23 November 2008

Focus on: San Bruno

San Bruno is the point of departure for the "Bayshore Cutoff" to San Francisco, built in the early 1900s by the Southern Pacific Railroad. The rail line to San Francisco originally went straight through San Bruno and detoured around the west side of San Bruno mountain, where BART runs today. The cutoff was built around the east side of the mountain, then through a series of tunnels, as a shortcut into San Francisco. This is the alignment used by Caltrain today and planned for HSR.

San Bruno Curve

One important consequence of this history is that San Bruno is left with one of the sharpest curves on the peninsula, where the cutoff formerly diverged from the old main line. The radius of the curve is 1800 feet (550 meters), giving it a maximum safe speed of about 70 mph (115 km/h). Caltrain has a speed limit of 60 mph at this location. Slowing down a high speed train from a peninsula cruise speed of 125 mph (200 km/h) to take the existing San Bruno curve would cost more than a minute, or over half a percent of the entire SF to LA running time. Considering how much investment is being made to shave seconds off run times for the entire system, a 1-minute penalty in San Bruno for a single curve should raise some red flags at the CHSRA.

Consider the "San Bruno Curve" a significant obstacle to HSR on the peninsula.

To run trains safely at 110 mph through the curve, it would have to be straightened to a radius of 1200 m. This is shown as a blue outline in the map to the right (see the Top Ten Worst Curves for more information on curves). Straightening the San Bruno curve for HSR is complicated by several factors:
  • The houses along Montgomery Ave, on the inside of the curve, would likely have to be taken by eminent domain. According to zillow.com these houses are worth a combined $6 million, a relative drop in the bucket compared to the $4200 million to be spent on the peninsula alone. The tracks would also pass on the site of the former lumber yard on the inside of the curve, recently torn down.
  • The viaduct for I-380 (named, irony of ironies, the Quentin L. Kopp freeway) crosses over the tracks at the north end of the curve, supported by a forest of beefy concrete pillars.
  • Caltrain has planned a 4-track grade separation in this location (see below) that essentially preserves the existing sharp curve. (The radius was planned to increase slightly from 1800 ft to a still-tight 2000 ft, staying within the existing Caltrain right-of-way.) However ill-conceived, these planning errors have a sneaky way of perpetuating themselves, especially after the $10 million spent to date on engineering this project.
The next significant curve, 2.5 miles to the north, around the base of San Bruno mountain at Sierra Point, has a radius of about 2600 ft (800 m), giving it a maximum safe speed of about 85 mph (140 km/h). This curve cannot be straightened due to the local topography, but is sufficiently distant from San Bruno to allow trains to accelerate to 125 mph (200 km/h) by the time they reach San Bruno curve.

Grade Separations

San Bruno has grade crossings at Angus Ave, Scott St, and San Mateo and San Bruno Avenues. The latter is known as one of the most dangerous crossings on the peninsula, because San Mateo Ave crosses the tracks at an acute angle and the nearby curve limits visibility for trains, auto traffic and pedestrians.

Caltrain and the city of San Bruno have long-standing plans to grade-separate the crossings in San Bruno. These plans have been delayed several times due to funding issues, most recently until 2012. Caltrain has produced a detailed Grade Separation Study Report, from which the preliminary track layout is of particular interest. The city of San Bruno is developing a downtown and transit corridors plan that includes the Caltrain station area. The San Bruno Caltrain station would be rebuilt to the north of its current location with four tracks, elevated over the San Mateo Ave / San Bruno Ave crossings. The streets would be sunk to pass under the new station. The Scott St. crossing would be closed to auto traffic, with a pedestrian / bike underpass built instead. The proximity of the BART tunnel, which passes under the Caltrain tracks just south of San Mateo Ave, is a complicating factor discussed in the report.

With the passage of proposition 1A, Caltrain's plans for San Bruno should be thoroughly re-evaluated, regardless of the studies, $10 million of preliminary engineering, committees, public input and debate of the last several years. With high speed rail in the mix, the requirements have changed, and the biggest problem with the existing plans is the San Bruno curve.

HSR Plans

The California High Speed Rail Authority's Bay Area EIR / EIS, Appendix D, shows the alignment through San Bruno as a 15-foot tall retained fill embankment with split grade separations (exactly as planned by Caltrain, except with four tracks all the way through town). The rails dip down briefly to grade level as they pass under the I-380 viaduct.

