According to an article the LA Times on their website yesterday, Union Pacific Railroad is balking at sharing its right of way with high speed trains. For context, the CHSRA plan has always involved building HSR-specific tracks alongside existing rails currently owned by UP, to minimize environmental impacts and disruption to existing urban development. So this has the potential to be a serious problem:
“Officials at Union Pacific railroad recently told the California High Speed Rail Authority that they have safety and operational concerns about running a bullet train close to lumbering freight trains.
“”Just look at what happened in L.A. a few years ago,” said Scott Moore, a Union Pacific vice president, citing the 2005 crash of a Metrolink passenger train that killed 11 and hampered rail operations.
“Those accidents happen.”
This rationale is flatly ridiculous. As UP well knows, the accident referred to is the subject of an ongoing trial of Juan Manuel Alvarez who tried to commit suicide by parking his truck on the Metrolink tracks near Glendale. He did this on an at-grade crossing, which will be eliminated as part of the HSR project. And as is the case around the world, the HSR tracks will be fenced off from the public, making it difficult for a similar accident to occur. In fact, accidents of any kind are very rare on HSR systems, and it is very uncommon for HSR trains to hit passenger vehicles.
Further, I know of no specific problems where HSR trains have ever had an issue sharing tracks with any other trains – and I find it interesting that UP had to cite the 2005 Metrolink crash, since they couldn’t come up with any actual issues of HSR and freight running in close proximity. Trains commonly share multiple tracks next to each other without any problems.
So we have to ask what UP is really up to with this statement. I believe they are holding out for more money. They’ve done it before – several years ago Santa Cruz County resolved to purchase the branch line from Pajaro to Davenport, running through Santa Cruz and paralleling Highway 1, from UP. The negotiations dragged on for years as UP tried to overstate the value of the line and get the county to assume responsibility for all repairs of tracks and bridges – and when the county balked, UP threatened to refuse to sell the line. UP’s statement may well be a ploy for more money, some role in operations or profits from HSR, or other assurances from CHSRA and the state.
And of course, UP had no objection to – and has benefited greatly from – government-funded projects such as the Alameda Corridor. For them to turn around and try and screw HSR is inconsistent at best. The state and federal governments should play hardball with UP over this – if they continue to drag their feet on negotiating with CHSRA, then perhaps UP doesn’t need the Alameda Corridor East, or the Colton flyover, or continued deregulation of the industry.
Some want to believe this is a crisis for HSR. If UP holds firm in its refusal to share ROW, there’s always eminent domain, but that would involve a long and drawn-out court process. If the CHSRA has to abandon the ROW-sharing plan, then they’ll need to completely redo the environmental impact reports, which could add 3-5 years to the construction time on the project.
That would be inconvenient, but it is long past time for us to get started on HSR. Gas prices and global warming have finally given urgency to HSR, and that should in turn give the public and their representatives the clarity of vision and sense of purpose to ensure that UP doesn’t hijack the project for their own concerns. State and federal political leaders need to ramp up the pressure on UP – and we need to do the same. High speed rail is too important for one company – even Union Pacific – to block. We can find ways to assuage their concerns while staying on track to get the high speed rail system approved and under construction by 2010.
Robert Cruickshank is a historian, activist, and teacher living in Monterey. He is a contributing editor at Calitics.com and works for the Courage Campaign, in addition to teaching political science at Monterey Peninsula College. Currently he is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in US history, on progressive politics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. A native Californian, he was raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley. This article originally appeared on the California High Speed Rail Blog which he publishes.