18 February 2009

Bullet train vs. El Palo Alto

Pretty catchy title, eh? That was the headline blaring from today's front page of the Daily Post (Palo Alto edition), a local free newspaper. The tag line: "New rail line threatens old tree." As you'll see, the journalistic standards are right in line with the price.
Construction of a high speed rail line alongside the Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto could threaten El Palo Alto, the 1069-year-old redwood tree after which the city is named. (...) If the new rail line is built to the east of Caltrain, El Palo Alto would have to be cut down.
Hold the presses... nobody has ever envisioned running the tracks to the east of the existing bridge, as already discussed in Focus on: Palo Alto. This sensational straw man was invented by the Daily Post. And it goes on:
If the rail line went to the west, it would mean at least part of the Stanford Park Hotel would be eliminated, and the tree still might not survive.
Perhaps we can do some fact finding research for them:
  • The PCJPB right of way (land owned by Caltrain) is nearly 150 feet wide at the location of the tree, with plenty of room on the west side of the existing tracks, not even close to the Stanford Park Hotel
  • The venerable tree in question, El Palo Alto, is acknowledged in the CHSRA's regional environmental impact documents (Volume 1, section 3.9, page 16), with the two additional tracks quite logically described as going west of the existing tracks with no impact to the tree
The article goes on to quote Palo Alto City Arborist Dave Dockter:
Excavating for a sound wall footing or other reason close to the tree would probably result in tipping the tree's viability over the edge. Even if deep cuts were vertical without leaving the ROW, they may have catastrophic effects. (...) There simply are not roots where a typical flatland tree would have roots. Root and soil removal could result in an irreversible decline or even mortality whether by health or weakening the tree's stability or catastrophic whole tree failure in any direction.
Sounds pretty dire, but so far, nobody has suggested excavation near the tree, excepting a few Palo Alto residents who are advocating the entire railroad be buried in a tunnel. The great alarm over HSR impacts to El Palo Alto is out of proportion with the concrete piers poured in recent years near the tree for a bicycle bridge, and certainly overlooks the pressing need to replace the more than 100-year-old rail bridge over the San Francisquito Creek, regardless of HSR.

With the debate over HSR heating up in Palo Alto, the Daily Post should refrain from further inflaming passions with poorly-researched, sensational stories like this one.


  1. Even a San franciscan like me thinks these people are nutjobs. I mean we do some crazy sht up here but for god's sake its a tree. You can get trees anywhere. You know what, a few years back a bog storm ripped out several big trees in gg park and I'd challenge anyone in town to remember where. And the part still functions. This is a case of overly emotional residents being whipped into a frenzy by a "journalist" who is either a) a shill for anti hsr interests, or b) a smarmy local journalist tring to grab some fame and love by stirring up sht. Its bush league in either case.

  2. ( just wait till they plant a spotted owl in the tree so the lawyers can cash in too)

  3. I wouldn't minimize the importance of the tree. Our Nation has a relatively short history, especially here in the west; for example, when the Portola expedition camped at El Palo Alto, the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris had already stood for four centuries. It is no surprise that we should cling to historical artifacts like the tree-- especially when its great age (over a millennium) lends an aura of timelessness that our collective identity craves.

    Despite the scruffiness, poor form and young age of the specimen, compared to its brethren in the mountains nearby, I think El Palo Alto deserves that the train give it a wide berth.

  4. Clem, did you read the entire post?

    It is clear that the HSR knows about the tree, as shown in the environmental study.

  5. @Alex -- Did I read the entire post? I only wrote the post!

  6. @ Jim -

    ehm, actually, you can't get 1069-year-old trees at your local garden center. It is a silent reminder of the old-growth forest that covered much of the peninsula before the Gold Rush. In these more enlightened times, really old trees are to California almost as really old cathedrals are to Europe.

    That said, that tree has been around for 1069 years. In that time, it has survived countless storms, fires, droughts, earthquakes, air pollution, indiscriminate logging, railroad operations and underpass construction literally just yards away. With a modicum of circumspection, HSR construction and operations are going to have exactly zero impact on this majestic, hardy sentinel.

    That said, even that tree could not survive a chainsaw or poorly conceived civil engineering works. There are some would would like to put both Caltrain and HSR underground in Palo Alto, though it's quite unclear how they would pay for the incremental cost.

    CHSRA's plan is to construct a raised berm (aka embankment) through Menlo Park and Atherton because that is the cheapest way to implement grade separation for all of the roads crossing the Caltrain ROW there. See CHSRA's route on Google Maps for details and zoom in on Palo Alto.

    Gradient considerations mean that the tracks would have remain elevated relative to their current level in most of Palo Alto. Near the tree in question, cut/fill is being proposed. That normally means digging a shallow trench and dumping the spoil to either side, but that doesn't make any sense in this context. Perhaps they mean a pair of concrete walls retaining a volume of earth in-between.

    During construction, Caltrain will have to operate on temporary shoofly tracks. Not just in Menlo Park, but in Palo Alto as well. Extra, extra: tail wags dog!

    Note that Palo Alto already has perfectly good underpasses at Alma, University, Embarcadero, Oregon Expressway and an overpass at San Antonio. Only Churchill and W Charleston at still grade crossings.

    Ergo, if anything is endangering that venerable tree, it is the following combination:

    - Menlo Park's (and Atherton's) insistence on keeping every one of their existing cross roads, regardless of traffic volume,

    - the as-yet uncertain Caltrain waiver and HSR "rule of special applicability" from FRA that will govern operations in the corridor, forcing planners to assume that dedicate HSR tracks must be built to keep FRA-compliant and non-compliant trains from sharing track and,

    - the desire of civil engineering consultants to maximize the amount of earthworks and pouring of concrete.

    The common sense approach would be for towns up and down the peninsula to quit bitching about HSR will be the end of the world. Instead, they should demand that the JPB and CHSRA, backed by the governor and the powerful California delegation in Congress, ask FRA to make the Caltrain waiver an integral part of the section of its rule of special applicability that deals with the SF-SJ corridor. It is no longer teneable to pretend that Caltrain and HSR should be treated as unrelated entities.

