22 February 2009

Some Light Reading

UPDATE 2: San Carlos has also posted their draft scoping comments for their city council meeting of Monday 2/23. The letter includes a concern about vertical clearances at the Holly St. underpass, which the Daily News (Redwood City edition) quickly blew out of proportion by proclaiming: Major High Speed Rail Dilemma Discovered in San Carlos. If that is the biggest problem we have on the peninsula, the high speed rail project really must be in great shape! This area is smack in the middle of the future site of the SamTrans Transit Village, a Transit-Oriented Development that threatens to intrude upon the right of way and constrain the configuration options for high speed rail. Transit agencies at their best!

: Menlo Park has posted their draft scoping comments for consideration at the city council meeting on Tuesday 2/24.

If the rain is keeping you indoors, why not curl up by the fireplace with some light reading:

The city of Mountain View posted their draft scoping comments on the peninsula high speed rail EIR/EIS, to be reviewed / approved at the next city council meeting on Tuesday.

The Mountain View packet also includes a draft of the "We The Mayors" letter presenting peninsula communities under a united front. As further described in a Daily News article on Saturday, an alliance of peninsula communities is being formed outside of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (Caltrain), which has heavy representation from the cities of San Francisco and San Jose, cities whose interests will not necessarily align with those of the peninsula communities in between.

The town of Atherton also posted their draft scoping comments (see Item 19, pp. 13-42) on the peninsula EIR/EIS for consideration at their 18 February council meeting. Atherton had originally submitted comments on the Bay Area regional EIR/EIS, to which the CHSRA responded (refer to Chapter 22, page 101, comment letter L025). Atherton's scoping letter includes point by point rebuttals to the CHSRA's comments and a forceful argument for tunneling.

Atherton is of course one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to overturn the regional EIR/EIS's CEQA certification, which could re-open last summer's decision to route HSR through Pacheco Pass (and Atherton) instead of Altamont Pass. The court documents pertaining to this lawsuit are available on the Sacramento County Superior Court's document server; search under case number 34-2008-80000022.

Finally, Palo Alto has established on their city website a new section on high speed rail. There's not much there yet, but a good place to keep an eye on.


  1. Wow reading Atherton's letter is infuriating. They're making all sorts of legal claims about how the project's EIR was completely wrong and needs to be redone, yet the only thing they have to bake it up is their own highly questionable assertions. They're not even pretending to have done any studying of the problems, they simply state whatever's convenient for them and assert that it's true.

    They have an entire page about how Caltrain express and HSR couldn't possibly share tracks because coordination would be too hard. Apparently they missed the agenda item from CAHSR's public meeting where they talked about negotiating a MOU with Caltrain to address exactly this coordination.

  2. Ahh, now I see their point. They assert that HSR and Caltrain couldn't possibly work together because it would be too hard (false). They then assert that because they can't work together, the ROW will require 5-6 tracks (3-4 existing Caltrain + 2 dedicated HSR lines). Once they've asserted that, the Caltrain corridor is no longer the preferred alternative, because acquiring an extra 2 tracks of space along the entire length would be too costly / have too much impact (probably true).

    It's kind of amazing how most of their pages of ranting can be dismissed with a simple "no, it will be 4 tracks." Do they really expect to convince anyone that we're actually going to need 6 tracks, and we should do any planning based on a 6-track assumption? Is there any location in the world that's 6-tracked for any reasonable distance (not like entering / exiting a station, but an actual >10mile line)?

  3. "In addition, it is common knowledge that the existing Trans-Bay tube is a bottleneck in the BART system."

    From everything I've read, that's simply factually wrong. The BART bottleneck is station dwell times in downtown SF. Anyway, what good would a new transbay tube do when there are only 2 lines through all of SF?

    It'd be nice if CAHSR could respond to these comments with just "factually wrong so ignored".

  4. Atherton's comments are no more technically illiterate than those coming out of VTA, MTC or the CHSRA.

    Let him without sin cast the first stone and all that.

    Please note that the fine, upstanding, world-class, not-at-all-motivated-by-$10-billion-in-BART-pork, employed-designing-HSR-systems-everywhere-around-the-planet, unimpeachable-track-record CHSRA consultants and staff insisted that four tracks would be needed between Tracy and Pleasanton.

    We've also got people here swearing up and down that Caltrain needs four tracks corridor-wide in order to run more than five trains per hour.

