Tuesday, May 22, 2012

San Diego to Los Angeles in two hours for $600 million

One of the long standing goals for the Pacific Surfliner is to reduce the total travel time between San Diego and Los Angeles from its current schedule of two hours and forty minutes down to two hours. Previously, electrification of Laguna Niguel-Los Angeles was looked at to see what sort of gains might be made there, which resulted in shaving 26 minutes off of a 55 mile route. Unfortunately, NIMBY and environmentalist opposition, plus pedestrian safety concerns in the San Clemente area, make electrification of the entire route a non-starter at the present time. [Edit: In retrospect, this is too harsh on environmentalists and NIMBYs: Especially in the Del Mar area, electrification would almost certainly require the already planned tunnel in order to be feasible, which would increase project costs to the billions of dollars]. However, we do have acceleration data for Bombardier’s Talent thanks to YouTube, permitting a rough estimate of time savings using world standard DMU equipment. As before, time tables from BNSF and Metrolink/San Diego Northern were used for speed limits.

At the time that I did the calculations, I was unaware of the actual braking rate of the Talent and used Metrolink’s demonstrated 1.62mphps as a conservative placeholder; further research after the fact showed it to be 2.13mphps, which does not appreciably change matters. The vastly greater acceleration, however, allows for a major reduction in travel time, though not quite to the two hour bench-mark. With a one minute dwell time a departure on the hour ends up looking as follows:

Arrival Station
0:00:00 San Diego Santa Fe 
0:28:28 Solano Beach
0:40:57 Oceanside
1:05:08 San Juan Capistrano
1:15:18 Irvine
1:24:15 Santa Ana
1:31:14 Anaheim
1:38:00 Fullerton
2:06:30 Los Angeles

With 7% schedule padding, the total scheduled trip time would drop to two hours and fourteen minutes which, while good, especially for less than a hundred million dollars and the political capital involved in wrangling a waiver, isn’t quite to the full standard that Caltrans would like. An important caveat about the presumptive scheduling: It is very much an optimum schedule which assumes no conflicts, high balls the entire way, and a high degree of precision in train control.

The next biggest bang for our buck is unfortunately a bit on the expensive side, involving as it does a few miles of tunnel. This would involve the boring of a tunnel through Miramar Hill near San Diego rather than taking the rather winding and slow route that it currently does. Both options for the tunnel are in the $500 million range; in exchange, not only are numerous slow curves eliminated, about five miles of of total route length is cut from the route length; if built to 90mph standards, this should reduce travel time by seven to eight minutes with the Talent DMU set, bringing us back down below two hours for total travel time and just  a few minutes above it for a scheduled time. Unfortunately further decreases in travel time would require more tunneling, especially through San Clemente where there is a 2.6 mile stretch of 40mph running; or the 90-125mph dedicated passenger tracks between Los Angeles and Anaheim planned for by the California High Speed Rail program. However, with an express schedule, a two hour trip is possible for the cost of the Miramar tunnel and new train sets with a total cost in the region of six hundred million dollars.


  1. Wait, why on earth would NIMBYs, and especially environmentalists object to electrification?!

    Electrification seems an environmental win in multiple ways—more efficient, much more likely to be a greener power source, won't pollute sensitive areas along the route, faster service encourages more people to use the train rather than drive (which not only takes cars off the road, but increases the efficiency of the train by increasing the load factor), etc, etc, etc...

    Are all these people simply nuts?

    1. Unfortunately, with regards to NIMBYs, the scenic nature of the route is the problem: You'd be stringing overhead wire in front of some very expensive ocean views.

      Environmentally, it's the usual issues with regards to sensitive lagoons and whatnot, even if diesel particulates are more harmful than sticking some poles in it. Some of the areas it would actually be justified; given the stability issues with the Del Mar bluffs, I don't think putting catenary there is actually feasible and the tracks there are planned to be replaced by a tunnel in the future largely because of the environmental problems (of the "catastrophic bluff failure and tracks slide into the ocean" kind). Unfortunately, there's environmentalist opposition even to that on account of the beach and lagoons, although I'd put good money on that being a NIMBY masquerading as environmental concern.

      Now, that said, the opposition can and will, one day, be overcome, but it'll be extremely expensive and done for capacity and safety issues rather than electrification per se. Los Angeles to Laguna Niguel is a pretty straight forward electrification; unfortunately south of there the issues which need to be fixed to permit electrification raise the expense tremendously, making it a several billion dollar project. to carry out. Worthwhile as a package deal, but not so much strictly for the sake of electrification.

      I do believe, however, that getting one section of SoCal, especially if it were along LOSSAN, electrified, with the benefits readily apparent, could garner sufficient ridership and political support that it, and the various capacity improvements, could be extended along the rest of the line down to San Diego.

    2. I think electrification in Southern California would have to begin on one of the Metrolink-owned right of ways, such as the San Bernardino line.

      Caltrain's electrification project might build political support elsewhere in California for electrification, but I don't know how far South the impression will travel.

      There's another reason to electrify, to escape fluctuating oil prices. Metrolink has a budget gap, most of which was caused by increases in fuel prices. Even our transit agencies, the ones that use diesel anyway, are at the whims of an unstable world economy and strife halfway across the world.

  2. You could get an extra increase in speed on curvier segments, because modern DMUs are capable of higher cant deficiency - 6" is standard, and on the Cascades route, BNSF allows 5". Those trains tilt, but those levels of cant deficiency can be achieved by non-tilting DMUs nowadays. If you need more then the Talent comes in a tilting version, but it's unreliable and high-maintenance. (Also, better-maintained track can support higher cant, but if freight trains use that track then there's a tight upper limit to cant).

    1. That level of cant deficiency is also allowed with plain old non-tilting Amfleets and AEM-7s on the NEC. And as far as that 40 mph speed restriction in San Clemente goes, that's mostly for the safety of the beachgoers walking across and along the tracks. The alignment itself should allow somewhat higher speeds, and there's been some work in providing fenced paths and grade-separated crossings, so speeds may increase soon.