    A key element of that rule should be permission for all operators, including UPRR as well as any others in the future, to share track as deemed appropriate. This would be subject to a single dispatcher for the corridor (Caltrain) and, a requirement to use only equipment and staff compatible with FRA-approved, interoperable positive train control signaling equipment and other measures designed to minimize the risk of train-on-train collisions.

    That would give Caltrain, CHSRA and UPRR to hammer out service levels and an operations timetable that meets everyone's anticipated needs and allows for future capacity expansion. Other railroads may want to at least have the option of obtaining trackage rights in the future, especially if UPRR is willing to offer trackage rights on its Milpitas line and/or Dumbarton rail is implmented: Amtrak CC, Amtrak California Zephyr and ACE should all be asked about their future plans to guide decisions about how much additional quad tracking is needed. It should be implemented up front only where it is useful, relatively inexpensive and uncontroversial.

    Sections that are currently too narrow for quad tracks should be widened via eminent domain right away only if that is deemed absolutely essential for the first decade of integrated operations. Otherwise, property owners should merely be warned that land may be taken in the future if and when expected traffic volumes make that necessary.

    All new grade separations should constructed such that future expansion to quad tracks can be accommodated without additional changes to the cross road. Existing grade separations that cannot be quad tracked without reducing the vertical clearance should be left alone for now, unless it is deemed essential for the railroads' integrated operations plan.

    Idem for Caltrain's existing tunnels. New tunnel construction in San Jose should be avoided, e.g. by swapping through and yard tracks at Caltrain's yard in San Jose.

    Finally and perhaps controversially, FRA does not require grade separation for corridors sections with speed limits of 125mph or less, just sufficient safeguards. Since that is realistically as fast as HSR trains will run in the peninsula anyhow, it is worth discussing if the downsides of full grade separation are worth it.

    Sure, CHSRA promised that and voters endorsed it when they voted for prop 1A. Grade separation is a valuable safety feature for both motorists and railroads. But unlike in the Central Valley, full grade separation in the SF-SJ corridor is a choice. Individual communities may come to the conclusion that retaining beefed-up grade crossings for selected secondary cross roads and, constructing deep under- or tall overpasses for the primary ones only such that the tracks can remain at grade is possibly the best (or least bad, depending on your point of view) option. Where appropriate, tall landscaped sound fences should be considered.

    Part of the money saved by all this in the peninsula can be used for the DTX tunnel to + trainbox at SFTT, arguably a massive functional improvement for the corridor as a whole. San Jose may resist that, if only to nurture its Napoleon complex regarding the grandeur of its station relative to SFTT.

  7. Rafael,

    CHSRA does not assume separate tracks for Caltrain and HSR. Their stated assumption is mixed ops with Caltrain expresses sharing the HSR tracks. I'm not sure why you seem so concerned about this issue.

    At a scoping meeting, I was told by John Litzinger (HNTB) that the existing maps of vertical profile are subject to refinement (i.e. they will basically get tossed out and redone from scratch). Basically, you can disregard the regional EIR/EIS and the Google Map, both of which include ridiculous and infeasible vertical profile features.

    At El Palo Alto, there is no reason to run the tracks at any other level than at-grade. Alma can dive under the tracks with a pumped underpass similar to Oregon Expressway (but much smaller). Anything else is overkill.

    Regarding shoo-flys... I think it is actually possible to build *and lift* four tracks within 85 feet without ever taking more than two of them out of service. Hard? Definitely, because special regulations apply to construction within 25 feet of an operating track. Impossible? No, because there are more operational options with four tracks than with two tracks. I will post on this subject at some point.

  8. @ Clem -

    you're right, I'd forgotten they were anyhow planning to share the HSR tracks with Caltrain baby bullets. Still, afaik, CHSRA has not yet announced that it will seek its rul of special applicability jointly with Caltrain and Metrolink (for the Fullerton-Anaheim bit).

    UPRR, BNSF, Amtrak Coast Starlight and CC (Santa Clara-SJ/Gilroy), Amtrak San Joaquin (Merced-Bakersfield), ACE (Santa Clara-SJ) and BART (Millbrae-San Bruno, SJ-Santa Clara) will all be impacted to some extent both during and possibly after construction. When the time comes to write that rule of special applicability the CHSRA starter line, they should all be in the loop. At issue are not just construction worker safety and construction-related to non-HSR railroads, but also the interoperability of PTC equipment and, the integration of accident detection (e.g. severe derailments with track fouling of adjacent tracks owned and operated by another railroad).

  9. I like trees. But lets be honest. This is all about trying to stop hsr cuz they just don't want it. this happens everytime anyone in cali tries to do anything.

  10. @ Jim -

    of course, environmental concerns are wielded as weapons in planning fights. Witness the whole hue and cry about the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge and how building a modern dual-track Dumbarton rail bridge would spell disaster. Or, the preference for Tehachapi + Palmdale because the shorter route via the Grapevine would have run close to a wildlife refuge at Lake Castaic. Or, that whole business about desert tortoises surrounding the bypass tracks at Cima for the Amtrak Desert Wind that was a thorn in UPRR's side.

    Granted, there were other, arguably (even) more valid environmental and technical reasons in some of those, but the best way to deal with eco-mentalists is as Clem has done: acknowledge, debunk and move on.

    Simply dismissing them as hacks with a hidden agenda may be factually accurate but it doesn't help you win the argument.

  11. Rafael, you say some curiously idiotic things, and hopefully you are in a position of advising CHSR Authority in matters of importance, because you would most certainly be wrapping them around an axel.

    In one breath you say "sure CHSR promised and voters endorsed, when they voted for measure 1A" and in the same breath go on to suggest that the specifics 'promised and endorsed' are optional, up for discussion or change subject to the design decision making powers of CHSR.