The CHSRA gives no indication of an intention to straighten San Bruno curve; their plans show the tracks following the existing Caltrain right-of-way.

San Bruno Done Right

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, a 3D model may be worth a thousand pictures. Here is the future San Bruno station and grade separation done right: with the curve straightened out for 100 mph operation, and a central island platform for Caltrain.

Download Google Earth model, enable the Terrain checkbox, and click on Tour. Make sure to fully explore the details of the station area, including stairways and platform canopy. (The necessary viewer, Google Earth, is free and easy to install.)

For more details on this proposed design for the San Bruno station, see San Bruno Done Right.

NOTE: This post will be updated continuously, as warranted by additional information or new events relating to San Bruno.

19 November 2008

Glossary and Acronyms

AAR - Association of American Railroads
CARRD - Californians Advocating Responsible Railroad Design
CBOSS - Communication-Based Overlay Signal System
CEQA - California Environmental Quality Act
CEMOF - Centralized Equipment Maintenance and Operations Facility
CHSRA - California High Speed Rail Authority
CPUC - California Public Utilities Commission
CSS - Context-Sensitive Solutions
CTC - Centralized Traffic Control
DTX - Downtown Extension
EIR - Environmental Impact Report (under CEQA)
EIS - Environmental Impact Statement (under NEPA)
EMU - Electric Multiple Unit
ERTMS - European Railway Traffic Management System
ETCS - European Train Control System
FRA - Federal Railroad Administration
FTA - Federal Transit Administration
GO - General Order (see CPUC)
HSR - High-Speed Rail
JPB - Joint Powers Board
NEPA - National Environmental Policy Act
NIMBY - Not In My Back Yard
NPRM - Notice of Proposed Rule Making
MOU - Memorandum Of Understanding
MTC - Metropolitan Transportation Commission
OCS - Overhead Contact System
PAMPA - Palo Alto - Menlo Park - Atherton
PCC - Peninsula Cities Consortium
PCJPB - Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board
PRP - Peninsula Rail Program
PTC - Positive Train Control
RFP - Request for Proposals
ROW - Right Of Way
STRACNET - Strategic Corridor Network
TTC - Transbay Transit Center
UPRR - Union Pacific Railroad

16 November 2008

Focus on: Menlo Park

Photo by Adam SporkaMenlo Park is the site of California's oldest passenger train depot, built in 1867. The town has a closely spaced series of four grade crossings near its center, at Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood and Encinal Avenues. Trains must blow their horn nearly continuously when they pass through the area.

Menlo Park, along with its affluent neighbor Atherton, is noted for its official opposition to HSR, despite most residents having voted for Proposition 1A. The city also joined a lawsuit to make Altamont Pass the preferred HSR entry to the Bay Area, instead of Pacheco Pass. While this would remove HSR from Menlo Park's downtown, many residents don't realize that the Altamont alternative would still pass through Menlo Park, impacting the Suburban Park and Lorelei Manor neighborhoods instead.

Right of Way Width

The existing railroad land through Menlo Park is narrower than 100 feet along most of its length. Along Stone Pine Lane, it is 75 feet wide. Between Oak Grove and Glenwood Avenues, it is just 60 feet wide, although abutting land is not residential and could be taken with only minor disruption. South of the station, the right of way is 80-100 feet wide. Maps of the existing ROW boundaries are available for mileposts 28-29 (north end of town) and 29-30 (south end of town).

Grade Separations

The existing vertical alignment of the Caltrain tracks is shown in the figure below, created from Caltrain track survey data.


Menlo Park has planned for grade-separating the four crossings since 2001. With the HSR project well underway, at least one design requirement is coming into better focus: the probable need for four tracks. The grade separation study considers the impact to adjacent properties, shows some renderings of a few concepts, and also has some nice illustrations of construction staging. This study already takes into account quadruple tracking.

More recently, the CHSRA's project-level environmental work on the San Francisco - San Jose HSR project resulted in preliminary design alternatives including elevated, at-grade and below-grade variations of the vertical alignment through Menlo Park. These alternatives are highly schematic, and the CHSRA has yet to reveal detailed vertical track profiles.

