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California county eyes regional rail system

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High-speed rail may be coming down the tracks one day, but the Stanislaus County, Calif., Board of Supervisors entered into an agreement to plan and develop a regional commuter rail system that could soon share those tracks, the Turlock Journal reports. The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a Memorandum of Understanding to enter a working group to collaborate with the California High-Speed Rail Authority that will see the county partner with more than 20 regional entities from Sacramento County to Merced County.

The working group is headed
by the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which owns, operates and is the
policy-making body for the Altamont Commuter Express, and has been pursuing commuter
rail service linking Valley cities between Merced and Sacramento Counties since
2006. Early efforts were stymied when existing railroads declined to allow
additional trains on their tracks, but the High-Speed Rail project could offer
a different commuter rail route through the Valley.

"When the High-Speed Rail
bond passed, it provided an opportunity for a partner who wanted another rail
corridor," said Stacy Mortensen, director of the San Joaquin Regional Rail
Commission.

Under the agreement, the
working group will pursue dedicated passenger trackage to be shared by
High-Speed Rail and a regional rail service between Merced and Sacramento. The
working group hopes to see some rail improvements built in the near term, even
before the High-Speed Rail system begins operation, so that regional service
could commence with existing train sets. That regional corridor would be
connected with the Altamont Regional Corridor and other existing local and
regional transit systems.

In May 2009, the Rail
Commission entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the CHSRA to partner
on planning the Altamont Regional Corridor/High-Speed Rail interconnect. The
new working group is likely to assist in that project as well, but has yet to
enter into a formal MOU with the CHSRA.

The working group also has
the stated priority of providing input on development of the Merced to
Sacramento leg of the High-Speed Rail project. The group will offer a unified
vision for the route of the Merced to Sacramento leg, as well as possible
stations, schedules, and supplementary transit systems.

This agreement is just the
first step in what is expected to be a series of board motions related to the
project. Stanislaus County currently has no fiscal commitment in the working
group.

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