    Either voters ratified a specific plan, or they did not. If they did not, then they did not. Then in fact, THE WHOLE THING IS INDEED on the table.

    But if they did, its really amazing how you can claim that VOTERS are bound by their agreement to support CHSR unequivocably, but that CHSR is not bound by any of their "promises" to voters.

    In fact, it would be most amusing if you could point out which parts of the measure 1A wording and the Final Program EIR/EIS are binding committments from CHSR to the voters, and which are only binding committments from Voters to CHSR.. and which are merely vague suggestions or conceptual musings, and how you've determined which is which.

    Secondly, even a moron would consider the proposed future volume and speeds of train traffic with HSR and Caltrain combined (if you believe anything now in the EIR/EIS to be true), and see that if crossings are left at grade level, the crossing gates would be down approximately 100% of the time between the hours of 6:00am to 8:00pm. By failing to grade separate the crossings you would be creating a virtually impenatrable barrier down the middle of some very vital, very economically and very politically important towns up and down the peninsula. You'd be preventing kids from getting to their public schools, etc. And by the way, I'd like to see some traffic impact air quality impact analysis that shows what those gridlocked traffic conditions would create in terms of air polution and gas consumption, across the entire Peninsula in the no grade separated crossings scenario.

    Now be careful here Rafi because I'll remind you as well, that the noise impacts in the Final Program EIR/EIS were predicated on noise improvements by grade separating these crossings.

    It sounds to me like you are doing nothing less than invalidating the EIR/EIS.

    Or are you suggesting a Bait and Switch scheme of Madoffesque proportions?

    Now, if you argue the EIR/EIS didn't have enough detail to be specifically binding, I'd say absolutlely true. DING DING DING.

    In which case, what exactly ARE you claiming voters ratified?

    Lets review measure 1A wording again, and tell me where it told voters they were ratifying a particular aligment decisions? particular route corridor decision? a particular cost? ROW acquisition? a particular design detail?

    As for debunking the nutjobs out there. Yes lets talk about debunking California Historical Landmark #2. Lets talk about 'debunking' the San Francisquito Watershed impacts. Or shall we talk about debunking SF to SJ in 30 minutes, or debunking revenue projections based on pure fantasy ridership of 27 Million a year?

  12. Or shall we talk about debunking SF to SJ in 30 minutes

    We already did, extensively, over here:


    Conclusion reached: run simulations have proven that SF to SJ in ~30 minutes is possible using conventional HSR equipment, even without removing the more problematic curves (San Bruno, Hayward Park, and Millbrae).

  13. mike said ...

    Or shall we talk about debunking SF to SJ in 30 minutes


    Conclusion reached: run simulations have proven that SF to SJ in ~30 minutes is possible using conventional HSR equipment, [...]

    Uh, no.

    The widely-advertised and very misleading 30 minutes SJ (passing; no stop in SJ if you read the fine print) to SF is barely possible under only extremely unrealistic conditions: maximum acceleration and maximum braking, speed profiles exactly matched to civil limits with zero margins, maximum energy consumption (do you really think a real world train operator is going to direct or tolerate train drivers acclerating at full power in the 500m straight section between two sub-250m radius curves?), and zero recovery time (aka timetable padding).

    This isn't how the real world works.

    A commercial operating time -- ie a practical, publicly-advertised, real-world, sustainable, operable, timetabled stop to timetabled stop duration -- of significantly below 40 minutes isn't going to happen.

    I hate to break this to you but ... well, ... uhhh.... CHSRA is lying. If it makes you feel any better, you're hardly alone in taking the bait.

  14. Anon@14:41 please keep it civil. While you bring some good points to the table, crossing the line into ad hominem attack will get your comment deleted. Consider yourself warned.

  15. The widely-advertised and very misleading 30 minutes SJ (passing; no stop in SJ if you read the fine print)

    Fair enough. But consider that the run simulations have the train passing through Diridon at 50 mph. Accelerating from a standing start instead will add less than 30 seconds to running time.

    maximum acceleration and maximum braking

    Happens every day on the NEC. Consider, for example, the 2 mile tangent stretch of track lying between CP 216 (the interlocking connecting Metro-North and Amtrak at New Rochelle, NY) and the Pelham Bay Bridge. Track speed is 100 mph with a 15 mph speed restriction through CP 216 and a 45 mph speed restriction through the curve approaching Pelham Bay Bridge. Pretty much all of the Regionals and Acelas I rode on would proceed through CP 216 at 15 mph, open the throttle wide to accelerate to 100 mph on the short stretch of track, and then brake "hard" for the 45 mph curve.

    The thing is, none of this feels nearly as dramatic as it sounds because even at full throttle an HSR consist only accelerates about as fast as a Honda Accord at 15% throttle. Note again that the HSR run simulation never uses friction brakes between SF and SJ except on the approach into SF. It's all dynamic braking...which of course means energy recapture and no wear on the friction brakes.

    speed profiles exactly matched to civil limits with zero margins

    Okay, let's assume they average 122 mph in the areas in which they can achieve 125 mph. That will add 25 seconds to running time.

    do you really think a real world train operator is going to direct or tolerate train drivers acclerating at full power in the 500m straight section between two sub-250m radius curves?

    I have no idea what you're talking about here. Is this the Hayward Park reverse curve? There is a very slight application of throttle through that curve in the run simulation (Run 1 or Run 2), but nothing anywhere near full power (Run 8). All the other curves are at least 3 miles, or 4,800 meters, apart from each other. Where is your 500 meter number coming from?

    zero recovery time (aka timetable padding)

    A commercial operating time -- ie a practical, publicly-advertised, real-world, sustainable, operable, timetabled stop to timetabled stop duration -- of significantly below 40 minutes isn't going to happen.

    Okay, let's assume 8 minutes of timetable padding, which works out to about 1'40" for the SF-SJ segment. I'll also give you 0'30" for accelerating from a standing start and 0'25" for never achieving track speed. That totals 2'35". The run simulation times it at 29'53", plus 2'35" for all factors above. So carded time is a hair under 32.5 minutes.