Any changes to the vertical alignment of the tracks through Menlo Park must be coordinated with neighboring Atherton, which has two crossings just over the city line, too close to allow grade changes to a different elevation.

The figure below shows a split grade separation, with the rails raised by about 15 feet and the roads sunk by about 5 feet. Pedestrian sidewalks would remain at grade.


Alternately, the tracks could be sunk fully into a 30-foot deep trench, as shown in solid red line in the next figure. This would leave roads at grade, although it would likely result in greater construction impacts.


Train Station

The existing Menlo Park Caltrain station was rebuilt in 2000. Rebuilding it with four tracks would require demolishing the new platforms, removing heritage trees on the east side of the station, and considerably narrowing Alma St. The historic depot building (and the baggage building that houses the model railroad) would be relocated to make way for the new southbound track. The grade separation study contains relevant diagrams.

Bike Tunnel

Menlo Park has long standing plans to install a pedestrian and bike tunnel under the tracks to link the Burgess recreation area with Safeway and the neighborhoods on the other side of El Camino Real. This tunnel would be located about here, under the raised berm that currently supports the two existing tracks. Before this project proceeds any further, it should take into account future quadruple tracking for HSR.

Local Opposition

A few vocal residents have vigorously opposed HSR on the grounds that it will degrade the quality of life in Menlo Park. In particular, vocal critics Martin Engel and Morris Brown, who live near the tracks, have advocated against Proposition 1A by founding Derail High Speed Rail, a group that opposes HSR on economic and geopolitical grounds... and, perhaps also, because of their back yards' proximity to the tracks. Another Menlo Park resident, Russell Peterson, has filed a lawsuit claiming that the HSR project usurps the Union Pacific Railroad's exclusive rights to operate intercity passenger trains on the peninsula.

NOTE: This post will be updated continuously, as warranted by additional information or new events relating to Menlo Park.

13 November 2008

Quickie Stakeholder Analysis


Each stakeholder in California's HSR project has different interests in the project. Keeping those interests in mind is very important to interpret their actions. On the back of an envelope, the stakeholders are:

The Public

The public has a strong interest in the HSR project, rooted in two different roles: the role of a user who desires HSR to be convenient and fast, and the role of a taxpayer who desires HSR to be built efficiently and for the least amount of money. The public pays up front (see Proposition 1A) and is usually not very well organized to defend its collective interests, compared to the other stakeholders. This blog will scream loudly, if anybody listens, to defend those interests.

While other stakeholders may say that they want HSR to be fast and cheap, the bottom line is that they have little stake in that outcome. Read on to see why!

The Agencies and Governments

On the peninsula, the various agencies are going to defend their parochial interests. Caltrain, the Transbay Authority, SamTrans, VTA, the three counties, the High Speed Rail Authority, and the local communities are going to defend their piece of the pie, be it money or influence. One catfight to watch for in the coming years will pit Caltrain against the CHSRA. Caltrain owns the peninsula rails, but HSR will so profoundly alter every project recently undertaken or planned by Caltrain that even shared goals (fast, efficient and modern transportation) won't be enough to prevent some friction. Up in San Francisco, sparks are already starting to fly between the CHSRA and the Transbay Authority.

The agencies will be in cahoots with the construction companies. You've got to worry when on the night of the election, Quentin Kopp, the head of the CHSRA, is having martinis with the construction big wigs (HNTB, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Webcor) who will get a piece of the action.

The Construction Companies

Construction companies that will build the HSR project stand to profit handsomely. They are where the money ultimately flows. Design engineering, construction, program management, most of the slices of the HSR budget will be sent to them at some point. Their interest is to make money. They make a lot of money by engineering complex infrastructure that involves lots of earth moving and concrete pouring. The more earth moving and concrete pouring, the greater the profit. There's nothing wrong with that so far.

Unfortunately, those same companies are also in charge of designing all this infrastructure. The fox is guarding the hen house, but in proper industry lingo this is passed off as cost-saving "design-build-operate-maintain" and "turn-key solutions". The construction companies know that once HSR is far enough along, nothing will stop its completion, least of all running out of money. They have little interest in making HSR any faster or better or cheaper than absolutely necessary to maintain continued public funding of the project. The wisdom goes that among the three qualities, faster, better and cheaper, you can have any two. Locally, if the HSR design is left without strong oversight, the peninsula may get none of the three.