    We have the City of San Jose, VTA and the CHSRA insisting that a double-decker station is needed in San Jose because of the scary, scary number of trains that will be stopping at "the Grand Central of the West".

    Note that highly educated, highly professional, world-class transportation expert, and CHSRA member Rod Diridon has opined in public that six tracks are needed south of San Jose: two for HSR, two for Caltrain and two for Amtrak/UPRR. (Mr Diridon, self-styled Father of VTA Light Rail, highly regarded academic powerhouse of the Mineta "also not dead yet, so it's this logrolling renaming rather unseemly and crass?" Transportation Institute has in the past also expressed such opinions as "high speed rail in California is dead because they chose a Central Valley route instead of going down the coast through San Jose" (Peninsula Rail 2000 invited speaker 1997) and "California will be a manufacturing center for high speed rail. If China ever builds a system, we'll be able to export expertise and trains" (SPUR invited speaker, 2004))

    The City Fathers of Mighty Atherton look like positive intellectual and transportation engineering powerhouses when stacked up against the competition.

    PS Six tracks are needed in Redwood City, to accommodate Dumbarton junction traffic. (Four of course would have sufficed if the rational Altamont HSR route had even been evaluated.)

  5. @ Richard Mlynarik -

    my understanding is that quad tracking in the SF peninsula is being advocated for two reasons:

    a) FRA may well accept HSR sharing track with Caltrain baby bullets, especially once that railroad switches to non-compliant EMUs for at least SF-SJ. However, FRA has previously denied a waiver to let a non-compliant bullet train design share track with FRA-compliant freight trains: Acela Express.

    b) Caltrain wants to keep running locals and HSR needs to run express trains. The substantially different speeds mean that four tracks are necessary, at least at the stations.

    Btw, the old Dumbarton rail bridge is just single track. Right now, the plan is to run just a few trains each day from Union city. In Atherton, most of these will take the sharp turnoff south to Silicon Valley, because that's where most of the commuters who live in the Union City area work.

    As long as both HSR tracks run west of Caltrain's between Redwood City and Atherton, there should be no need for six tracks. The turnoffs and the approach to the Dumbarton rail bridge would need to be double-tracked to ensure there is connectivity in all directions and somewhere for trains to wait, just in case there is an oncoming train on the bridge. A similar waiting track is needed in Newark.

  6. - MOU with Caltrain - does that mean one or the other organization controls scheduling and operations of both?

    The obvious problem with that is that you'd have CHSR optimizing CHSR, at the expense of Caltrain local service (two differenet customer bases, and two different competing objectives) -or- you'd have Caltrain local service doing the reverse.

    Perhaps not in the scheduled plan on paper, but in daily issues and decisions; delays, equipment issues, accidents, etc.

    If the MOU says basically 'we'll work together to figure out it when the time comes' - that's meaningless, and utterly worthless. If the agreement however says CHSRA takes over the operation/coordination function - who is that exactly? And how are local community local Caltrain service interests are protected (we certainly can see how THAT works already)!

    If it says Caltrain takes over, what happens if its just not enough optimization of HSR line for CHSRA tastes?

    Atherton's concern is absolutley valid. The project level EIR/EIS needs to PROVE OUT by showing exactly how interests will be shared, (agreement put down in writing), and proven feasibly through technically accurate simulations, how they will share tracks, not only at peak operations, but in disasters, in emergencies, and in just plain old delays. (Like Grandma and Grandpa taking too much time to load their grandkin and their walkers into the train to Disneyland..)

    What are you whining about? That's the purpose of the Project EIR/EISs' - to prove it ALL out, every last detail.

    By they way, I thought the comments about the cost of replacing trees was interesting. I'll be fascinated to see the exact tree count, the locations, tree ages, (and specifically where they'll replant, how many, and in what specific locations),

    in the project EIR/EIS(s). Good stuff.

  7. Richard,

    We've also got people here swearing up and down that Caltrain needs four tracks corridor-wide in order to run more than five trains per hour.

    Who has stated that you need 4 tracks to run 5 tph in one direction? I'd love to see the quote that can support this rather inflammatory assertion.

    What most of us are saying is that 4 tracks are necessary if you want to run, say, 9-10 tph Caltrain (a very plausible scenario; cf Metra BNSF line) and 5-6 tph HSR at peak times, especially since the Caltrains will include slow locals and the HSR trains will include fast expresses.

