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High-speed regional trains zoom into California

Several new trains capable of considerably higher speed should begin plying the rails in California in about four years time, thanks to an infusion of federal cash, reports Tim Sheehan of The Fresno Bee.

California received 68 million dollars from the federal government to buy 15 new American passenger cars and four new U.S.-made locomotives for the state’s three regional rail routes. The funding is a portion of the $336 million worth of Recovery Act funding — economic stimulus money — awarded as federal matching funds to California and outright grants to Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Missouri. The money will be used as part of a muti-state joint bid for new rail equipment aimed at producing a standard and in theory, economical design. The funding will pay for 63 new passenger cars and 11 new locomotives, generating manufacturing jobs and increasing the availability of mass transit.

Bill Bronte, rail division chief for the California Department of Transportation (or Caltrans), said rapid ridership growth on the regional routes in California has made adding more equipment an urgent priority. “We’re hitting some areas where on certain travel periods we’ve got standees on our trains, which is nice from a financial standpoint, but if you’re a rider you definitely don’t want to be standing for significant amounts of time.”

California’s regional routes — the Sacramento to San Jose Capitol Corridor, the Oakland to Bakersfield/San Joaquin, and the San Luis Obispo to San Diego Pacific Surfliner — are operated jointly by Amtrak and Caltrans. Contrasting with Amtrak’s long-distance trains, the regional trains lack sleeping accommodations and dining cars, but are much more likely to operate at least close to schedule.

Combined with two earlier rounds of funding, announced in April and last December, 120 new two-story passenger rail cars and 33 quick acceleration locomotives will be purchased. The equipment will be designed to travel at speeds in excess of 110 miles per hour. The current national speed limit for trains is 79 miles per hour, but officials anticipate track improvements and computerized train control systems that will enable trains to operate at higher speeds. “There’s going to be a real benefit to all of the states involved because we’ll basically get a lower per-unit price, so all the states will benefit from this joint procurement,” Bronte said.

According to Bronte, negotiations with BNSF railroad — formerly Burlington Northern Santa Fe — are proceeding well and could allow increased speeds along the San Joaquin corridor within several years. The San Joaquin connects the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles via an Amtrak bus route that extends south from the route’s Bakersfield terminal.

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