Tag Archives: Redlands Rail

Evaluating RCTC’s Coachella Valley Rail Proposals

For a little over a year, the Riverside County Transportation Commission has been undertaking a study to explore the possibility of providing daily passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley. This is at least the seventh time in nearly 30 years that the concept has been explored. (Previous studies of all or parts of the potential route were the focus of or included in other efforts previously completed in 1991, 199319992005, 2010, and 2013.) But with this being take seven on the project, perhaps it’s time to figure out exactly what needs to be done to get this plan off the shelves and to see trains rolling.

The elephant in the room continues to be that the only truly viable alternative to reach the area is by routing passenger traffic through the Union Pacific Yuma Subdivision that heads east from the Colton Crossing. As one of the two principal freight rail arteries in and out of SoCal heading east, Union Pacific understandably has concerns about the proposition of running an increased number of passenger trains over their rails. Currently, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited operates through the corridor, but it is only thrice-weekly service with late night/early morning stops in the area–hardly usable by the majority of potential travelers.

The latest report provides five Alternatives along with reasons for/against them. As the Yuma Subdivision is the only existing route to the Coachella Valley, all the differences occur from the Colton Crossing to LAUS. The five Alternatives (resulting in six total possibilities) are to use the BNSF San Bernardino Sub (Alternative 1), use the UP LA Sub (Alternative 2); use the UP Alhambra Sub (Alternative 3), use two variations of the Metrolink San Gabriel Sub (Alternative 4), or use a hybrid option blending Alternative 4B and 3 (Alternative 4). Four of those options made it through the course level screening to a more detailed analysis and will be expounded upon: 1, 4A/B, and 5.

Alternative 1

As mentioned above, west of Colton is where the differences lie. Of the four potential routes advanced to fine-level screening, Alternative 1 was the only one looked on favorably and advanced to the level of further planning/EIS. Several factors in its favor exist including most principally, a corridor population that is around 25% higher than the others have or would provide in the near-term. Though all study is being done using the assumption of Amtrak service similar to the existing Pacific Surfliner, this proposed route would be the functional equivalent of extending the Metrolink 91 Line out to the Coachella Valley and would in effect, be adding a limited stop train from LAUS to Riverside. Ideally, the Rail2Rail program should be implemented over that portion of the route to allow people to take advantage of that option. From Riverside, the train would then continue north to the Colton Crossing, where it would turn east to reach Indio as outlined above. RCTC currently still has quite a few unused daily allotments for the route, so implementing service via Alternative 1 would only require buying (or leasing) the trainsets and building a few stations. This route also has the second-fastest projected travel time and high ridership.

Alternative 4A

The second Alternative considered at the fine level is branded 4A. This option would be routed primarily over the San Gabriel Subdivision, which is owned by LA Metro and SANBAG for operating Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. However, the San Gabriel Sub is at present, not directly connected with the Yuma, so this option requires several things be done to make that connection. The proposal calls for squeezing a track to connect to the northbound BNSF line between I-10 and the Colton Crossing and also just continue it through Colton to connect to the Metrolink Short Way Subdivision that is used by the IEOC Line to reach San Bernardino and Metrolink to access their Colton yard. A flyover would then be built to connect that track with the San Gabriel Subdivision and the report also calls for the two segments of double-tracking already underway to be built. This Alternative would have Inland Empire stops at Rialto and Montclair before heading to LA over the same route used by Metrolink. According to the analysis, this option would produce the fastest travel time of 3:06 as well as the second-highest ridership.

However, it was ultimately, it was not selected for further study due to requiring a minimum investment of $141mn more than Alternative 1 and potential ROW issues, including relocating a trucking facility at the BNSF San Bernardino yard. But looking at the reality of the area, a connection could probably be built to connect to the existing flyover and thus avoid relocating the majority of the trucking yard. Presumably, some of the money would also go into the double-tracking projects mentioned above, but it’s primarily slated for providing the connection to the BNSF tracks and Short Way in Colton as well as the flyover to connect with the San Gabriel Subdivision. Additionally, at least two actual bridges would be required (one over La Cadena, one over Lytle Creek) and though there is a little room for it, adding a fourth track through Colton will require a couple things to be moved and at least two more grade crossings be expanded. Though not studied in the report, the Colton track does provides an opportunity for a Colton stop to be added to the IEOC Line and potentially the CV train as well.

Alternative 4B/5

The last two Alternatives, 4B and 5, are functionally the same, so they’ll be looked at in tandem. Both would use the same connection in Colton as presented by 4A to reach the Short Way, but would instead utilize the San Bernardino Downtown Passenger Rail extension to continue all the way into the recently completed San Bernardino Transit Center located downtown. Going to the SBTC would provide connections with numerous transit services serving the San Bernardino Valley, Mountain communities, and Victor Valley areas. This option also avoids the need for a flyover in the BNSF yard, but leaves the recommendation for the double-tracking along the San Gabriel Sub. However, the train would have to switch ends in San Bernardino before being able to continue to LAUS. According to the report, this maneuver can take up to half an hour, so accommodating it is projected to likely necessitate another layover track be added to the site. The layover also effectively cuts the journey into two separate trips. That could be great for station-area businesses in San Bernardino, but results in a major hits on ridership and travel times. Unsurprisingly, these two options have the longest scheduled travel times but lowest ridership.