    Yes, it's a little above 30 (which is why I said "~30", not "exactly 30"), but it's way closer to 30 than it is to 40. And all of this assumes little to no improvements in the San Bruno, Millbrae, or Hayward Park curves (though I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't improve these curves...they seem pretty reluctant to engage in eminent domain takings, the wacky Palo Alto NIMBYs' fears to the contrary notwithstanding).

  16. Wow, this is an incredibly interesting discussion.

    And that last post by Mike, great point about Dynamic breaking.

    A lot of this good stuff needs to be posted on the front page!! Don't let it get buried.

  17. Clem, you're absolutely right, and I do consider myself warned. If you'd like, please do feel free to delete my post. I will gladly repost after calming myself down and editing the unncessary pot shots out. My apologies.

  18. mike: I passed through CP216 not three hours ago, and the speed limit there is somewhere in the 40-45 mph range now, definitely not 15. Saves a good couple of minutes, too, the train made up a good 10 minutes between New Rochelle and NYP. And I think a 35 minute scheduled run time from SF to San Jose is probably plausible. I wonder how much dwell time intermediate stations add, especially compared to Caltrain. On the one hand, it might be fewer people boarding, but on the other hand, a significant portion of them have luggage, so it takes longer to board. And I still haven't heard anything about how HSR will do level boarding or accessibility, especially at stations shared with Caltrain and Metrolink.

  19. @ anon @ 14:41 -

    I think you misread what I had suggested:

    CHSRA is committed to full grade separation throughout the entire HSR network, including everywhere in the SF-SJ corridor.

    What I suggested is to give peninsula communities - not CHSRA !!! - the additional option of keeping some of their grade crossings if they come to the conclusion that the manner of full grade separation CHSRA can afford to offer is unpalatable and the additional funding for e.g. a trench or tunnels is simply not available. If communities were to exercise their option to decline full grade separation, sound fences et al. are certainly something that could be discussed.

    If you got off your high horse once in a while, perhaps you'd realize there are people like myself who are looking for some middle ground between voters' decision to build HSR and the environmental concerns raised by peninsula residents, without breaking the bank in the process. Then again, you may still harbor fantasies about reversing the democratic process that endorsed prop 1A.

    Fwiw, I don't think any amount of ridership analysis will ever be accurate for a date 20 years in the future. There are simply too many variables that are beyond prediction, e.g. how the retail price of motor and aviation fuels will develop.

    That's why I'd like to see Caltrain and especially, CHSRA, scale back their ambitions for the initial build-out while retaining the option of a second phase if and when actual operations data provides more dependable basis for making ridership projects for e.g. the 2020-2030 period indicated that more capacity really will be needed.

    If ridership on Caltrain and HSR proves to be very high, it may indeed become necessary to close any remaining grade crossing altogether during weekday rush hours or, to construct deep under- or overpasses to grade separate them after all. That risk is the flip side of this additional option I'm suggesting peninsula communities - again, not CHSRA !!! - should be given.

  20. This newspaper article is nothing more than a local rag trying to see how much BS screaming and fear they can whip up..and keep people reading there stupid little paper.And there is a whole lot of that going on in that area right now

  21. I tend to agree with yes on1a on that. Is it gonna be nonstop drama queen histrionics for the duration of this project. I can't watch. Maybe ill check once a year on progress. Building a railroad is not rocket science. Can we do anything in cali anymore without a fight over every damn little thing? yes I'm frustrated because while we sit here with the opportunity, to lead the country and set an example ( the way we used to, remember?) today's californian is more interested in law suites and hissy fits while the rest of the nation laughs at us. That's all they do now. laugh at us and shake their heads in disbelief. Doesn't make you wanna say "snap out of it people!" Forget it. If this thing gets one train running by 2020 ..... well anyway maybe magic mountain will have a hsr simulator ride so we can imagine what it would have been like.

  22. Rafael, I believe I did read your post correctly, particularly since you've posted repeatedly here and on the CHSR Blog about the need to revisit the grade separated crossings assumptions on the peninsula (for a variety of reasons, under a variety of scenarios, and at the behest of a variety of different players).

    However, grade separated crossings are but just one minor point in a miriad of significant issues discussed here and elsewhere, describing all the huge numbers of details that are not ironed out, incomplete, deferred for later study, not thoroughly yet understood, or simply need to be scrapped and done over. So the question I'll repeat is

    Which part of the measure 1A wording is it that (as you claim) represents specific binding committments from voters to CHSRA, and from CHSRA to voters? If voters have ratified a specific plan, where does it say that and where is the specific plan? Is it represented by the Final Program EIR/EIS? and if so, which parts of the Final PRogram EIR/EIS represent binding final comittments versus the parts that need to be scrapped and redone. And how would the voters and legislators and lawyers be able to distinguish? Clearly some parts of the EIR/EIS are technical nonsense, while some we're supposed be taking as SET IN STONE.

    According to the debates we see here daily, some parts are to be trashed and reworked all together, Some parts are perfectly constructed, perfectly costed, perfectly mitigated, and voters have ratified them without question (or have the ratified the whole thing....? or none of it per se?)

    Please specify, which parts of the Final Program EIR/EIR are which, and how you've made that determination.

    And by the way, what is the process for voters to re-ratify changes to the Final Program EIR/EIS that they've already ratified? Or does CHSRA hold that unilateral authority to change that voter ratified agreement? Or as you suggest (wrt changes in the grade separated crossing plans,) local communities have rights to modify these plans - even though the voters of Caliornia have spoken?

  23. Almost, if not all the Caltrain ROW is wide enough to add two additional tracks. The potential disruption comes with the grade separations. Rafael is pointing out, I believe, that even though it would be stupid (my condensing of his intent), a community could forego the impact of the construction of a grade separation and stick with an at-grade crossing. It's an academic argument, as I think 4-track grade crossings are frowned upon by the California PUC.

