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The blended system can deliver 2 hour 40 minute travel times: Fact or fantasy?

We asked the question in April and we will ask it again. Can the blended system make the promised 2 hour 40 minute travel time?

The most significant change in the Authority’s revised Business Plan was the adoption of a “blended” system. The good news was that it could be less impactful to communities and be cheaper to construct. The bad news was that it would further compromise travel times between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Travel times, not travel speeds, are the single most important determinant of market share for a high speed rail system.

Previous decisions to travel along the east side of the Central Valley, instead of the I-5 corridor, and a significant detour to Palmdale had already lengthened the route  by more than 80 miles, mandating high travel speeds through many communities.

The state bond measure mandates a travel time between San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal and Los Angeles Union Station of 2 hours 40 minutes. This time was  important; previous ridership studies had determined that a rail system would need to be that fast to compete with air travel.

CARRD has followed the project closely for the past 3 ½ years. Authority consultants have produced detailed analysis after detailed analysis of how minor changes to the route would impact travel times. With no stops at all, the calculations showed that the Authority could make the time requirement for the full system with not a second to spare.

In March, Caltrain released the final results of a study assessing the feasibility of a blended system. There was a way to fit high speed rail trains into a blended schedule, but the travel times would suffer. In the best case, trains would take about 20 minutes more than previously assumed to get from San Francisco to San Jose.

Even if Caltrain and high speed rail trains were to reach the same maximum speed, Caltrain makes many local stops over the 50 mile corridor. This means the average speed between Caltrain and high speed rail would differ substantially. This limits the capacity of the corridor and the travel times for high speed rail trains.

We were surprised to see no mention of the impact of the blended system on travel times in the business plan. We were even more surprised to see a presentation at the April board meeting that claimed the blended system would deliver  a 2 hour 40 minute travel time.  Not only did this defy logic, but the ridership report supporting the business plan showed that the fastest scheduled trains were going to take 3 hours, which would be consistent with the results from the Caltrain study.

On April 18th, CARRD testified at an Assembly hearing on High Speed Rail about the inconsistencies in the travel times and asked for substantiation of the 2 hour 40 minute travel time assertion and presented copies documenting the discrepancies to the committee and to California High Speed Rail board members.

The Authority declined to provide any analysis backing up the claim that had been made at their board meeting.

Kathy Hamilton of the San Francisco Examiner who witnessed the altercation at the committee meeting immediately made a Public Records Request for the documents used to derive the travel times in the board presentation. By law, the Authority should respond within 10 calendar days.

On May 31, 2012 (43 days later), Ms. Hamilton received the following response:

The answer is that no document exists. These were verbal assertions based on skill, experience, and optimism and so Dan Richard went with the expertise of the engineers offering these assertions. I have been informed that a memo is in the process of being drafted on this very issue and I will provide that to you as soon as its complete.”

At this point, not all the facts have emerged but there are some  questions.

  • What is the travel time for regularly scheduled San Francisco to Los Angeles trains under the blended system?
  • Who made the decision to include a 2hour 40 minute travel time for the blended plan in the Board presentation?
  • Has Parsons Brinckerhoff done any analysis on the travel times for the blended system?
  • Where did the 3 hour travel time in the ridership forecasts come from?  Traditionally, the train schedules for alternatives have been supplied by Parsons Brinckerhoff.
  • When presented with evidence that indicated the 2 hour 40 minute travel time might not be correct, what action did board members take?


Original CHSRA referenced in our reports

Slide from Board Meeting Asserting Travel Time for Blended System

Schedules and conclusion of Caltrain’s blended system analysis


CARRD article about discrepancy between schedule in ridership report and board presentation


Full Caltrain Final Blended Operations Analysis report


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