    CHSRA consultants and staff insisted that four tracks would be needed between Tracy and Pleasanton.

    Interesting. I had assumed that 2 tracks would be sufficient, but upon closer inspection it's actually possible that 4 tracks would be desirable on at least some portions. Via Altamont, separate trains now serve SF and SJ, and Bay Area-Sacto service becomes feasible and highly competitive with other modes. So during peak times, you'd expect a service pattern like: SF-So Cal = 2 tph, SF-Sacto = 2 tph, SJ-So Cal = 2 tph, SJ-Sacto = 2 tph, "Super ACE" to SJ = 2-3 tph, "Super ACE" to SF = 2-3 tph.

    That works out to 12-14 tph, which is theoretically possible if all trains run at exactly the same speed, but that rules out pretty much any stops between Tracy and Fremont. Of course, you can always just build 2 tracks and have less capacity to run "Super ACE" commuter service, so yes, 4 tracks are not strictly necessary.

  8. - MOU with Caltrain - does that mean one or the other organization controls scheduling and operations of both?

    Only one controls operations, and they negotiate over scheduling. This is the type of agreement that covers virtually all of the Northeast Corridor: Amtrak hosts commuter trains from MARC, SEPTA, NJ Transit, LIRR, Metro North (SLE), and MBTA on its tracks (and is hosted by Metro North from New Rochelle to New Haven). There is nothing exotic or scary about it...it's just standard practice.

  9. Peter - The funniest part about the Atherton response is that they actually end up destroying their own argument. On the one hand, they claim that Caltrain needs 4 tracks minimum going forward (if they didn't, then a 2 Caltrain-only + 2 HSR-only setup, i.e. 4 tracks total, would clearly suffice). In their view, this holds true even if HSR is not built. So the "real" EIR should be done for 6 tracks. On the other hand, they claim that the benefits of electrification and grade separations cannot be counted as benefits vs the "no build" scenario because the "no build" scenario should take into account every improvement that Caltrain might possibly do on its own without HSR.

    In other words, Atherton believes that the "no build" alternative is an electrified, 4 track ROW, possibly with speeds in the 90-110 mph range. Which sounds shockingly similar to what the HSR build scenario will be. So Atherton is literally telling CHSRA that the EIR should be changed to reflect essentially zero impact to building the HSR system vs. the no build alternative. They're also saying that they think CHSRA + Caltrain won't have enough capacity even with 4 tracks, but that's CHSRA/JPB's problem, not Atherton's.

  10. Sounds like a bunch of people who belong to the "party of no" The "we can't do this and we can't do that" folks.

  11. what really amuses me about it is they say something along these lines in the conclusion :solve all of these concerns we have, and when you are done with that find another place to put it

  12. You have to realize that Atherton is engaging in deliberate theatrics to bolster their lawsuit.

    I think it might be possible to build 4 tracks through Atherton without seizing a single square foot of private property, thus avoiding hair-trigger reverse condemnation suits.

  13. Id like to know who is funding this lawsuit and when they loose are they legally liable to pay CAHSR legal fees?

  14. Looking at the ROW maps that Clem so helpfully posted some time ago, you can see that the Caltrain ROW is at least 80 feet wide through all of Atherton, and at the southern end of the four-track section south of Redwood City. So just fitting four tracks wouldn't be a problem, and they should even be able to fit side platforms at the station, if they have the northbound platform directly against the wall on that side (which is significantly less impact than if the configuration were FSSF and it was the express track right up against the wall).

  15. Menlo Park has now posted their comments (an attachment on their 2/24 agenda).

  16. Huh, the Menlo Park comment is surprisingly simple and in stark contrast to Atherton's comment. Just says all the obvious things should be studied. It doesn't even bother to list the street names for the 4 grade crossing that will be built. No wild accusations, no demands, nothing.

    I guess it's obvious which side is leading the Atherton / Menlo Park lawsuit.

  17. Is there anyone familiar enough with the EIS process to determine how they measure what is a "severe impact" and what is not?

    IE, are there objective criteria, or do they basically have to consider something to be a severe impact if somebody tells them they think it's a severe impact?

    What I'm getting at is, are there any provisions in the NEPA to determine what concerns that are presented are valid and what are just bellyaching for the sake of bellyaching?

  18. Clem,

    One issue I'd like your take on is what you would do with E. Meadow in the case of HSR passing at grade. A developer has approved plans to redevelop the shopping center into a grocery store, some retail and 50+ housing units. The only ingress/egress will be a one way frontage road along Alma from E. Meadow north for a couple hundred yards.

