21 October 2018

Thinking Big in Redwood City

The architecture of Amsterdam Bijlmer
(photo by tataAnne) could represent
the future Redwood City station.
In a seamless transportation network that runs on a regular clockface schedule with timed, well-coordinated transfers, connecting nodes play a key role. Redwood City has natural potential as a connecting node, being located approximately at the midpoint of the peninsula rail corridor, serving as a logical transfer point between local and express trains, serving as the entry point to the peninsula from the future Dumbarton rail corridor, and being in of itself a significant destination with extensive connecting bus service and a willingness to grow.

With Redwood City currently renewing its interest in grade separations, it's important to think big and to re-imagine the station as a key node in the Bay Area's transportation network.

Start with a good timetable

Using our handy service pattern generator, let's see what we could do if we organized a blended system that made Redwood City a key transfer node. When you make a business plan, the first thing to be crystal clear about is: what is your product? In Caltrain's case, the timetable is the product, and all these stations and tracks should only be built as long as they contribute directly to delivering a quantifiably better timetable for the ordinary rider. Building a major new station in Redwood City isn't about trite superlatives like "Grand Central of the West," but simply about efficient and seamless coordination of timely and reliable ways to get from point A to point B.

Let's set some ground rules for our timetable:
  • Caltrain expresses will operate every 10 minutes on a regular clockface schedule. A base 'takt' of 10 minutes reduces gracefully to 20 minutes or 30 minutes in the off-peak.
  • In Silicon Valley, there will be no skip-stop service because the population and jobs are evenly sprawled. Every station in Silicon Valley needs to be served frequently, doing away with the ridership distortions induced by the Baby Bullet effect.
  • In San Mateo county, where stop spacing is closer, slower local trains will operate every 20 minutes. These local trains will meet the express at Redwood City, before turning back north.
  • Dumbarton service will operate every 20 minutes, meeting the express at Redwood City with little or no wait to transfer to trains on the peninsula corridor, before turning back towards the East Bay.
  • Because the overall pattern repeats every 20 minutes, HSR will operate 3 trains per hour rather than the planned 4. Otherwise, there is a harmonic mismatch between the HSR frequency and the Caltrain frequency. 4 HSR trains per hour in a clockface timetable forces the base 'takt' to increase to 15 minutes, which is not desired.
  • If we're going to make Redwood City a major node, it certainly rates HSR service, so we will create a new mid-peninsula stop for HSR.
This is the resulting timetable (see also additional data on service pattern), shown here for one hour in the southbound direction only (the northbound side is symmetrical). Colors denote the 10-minute Caltrain express, the San Mateo local, Dumbarton service, and HSR.

Notice the express arriving at Redwood City at 7:43 meets the Dumbarton train departing at 7:44, and the local arriving at Redwood City at 7:52 meets the next express at 7:53. Every ten minutes there is a cross-platform transfer, alternating between express-to-Dumbarton and local-to-express. Counting both directions, a cross-platform transfer occurs at Redwood City every five minutes!

Implicit in this timetable are a number of other capital improvements besides a new Redwood City station, such as overtake tracks in various locations along the corridor (highlighted in yellow in this view of the timetable... and while we're here, look how much less yellow is needed if HSR uses the Dumbarton corridor via Altamont Pass). It's important to remember that there is no formulation of the blended system that avoids the need for overtake tracks, unless one is willing to push slower trains into station sidings to sit for at least five minutes while a faster train catches up and pulls ahead. If you are a Caltrain rider, you should be wary of the cheapskates at the HSR authority who want to do this to your commute.

Deriving the functional requirements for the Redwood City node

To enable this timetable, we need the Redwood City station to have the following attributes:
  1. Four platform tracks serving two 400-meter long island platforms to facilitate both northbound and southbound cross-platform transfers of very long, high-capacity trains.
  2. Platforms centered on the best cross-town corridor, namely Broadway, for convenient access to and from local destinations on foot, by bike or scooter, by bus, or using the planned Broadway Streetcar.
  3. A turnback track that enables certain Dumbarton corridor trains to originate and terminate in Redwood City, without fouling other train traffic, long enough for an EMU-8 train.
  4. A turnback track that enables the San Mateo local to turn back in Redwood City, without fouling other train traffic, long enough for an EMU-8 train.
  5. Elevated grade separation of all downtown Redwood City crossings, enabling free flow of pedestrians, bikes and vehicles under the rail corridor and including the re-connection of streets currently cut off by the existing configuration (e.g. Hopkins and James).
  6. Bus facilities placed directly under the train platforms for seamless connections without the need for an umbrella. Same for an eventual Broadway Streetcar.
  7. No mezzanine level. Mezzanines needlessly drive up the size and cost of stations, and impede and complicate vertical circulation. Street level can fulfill all the functions of a mezzanine, including ticket sales, wayfinding, waiting, retail, and dining.
  8. The shortest and fastest possible vertical circulation (stairs, escalators, ramps, and elevators) using a U-shape viaduct cross section to avoid deep and vertical-space-wasting bridge structure. This helps with transferring quickly between the two island platforms, as would be needed for example to continue from the Dumbarton corridor south to Silicon Valley.
The footprint of such a station is not small. However, Redwood City has plentiful available railroad and transit district land, and the street level interface of such a station can be integrated into the city's street grid, opening up cross-corridor access and avoiding a wall effect. The aging Sequoia Station shopping center, with its wasteful surface parking, can be demolished and redeveloped to make room for an expanded station. Station parking can be moved underneath the approach structures, protected from the elements.

One possible station layout
An optimal station layout has four tracks, with the outer tracks for HSR and express commuter trains. The middle tracks are for commuter trains, and allow both northbound (Dumbarton) trains and southbound (San Mateo local) trains the opportunity to turn at Redwood City without impeding the flow of express traffic. The width of the structure is about 130 feet, as shown in the cross section below:
The northbound express track (Track 3) is tangent. The northbound island platform is 400 x 10 m. The center commuter tracks (Tracks 1 and 2) have curves that are not laid out in detail; this detail does not matter since any train that uses these tracks would slow and stop at Redwood City, using standard trackwork and turnouts. The southbound express track (Track 4) is the tricky one: it wows around the station, passing the southbound island platform on a 7500 m radius curve with approximately 1.5 inches of superelevation (not enough to matter for platform lateral tolerances). This track consists of a double reverse curve with six spiral transitions (tangent, spiral, curve, spiral, tangent, spiral, platform curve, spiral, tangent, spiral, curve, spiral, tangent). The curve is necessary to fit a pair of 400-meter island platforms (long enough to berth a double-length high-speed train) without bulldozing too much real estate.

Here is how this all fits (admittedly just barely) in downtown Redwood City:

The sacrificial victim is the Sequoia Station shopping center and associated surface parking crater, which can be redeveloped as part of the station complex with direct access from El Camino Real. Access for high-rise fire apparatus around the viaduct structure might also be a concern for the new condo buildings to the south, although this can be mitigated.

The station includes two pocket sidings to turn commuter trains. The siding south of the station can turn Caltrain locals at Redwood City, while the siding north of the station can turn Dumbarton service. Each siding is sized to store an eight-car EMU. Track center spacing is 15 feet throughout, and platform setback is 6 feet from track center. All viaducts are made from low-profile U-shaped sections that minimize the required height of the tracks and also double as sound walls, reducing the noise of up to 30 trains that would serve the station every peak hour.

Redwood City's slogan, "climate best by government test" would also become "transfer best" with timed, well-coordinated transfers to a variety of destinations. The impending start of designs for grade separations in Redwood City needs to factor in this future, and the city ought to think big.