    As for the barrier issue, crossing the Caltrain tracks at any point except streets and controlled ped crossings is trespassing and illegal (and unsafe). Introduction of high speed rail will make all the crossings safer by eliminating the train/car/person conflicts. The project would also probably be happy to build additional pedestrian crossings to increase its permability to the surrounding communities. Of course, Menlo Park FOUGHT a bike/ped crossing under Caltrain a few years back. So much for that care about barriers...

  24. @ anon @ 11:16 -

    what voters approved was $9.95 billion to fund a high speed rail system based on Calfornia state bill AB3034, not the EIR/EIS.

    The latter is a procedural requirement at both the state and federal levels to ensure a minimum level of quality and fairness in the planning process.

    It was always clear that the program-level EIR/EIS dealt with whether or no an HSR could and should be built at all and, on the approximate route it should take (approx. as in "within which corridor").

    It was also always clear that details of exactly where and how it would be implemented were a matter of project-level EIR/EIS, which involves much more detailed consultations with the affected communities. Switching the route from e.g. the SF peninsula to the East Bay would indeed invalidate the program-level EIR/EIS. Building something other than an elevated berm in Menlo Park would not.

    That's because the program-level EIR/EIS and AB3034 don't spell out which roads do and which don't get an underpass, only that HSR is to be built essentially along the preferred route and, that the state will spend no more than $9 billion on it (and no more than 50% for any of the enumerated segments in the bill). That's what voters endorsed in November. Switching from say, the preferred UPRR ROW to the BNSF ROW in the Central Valley between Stockton and Fresno would be a grey area in therms of program- vs. project-level EIR/EIS.

    Prop 1A was marketed as a project that would bring full grade separation everywhere, but not at any price. Now, if a given community decides that it doesn't like the approach CHSRA cannot afford, is unwilling or unable to chip in the difference needed to implement what it does want, then of course it can choose to request that CHSRA consider a mix of grade separations and hardened grade crossings where FRA rules permit that.

    You're framing all this in terms of litigation, which is completely unnecessary and anyhow likely to fail. Instead, you should try to negotiate a workable solution within the available budget. Quentin Kopp et al. may not be the easiest people to negotiate with but it sounds to me as if you're not even interested in trying. You just want to impose your will not to build HSR at all on the entire state or else, hold it to ransom until you get the gold-plated solution you want. Good luck with that.

  25. Correction:

    ... if a community doesn't like the approach CHSRA can afford ...

  26. @arcady

    I always heard talk about rebuilding CP 216 for 45 mph but it never seemed to happen, so I assumed it was one of those things that was perpetually on the horizon. Left the East Coast a few years ago when it was still in its old state. Good to hear it's finally been improved...that 15 mph SR was awful.

  27. do you really think a real world train operator is going to direct or tolerate train drivers acclerating at full power in the 500m straight section between two sub-250m radius curves?

    Upon close review, I believe Richard is complaining about the fact that, on the approach to the Transbay Terminal, the HSR consist slows to ~25 mph for the curve from Townsend St to 2nd St., then accelerates back to ~30 mph while running under 2nd St. for roughly 0.5 kilometers, and then slows again to ~25 mph for the curve from 2nd St. into the Transbay Terminal. Richard thinks that it is unreasonable to accelerate again after the first curve and that approach speed should be maintained at 25 mph the entire distance from Townsend/2nd to Transbay.

    I personally do not find the +5 mph acceleration unreasonable in that context, given the very low speeds involved. But if you want to just run at a constant 25 mph the whole way after leaving Townsend, then add 6 or 7 seconds to total running time.

  28. @Rafael, 2.19.09, 22:35

    Street closings. One of the great fears of NIMBYs like me is that not only will the barrier wall -- which John Litzinger, an engineer with HNTB
    specified to be over 21 ft. high, with the catenaries above that, and at least 75/80 ft. wide, with the four tracks on top -- divide our cities in half, but that the street closings will exacerbate that division even more.

    The more streets are closed, the more distant one side of the tracks becomes from the other. Why should all those cities doomed to that fate tolerate this?

    Before others start quibbling with me about height and width issues, I need to state that Litzinger is a lead engineer responsible for the Caltrain corridor alignment design. These are his numbers, not mine.

    Other bloggers have pointed out that a berm, being less expensive than retaining walls, will be preferred by the rail authority wherever possible. Many mid-Peninsula cities have extensive residential neighborhoods in close proximity to the tracks and will be severely afflicted by corridor expansion to accommodate either berm or wall.

    And, I should mention that Litzinger, in response to inquiries, assured everyone in a Palo Alto meeting that the rail authority would not close any crossings unless requested by that particular city.

  29. @ Martin Engel -

    a grade crossing with an impenetrable barrier is still a grade crossing. Once the train passes, the barrier comes down and you can drive across.

    Initially, my guess is we're probably going to see no more than 8 Caltrains per hour and 4 HSR trains per hour, max. Each of these would require a barrier to be closed no more than 40-60 seconds. That means even during rush hour, any such grade crossing of secondary streets would still be open over 80% of the time. During the day and on weekends, that fraction would go up.

    Rail traffic volume could increase to the point at which the corridor carries as many as 20 trains per hour total. It's not a likely scenario, even by 2030, as high train-per-hour count makes operations brittle (i.e. timetables vulnerable to delay propagation). A more likely approach is that train length and/or level count would increase first.

    But yes, at 20tph, any remaining grade crossings might only be 66% available during rush hour. For safety reasons, authorities would probably want them to remain closed during these peak periods or else replaced by deep underpass after all.

    So in an unlikely scenario, 20 years out, you might have to revisit how HSR was implemented in the first place. On the plus side, that high berm you love to hate so much would never be built. Note that the primary grade crossings, e.g. Ravenswood Ave. would definitely be grade separated up front if Menlo Park decided it wanted to keep the track at grade.