  19. It is just amazing to me comparing the comments between these two cities.

    Menlo Park: Bringing up legitimate concerns about impacts to their city and asking for them to be studied and mitigated.

    Atherton: WAAAAAAAAAAAAA I am angry at everything and i am against absolutely everything no matter if I used an example in the previous comment and then go to contradict it in the next.

    That kind of stuff drives me up the wall, taking what might be a legitimate concern and then throwing in the entire kitchen sink of unnecessary complaints.

    Having legitimate concerns is one thing, but come on...

  20. Susan: you're talking about this intersection, right? It seems like a very similar solution to the one that MV came up with for Rengsdorf should work (in the comments linked in the post). Depress Meadow under the track and depress Alma a bit to meet it below grade.

  21. Peter,

    That is the intersection. The problem is that by lowering the roads, you cut off access to an existing (nice) condo building on the NE corner (its hard to see but the driveway to all units is on Meadow right by intersection), a cul-de-sac (Emerson) and worst of all, possibly a planned APPROVED new development on Alma for a grocery store, BMR apartments and 34 luxury homes. This is what looks like a giant parking lot now.

    I have no idea what are the legalities - is this something developer should have known, is it Palo Alto's fault... It's possible that you might still have access by the north (near apartment complex) but I've already assumed a much shorter slope downward than Mtn View did (900 feet)

  22. @ Susan -

    this sounds to me like a tail wagging the dog. Give the properties in question access to Emerson and Ramona and, split grade separation will not be an issue.

  23. Rafael,

    Any other place this might be tail and dog but in this case you are talking about an acrimonious process that has gone on for about 10 years. Part of the deal was there would be no access via Ramona and Emerson. If you went back to drawing table, there is no way developer would be allowed to put housing on site but there is also no way you would have a viable grocery store (the entire purpose of the development). This guy is a piece of work - the lawsuit would be...big.

    What I'm hearing is that because of these type issues at all grade crossings no one is seriously looking at grade level - its up or down.

    What do you know on real cost of trenching?

  24. Susan, HSR will be very different than the 10-year acrimonious process to plan Alma Plaza. The latter was a Palo Alto project confined entirely to the Palo Alto Process. HSR has strong political backing from SF, SJ, Sacramento and Washington DC. I don't believe the city or the developer will be allowed to delay the project. While the process may indeed be acrimonious, I believe it will be short.

    By the way, the CHSRA's tentative plan for that location is a split grade sep with the tracks up 7 feet and the intersection down 14. That's subject to change, of course.

    In other news, San Carlos has now posted their comments... will update soon.

  25. I don't know the Alma-Meadow intersection well, so I may be misunderstanding the situation. How is this a problem for a secure at-grade crossing? An at-grade crossing actually seems to be the best way to avoid disruption of sensitive local planning deals. Not only is an at-grade crossing much cheaper, it doesn't have all these knock-on disruptive effects by moving all the roadways attached to properties.

    The crossing at Meadow could have a hard barrier across the entire roadway with a sophisticated sensor system to detect any obstacle on the tracks. This could be integrated with the train control system. It's active safety control as opposed to the passive safety control of expensive grade separations.

  26. @ Susan, High Tech Crossings -

    a hardened grade crossing at Meadow would theoretically be possible, since HSR will not be traveling faster than 125mph in the peninsula anyhow. Any faster and FRA insists on grade separation.

    However, Palo Alto should weigh the consequences carefully. At an aggregate 10 trains per hour (tph) each way during rush hour, a hardened grade crossing would be closed around 40% of the time during rush hour. If rail traffic picks up in the future, e.g. because of sharply rising gasoline prices, crossing availability could be even lower.

    Moreover, I understand that a lot of K12 students on bicycles cross Meadow every day. Even if the motor vehicle lanes are not grade separated, a pedestrian/bicycle under- or overpass suitable for wheelchair users should be considered.

    Finally, note that even at a hardened grade crossing there is still a residual risk of a grade crossing accident. Just imagine, for example, that at some point in the next few decades a car or truck stalls just as it is right on top of the tracks. The French TGV lines weren't fully grade separated until the turn of the century, with predictable results.

    So yes, while grade crossings are theoretically possible at the community's request, you should think of them as plan B. It's not appropriate to put people's lives at risk just because a few homeowners don't want an already existing driveway to be used as an access route to a new development.