Look out for gold-plated solutions to simple problems, sold by throwing up a fog of expert-knows-best complexity.

The Neighbors

Many communities, groups and individuals on the peninsula will suffer negative impacts from the HSR project, either inherent in its design or arising from its construction. These groups have some of the most obvious and clear-cut interests: Not In My Back Yard! They will work hard to influence HSR plans to their own benefit, with less regard for the wider public interest. One example: the resolutions opposing Proposition 1A passed by the city councils of Menlo Park and Atherton. Yet another example is Millbrae's push to develop land needed for HSR. And that's only the beginning...

Opposite the NIMBY's, there are what you might call YIMBY's (Yes, In My Back Yard!) who would like to use HSR as an opportunity to obtain local benefits, again without regard to the wider public interest. One example is the screwball plan to tunnel the tracks underground, floated by a Palo Alto group. There will be other communities keenly interested in swinging some HSR bacon their way to achieve urban design aspirations entirely unrelated to HSR.

Let's finish on a positive note: to avoid becoming the boondoggle that proposition 1A opponents fear, the HSR project needs to be designed under the watchful eye of an independent panel of experts with local knowledge, and especially some TEETH to bite back at the agencies and contractors as required to keep them attuned to the public interest. Whether the provisions attached to Proposition 1A will provide for this remains to be seen.

09 November 2008

The Big Picture

To people who live on the San Francisco peninsula, High Speed Rail will be defined by four principal characteristics:
  • 4 tracks all the way, from San Jose to San Francisco
  • Full grade separation, i.e. no grade crossings
  • 125 - 150 mph top speed (far lower than the 220 mph capability of HSR)
  • Electrification with a 25,000 volt overhead contact system
According to Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, the peninsula line could be operational in 2015.

What will that look like where you live?

We can try to draw the big picture from the CHSRA's Environmental Impact (EIR/EIS) documents for the Bay Area, published in May 2008. There's lots of detail in the report and appendices.

A map of the peninsula from a 2004 EIR/EIS document (at right) summarizes where the peninsula tracks are planned to run at-grade, in tunnels, or in elevated or sunken sections. The CHSRA also provides a more recent, interactive Google Map. These maps are clearly preliminary, as anyone with detailed local knowledge will attest; they will be fleshed out in the next few years during the detailed engineering phase.

HSR plans call for building most of the new peninsula tracks at ground level, or in elevated / sunken sections as labeled in the above map. Cross sections of these configurations are provided, with the most common shown below.



Ground level 4-track section. Caltrain already has these (minus the overhead wires) in Brisbane, Redwood City and Sunnyvale, to enable Baby Bullet service. The ROW width is about 100 feet, including service access roads used mostly for trimming vegetation. This configuration is labeled A.38 in the map above.

Elevated 4-track section. Where space is available, this can be built on a wide berm. Where space is not available, retaining walls are used as shown in the figure, keeping ROW width to within 75 feet (with external access presumed). Labeled A.39 in the map above.

Sunken 4-track section. The ROW width is within 75 feet (with external access presumed). Labeled A.39 in the map above.

Caltrain has some additional dimensioned cross section drawings in Chapter 2 of their electrification EA/DEIR (see in particular Figure 2.3-3).

At any location, the choice of configuration will depend on a variety of factors:
  • Grade separations, where the height of the tracks is constrained by the presence of an under- or overpass
  • Available right-of-way width: some configurations consume more space than others, with possible eminent domain impact
  • Noise and aesthetics (sunken is preferable on both counts)
  • Expense: anything involving lots of earth moving and pouring of concrete will automatically cost lots of money. That is certainly bad for the taxpayer, although the large construction firms that design these projects sure don't seem to mind.
How will the arrival of HSR alter existing Caltrain tracks, stations and crossings? In future posts, this blog will focus on some unique situations at various locations on the peninsula.

Money Matters


The California High Speed Rail Authority released their 2008 Business Plan, giving a basic overview of the expected capital costs of upgrading the peninsula right of way to accommodate HSR and Caltrain. Construction costs are broken down on page 23. The 50-mile segment from San Francisco to San Jose is expected to cost $4.2 billion to reconstruct (plus 8% program management overhead), or $84.2 million per mile. This amounts to nearly 13% of the cost of the entire SF - Anaheim HSR project. All figures in 2008 dollars.

