13 May 2010

Getting Sketchy In Mountain View

The city of Mountain View recently commissioned a series of sketches depicting different grade separations options for Castro St and Rengstorff Ave. Let's take a look.

First, shockingly, the tracks are configured as separate pairs, one for HSR and another for the rather aptly-named Caltrain/Freight. As will continue to be argued on this blog, and as the preliminary alternatives analysis acknowledges, this FFSS (fast-fast-slow-slow) track arrangement would force highly inconvenient single-tracking operations during service disruptions. It would also prevent commuter train overtakes. This is the worst-possible track arrangement for Caltrain. That being said, the track arrangement isn't the point of these renderings. On to the critique.

The recently installed faux-depot, built for a couple of million dollars (a pittance compared to the HSR options now being weighed), appears in all the options for Castro Street. It is evidently a civic pride and joy, to be preserved at all possible costs--costs to state and federal taxpayers, and ongoing costs to pedestrian transit users attempting to circumnavigate it for access to the actual train station. The elevated option is even dinged for "poor relationship with depot building".

The Castro elevated alignment shows a rail viaduct with a full eighteen (18) feet of roadway clearance underneath, and gigantic 40-foot ornamental towers with "potential for civic gateway treatment" that dominate the landscape. The same urban design values as for the faux-depot (form over function!) are on full display. If you wanted to sand-bag the elevated option, this is clearly how you'd do it. A more functional and discreet plan would be (a) to reduce the clearance under the viaduct to a more reasonable 16 feet, which could still accommodate all manner of interstate trucking and military convoys, and (b) sink Castro by about 5 feet, with relatively minor impact to business frontage on the 100-block of Castro. This would not only reduce the hulking profile of the station, but also shorten access to the platforms. This exact "split-grade" plan was proposed in Focus on Mountain View, accompanied by a Google Earth 3D model, all free of charge.

The Castro trench alignment, sure to be everybody's favorite, would literally introduce a new moat between downtown and the VTA light rail station. A nice "greenway" would be wedged in between the moat and Central Expressway, on top of the HSR tracks, for a (pleasant?) stroll to Rengstorff Park. As was previously pointed out, it is not feasible to put Caltrain/Freight into a trench at Castro and still make it back up to grade over the Stevens Creek, all the while adhering to the ultra-conservative 1% grade limitation for freight. Therefore, the trench alignment clearly suffers from some basic engineering feasibility issues, unless Mountain View has plans to grade-separate the creek as well. This plan, unless Mountain View pays for it, is likely a non-starter.

The Castro at-grade alignment is a nice illustration of what happens when you try to build a full-depth road underpass on a dense city block. Street frontage is severely affected, with loss of parking and a labyrinth of ramps and steps for pedestrians, something that is unlikely to sit well with local businesses--assuming they can even survive the construction period, which involves extensive excavation. The VTA light rail station would be further isolated from downtown by a tower bridge, just another two convenient elevator rides away from all the action.

The weakness in these renderings is that grade separation is really a continuum. The elevated, at-grade and below-grade categories are artificially imposed on the problem to make it easier to understand, but end up obfuscating hybrid options known as "split" grade separations, where both the rails and road are altered (rather than just one or the other). These split grade separations can combine advantages of the different categories, to have your cake and eat it too.

It's disappointing to see renderings that show only what the train can do to Mountain View, and not what Mountain View can do with the train.

UPDATE: The city has now posted additional sketches with street-level views. Once again, the trench is made to look better than it really is; the sketch does not show the 7-foot rise at Castro Street as shown in the corresponding aerial view.


  1. Amazing Mountain View paid $100k for such cartoonish renderings.

    For that money, they could have hired ILM and gotten photorealistic CGI.

  2. The sketches are interesting in that they show how Caltrain/HSR can co-exist with the City of Mountain View, unlike their northern NIMBY neighbors. I'm curious, is the distinction of HSR tracks and Caltrain/Freight deliberate or is there a report to back up what the designers have drawn up? The only recent report that I know of, the AA has not made a determination of FFSS, SFFS or FSSF for the tracks, even though we all know what would work best. By the way Clem, you should really be recognized (and compensated) for all that you have done with this blog in pointing out the engineering for this project along with the designs you have produced. Kudos to you.

  3. The sad thing is that Menlo Park has already developed even more detailed designs for a four-track alignment through Menlo. However, since it's now for HSR and Caltrain, instead of just Caltrain, it's now a bad idea.

  4. The at-grade option is illustrated in it's most obnoxious possible form.

    Castro St itself does not need to be turned into an underpass itself.

    Cal Ave is a good model--stub end the traditional business street at the station, provide pedestrian access across the tracks and central expressway, and route car traffic across somewhere else.

    There's already the Shoreline overpass a block away.

