California’s first high-speed rail segment from Merced to Bakersfield, currently under construction, has often been referred to as a “train to nowhere.”
But while that line, slated to open by the end of the decade, wouldn’t reach the promised lands of San Francisco and Los Angeles, it might be more useful to Bay Area residents than they are. don’t think so.
Last week, the US Department of Transportation announced a $25 million grant for the planning and design of the northernmost segment of the line in and around Merced. It’s a sign of the federal government’s continued support for the project and a step forward for an element of California’s high-speed rail that rarely receives attention.
“The authority is advancing work at Merced for a single downtown station that will serve passengers on the Altamont Corridor Express, San Joaquins and the first high-speed rail service,” said Brian Kelly, CEO of the Merced. California High Speed Rail Authority, at The Examiner. “The single station will make it easier for passengers to transfer from one service to another.”
In other words, Merced Station will serve as CAHSR’s gateway to Northern California, connecting high-speed trains with conventional trains to Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento and other cities in the region. There would also be buses to Yosemite.
Once CAHSR’s initial operating segment in the Central Valley is complete, it will be possible to take a conventional train from the Bay Area or Sacramento to Merced, where you can upgrade to a high-speed train. From there, in about 1h30, you will be in Bakersfield.
The situation at the other end of the high-speed line would not be so smooth, at least not initially. After arriving in Bakersfield, the runners had to take a bus the last two hours to Los Angeles. The drive from Bakersfield to Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo takes approximately 2.5 hours.
It would still be hard work, but the introduction of high-speed rail to the Central Valley would dramatically reduce travel time between the Bay Area and Southern California. Train and bus travel from Oakland to Los Angeles, currently around 8 hours and 40 minutes, would decrease to around 7 hours with seamless transfers. In addition, trains are expected to run twice as often once the initial section of the high-speed train is operational.
The initial service would also be a boon to transportation in the San Joaquin Valley, an area of 4.3 million people — hardly “nowhere.”
The Merced Intermodal Station is dependent on both the original high-speed rail line and a project known as Valley Rail. This latest project will extend the Altamont Corridor Express service, which currently connects San Jose and Stockton, deep in the Central Valley, extending north to Sacramento and south to Merced. The project is fully environmentally licensed and received $400 million in state funding in 2017. The Merced station would also service Amtrak San Joaquins trains that stop at Oakland, Emeryville, and the BART station in Richmond.
Merced, of course, is not the end of the line for the CAHSR. The railroad agency still plans to complete the voter-approved rail system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than three hours, with the Central Valley segment serving as the backbone of the system. But the funding and timing for this $100 billion project remains elusive. CAHSR is banking on the $23 billion Central Valley segment to serve as a “demonstration line” that will mobilize support to complete the full project.
In the meantime, the CAHSR is working to finalize the remaining regulatory approvals. On August 17 and 18, the CAHSR Board of Directors will vote to certify the final Environmental Impact Report on the San Francisco to San Jose section of the project, which will be shared with electrified service Caltrain.
The project still faces many challenges at every turn, including on the peninsula. Millbrae has already taken legal action against CAHSR’s proposed station there, and Brisbane is threatening to sue over a planned 100-acre light maintenance facility within its city limits.