    Also note that mitigating rail-wheel noise is more difficult if the tracks are elevated, because the sound carries further. At grade, you can make do with an 8' sound fence embedded in a 5' 1:1 berm with landscaping on the property owner's side. Visually and aurally, that's a much more benign solution.

    So by all means, ask your neighbors and John Litzinger about options. It never hurts to ask. CHSRA's current position is that it's supposed to build grade crossings everywhere, which due to budgetary constraints means a high berm. However, as I understand it, that outcome is not written in stone.

    If running at grade plus selected deep underpasses plus some reinforced grade crossings plus sound fences is something your community would prefer and it's cheaper to construct, that might well be something CHSRA would entertain. There are safety issues with all types of grade crossings, but the risks can be minimized. Perhaps they'll throw in a pedestrian over-/underpass or two to mitigate the risk.

  30. Martin-

    Keep making stuff up, or refer to the grade separation YOUR OWN CITY did:


    Is it really all about the temporary easement needed near your condo?

  31. @Rafael,

    Note the tph figures are per direction. 12 tph * 2 directions * 60 seconds/train = 40% of the time closed.

    In Menlo Park, as in other places, there is a trade-off between raising the tracks and leaving roads more or less as-is, or leaving the tracks at grade and lowering the intersections-- at the cost of modifying / condemning the properties adjoining the sunken intersection.

    Menlo Park has already done a conceptual study of their four crossings, complete with property impact assessments... see Focus on: Menlo Park. There are only a handful of properties that would be condemned for the at-grade option, and most of them are commercial. The city might well opt for this to avoid the "Berlin Wall" effect.

  32. Clem: The FRA only requires 20 seconds' warning at a grade crossing before a train passes. In theory, you may only have to close the grade crossing for 30 seconds per train, although in practice, that might be a bit longer on average because if you get two trains in opposite directions, you don't want to open the crossing for only five or ten seconds only to close it again almost immediately.

  33. @ Clem, arcady -

    oops, of course its tph each way. My bad, sorry. Still, for a secondary crossing that gets little road traffic, a worst-case scenario of 40% availability during rush hour might be acceptable. We're talking about a merely possible scenario in the 2030 timeframe here.

    A maximum wait time of around 3 minutes in case you have one train coming from each direction or, an unusually long or slow freight train passing, is perhaps still acceptable for a secondary crossing.

    The frequency of multi-minute closures would go up with increasing tph, at some point motorists in the know would probably decide to avoid that crossing during certain times of day.

    During rush hour, it might even make sense to keep a crossing closed by default and open it only when a motorist pushes a button attached to a pole in the median to request passage or, an induction loop embedded in the road detects a waiting vehicle. The button would be cheaper to implement but more susceptible to component failure. You also want to avoid excessive wear and tear on the actuator for the barrier.

    Besides, keeping a crossing closed by default would let the barrier act as a fence to keep children and dogs not on a leash from roaming onto the ROW.

  34. After the construction dust settles that poor tree will be able to breath for the first time in 150 years.

    its electric!

  35. It's not pleasant, but someone has to say it:

    A high fraction of Caltrain-involved fatalities right now are suicides, not accidents. Even the best grade crossing protection systems won't keep out a vehicle that wishes to be in the path of a train, and the absolute worst-case scenario would be something along the lines of the Metrolink Glendale crash. I think a non-grade-separated system is a non-starter.

    In the same vein, another advantage of the 4 track mainline will be that, when people commit suicide via train (at, say, a station), you can still run on at least 2 tracks while the investigation/cleanup is continuing, as opposed to single-tracking like Caltrain currently does.

    Regarding the "Berlin Wall" characterization: Assuming that most grade crossings are retained (and there is every indication that they will be), then raising the tracks leaves the city no more divided than it was before. In fact, it leaves it less divided, since you never have to wait for a passing train. The only possible respect in which access is being reduced is the elimination of dangerous, illegal trespassing across the ROW. How any civic-minded individual could view the elimination of this dangerous activity as a negative thing is beyond me.

  36. @ mike -

    I agree, full grade separation would be my personal choice as well, for all the reasons you mention. It's also what CHSRA is planning to do, but there are impacts on Palo Alto and Redwood City to either side of the Menlo Park-Atherton section.

    However, I don't live in Menlo Park so I figure it's useful to give residents at least one other option if they absolutely, positively cannot abide the proposed retained embankment with shallow underpasses.

  37. At some point, I'm going to put those Menlo Park BKF study maps into Google Earth.

    I've got a hunch that when all is said and done, in MP and Atherton the answer will be full underpasses with the tracks at grade.

  38. It's crucial to consider that all these grade separations are going to be extremely expensive and disruptive to communities. Cost estimates are already at $100 million for EACH at a minimum (from earlier Caltrain studies). That's at least $5 billion just for this corridor, hardly worth the effort considering that FRA allows secure level crossing up to 125mph.

    It's easy to see how HSR may never be fully built out at these prices, and then the delays from community opposition will further complicate the project. If this project is actually going to be completed, considering secure level crossings(with advanced sensing technology) has to be a serious consideration for secondary crossings. It's actually the high-tech, innovative solution.

    Don't get me wrong: main arterials and truck routes should be grade separated, but all the minor crossings don't justify the enormous investment. It also annoys me that a great deal of HSR money will be used to subsidize the smooth flow of automobile traffic under or over the rail corridor. Total grade separation is an IDEAL, but it comes with crippling costs, serious delays, and enraged local communities.

    Furthermore, if the nation is going to be serious about building extensive HSR networks, dealing with crossings by means other that expensive grade separation has to be encountered. Otherwise, HSR will always be constrained by enormous costs. Advanced level crossings can be far more "high-tech" and innovative than the "low-tech" concrete-dirt-and-rebar of grade sepations. Of course, the contractors, who seem to be firmly in control of this project, are drooling over the opportunity to build all these lengthy and lucrative grade separation projects.

