Whose Line is it Anyway? Cramming Five Railroads Into Area Barely Big Enough for Two, a “Stretch!” in California7 min read

The Alameda Corridor Project, a southern California-based railroad improvement project and completed some years back, incorporating no fewer than three parallel mainline tracks and packed neatly into a narrow strip of land, cost billions! This enhanced rail conduit, extending a distance of 20-plus miles from Compton to the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, at $100 million per mile, was pegged at just over $2 billion! What the justifiability of the ACP essentially all boiled down to was: Was there a more efficient means of moving goods-packed shipping containers between the ports and either domestic points or other coasts for further handling, and thereby providing far-improved ground-based transportation services for these containers, compared to what had previously existed?

The project was considerable, considering it necessitated placing portions of the rail right-of-way in a trench below street level in order to minimize the impact to intersecting street traffic; aka motor vehicle traffic that was certain to be adversely affected had the line been built at street level. In other words, the tracks and what otherwise would have been intersecting roads, were set at different elevations in order to keep rail and highway traffic separated and as free-flowing or as uninhibited as is humanly possible given the operating parameters.

Mission Impossible?

That’s in southern California. Roughly 250 miles to the north a $500,000 study to determine the viability of placing three separate railroad lines in a corridor that currently feels the weight of two railroads’ trains (the Union Pacific and the San Joaquin Valley railroads), is exactly what is about to be initiated in the Central San Joaquin Valley burg of Fresno. But that’s not even the half of it. What’s really being called into question here is whether this one existing Union Pacific Railroad freight rail corridor area, can adequately accommodate the efficient and safe movement of trains of five independent railroad companies; that’s right, count ‘em, FIVE railroad companies. In no particular order these are: The Union Pacific, the San Joaquin Valley, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Amtrak with its current six daily roundtrip passenger trains, and as well, the trains of the planned California High-Speed Rail, estimated to be as many as 86 per day each way. Talk about an engineering feat of monumental proportions, this has to take the cake.

According to information presented in two separate Fresno Bee articles, the cost of the study is to be equally split; $250K provided by the California High-Speed Rail Authority while the Council of Fresno County Governments, or Fresno County COG, “will be asked to set aside $250,000 from Measure C, the county’s half-cent transportation sales tax, to figure out exactly what land would be needed for the combined lines,” Russell Clemings of the Bee wrote.

Now add to this that relocating the BNSF line and incorporating it into the existing Union Pacific corridor has been an ongoing effort for 90 years now. The findings of two separate HDR Engineering studies revealed that this “consolidation” is doable, studies themselves that cost approximately $170,000 and $100,000, respectively. Compounding the situation and what is at issue now is the viability or feasibility even of packing three separate railroads’ tracks into a given amount of space that at present has just two tracks on it, tracks that run parallel to each other. In a couple of locations each about a half-mile long or so, there are three sets of adjacent tracks, one of these being a stub-end track branching out of the UP Fresno Yard. With the addition of BNSF and high-speed rail, there would need to be at least five adjacent tracks, but more realistically and in all likelihood, even more tracks would be added. To reiterate once more for emphasis sake, an engineering feat of monumental scope.

And What About the Current Consolidation Scenario Being Considered?

As it stands, the current rail consolidation plan necessitates approval of both interested and affected Fresno County and Madera County constituencies due to the nature of the northern portion of the proposed BNSF connector link requiring brand new rights-of-way almost all of it situated in Madera County. Madera County farm and ranchland would no doubt be affected as an entirely new railroad link, a tie-in connecting the UP and BNSF lines on the north end of the proposed new routing arrangement in this proposal and the focus of this latest study, would need to be fashioned and a new railroad trestle built over the San Joaquin River would no doubt be in the offing in order to transfer BNSF freight and presumably Amtrak trains back and forth between the UP and BNSF lines in question, accordingly. It is uncertain if all said aforementioned constituencies are on board at this time, and until this happens, moving forward in this regard to pursue a study, one that searches for a particular finding, and in which, in the interim, a significant chunk of money is to be spent in so doing, the move to me is questionable at best.

Is There A Better Way?

Rather than spend a half-million dollars on a feasibility study which is slated to determine if all involved railroad lines can be adequately “squeezed” into the identified corridor – the high-speed rail line presumably to be elevated above or placed in an enclosed “tube” or open trench, respectively, underneath or beside the existing line presently positioned at ground or grade level – why not instead piggyback both the proposed high-speed rail and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) lines – the ones slated to go through the Fresno metropolitan area and in the area in question in Madera County – onto the planned proposed Metro Rural Loop (MRL) which has been recommended as a means to “efficiently link cities and counties together into an effective regional metropolitan area that demonstrably balances economy, environment, and equity for the four to six million residents projected to live and work [in the Fresno area] in 100 years,” information as it appears in an article in the Spring 2007, Fresno COG “COG OUTLOOK” publication. (“An Introduction to the Metro Rural Loop,” p. 3).

It is likewise written in the same “COG OUTLOOK” article that, “As a new regional form for our part of the Valley using transportation and land use design – Metro Rural Loop would develop around a wheel and spoke system of wide, high-capacity transportation corridors along expanded State Routes 99, 41, 180, and 168, and newly aligned and extended State Routes 65 and 145. It would provide for rail, light rail, busways, high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, auto, truck traffic, and bikeways and trails.” (p. 3).

Since rights-of-way and easements have already been identified with constituency approval apparently in the two counties, added to the MRL plan in this case with assumed minor adjustment to the current plan scenario, could be both the BNSF Railway and high-speed rail components. Now add to this that with State Highway 65 as identified in the MRL arrangement slated to cross the present BNSF line located northeast of Madera (the town) anyway, it seems logical that adding the BNSF rail component to the MRL plan would not only prove, in my opinion, to be a more natural fit, but a far better alternative than it would be to keep pushing for a joint BNSF/UP Fresno operating arrangement, especially now that the high-speed rail line is being added to the fray and is all contingent on what the findings of this latest study show anyway. FYI, on a stub track jutting east off the mainline track in BNSF’s principal Fresno Yard, and with the right-of-way still being in place, track could be reinstalled and utilized to direct train traffic to and from the portion of the MRL-identified proposed Highway 65 extension that would traverse the area at a location a short distance east of BNSF’s Fresno Yard. To me, this is just a win-win-win-win. There’s simply no other way to describe it.

I opt for the high-speed rail and BNSF railroad slash Metro Rural Loop combination, instead.

Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.