24 January 2009

Who is HNTB ?

HNTB Corporation is a large civil engineering firm that has a key role in the overhaul of the peninsula corridor. HNTB designs bridges, highways, airports, railways, stadiums, and basically any complex infrastructure that eventually involves pouring fair amounts of concrete. They have about 2700 employees in 60 offices nationwide, including a key office in Oakland and a satellite office in San Jose.

HNTB was the principal designer of the BART extension to SFO and Millbrae; they were the brains behind all the track, tunnels, aerial structures, and the South San Francisco and San Bruno stations. The actual construction was done by other firms teamed with HNTB. The BART project was politically spearheaded by Quentin Kopp, who is today the chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority. On election night 2008, just as Measure 1A returns were being tallied, Kopp was sipping martinis with HNTB management and other firms involved in the high speed rail project. Peter Gertler, HNTB's national transit director (in charge of all things rail) and his staff are even reported to have canvassed for passage of the bond measure.

HNTB is no stranger to Caltrain: they designed the CEMOF maintenance facility in San Jose, which features an elegant reverse curve that is sure to cause yet another interesting engineering headache for high speed rail.

HNTB is now engineering the peninsula section of the HSR project, under a contract awarded by the California High Speed Rail Authority in November 2008. They will design all aspects of HSR on the peninsula, starting with basic track alignments. Their latest status report can be found here. Once the preliminary design is completed to the "30 percent" level in mid-2012, the CHSRA will put the detailed design and construction of the peninsula corridor out for bid. HNTB is certain to team with construction firms to bid on the next phase, but it is not guaranteed to win.

Here are some key names that you may see popping up, and who were in attendance at the scoping meetings. An organization chart is also shown at right, from the January status update.
  • Dominic Spaethling - SF-SJ Regional Manager - CHSRA and Parsons Brinckerhoff - Sacramento
  • Tim Cobb - Project Manager - HNTB West region public transit director - Oakland
  • John Litzinger - Engineering & Alternatives Analysis - HNTB - San Jose
HNTB is teaming with other firms for this design work, including DMJM, Transmetrics, Prointec (a Spanish firm with 20 years of HSR experience), among others. It's nice to see some European involvement to make sure the peninsula is done right.


  1. That double reverse curve looks to me like a pretty big design mistake in many different ways. The most obvious thing is that it slows trains down on the way to and from San Jose, which will become a bigger issue when the station is redesigned for speeds higher than 15 mph. Curved track also wears out much faster than straight track, especially if it's curved enough to cause flange contact, which this one appears to be (judging by the noise the trains make). The layout also makes more difficult any potential expansion of the train yard into the space occupied by the warehouses in the middle of the wye. Had the through tracks stayed on the west side, they could have eventually torn down those warehouses and built a huge train yard, which Caltrain is going to need eventually.

  2. Just out of interest: if VTA agreed to keep BART underground between SJ Diridon and Santa Clara and, to have its maintenance yard underground as well, could Caltrain/HSR have a depot at grade level there?

    The soil removed from the site could be used to construct the planned embankments further north. More importantly, it might well become possible to keep HSR at grade between San Tomas and SJ Diridon.

  3. Rafael: there's a huge amount of space on the east side of the ROW for BART's station and yard, on the site of the former Newhall freight yard. The main problem in terms of BART/Caltrain/HSR operations is that this corridor (CP Coast to San Jose) is also the UP's Coast Line, which has a non-negligible amount of freight traffic on it, so there needs to be at least one track for freight trains through the area. Given that, I'm not sure it's possible to have more than three tracks for Caltrain+HSR, and they might be sharing them with at least a few ACE/Capitol Corridor runs as well, with the attendant crossings at CP Coast.

    Further south, the double reverse curve around the CEMOF is obviously going to slow things down. If the existing platforms at Cahill Street are used, then it's going to require rebuilding the station throats on both ends for faster through running, though the limiting factor on the HSR through train speed are the curves both north and south of the station. If, on the other hand, is going to use a flyover over the existing platforms, then a ramp needs to be constructed somewhere, and there needs to be room for the support columns. This is tricky, as south of the CEMOF, the ROW is only 70 feet wide and has four tracks in it. Maybe they could widen the ROW by taking out the warehouses in the middle of the wye.

    I think the best solution to this whole mess, even without HSR, would have been to keep the WP line around the east and south sides of San Jose, and build a new junction to the Coast line where they cross. Then you'd have a freight bypass of downtown, and no need for a dedicated freight track from Santa Clara to San Jose. It might even remove the need to double track the line between Alviso and Albrae.