The rest of the route is for Alternative 4B, identical to Alternative 4A. Alternative 5 instead uses the UP Alhambra Subdivision into LAUS from near the El Monte station which provides a potential bypass of the single track line on I-10. Both 4A and 5 would differ from 4A in that they would not stop at Rialto, only at Montclair. Additionally, 5 require second flyover in El Monte to provide access to the Alhambra Sub without running into freight congestion. Course-level screening indicated that Alternative 5 would require double-tracking of the Alhambra, but the ongoing Alameda Corridor East San Gabriel Trench appears to be taking care of that. Still, in comparison to Alternative 1, these two options have a potential cost of $130mn more for 4B or $162mn more for Alternative 5. Due to both the cost but especially the turn time depressing ridership, these two Alternatives were also nixed from further configuration.

Results

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alternative 1 has been selected for further study and advancement to the EIR/EIS stage. This is the only Alternative that would actually serve the City of Riverside, which, notwithstanding the relative lack of necessary investment compared to the others, likely was a part of the deciding factor for its favorable consideration in a study commissioned by RCTC. Progress toward those environmental documents is undoubtedly being worked on now. Additionally, though Measure A doesn’t put much money toward rail, cap and trade money might provide the ability to acquire equipment and start the service. With new locomotives on the way for the Surfliner and Metrolink, there will probably be some surplus power available in the LA area soon that, pending funding, can be leased for a decent price to get things rolling within a few months of final approval of the environmental documents. Hopefully, that can happen before the 40th anniversary of the first study.

Is RCTC Purposefully Killing Rail Transit to the San Jacinto Valley?

Earlier this year, the Riverside County Transportation Commission joined several transportation agencies around the state to gripe about the uncertainty of revenue projections due to the recent gas tax swap formula that has resulted in a lower gas tax this fiscal year. This should come as no surprise, as the vast majority of Riverside County’s Measure A funds are being poured into building wider roads throughout the region. With only 15% of the money dedicated to transit, it should be imperative that they do everything possible to stretch those dollars.

riversiderail
A screenshot of the map included in the 2005 Riverside County Commuter Rail study shows potential routes and options for rail service. Image: RCTC, edited by author.

Although Measure A sends the vast majority of revenue raised toward building wider roads, Riverside County voters also expected some increase in rail service when they voted to reauthorize it in 2002. In 2005,  RCTC delivered a report on some options for increasing rail connectivity in the county. Out of that report, a further (peak commuter-focused) extension of the currently ongoing Perris Valley Line extension an additional seven miles east to Hemet/San Jacinto* was rated very favorably. That extension would also serve an area similar to that of the planned Mid County Parkway, potentially reducing the need for RCTC to build another freeway through the center of a disadvantaged community.

However, buried deep in the Environmental Impact Report/Statement for the SR-79 realignment is a ticking time bomb against the prospect of rail service ever reaching San Jacinto. In 2013 [PDF, page vi (12)], the report had this to say:

The design options would include a near-grade crossing over the San Jacinto Branch Line with embankment and structural section for SR 79. The near-grade crossing over the existing railroad would be approximately 0.9 to 2.4 m (3 to 8 ft) above grade. (Emphasis added.)

In other words, at the point where the realigned highway would cross the railroad, it would be at a height of less than ten feet above the rails. This dismal synopsis was repeated in the Recirculated EIR/EIS [PDF, page 3-167 (243)] that went out earlier this year. For those of you keeping track at home, no trains can fit under bridges that low (not even a manned rail rider on the shorter side). Section 9.1 of CPUC General Order 26-D says that it’ll be at least six feet too low and based on Metrolink’s dimensions (PDF, page 3), their equipment needs a minimum of 16 feet of clearance above the rails. (Metrolink is the logical service provider for this extension as they would already be operating to Perris.)

So in short, despite the fact that RCTC already identified the San Jacinto extension as being one of the most viable and cost-effective options for rail service expansions in Riverside County, RCTC already owning the line, and RCTC leading on the SR-79 realignment project, RCTC did not stipulate that their own freeway construction would need to provide adequate clearance for any future trains that they would plan on their own tracks. That is a breakdown of colossal proportions.

Further on, the report does acknowledge that rail transit has been considered on the corridor. However, they consider constructing overpasses to make sure that train service on an existing line remains viable to be the responsibility of the rail project, not the responsibility of freeway that is severing the rail access:

In the future, if a separate project is developed that adds passenger rail service, a grade-separation project would need to be considered.

In short, RCTC is shooting a worthy project in the foot. The only question is are they doing it on purpose or is this merely a (massive) oversight? Unfortunately, we may never know. However, Caltrans does still have to issue final approval and building a(nother!) freeway runs counter their recent admission that building freeways doesn’t help traffic at all. Instead, Caltrans needs to be more proactive about alternatives, in this case by putting their foot down and not allowing a viable rail transit line to be severed by a freeway. (They really should go a step further and require that the rail extension to Temecula via the SR-79 alignment that was also identified in the RCTC rail study to be built concurrent with the freeway.)

Failure to do so makes it much harder for the all levels of government to meet legislative goals focused on reducing GHGs, VMT, and disparate impacts of transportation dollar allocations, especially in the Inland Empire. Cities along the route of both freeways (realigned SR-79 and the Mid County Parkway) are already looking forward to the freeways “spurring development”, but injecting two new freeways into the San Jacinto Valley without also upgrading transit is all but guaranteed to ensure that no TOD will be built. Instead, there would be more sprawling development in what is already one of the most sprawled regions of the country [PDF]. That doesn’t have to happen, but it requires Caltrans and RCTC officials doing the right thing and lead.

*For those who may feel tempted to call the area rural, including its own residents, remember that were it not for RCTC and SCAG, Hemet alone is populated enough to require its own metropolitan planning organization under federal law and San Jacinto is really close.