It is not clear how much funding the CHSRA assumes will come from Caltrain's long-planned electrification project, or how HSR will be integrated with Caltrain electrification. Caltrain's latest cost estimates amount to nearly $1.5 billion to electrify the existing tracks, without regard to HSR compatibility. This includes $785 million for electrification infrastructure, $231 million for signal and crossing improvements, $422 million for new trains, and $100 million overhead for managing the project. That all comes to $20 million per mile in construction costs.

It is also unclear how much funding the CHSRA assumes will come from San Francisco's new Transbay Transit Center. This $4.2 billion project (year of expenditure) was planned independently of HSR, although it dovetails nicely with HSR. It includes a 1.3 mile extension of the tracks beyond Caltrain's current 4th & King terminal to the new Transbay Terminal in the heart of the financial district. Construction is slated to begin in 2012, with the downtown extension opening in 2018.

That's a lot of money, so I have to wonder, do all these agencies expect each other to pay for various costs?

01 November 2008

About This Blog

Welcome to the Caltrain - High Speed Rail Compatibility Blog. (what a mouthful, huh.)  The purpose of this blog is to discuss how the California High Speed Rail project will be integrated with Caltrain on the peninsula corridor between San Francisco and San Jose. We often hear that high speed rail (HSR) must be "done right." That sentiment is easy to agree with, until one tries to define what "right" actually is: different stakeholders have vastly different ideas about this.

This blog exists to educate and enlighten the discussion about high speed rail on the peninsula, so that people on all sides of the debate can argue from a position of knowledge. California taxpayers are footing the bill for this megaproject, and it's only appropriate that they be given enough information to intelligently judge the designs that the civil engineering firms are going to come up with. The California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) and its engineering consultants are pursuing an "outreach program," but one can't expect that this program will meet much more than the minimum standards required by federal (NEPA) and California (CEQA) environmental protection laws. In theory, the CHSRA is accountable to the people, but if the people aren't knowledgeable about what is being done, there is no basis upon which to react and hold the agency accountable.

We need information, and a convenient place to discuss it: right here on this blog.

Editorial Stance

This blog generally supports high speed rail on the peninsula. There are a few underlying editorial assumptions that readers should know about.
  • This blog accepts that HSR is a worthy investment. While we will often discuss details of how money is invested, and whether it is being wasted, the fundamental question of whether or not to build high speed rail is not a topic of this blog. For that sort of stuff, please visit the California High Speed Rail Blog and its extensive archive.
  • This blog accepts that HSR will run between San Jose and San Francisco on the Caltrain corridor, as a result of the Pacheco Pass alignment selection.  For many reasons, this alignment selection was likely not the best one, and an Altamont alignment would have been superior even in the narrow context of peninsula rail operations.  The Pacheco vs. Altamont routing continues to be one of the hot-button issues of the HSR debate, and discussion of it is welcome so long as it stays relevant to the peninsula.
  • This blog will often get technical. The nerdy train stuff is actually important in allowing peninsula residents to understand what is and isn't possible. We will try to make such technical topics as accessible as we can. Don't hesitate to use the comment section to ask questions.
  • This blog is tolerant to all view points, including those of so-called NIMBY (not in my back yard) opponents of the project. Everyone of every ideological persuasion benefits from the free and respectful exchange of ideas. Offensive, disrespectful or way-off-topic comments may be deleted at the discretion of the blog administrator.
Blog Inputs

Several people contribute material to this blog and expand its breadth and quality. All of them do so on a volunteer basis, and they are given credit where it is due, in each blog post.

Anonymous tips or contributions are welcomed. You may either post anonymously in the comment section, or contact me directly at clem (at) tillier (dot) net. Anonymity and confidentiality are guaranteed upon request. If preferred, I can meet with you in person.

About the Author

My name is Clem Tillier. I am an interested citizen, taxpayer, and potential user of high speed rail. I am a peninsula resident and frequent Caltrain user. Although I am an engineer with a life-long interest in trains, especially of the high speed variety, I do not work in the rail transport industry. I have no relationship with the CHSRA or any of its engineering consultants, whether personal, professional or financial. I think and write about this topic in my spare time, which explains the occasional hiatus.