Part 1 – Palmdale to Bakersfield – The Next “Train to Nowhere”
This blogger set out to drive the proposed path of high speed rail(HSR) with the anticipation that some unexpected revelations might await. I was not disappointed. It was a perfectly clear winter morning as I drove up the Cajon Pass and then traversed the backside of the snowcapped San Gabriel’s headed towards Palmdale. While still a short distance east of Palmdale a sign directed me to the LA/Palmdale Regional Airport. This airport has been cited in California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) literature as needing capital expansion that could be avoided if HSR was built. And so I decided to see just how busy this airport was today.
Turning north toward the airport I immediately came to a “Road Closed” sign hanging on a fence blocking the road. My first thought was that there must be some construction or revamping of the entrance to the airport as I detoured in search of an alternate entrance. In short order I stumbled upon a gate to the adjoining Air Force base and asked for directions to the airport. The Air Force personnel manning the gate let me know the airport I sought closed about 5 years ago when the last carrier, Delta, pulled out due to lack of business. Notwithstanding the claims of the CHSRA, there is evidently no airport expansion in Palmdale that will be avoided due to the construction of HSR. These future costs will be avoided simply because the airport is closed.
Continuing north on Sierra Hwy I passed through Lancaster and alongside its Amtrak station. I later learned this is the northern terminus of Amtrak rail south of the Tehachapi Mountains. Riders continuing north on Amtrak towards Bakersfield board an “Amtrak California” bus which follows the same route I was about to take towards Bakersfield.
After passing though Lancaster I quickly came to more blighted scenery in the towns of Rosamond, “Gateway to Progress”, and Mojave, “Gateway to Space” or so signs at the town limits read. In reality they are of course “Gateways to Nowhere”, but city planners and politicians evidently had other, more lofty, visions for their communities 40 years ago. A local resident serving me coffee near Rosamond asserted that the LA/Palmdale Regional Airport was constructed to handle supersonic aircraft such as the French Concord and the American SST planned during the Nixon Administration. It was envisioned to have been a busy airport with a need for plenty of nearby motel accommodations and would have benefited from a commuter rail connection to Los Angeles. Hence, Palmdale/Lancaster are the towns at the very end of Metrolink’s Antelope Valley Line. Unfortunately for these high desert “gateways”, the planes never came. Only in the movies is it true that “if you build it, they will come”. The airport, the motels and restaurants, and the Metrolink line are now merely monuments to another failed ridership study.
The Sierra Hwy merges into Hwy 14 at Rosamond and I was now on Hwy 14 as I was continuing north toward Mojave. The Palmdale to Bakersfield proposed HSR segment is broken into three sections. The southern-most section runs from Sierra Hwy/Ave M to a point on Hwy 14 just south of where Hwy 58 joins Hwy 14 in the town of Mojave and is named the Antelope Valley Section. It is 25.4 miles in length and I had now completed my tour of this segment in all its glory.
Leaving the Antelope Valley Section I drove north through Mojave and joined the main Hwy 58 that bypasses Mojave on the north side of the town. I was now following the Tehachapi Section (44.7 miles in length) of the Palmdale to Bakersfield HSR Segment. To the north and west along the ridgeline of the Tehachapi’s I could see windmills that the CHSRA envisions will someday power electric high speed trains with expensive “green” energy. Today many of the windmills looked as though they were taking the morning off while the other half struggled to earn back the capital that had created them. I was still paralleling railroad tracks, but had yet to see a moving train.
Heading northwest on Hwy 58 towards the town of Tehachapi the railroad tracks are close to the highway. Their route is clearly not straight enough to accommodate high speed trains and new tracks with many tunnels would be required. The tracks I was following belong to the Union Pacific (UP) Railroad and the UP does not allow any passenger traffic on its rail. That is why a bus connection is required between the Lancaster Amtrak Station and Bakersfield Amtrak Station.
The tracks crossed from one side to the other side of Hwy 58 several times prior to entering the town of Tehachapi. I left the highway and entered Tehachapi in order to stay close to the tracks and immediately stumbled upon the
Tehachapi Train Station which had been turned into a museum. I got out of my car to take a picture of the station just as an “Amtrak California” bus passed through town. It was about the size of a typical Greyhound bus and looked nearly empty.
Tehachapi is an old railroad town and I walked into a store appropriately named “Trains Etc.” where Lionel trains are sold and spoke with the owner. He explained that tourists still come to watch freight trains go around the famous “Tehachapi Loop”; a circle of track designed to climb elevation much like roads that climb elevation via “switch-backs”. He spoke of how there had been no passenger rail traffic through Tehachapi for many years and that the HSR tracks would bypass Tehachapi without stopping.
He went on to explain that while the UP only allowed freight on their tracks, most of it was Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe (BNSF) freight (85%). Perhaps this explains why the BNSF Railroad is more willing to cooperate with the CHSRA than is the UP. BNSF and the UP are really in a partnership using UP tracks. This means the BNSF tracks are severely underutilized. However, the Union Pacific tracks didn’t look too busy either as I had yet to see a moving train.
After driving through Tehachapi the tracks once again went close to Hwy 58 and I got back on the highway continuing towards Bakersfield. The tracks followed Hwy 58 for about another 10 miles. An observer can clearly see two tracks paralleling each other (evidently one for northbound traffic and one for southbound traffic) except where the track goes through a tunnel. Tunneling is expensive and it appears that when spending private capital it is not cost effective to build multiple tracks through tunnels. Signals and sidings are used to safely direct trains through the tunnels along a single track. This type of economy will not be possible with HSR due to its fantastic ridership estimate that initially envisions 128 northbound and 128 southbound trains crossing the Tehachapi’s every day (each carrying up to 550 passengers).[Note 2] Eventually the tracks diverged from the highway view and I simply enjoyed the ride over the mountains.
After driving through the mountains and entering the southern end of the Central Valley and the outskirts of Bakersfield. I stopped where Bena Road comes in from the north and begins to parallel Hwy 58. I could see the railroad track once again and I was now at the northern end of the Tehachapi Section.
The third and final section of the Palmdale to Bakersfield HSR segment is named the Edison Section and it runs parallel to Bena Road for 11.1 miles before ending at the intersection of Bena Road and Oswell Street in Bakersfield. I got out of my car and took more photos of where the this $3.9Billion (at last count and does not include trains or electrification of track) [Note 3] segment of California’s HSR will terminate. The photos document the railroad tracks running through a very poor section of town; lots of trailer parks and mobile homes. It is amazing that CHSRA officials talk of how high speed rail will increase property values and spark new business along the route when in fact the opposite always seems to have been true in the past as these photos attest.
Footnotes supporting what is said in this article are shown below.
page 85, Table 1