    How bad would it really be to just break Castro from Central (and Moffet).

    And if they have to be connected, could an underpass be built in a different, less obnoxious configuration? Use the current CalTrain parking area for a ramp (build a garage above, or something like that).

    None of the designs address the fact that Central Expwy, as much as the tracks, is a pedestrian-hostile cut through Mtn View. It seems like a lost opportunity to not bridge that gap at the same time.

  5. The Menlo Caltrain 4 track plan was and is fine..of course its not now since HSR will also use it and it runs by a certain someones house that does not like HSR!!!

  6. Cal ave is an example of how NOT to do urban design.

  7. @Anon 00:15, kudos must be passed on to Richard Mlynarik, who spent countless hours building the 3D model.

    @Anon 18:37, yup, Cal Ave is a total disaster, especially the new underpass. It is a model of passenger hostility. From a functional point of view, elevating this station a bit would allow Cal Ave to be re-united across the tracks and Alma, and open new access to the business district. An island platform would also make station access infinitely simpler (one short flight of stairs or one ramp, rather than today's labyrinth)

  8. How bad would it really be to just break Castro from Central (and Moffet).

    Would cut off Downtown Mountain View from cars heading from the freeway and office parks to the north.

    Which might make sense in the stereotypical "we had to destroy the town to save it" urban planning mindset but would evaporate political support for HSR in the town.

    None of the designs address the fact that Central Expwy, as much as the tracks, is a pedestrian-hostile cut through Mtn View.

    Which is a good point. This could be the opportunity to solve two urban design issues for the price of one.

  9. I had problems accessing the link to the sketches on the City of Mountain View's server. Copies are available here:


    Curiously, only the at-grade option calls for an additional grade separation between Castro/Moffett and Central Expressway. Wouldn't it be a whole lot cheaper to elevate the VTA light rail terminus above the heavy rail tracks?

    Note that there would still be an issue with laying five - let alone six - tracks side-by-side at the CA-85 and Whisman Road underpasses. It might be possible to address that by narrowing both Central and West Evelyn. These roads currently feature median strips with vegetation.

    In response to Drunk Engineer's comment: IMHO the individual(s) who commissioned these sketches weren't interested in the artistic quality of the renderings. Rather, the apparent objective was to make their preferred option (covered/open trench) appear far more appealing to John Q. Public than either of the alternatives while omitting split grade solutions altogether.

  10. Daniel Krause15 May, 2010 15:42

    @ Peter do have a link to the plans Menlo park did for an upgraded Caltrain corridor?


  11. @Daniel:

    Right-hand column, click on Focus on Menlo Park

  12. I think he might be looking at these.


  13. The most glorious part about the Menlo Park grade separation plans -- which you and I must have funded to the tune of a couple million dollars --, just like the San Bruno plans -- which you I have funded to the tune of over $8 million for "design" even before the $175-ish million of clusterfuck "construction" wrecks yet more of the Caltrain line -- is that the project is based on absolutely no service planning and is part of no overall corridor plan and is not part of any prioritized plan and has absolutely no relationship to improving service.

    Is anybody responsible? Is anybody in charge? Can anybody provide the slightest justification for this disaster? Can anybody stand before any group of taxpayers and claim with a straight face that this is delivering any sort of public benefit?

    It's clear that cretins in Caltrain's capital projects and rail "planning" organizations just randomly dream crap up, funnel millions of your tax dollars to consultants to make CAD files of arbitrary bits of construction, then throw the random piles of crap at the wall, and see what sticks.

    Note that the San Bruno clusterfuck doesn't even appear in the officlal agency 2008 Short Range Transit Plan yet overnight it becomes the biggest capital project of the agency ... even though it will degrade service permanently and is guaranteed to be incompatible with all future HSR plans, utterly incompetent Caltrain/NHTB/PBQD ones or otherwise.

    And what was the justification for a four track grade separation in Menlo Park? As far as I can tell, some idiot with no interest in or knowledge of or care for train operations and serving passengers thought it was a totally bitchin' idea and so went off and spent a few man-years and millions of your dollars on it.

    There is absolutely no technical management and no adult budgetary supervision at the agency. It's out of control.

    Caltrain really needs to be and really deserves to be killed.

  14. Richard, I think there's a bit more logic in the situation. I think they consider grade separations to be a goal in themselves, as a safety improvement, which would make sense if a) the funding came from the plentiful road budget and not the scarce Caltrain budget, and b) if they didn't make up such a significant fraction of Caltrain's capital program. And yeah, you're basically right that what they need is a capital program based around planning for future service, etc. And I suspect that when Caltrain's bureaucracts are threatening that the service will die, there are some people who think "good riddance". It's a dangerous gambit on their part, and an annoying one for those of us who actually need the train.

