What is the California State Rail Plan?
In 2018, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) developed the California State Rail Plan to prioritize state investment in the statewide passenger and freight rail network.
“Caltrans’ mission in developing the California State Rail Plan is to provide a framework for a safe, sustainable, integrated, and efficient California rail network that successfully moves people and goods while enhancing the State’s economy and livability.”1
Implications For Santa Cruz County
Here in Santa Cruz County, we are part of the Central Coast Rail Service Area. In our region, the State Rail Plan will connect San Jose in the north and Santa Barbara/Goleta in the south with the Union Pacific Rail Road Coast Route and the Monterey and Santa Cruz Branch Lines.
When connected, The State Rail Plan will create a regional rail network, connecting all Central Coast communities to each other while feeding into high-speed rail at Gilroy.
This will provide everyone who lives, works, and plays here on the Central Coast hourly passenger rail service connecting, Gilroy, Salinas, Santa Cruz, and Monterey through two new stations, one in Pajaro (just across the river from Watsonville) and one in Castroville.
This image excerpted from the state rail plan is a hypothetical look at the kind of rail-service schedule envisioned for our region. Click on the image to see the full graphic of the statewide network and the full key.
The Transit Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) has already started work on the Monterey County Rail Extension, which would extend passenger rail service from Santa Clara County south to Salinas, shown as a blue line on the above graphic. This is a transformative project that will revitalize the downtown Salinas train station and create new multimodal transportation hubs in Castroville and at Watsonville Station in Pajaro.
These multimodal stations will be served by new passenger rail service that will provide connections between Salinas, north Monterey County, the Monterey Peninsula, Santa Cruz County, Silicon Valley, San Jose, the greater San Francisco Bay Area, and Sacramento. Once rail service is implemented on the Santa Cruz Branch Line, Watsonville Station will be our transfer point to access this new regional rail service. See the TAMC website for more info on this exciting project.
The State Rail Plan has significant implications for the future of the Santa Cruz County Branch Line. Providing passenger rail transit in Santa Cruz County will knit the county’s communities together and connect the county to rail services planned to the north and south. We are fortunate to already have existing tracks that will allow us to leverage this opportunity.
State Rail Plan Goals
Increased Efficiency – rail transportation will become the preeminent mode of moving people and goods
The plan intends to improve the frequency, geographic coverage, and integration of a statewide multimodal transportation system. This system would stimulate, support, and enhance the movement of people and goods to ensure a prosperous economy. Because the intention is to create a unified multimodal system, the plan includes upgrading or building terminals and transfer hubs in order to eliminate bottlenecks and utilize existing corridors more efficiently.
The plan seeks to improve quality of life by establishing a high-performance statewide rail system to benefit all residents and visitors. By 2040 the State of California promises to offer a state-of-the-art rail system that integrates with existing state highways and airports. The intention is to reduce our reliance on our freeway system for daily travel, which would in turn increase highway capacity for vehicle trips that cannot be made by public transportation.
The State Rail Plan will coordinate with regional agencies to provide additional trains with increased frequency with departures at least every hour. Commuters and travelers will be able to transfer easily between high-speed rail, intercity rail, regional rail, and express buses, with the ability to plan door-to-door trips and purchase a single ticket through one consolidated system.
One of the strategies to improve travel times is “pulsed scheduling” which refers to a coordinated scheduling technique designed to reduce wait times by ensuring that connections between regional and local trains & buses can be made throughout the day.
The Rail Plan aims to capture an increasing percentage of travel demand by rail, increasing rail mode share from 0.34% (2018) to 6.8% (2040).
Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
As one of the largest economies in the world, it is essential that California does its part to be an environmental leader. A significant goal of the State Rail Plan is to cut greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with state goals. An advantage to rail transportation is that steel wheels on steel tracks encounter less friction and less resistance than rubber tires on the road, thus requiring less energy to move than any type of vehicle driving on pavement. The energy consumption and GHG emissions per ton carried by rail are far lower than diesel trucks. The CSRP’s 2040 Vision predicts 88 million passenger miles logged by rail daily, which would reduce the annual emission of CO2 by 13 million metric tons. Decreasing highway usage by freight vehicles would also mean less damage to roads and lower maintenance costs.
While train travel is at least 17 times safer than car travel for the same distance3, grade crossings can still be dangerous. New technology such as “Positive Train Control” and other safety device upgrades will further reduce potential accidents.4
The State Rail Plan will be implemented in phases with the first round of projects in 2022 (Caltrain electrification, rail service expansion, and increased frequencies on existing regional rail corridors). The 2027 service goals include expanding rail service in Merced, Coachella Valley, and Las Vegas regions and the first phase of the Monterey County Rail Extension. The State Rail Plan will capitalize on shared freight and passenger rail investments by identifying projects that benefit all rail operators. Expenditures identified in the 2018 version of the plan totaled $40.8 billion. This investment is expected to result in a $77.5 billion economic output and 463,000 full-time jobs. Financing has been identified through various federal, state, regional, and private sources, including Infrastructure for Rebuilding America and the Trade Corridor Enhancement Program, State Transportation Improvement Programs, as well as local transportation funds and taxes.
“According to observations from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) staff, the California State Rail Plan (CSRP) is among the best rail plan documents published by any jurisdiction in the United States to date.”5
Criticisms of the CA State Rail Plan include lack of proactive initiatives, does not properly address how to maintain the resilience of rail infrastructure, including maintenance & repair; and needs a more active public outreach “to help educate a car-reliant public on the benefits of rail transit”6.
3 Savage, Ian. July 2013. Comparing the fatality risks in United States transportation across modes and over time. Research in Transportation Economics. Volume 43, Issue 1. Pages 9-22.
4 Positive Train Control. U.S. Department of Transportation. https://railroads.dot.gov/train-control/ptc/positive-train-control-ptc
5 Getting state rail plans back on track: Gaps and best practices. Mass Transit. August 26, 2021
6 A Model for Integrating Rail Services with other Transportation Modalities: Identifying the Best Practices and the Gaps for California’s Next State Rail Plan. Mineta Transportation Institute. San Jose State. Eric Peterson Wenbin Wei Lydon George. July 2021. https://transweb.sjsu.edu/sites/default/files/1949-Peterson-Best-Practices-California-State-Rail-Plan.pdf
7 Fuel conservation: https://afdc.energy.gov/conserve/equipment.html