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Phil Matier: California High Speed Rail Authority Chooses Speed Over Savings

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High Speed Rail Image (www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov)

Artist’s rendering of a California High Speed Rail train. (cahighspeedrail.ca.gov)

Phil-Matier_BIO-HEAD Phil Matier
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SAN JOSE (CBS SF) – A proposal to launch bullet trains through the Bay Area on retooled Caltrain tracks, instead of a brand new rail system, has been scrapped by the California High Speed Rail Authority.

Estimates suggested the plan would have translated into substantial savings for the $43 billion project. Specifically, it was projected to cost $1.5 billion to “electrify” two existing Caltrain tracks, whereas it could cost more than $6 billion to build four tracks between San Francisco and San Jose.

KCBS and Chronicle Insider Phil Matier Comments:

However, the savings had a major trade-off. Namely, the bullet trains wouldn’t have been able to travel at maximum speed while sharing tracks with Caltrain’s commuter trains – 125 mph on independent tracks versus 80 mph on shared Caltrain tracks.

Was it the right move?

“Here’s the catch-22,” theorized KCBS and Chronicle Insider Phil Matier, “for high speed rail to work, it was a wonderful concept when we voted on it, but for it to work you have to have these channels. They’ve got to move very, very fast and they’ve got to carry a whole lot of people. Otherwise, they’re not going to make any money. They’re going to run into a deficit.”

“(The California High Speed Rail) Authority says we need those fast tracks and a lot of trains going on them for this to work,” Matier continued.

It was clear, though, that speed and cost weren’t the only factors deserving consideration. Politics were coming into play, too.

“There are some peninsula lawmakers who aren’t going to like this,” KCBS anchor Holly Quan suggested to Matier.

“Yeah, and they’re not going to like this especially if it includes the idea of bullet trains, complete new sets of tracks, going up and down the peninsula,” he responded.

“Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) … who also happens to sit on the subcommittee which oversees the funding for this rail authority, wanted them to be using Caltrain’s tracks,” Matier pointed out. “(Electrifying the Caltrains tracks) will make that running more cost-efficient, plus it will prevent the need for sort of the BART type of monorail going up and down the peninsula. Or, tunneling, something those neighbors object to.”

Does this mean a funding showdown is brewing in Sacramento?

“Simitian and company say, look, you’re never going to get the numbers you’re talking about and let’s start trimming this back and making it realistic so we’re not in the hole for a whole lot of operating expenses,” Matier suggested. “Use existing rails and live within your means. And there is the conflict, the dream versus what these guys are saying, the reality.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)

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