed Rail Authority plans to open the project for private investment when more government funding sources have been secured. The purpose of waiting until then is to offer a more attractive, low risk investment option.

    The current plan is to set rides at 83% of airfares.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Bill Bradshaw Some of us have ridden on a bullet train, and it's a much, much more pleasant experience than flying. You don't have to be at the train station an hour and a half early, security is much lighter, and you can use your laptop and cell phone the whole time. And if you're going from downtown to downtown, the taxi ride to Union Station is much shorter than to LAX, and the SFO side drops you off right in the heart of downtown. So business travelers especially will wonder why anyone would want to fly between those two cities.

    Jose Cervantes
    Jose Cervantes

    @Bill Bradshaw @Derek Hofmann I don't understand why passenger rail and transit is held to a different standard with regards to public funding. Roads and air travel also receive public funding and nobody questions it.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    At least finish the double-tracking of the line between LA and San Diego.

    Martin W
    Martin W

    @David Crossley I agree, but double-track isn't critical if you have a good schedule and don't easily suffer delays.  With that said, i don't know how often delays force trains to miss their slots across "single track" segments.  There's a page tracking some of the double-tracking:

    I would argue that next three tasks should be:

    1) PTC - let's finish it, else it will be an endless distraction

    2) 110 mph operation.  Much of the track is straight and could support higher speeds.  Need PTC first.

    3) Start talking about Miramar tunnel.

    Ian Stewart
    Ian Stewart

    @Martin W @David Crossley

    Thank you all for this article and discussion.  I would like to clarify a few things. 

    Double tracking is vital to increasing the speed and reliability of the Surfliner and similar passenger service given that freight trains have the right of way on much of the track in California.  The shared track is also a barrier to electrification as the overhead wires cannot be used on lines that operate double stack fright trains. 

    The two main costs with electrifying passenger rail (be it high speed or intercity commuter) are purchasing the dedicated track right of way and funding the construction costs of electrification which are currently well beyond $15M per route mile. 

    As for high speed service, the current passenger trains such as surfliner and metrolink are capable of operating at speeds in excess of 100mph, the limitation is the track speed limits on much of the existing lines is 79mph.  It is also important to note these passenger trains are limited to a max acceleration/deceleration based on locomotive tractive power and passenger safety.  This limitation means that it takes roughly 4-6 miles for a train to accelerate to 100 mph. If a service has stopping frequencies of less than 6-8 miles between stations, it is likely that "high speed" operation is irrelevant because the train cannot reach the higher speeds before it must start slowing down for the next station.  Of course this is not an issue if you have a non stop service between LA and SD but you still have to contend with the 79MPH speed limit until you have a dedicated high speed rated track to operate on.