The Campaign for Sustainable Transportation is open to considering a variety of forms of transit that may be appropriate for the corridor. On this page Bruce Sawhill, one of the most knowledgeable experts on rail issues—especially as they relate to our Santa Cruz Branch Line—has submitted the following piece.
For each of the nine paragraphs, the misconception—an assertion or a question—appears in red, and is responded to by Bruce Sawhill. As he says at the end of his piece, democracy only works with informed citizens.
Feel free to write to us (clickhere) if you have comments.
Clearing up misconceptions about the rail corridor and its potential use for passenger rail.
by Bruce Sawhill, PhD
There's not enough room for both
a rail line and a trail.
It has been shown in the RTC's award-winning Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail study that there is enough space for both. In some cases this requires moving the tracks to one side instead of the middle, but this is a common practice. There are areas of the corridor that are too narrow to have both tracks and a trail wide enough for separation of bikes and pedestrians. In those sections, bikes and pedestrians will share the trail. However, in most sections of the corridor, the minimum width necessary for separation of bikes and pedestrians is available alongside the tracks, should the community desire this.
A single track rail line is useless for rail
There are many single track lines in service around the US, even commuter lines with frequencies as high as every 15 minutes. Segments of parallel extra rail called “passing sidings” are built for this purpose in places where there is room. (Much of the rail corridor is wide enough for this.) Computers and GPS and intelligent scheduling coordinate the passing.
Trains are big and loud.
Most Americans think of Amtrak when they think of passenger rail. Amtrak is big and loud and diesel powered. A more appropriate vehicle for the rail line is an electric or hybrid “rapid streetcar” that weighs about one-tenth of an Amtrak train and is about ten times more efficient, getting 600 to 1000 miles per gallon per passenger equivalent instead of 70 mpg like Amtrak. This is better even than an electric car stuffed with people like a clown car. Modern vehicles of this sort are quieter than car traffic.
Trains and bikes and pedestrians in close proximity
Trains, unlike buses and cars, do not often swerve into the bike lane alongside the tracks. In other installations around the US, the rail and trail are separated by a simple low fence to prevent bikes and pedestrians from wandering onto the tracks. The safety record is solid.
Wouldn't it be cheaper to just tear out the tracks
and have the trail down the middle?
At first, yes. But since this rail line is almost 140 years old, various trestles and other structures along the line will eventually need replacement. The cost of replacing these with local dollars would likely far outweigh any cost savings incurred by tearing out the rails. Federal and State infrastructure dollars are available to keep working rail lines working, but dollars are not yet so readily available to keep trails functional. A combined rail/trail system is likely to be cheaper and will certainly serve more people in the long run.
Freight and passenger rail cannot coexist on the
same segment of track.
As it stands currently, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) says that these two uses must be separated in space and/or time or the passenger rail vehicles must be sturdy enough to withstand a collision with a freight train. This is an impractical solution, as such a vehicle would be heavy and loud. A new technology called Positive Train Control (PTC) is in the process of being installed around the US and has automatic lockout protocols that would allow non-compliant vehicles to share track safely. Its installation would be complete by the time Santa Cruz County had a rail system.
What about that darned horn?
In rail systems that cross roads frequently, the warning sound can be installed as part of the crossing guard apparatus and not sounded by the vehicle itself. This puts the sound on roads instead of in the middle of neighborhoods, and the sound is quieter because it is being sounded right where it needs to be heard rather than hundreds of yards away.
Won't all cars be self-driving soon, eliminating
the need for trains and buses?
A revolution is coming that will change how cars are used. People will own fewer of them and use automated cars like taxis. Traffic jams will be less frequent with software and market forces controlling traffic. Early indicators show that automated cars will have the potential to be cheaper than current taxis, however less than half of the cost of current taxis is the cost of the driver. This means that “Google Cars” will still be a premium service, cost effective for groups of people but still more expensive than a train or a bus for single passengers, and of course constrained to the road system. A daily solo commute in a Google Car will be too expensive for most people. The “transportation ecosystem” of the future will have multiple components for multiple needs, just as it does now. Rail has persisted for nearly two centuries because it is simple and efficient and reliable, and it's a good bet that it will persist for two centuries more.
Won't it cost a lot of money?
Yes, it will. Infrastructure is expensive. The expense needs to be compared to alternative transportation investments. For example, the Highway 1 High Occupancy Vehicle Lane alternative is several times more expensive than the infrastructure for electric light rail. Whether it is worth it or not depends on what kind of future one wants for their children and grandchildren. Choices like this don't come up very often, so it's worth being informed. Democracy only works with informed citizens.