  39. Obviously, HSR has been, and is being built around the world.

    It would be useful for one of the experts on this board (or even Clem himself on the main page!) to show how the other systems in the world have solved this problem.

    I lived in Japan for 6 years for example, taking the Shinkansen many times. I don't recall ever seeing an at grade crossing. Even in Tokyo, where it really slows down (<100MPH) it is always elevated.

    Like So:
    in Fukuoaka

    in Shiga - elevated

    Note the houses alongside the track in both pictures.

    Not sure if that would freak out the NIMBYs more than keeping it at grade. At least you can get walk across (or under) the tracks.

  40. I've got a hunch that when all is said and done, in MP and Atherton the answer will be full underpasses with the tracks at grade.

    Tracks at grade are much worse in dividing the suburban fabric and creating unpleasant pedestrian environments than tracks raised on an embankment.

    Raised tracks enable fairly straightforward and fairly low-cost pedestrian underpasses at locations other than widely separated (because of great cost) street underpasses.

    Raised tracks enable much more user-friendly stations, with at-grade or step-free, shallow-underpass pedestrian access through the station and a short (human height, not train height!) vertical distance to platform level.

    Compare Belmont (the only half-way non-incompetent station on the Caltrain line) with Bayshore or Lawrence.

    Raised tracks (can!) result in road crossings which are far more human-scaled and far less disruptive and far more integrated into existing environments than over-the-top road dives with out-of-control traffic engineer intersection "upgrades".

    (Note: "can". Local DPW excesses on El Camino in Belmont and Redwood City should serve as warnings against giving the highwaymen carte blanche.)

    Compare Howard (far from ideal) to Jefferson or Fifth in Redwood City (unmitigated and unmitigable disasters.)

    Be careful what you wish for with talk of "low disruption" and "dividing cities" ("cities"!!?) because you'll be screwed.

    The basic deal: don't force humans to go out of their way to make room for vehicles. That means in practice, over much of the corridor, that the trains go up, the cars go around (and down slightly if necessary), and the humans go straight across.

    Anybody who thinks that a dozen trains per direction at ground level in a sealed off corridor are going to be less of a barrier to human movement than trains up on a berm is not just thinking at all.

    * Trains over peds -> +3m (trains), -0.5m (humans), -2.5m (cars).
    Peds under trains -> -3.5m (peds sent into holes underground), -5.5m (cars careen down and up long, suburb-disruptive ramps.)
    * Peds over trains -> +7m (peds, an ADA HELL of ramps and escalators and detours and cost and inconvenience), +7.5m (cars, with even longer and uglier and more intrusive up-ramps and on-ramps and flyovers and frontage roads and so on.)

    Design for humans, not choo choo trains, and especially not for motor vehicles! (This last being all that local "city" governments ever care about: parking, parking, parking!)

  41. @ Richard -

    what you say makes eminent sense. The solution CHSRA has proposed and which you essentially endorse delivers a functional optimum, especially for pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately, residents of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Atherton appear implacably opposed to the aesthetic impact.

    Note that Palo Alto in particular already has several perfectly good deep underpasses. Yet CHSRA's plans call for the embankment to continue well south of San Francisquito Creek just so it can keep the gradient small enough for UPRR and still deliver level tracks for the Caltrain station in Menlo Park.

    Pairing an existing deep underpass with elevated tracks at e.g. University Ave. will indeed look quite weird and ugly. The road could be raised several feet to restore attractive proportions, but only at great expense and with massive disruption.

    On the other hand, that kink in Alma Street may have to go anyhow to accommodate speeds of 125mph on the HSR tracks. IFF so, Palo Altoans may want to consider also making part of University Avenue east of the tracks a pedestrian zone and routing motor vehicles around it via Lytton and Hamilton.

    No-one doubts that tunnels would deliver a net improvement at the surface. It's just that no-one can or will afford to put all four tracks under the ground in Palo Alto and all the way up to Redwood City. And don't forget about UPRR: do you really want them running their diesel freight locomotives through any underground stations?

    Ergo, the choice is between elevating the tracks and living with the ugliness or, keeping them at grade and living with the inconvenience/risk of retaining a handful of grade crossings.

  42. Well, this blogging has certainly contributed to my steep learning curve. Rafael, you have reduced a variety of alignment alternatives to essentially two; at or above grade level. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you are correct, that this is the most cost-effective to get the train operating on the Caltrain corridor. Is it also the best solution for operating the train in 50 or 75 years? Is it OK for all the residential areas and the suburban downtowns along the way to gradually succumb to developer-driven reconfiguration into the kind of commercial/light industrial areas along the corridor we see now, north of Redwood City?
    And/or increased high-rise, high-density, TOD that everyone already promises is the “wave of the future?”

    Should the Peninsula be “dominated” by a 4-track corridor that, if rail transit does in fact come to play a larger role, would expand to 6 tracks? Should all of us, currently participating in a quality of life that would be terminated, be “thrown under the tracks” for the sake of “the greater good?”

    If you agree that tunneling is technically feasible and would provide both the corridor access for the trains and meet the needs of the regional communities who fear and resist grade or above solutions, then the only barrier is cost. (I take the Diesel issue into account) It may be intuitive to state that these are prohibitive.

    But, in fact, no one has done the arithmetic. The equation must take into account the costs of not tunneling; that is, the enormous economic damage to the communities in question. The comment letter being prepared for the project-level EIS/EIR by Atherton discusses this with considerable authority.

    A number of people in Palo Alto have had discussions with Hatch, Mott MacDonald about tunneling. Those who participated appear quite positive about this option and its viability.

    Final point: Forgive me for waxing philosophical, but there is a kind of urban fascism at work in many of the blogs. “We know what’s good for you, so shape up or ship out.” Perhaps a better analogy is the rhetoric of the Soviet five years plans of the past. “This will be the peoples’ train and by opposing it, you are an enemy of the people.”