  15. When you've got the community blaming you for kids who off themselves, the grade separations may be a goal in and of themselves, as a kind of PR move.

    Remember, they wanted the trains to slow down to 5 MPH around schools or something.

  16. @ Spokker

    My wife gets off at Menlo Park three times a week and is waiting for one of the kids from Menlo College who walk around the pedestrian gates right in front of her to get smeared by a Baby Bullet. I'm totally in favor of grade separating for the purpose of grade separating. People like that seriously need to be protected from themselves.

  17. Who did the money for San Bruno come from? Wasn't it ARRA funding? That would explain why it went from 'idle' (environmental clearance completed, but no money, hence no activity) to full construction...

  18. Reality Check17 May, 2010 10:07

    The $30m grant for the San Bruno Caltrain grade sep project is coming from the state's Prop 1B program; When they got word they could have the $30m provided they were out to bid by June 10, the rush was on.

  19. Reality Check17 May, 2010 10:15

    From the fact sheet on Caltrain's San Bruno project Website:

    The total cost of $165 million is being funded
    through a mix of state and local funds from the
    San Mateo County Measure A, State of California
    Proposition 1B and California Public Utilities
    Commission Grade Separation programs.

  20. I still don't see what Richard's beef about it not being on the Short Range Transit Plan is.

    Politics and funding for projects are always in flux.

  21. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  22. Richard, please keep it civil. Here are your comments, sanitized as your struggle to master the Art of Disagreement. I am not your blog maid, and have better things to do than to clean up your comments.

    -- begin Richard comment --

    "I still don't see what Richard's beef about it not being on the Short Range Transit Plan is."

    The beef is that there isn't any planning of any type at Caltrain.

    If the agency were staffed by or at least managed by professionals, there would be a long-term service plan, achievable in clearly defined incremental steps, and there would be a prioritized list of the capital projects necessary in order to deliver those goals in that order.

    There would always be more stuff on the list that there is money, but the stuff at the top would be ready to go if cash magically rained down from the sky, and most importantly there would be something to sell -- actual improved service! -- when lining up political support at all levels of government.

    So how does throwing $165 million of your tax dollars on a massively, head-splittingly (yes, that means typically), irredeemably incompetent and short-sighted grade separation that is guaranteed to degrade service and guaranteed to need to done over again under any future HSR scenario fit in with any service plan at any high priority?

    How does this improve Caltrain? How does it improve Caltrain's operating efficency? How does it fit into a short-term and a long-term corridor operations strategy? How is it the highest and best use of capital funding anywhere on the corridor?

    And no, I'm not opposed to grade separations. In fact, I've thought for over a decade (and advocated, back when anybody listened) that a station on a grade separation should be Caltrain's highest capital priority, because it would have enabled radically improved service.

    But instead the [portion removed] at Caltrain just throw [portion removed] at the wall and spend money -- hundreds and billions of your tax dollars -- on worthless or zero-priority or negative value junk that has no justification and no purpose and isn't part of any sort of a plan of any type.

    [portion removed] This isn't a remotely professional organization and it isn't one with the slightest interest in serving the public interest.

  23. Again, there's a logic to this, but it's not the logic of business (providing service to customers in exchange for money). For example, I suspect that the whole process of begging for grants for capital funding tends to encourage getting those grants as a goal in itself. It was one of the problem with managing socialist economies: progress was measured by inputs, not outputs. With this line of thinking, for Caltrain's managers and their political patrons, success is maximizing the state and federal dollars flowing to Caltrain.

  24. Caltrain First17 May, 2010 21:50

    True enough, Caltrain is following warped incentives, especially when it comes to operating and capital outlays. It's just like a person struggling to pay the electricity bill to keep things running, yet that same person is spending enormous sums on new electrical equipment.

    It's also a game of chasing false "bargains". Caltrain pieces together comparatively small "OPM" grants ($30M from Prop 1B, etc) to pay for a much more expensive project that they may not be a capital priority. Earmarks and specially designated funding sources obviously are part of problem here too.

  25. It's as if Caltrain were struggling to pay the electric bill, but the goverment passed a Home Appliance Modernization Act and gave it huge sums of money to buy new appliances. And Caltrain went for the most expensive ones, rather than the ones that would save it money on the electric bill.

  26. @ arcady

    Or it went with the appliances that were on the market right at that moment, rather than ones that would be available in a few months or years and would save a little more on the bill.

  27. More like they were designing the kitchen to accommodate a coal range and an icebox.

  28. Here is a link for new sketches, this time in color. Also, pay attention to the split-grade rendering, it's not too bad.


  29. I think those are just different renderings of the same options: at-grade, elevated, and trenched. I didn't see a split-grade option. I think what you referred to as split-grade was the at-grade option.