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Amtrak Plan Seeks to Put Trains on Fast Track


Capitalizing on dissatisfaction with California's airport and highway congestion, Amtrak today will unveil a high-speed rail plan allowing travelers to get from Los Angeles to San Diego in less than two hours.

The $10.1-billion plan would also make it easier for Ventura County residents to get to Los Angeles and points south when Amtrak adds three round-trip trains to the existing four that travel between San Diego and Santa Barbara daily.

One Amtrak train would be added in the next four years, with the other two coming on board by 2020.

The plan calls for some tracks in Simi Valley to be doubled and speeds to be increased from their current top rate of 79 mph to 90 mph. The speed and efficiency of double tracking should allow local passengers to get where they need to go 25% faster, said Vernae Graham, a spokeswoman for Amtrak West.

It now takes about an hour and 15 minutes to get from Simi Valley to Union Station in Los Angeles. With the new schedule, it would take just under an hour.

Amtrak's plan also envisions a rail corridor linking downtown Los Angeles with downtown San Francisco by trains capable of reaching 125 mph. Passengers from Los Angeles now must transfer to a bus or train in San Jose or Oakland.

Throughout the state, the plan calls for straightening curves in current track alignments, modernizing signals, adding sidings and drilling tunnels beneath Del Mar and Miramar in San Diego County.

All that would be done in the name of boosting speed, jumping from 79 mph in most places to 90 mph, 110 mph and 125 mph. Travel time between San Diego and Los Angeles would be shaved by about 45 minutes with the same number of station stops.

"We want to dramatically reduce trip times," said Gilbert Mallery, president of Amtrak West. "The winners will be the public. The public is tired of sitting in congestion, be it in a train, on a runway or on a freeway."

Amtrak is not the first agency to propose a high-speed rail network for the sprawling state. But where another long-touted effort is built around new technology and carries a $50-billion price tag, the Amtrak proposal is more modest and enjoys significantly broader political support.

On Monday, Amtrak officials said they are buoyed by current ridership numbers that show California with one of the healthiest growth trends in the nation.

The Los Angeles-to-San Diego run is Amtrak's second-busiest rail corridor, trailing only the Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington. The 172-mile capitol corridor linking Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose is the fastest-growing intercity rail line in the nation, according to Amtrak.

"The demand is there," Mallery said. "If we can continue to provide quality service and add trains, we will continue to grow."

Statewide, Amtrak hopes to increase ridership in its four main corridors from its current 3 million passengers a year to 12 million by 2020.

Under the plan, the busiest line would be the Pacific Surfliner, which runs from San Luis Obispo, through Los Angeles to San Diego. The Pacific Surfliner would grow from 1.6 million riders a year now to just under 6 million by 2020.

Confronted with long-standing political reservations about the feasibility of high-speed rail, the plan's authors say they have drafted a mix of technical detail and political balance that recognizes California's maze of competing rail lines and the always intense geographic jealousies between Northern and Southern California.

Among Amtrak's partners are Caltrans, Metrolink, Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway and others.

David R. Solow, chief executive of Metrolink, said he agreed to work with Amtrak only after assurances that his Southern California commuter rail line would not face competition from the national giant. Both rail lines now have service out of Union Station in Los Angeles to south Orange County.

"We made very clear what we believe our business is and what their business is," Solow said. "The only reason they got our name on there is we basically agreed to be complementary and not competitive.

The 20-year plan, which will be presented in Sacramento today, would be paid for using a variety of federal, state, local and regional financing agencies.

The proposed financing depends heavily on Congress passing a high-speed rail investment bill that would raise $12 billion for rail projects throughout the U.S. through the sale of Amtrak bonds. The legislation failed last year, but federal officials are optimistic.

Bond dollars coming into the state, should the federal legislation pass, would be leveraged against state and local matching money.

Amtrak hopes to ride what many see as a wave of popular support for high-speed rail projects. The East Coast is well ahead of the West Coast. Amtrak introduced a nonstop, high-speed train between Washington and New York on Monday.

Former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, a member of the Amtrak board of directors, was in California last week trying to build support for both the federal legislation and Amtrak's California plan.

"We think the plan for California is realistic and affordable," Dukakis said.


Times correspondent Catherine Blake contributed to this story.

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