    And, while I’m at it, I am coming to resent being told, over and over, that I have no rights to the position I am taking, since it is at variance with Cruickshank’s and his sycophants. This is not the character of the country my parents chose. Clem and Rafael, I do not include you among those to whom I address this point, and thank you for being substantive and rational.

  43. Before 1A was passed, one of the lines of attack against the project was the fear that it would turn into a "Big Dig".

    Now some of the same people who used that line of attack are trying to make CHSR put in a tunnel, dramatically increasing construction costs. That would, in the end prove themselves right in a way. Ironic no?

  44. Unfortunately, California HSR does run serious risks of becoming another "Big Dig" fiasco, which is why we should be vigilant about the project design and oversight. Any large infrastructure project in the US runs this risk, due to our decentralized, fragmented system of politics. France and Japan have far more centralized authority than the US, and even still, the Shinkansen and TGV were enormous capital investments and required significant political commitment.

    While the Peninsula corridor has significant potential for increased rail traffic from the relatively low volume of the present, the potential is by no means limitless. I see 20 trains-per-hour (both directions combined) as the MAXIMUM built-out peak-hour traffic of this corridor, and it's going to take decades to get to that point. Even at that stage, the level of service is going to be significantly less during most hours. Freight on the corridor is already at a trickle compared to what it once was, largely due to the steep decline (death?) of the Port of San Francisco.

    Keeping the alignment mostly at-grade with sophisticated level crossings and strategic grade separations can certainly handle future traffic demands at a manageable construction cost. If long tunnels and/or long berms are the only way to implement formal HSR spending on this corridor, the cost/benefit calculus would then suggest that simply improving and electrifying the existing Caltrain service would be preferable at a tiny fraction of the steep cost for all those tunnels and/or berms. HSR trains would just inter-mingle with Caltrain service.

    A new, completely raised line is not intrinsically superior to a secure at-grade line, even if cost was not a concern. This mostly at-grade Peninsula rail line has been in continuous operation since the 1860s, so it has not "divided" any human activity. Peninsula settlement has followed this line, so the simple question is, "What was here first?" The rail line, of course.

    Local communities clearly have an aversion to the introduction of elevated transportation corridors. They perceive them as walls: physical, visual, and symbolic barriers. The freeway revolts were particularly motivated by the "unsightliness" of the elevated structures. Berkeley paid to put BART underground in the 1960s because the community felt the proposed elevated line would create a symbolic barrier between rich and poor areas. [If these local communities want to pay for tunnels, then that's fine, but this is distinctly unlikely.] Time and again, communities express their displeasure at new elevated structures. They tend to accept existing functions that have been in continuous operation since the origin of the community.

  45. @ Martin Engel -

    the two choices I outlined are the ones that wouldn't require the communities involved to stump up a ton of money. By all means, ask HNTB to cost out a tunneling solution - just be prepared for sticker shock. Depending on geology, going underground typically costs 2-4 times as much - sometimes even more - than solving the problem at or above grade.

    There are other options, such as keeping Caltrain at grade with regular grade crossings and running the HSR tracks on a concrete aerial structure above them, BART-style. This would be the quick-and-dirty option, but it would look dreadful and only provide partial grade separation. Noise emissions from the HSR trains would be hard to mitigate, because the concrete sleepers would be attached directly to the concrete structure, with no ballast in-between to dampen the sound transmission path.

    You could also consider running the trains in a shallow trench with overpasses that are only barely high enough to allow AAR plate H trains to safely pass underneath active overhead conductor rails. Those would replace the usual catenary wires at those locations to minimize overpass height and the impact on adjacent properties. However, a shallow trench would be more expensive than raising the tracks, because of issues with the San Francisquito Creek and the existing underpasses in Palo Alto and Atherton.

    Btw, no-one is talking about 6 tracks in the peninsula. Not now, most likely never - not even in 75 years, at which point it would anyhow be that generation's problem. In Japan, shinkansen trains run at headways of 3-5 minutes during rush hour. The largest ones (E4Max) are bi-level and provide over 800 seats per trainset and, you can couple two of those into a single train. In practice, these trainsets are most often used stand-alone or coupled to single-level trains from a tributary line to keep tph count down.

    In France, 25 years after the first TGV went into service, SNCF does operate 16-car TGV Duplex trains that support 1090 seats each, albeit with slightly longer headways due to the higher speeds.

    You do the math. HSR destinations in the Bay Area would run out of pedestrian flow and connecting transit capacity long before the quad-track railroad will max out.

    And please, no more talk of Soviet-era central planning. The decision to build HSR was taken democratically. You didn't get the result you wanted, but peninsula communities are being consulted in the context of the project-level EIR/EIS and, alternative solutions are being considered - it's just that some of them would require these cities to participate in financing, because they don't deliver added value to the region or the state. Everything's negotiable, but it takes two to tango.

  46. IFF so, Palo Altoans may want to consider also making part of University Avenue east of the tracks a pedestrian zone and routing motor vehicles around it via Lytton and Hamilton.

    I just found this blog from the other blog and I am simply amazed at comments like this. Do you people actually think that Peninsulans will stand for this? Lytton and Hamilton are fine the way they are. Palo Alto voters did not sign up for a complete urban planning redesign when they voted for this train (although most of them would love to revoke their vote I am certain). The entire issue here is the density and zoning of where the Caltrain tracks are (residential, high end small commercial). Like an automobile with a misdesigned engine, until you get to the root of the problem which is the Caltrain track ROW Pacheco route, these roadblocks are going to keep hitting you. The Caltrain ROW is inappropriate for this project, the ROW is too small, or too windy or what have you and in order to correct those issues, HSR has to demolish everything in its path. That is the problem, and its a big one.

  47. @BAR welcome on board and keep getting informed.

    Take a look at what land Caltrain owns.

    I'd say there's a 90% chance the University / Alma interchange (built on PCJBP land) is going to be heavily modified to make way for HSR. See the other post, Focus on Palo Alto for the reasons why.