Upgrades Sought to Antiquated Railroad Between L.A. and San Luis Obispo

The study area

Take a trip from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner and it will eat about five and a half hours of your day, about two hours more than by car. With increasing demand for service, more freight use, population growth and congestion on the 101 freeway, the state, which subsidizes the route, is looking to make upgrades.

Even though tracks are maintained to current standards, the 222-mile route that spans four counties were initially laid around the turn of the 20th century. The needs back then differ from today, creating a host of challenges: 80% of the route is single track, 175 miles is owned by Union Pacific (the remaining miles are owned by Metro and two other transit agencies), the antiquated signaling system requires approval from radio dispatchers and some switches are manual, meaning engineers must stop trains and hand throw them.

All this adds up on the clock, making a trip from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara take about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Add another 2 and a half hours to get to San Luis Obispo.

In Northern Santa Barbara CountyIf Caltrans wants to improve these times, it's going to take money, most of which comes from the federal government. And in order to do that, the Federal Railroad Administration is requiring agencies to create comprehensive environmental and planning documents to be eligible for that large pot of funding.

"We've never had the opportunity in the past" to compete for funding, explained Lea Simpson, a project manager with Caltrans' Division of Rail. "This is really a huge opportunity for California to look ahead and look at how we want to develop the north (segment of the Pacific Surfliner)."

As a whole, the Pacific Surfliner is the second busiest passenger rail corridor in the nation.

Caltrans has already completed documents for the southern segment between Los Angeles and San Diego and has already applied for grant funding. When the documents are completed for the northern section in 2013, double tracking and other efforts might have a chance at happening someday.

As part of the required planning process, Caltrans is seeking public input in all four counties this week and encourages riders to participate. The remaining meetings are as follows:

  • Tuesday, Jan. 11th from 5 pm to 7 pm at the Camarillo Public Library at 4101 Las Posas Road, Camarillo, CA 93010,

  • Wednesday, Jan. 12th from 5 pm to 7 pm in the Lu Gilbert Room of the Louise Lowry Davis Center at 1232 De La Vina Street in Santa Barbara.

  • Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011 from 5 pm to 7 pm in the Community Room of the San Luis Obispo City/County Public Library at 995 Palm Street in San Luis Obispo.

  • If you cannot attend a meeting but have comments, questions, or concerns regarding the program EIR/EIS, please submit them in writing by February 15, 2011, to Matt Fowler, Senior Environmental Planner, 50 Higuera Street, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401, by phone at (805) 542-4603, or by e-mail at matt_c_fowler@dot.ca.gov. For all other Railroad information, please contact Joe Valdez at (916) 654-7188 or by email at joe@dot.ca.gov.

About the Author

Zach Behrens is KCETLink's Editor-in-Chief of Blogs, where he oversees website editorial and advises on projects. When he does write, he mostly covers local government, environment, and the outdoors.
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