Passenger rail may stop in foothill towns again
By Reggie Ellis
visalia – Regardless of your politics regarding high speed rail, almost everyone can agree on the need for more mass transit, preservation of rail lines and reducing the amount of emissions on the road. And the California High Speed Rail (HSR) project could bring all of those things despite its multi-billion-dollar price tag and swaths through prime agriculture farmland.
The Visalia City Council received a report last week on the Cross Valley Corridor, a plan to build a passenger rail service along both abandoned and active railroad right-of-way from I-5 to Highway 65. The more than 80 miles of track will be used to connect residents of Tulare and Kings Counties with the HSR station planned for western Hanford near the intersection of Highways 198 and 43. Projects like the Cross Valley Corridor are receiving HSR funding to identify, study and implement auxiliary rail projects along the 200-mph train’s route.
The Tulare County Association of Governments (TCAG), Tulare County’s transportation agency, is developing the plan that was presented at the Council’s July 17 meeting. Stuart Mori, senior transportation planner HSR, said unlike HSR all of the Cross Valley Corridor’s right-of-way has already been acquired by government entities that are part of the route. Even though the San Joaquin Valley Railroad abandoned its ling from Strathmore to Porterville and then pulled up the tracks for scrap metal, the City of Porterville purchased the land to preserve the right-of-way. Stations would be built in Huron, Lemoore Naval Air Station, Hanford, HSR Kings-Tulare Station, Goshen, Visalia, Farmersville, Exeter, Lindsay and Porterville. Because most of the cities were built around railroad stations, Mori said stations would be located in the downtown areas where they can be connected with local transit centers, bus lines and amenities.
Mori said the plan is also discussing a new type of diesel engine that will pull one passenger car in front of countless numbers of freight cars on the same line giving the railroad operating two streams of revenue to make the economics work for both consumers and businesses in the area.
Josh McDonnell, assistant community development director for the City of Visalia, said that in order to make the current right-of-way safe for passenger rail, the tracks would have to be improved to a higher standard, including metal instead of wooden ties, a heavier and newer type of rail and welded connections instead of just spikes.
“We have a chance to bring a lot of local cities together,” McDonnell said. “Preliminary numbers show there is a demand even without High Speed Rail.”
Mayor Warren Gubler reiterated his support for HSR and suggested the Brown Lumber site as a possible location for a Visalia station along the Cross Valley Corridor.
“I see no reason why Visalia couldn’t be the headquarters,” the Mayor said.
City Councilmember Greg Collins brought up the City’s V-Line, a bus that offers non-stop routes to and from Fresno, which could be implemented to Hanford and how the expansion of Highway 198 has shortened the drive time between Visalia and Lemoore NAS.
“You can get from Porterville to Lemoore relatively quickly compared to light rail with all of its stops,” Collins said.
McDonnell said there are travelers looking for quickest way and others who are looking more at convenience. He said train passengers, like himself, prefer to ride in a more comfortable environment on a train that is more conducive to working on the road or relaxing with a book.
Vice Mayor Bob Link asked if the railway between Exeter and Dinuba would be included as part of the route. McDonnell said Dinuba would be participating “at a lesser level” but bus service already connects to Dinuba. TCAG is hoping to complete the plan this November.
Steven Milton, assistant delivery manager for HSR in the San Joaquin Valley, gave a brief update on the status of High Speed Rail. He said there are currently 11 work sites in the Valley including Tuolumne Street and Clinton Avenue bridges in Fresno, three overcrossings in Madera County, the Highway 180 passageway and viaducts in north and south Fresno all part of the Construction Package #1. Tulare County’s section of the route, a 65-mile stretch from American Avenue in Fresno south to one-mile north of the Tulare-Kern County line, is part of Construction Package 2-3. That portion officially launched in March when construction crews completed an asphalt overlay on Road 40 between Avenue 112 and Avenue 88 in Tulare County. Milton said more work on this section of the route should begin this fall by Dragados/Flatiron out of its Selma office.
“HSR wants the Kings-Tulare station built by 2026,” he said. “That’s only eight years down the road.”
By 2029, the high speed train will travel from San Francisco to Anaheim with extensions to San Diego and Sacramento in phase 2 of the project. In all, there will be 24 stations on the 800-mile loop. The project has already spent $2.3 billion on the Valley section of the route and 85 small businesses have been hired from the Valley to work on this portion of the route.