California’s high-speed rail line will share track with commuter rail, slowing trains and increasing accident risks
Photo 130741770 © Andreistanescu |


California’s high-speed rail line will share track with commuter rail, slowing trains and increasing accident risks

Sharing track with commuter rail means that the service billed as high-speed rail will run more slowly than originally promised to voters and that high-speed trains will run through grade-level railroad crossings. 

As confirmed by a new California High-Speed Rail Authority Environmental Impact Report (EIR), at least 91 miles of the 438-mile San Francisco to Los Angeles route will not be dedicated to high-speed rail but instead shared with commuter rail operators. 

According to the recent report and prior Environmental Impact Reports, the 77-mile portion of the system connecting San Francisco to Gilroy will be shared with Caltrain commuter service and the 14-mile portion connecting Los Angeles and Burbank will be shared with the region’s Metrolink trains. 

Although this “blended system” approach has long been discussed by those involved in the state’s high-speed rail project, in part because it reduces construction costs, sharing track with commuter rail means that the service billed as high-speed rail will run more slowly than originally promised to voters and that high-speed trains will run through grade-level railroad crossings. 

Today’s high-speed trains have a maximum speed of 220 miles per hour on dedicated high-speed track, but on blended portions of track, the maximum speed needs to be limited to 110 miles per hour, primarily for safety reasons that are discussed below. 

In total, over 20% of the Los Angeles to San Francisco route is now expected to be restricted to half-speed performance. Thus, it is unlikely the California High-Speed Rail Authority can meet the promise of a 2-hour-40-minute trip between San Francisco and Los Angeles that was stated in Proposition 1A (2008). The ballot measure also set a 30-minute maximum travel time between San Francisco and San Jose that won’t be met due to the shared track. 

This problem has long been evident to skeptics and supporters. In a 2019 blog post, transit advocate Alon Levy concluded, “The 2:40 LA-SF time is completely impossible under Pacheco-Tehachapi as currently designed with all the route compromises that have been done.” (Pacheco-Tehachapi refers to the authority’s plan to build rail tunnels under the Pacheco Pass and Tehachapi Mountains, respectively.)

In addition to the slower-than-promised travel times, another concern with blended service is that it often runs “at-grade” necessitating railroad crossings at which pedestrians, cars, and trucks must pass over the train tracks. This raises both safety and quality of life issues.

The faster a train operates through railroad crossings, the greater the risk of accidents because both train operators and those crossing the track have less time to respond. Caltrain already has challenges with railroad crossing accidents even though its current maximum speed is 79 miles per hour. An increase to 110 miles per hour is likely to make the situation worse, all other things remaining equal. 

Compared to automobile fatalities, passenger rail deaths are relatively rare in the United States. In the early 2010s, there were about 13 deaths annually on Caltrain tracks—and most of those deaths were suicides. More recently, Brightline’s service in South Florida, which runs at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour became the rail line with the nation’s worst per-mile fatality rate with a total of 63 deaths from mid-2017 through March 2022, according to CBS News.

And these issues are not limited to the United States. Some of France’s TGV high-speed rail trains ran on shared tracks before dedicated tracks for high-speed service were built. There have not been any deaths while TGV trains are running at their full, high speeds, but there have been a few railroad crossing accidents on these lignes classiques that have involved deaths or injuries.

This may seem like a minor problem but, between San Francisco and Gilroy, Caltrain has about 67 grade crossings according to California High-Speed Rail Authority Environmental Impact Report documents. If those grade crossings aren’t turned into bridges or tunnels, there may be a significant human cost. Alternatively, converting all or even most of these grade crossings to rail bridges or tunnels could add billions of dollars to the project, which is already far over budget and costing far more than available funding. 

The California High-Speed Rail Authority says it plans to address the risk of accidents by installing four-quadrant gates at all railroad crossings. These gates block traffic in both directions on both sides of the crossing, thereby preventing vehicles from going around them to get through the crossing. In Southern California, L.A. Metro has already made four-quadrant gates a standard.

In a 2007 evaluation of four-quadrant gates in Groton, Connecticut, the Federal Railroad Administration found significant safety improvements compared with two-gate crossings. After the new gates were installed, incidents in which a motor vehicle entered the railroad crossing after the gates were fully deployed were eliminated. There was also a sharp reduction of cases in which motor vehicles passed under the gates when they were in the process of deploying: the rate of such incidents fell 57% after the four-quadrant gates were installed. 

Another negative impact of the blended system is that it will increase the proportion of time that streets are blocked by deployed or deploying gates at the crossings. According to the draft report for the San Francisco—San Jose segment, six commuter trains and four high-speed rail system trains are expected to be running at peak travel times in both directions by the year 2040. If that’s the case, the gates may stop traffic and be deployed up to 20 times during the busiest car travel times of the day. 

Although the rail system’s advocates may attempt to dismiss the delays that would occur as minor inconveniences for drivers, they’ll also delay emergency vehicles, buses, cyclists, and pedestrians. There will also be greater traffic congestion, potentially further increasing delays for emergency and transit vehicles.

It is worth noting, that the state’s high-speed rail system’s early planners did not expect bullet trains to barrel through numerous suburban neighborhoods with grade crossings. The original vision for the high-speed rail system was to build a fully grade-separated system capable of providing 220 miles per hour service between Southern California and the Bay Area. 

The latest plan showing 91 miles of blended service may achieve one goal of substantially reducing the project’s future construction costs–should the system ever reach completion. But the communities through which the trains would travel would be exposed to risks and negative consequences and the system’s passengers would be riding trains going much slower than originally advertised.