California Transit Future Hinges on Rail and (Maybe) Hyperloop

Train-maker Siemens is one of many advocates for rail connectivity to bolster the state’s transportation infrastructure. Others, meanwhile, are placing their bets on a series of tubes.

by Chad Vander Veen - Editor, FutureStructure / February 27, 2015
Siemens, which has for 30 years been manufacturing a variety of rolling stock in Sacramento, set up shop on the steps of the state capitol, complete with a full-size, high-speed rail car.

(Full disclosure note: FutureStructure Editor Chad Vander Veen is a former employee of the California High-Speed Rail Authority.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – This week Siemens – the global engineering and electronics firm – made a very public push to become the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s choice when the time comes to award an estimated $1 billion contract for high-speed train sets.

The company, which has for 30 years been manufacturing a variety of rolling stock in Sacramento, set up shop on the steps of the state capitol, complete with a full-size high-speed rail car. The sleek, white and blue train was intended to not only bring awareness about Siemens’ desire to collaborate on the massive and controversial high-speed rail project in California, but also to remind legislators and residents that Siemens has been building light rail, streetcars, locomotives and high-speed train sets in Sacramento for decades.

The bullet train, which has for years endured delays, cost-overruns and flagging public support, got a boost in early January when the rail authority finally broke ground on construction. Held in Fresno, Calif., and almost entirely ceremonial, the groundbreaking nevertheless seems to have breathed new life into the ambitious yet beleaguered $68 billion project.  

Whether or not California High-Speed Rail is ever ultimately built, few doubt that in the near future, demand for transportation options and new infrastructure in the state is only going to increase. Many believe rail connectivity is the logical way to provide transportation alternatives in and between California’s major cities. Others, meanwhile, are counting on an even more innovative approach to easing congestion – the so-called Hyperloop – a 760 mph pneumatic tube system for people proposed in 2013 by Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk.

Sacramento, as well as more than a dozen other cities in the U.S., is in the midst of a rail revival in the form of streetcars.

“Cincinnati, Kansas City, Detroit – these are old line cities that have a vision about how to revitalize their core,” said Robin Stimson, vice president of Business Development at Siemens Industry Inc. Rail Systems Division in Sacramento. “In and of itself, a streetcar system is going to have limited success. It has to be part of an overall picture. The same thing goes for the other end of the spectrum with high-speed [rail]. It has to be part of that connectivity spectrum. Atlanta has the vision of expanding their system and connecting out to the suburbs. Charlotte plans to connect to their Amtrak system.”

Sacramento has had a long-standing vision of building an intermodal station where various rail and other transit systems intersected. With a truly intermodal station now nearly complete, it’s possible to take a 118-mile rail journey from the Sacramento suburb of Folsom to the east all the way to San Francisco International Airport, via connections on Sacramento light rail, Amtrak and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. While not inexpensive or particularly efficient, such a journey illustrates the changing nature of transit in California.

“Connectivity is really the new challenge,” Stimson said. “It’s not just the high-speed end of the equation. We’ve been doing light rail for many, many years, connecting the suburban neighborhoods to the downtown core. But with the demographic move of millennials and empty-nesters back into the cities, cities are becoming more congested. How do you connect? Streetcars have been a real driver – there’s a classic example in Portland. We have examples in Charlotte and Atlanta where we’ve introduced a smaller, more compact version of a streetcar. I think that meshes with the new urban planning where everyone wants it to be denser downtown.”

The flip side of interconnected rail systems is the point-to-point, super-fast Hyperloop proposal. Conceived by Musk and then released unto the whims and motivations of the public, the Hyperloop is a type of vacuum tube train system that sends passenger-containing capsules through a near-frictionless tube at speeds of over 700 mph.

Such a system, it is said, would make the journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco take a mere half hour. This week, a startup company called Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) announced a formal agreement to build a five-mile Hyperloop in Quay Valley – a proposed 100 percent solar powered, self-sustaining residential community in California’s Central Valley.

“Our agreement with Quay Valley is a major milestone in the advancement of the Hyperloop project,” said HTT CEO Dirk Ahlborn in a statement. “This installation will allow us to demonstrate all systems on a full scale and immediately begin generating revenues for our shareholders through actual operations.”

The company, which is presently crowdsourcing much of its labor force, plans to start construction on the Hyperloop in 2016. The company recently released a 76-page business plan/white paper/feasibility study outlining its near term vision for Hyperloop as well as ideas about a national system.

“We have grandiose plans for Hyperloop everywhere in the United States,” said Jimmy Stroup, Senior Operations Manager at HTT. “That would be our ultimate goal – city-to-city transportation all over the country. Our right now goal is to build this installation in Quay Valley. Get it started. Show people that it works, show people that it can be safe and efficient.”

Were such a system ever built between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Stroup readily admits it wouldn’t stop anywhere along the way. Hyperloop would be meant purely to get passengers from one metropolis to another as quickly as possible.

The California High-Speed Rail’s proposed route, meanwhile, has drawn significant criticism for including numerous stops in the Central Valley, which many critics have said will prevent the train from ever actually achieving speeds much higher than that of traditional rail.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority counters such argument by selling the project as an enormous economic engine for Central Valley cities beset by debt, drought, and unemployment.

“When the system gets built, you will see development around the stations,” said Stimson. “We’ve decided to connect cities in the Central Valley as well as the Bay Area. That economic development around cities is going to be a huge driver.”

Ultimately, California, as well as most other states, can’t continue to rely only on automobiles and airplanes to move people about. Whether that means filling in the transit gaps with more light rail, high-speed rail or even something as far out as Hyperloop remains to be seen. But one thing seems certain – the path toward the future of mobility and transportation should make for an exciting ride.  


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