    Mind you, a grocery store that cannot even be seen from the street and is hard to get to had better be ye olde village delicatessen shoppe or it will go belly-up faster than a fish in a hot spring. In which case, what's all the fuss about?

  27. Rafael: The french high speed lines (LGV) are entirely grade-separated. The TGV runs through onto many, many conventional lines, most of which are not grade separated.

  28. I apologize for posting this question here, but I've been very curious what will happen through downtown San Mateo, where Caltrain tracks are already quite tightly squeezed in by a frontage road, parking garages, movie theaters, and stores. What, if any, plans are there for that stretch of track?


  29. Hi Todd, no apology needed. I am working up a Focus on: San Mateo. There is definitely lots to talk about in this area, which is why it's taking me a while to research it.

  30. Clem -
    First, while I disagree with your assessment on the impact through some of the Peninsula towns, I really appreciate your research, fact based approach.

    Another location I have been thinking about is downtown Mountain View. Not only is the downtown moving towards a dining al fresco zone (within 50 feet of the tracks) but Mountain View has been working hard on using Castro as a gateway from the 101 to their city. I cannot come up with anything but a tunnel /underground station or an aeriel / elevated station that works and preserves the downtown.

  31. San Mateo: Tracks go up, streets (most of them) and pedestrians go straight across at the existing grade level with no detours. The insane city-designed, Caltrain-approved San Mateo station is demolished. While triple/quadruple-tracking through downtown San Mateo is not operationally necessary, the construction easements required for the track elevation/reconstruction are such that it's easy to make the case for retaining those parcels permanently for a wider ROW.

    If we weren't limited to the World Class US Engineering Professions, one might imagine a construction scenario in which the existing embankment was incrementally raised and slightly widened within the existing property boundaries while retaining at least one full-speed through track at all times upon which Caltrain would operate with no delays, but, well, you know...

    And given some property takes (< 30 residential parcels along Ramona, cost < $50m, ie in the noise given US engineering extortion rates and thus overall project cost), why not flatten the curve a bit also?

    It's all going to be a mess, but the City of San Mateo deliberately painted itself into a corner, including building "TOD" parking lots hard up against the ROW and a nutty underground, cost-maximizing lot under its nutty, cost-maximizing, ersatz-historic white elephant station building, and there you have it.

    Fun fact to consider: Railroad Avenue (frontage road along the eastern side of the Caltrain tracks in downtown SM) is part of the Caltrain ROW.

    Construction south of 5th Ave is simplified by the wider ROW together with the small number of property takes needed on the inside (west) to fix the unacceptable Hayward Park curve radius. Hayward Park station is closed, of course, consolidated with the northward relocation of Hillsdale.

    Mountain View: Trains go up, pedestrians and roads go straight across. (Well, there's nothing for peds on the eastern side but a lovely, lovely Santa Clara traffic sewer expressway. But peds at least walk straight under the tracks from the street/bus stops/trolley stop before ascending to Caltrain platform level. No ups and downs for humans! Optimize for pedestrian accessility and pedestrian access time!) There is sufficient clearance and run length to allow the tracks to pass under the existing Shoreline and Hwy 85 overpasses.) As per the only possible rational program (ie the one that CHSRA and PCJPB will not follow, by definition), MV is a four track, two island platform station (with the fast tracks on the outside.) 400m long platforms as feasible and should be constructed, with the northern extremity extending just over Castro Street.

    The VTA Toonerville Trolley, for whatever value it could possibly have, continues to approach on the east side, but is partially depressed and lies partially and slightly underneath the elevated four-track Caltrain approach. Towards the north end of the station, the single track VTA line ducks underneath the Caltrain station, terminating in two stub tracks slightly below existing grade level (slight ramp down, no steps), more or less at a 45° angle to and right up against the intersection of Castro and Evelyn. Nice!

    Without unjustifiable amounts of excavation it isn't feasible to construct a direct VTA toonerville trolley platform to Caltrain platform connection unless elevators (which being a maintenance and sanitation nightmare are generally to be avoided outside large CBD stations), but even with a light detour to ramps/steps adjacent, the magic intermodality (buzzword alert!) will be at least as good as today's, and the walking distance from the slowest-and-craziest-light-rail-line-on-the-planet and the MV downtown will be reduced to nothing.

    PS Yes, I know the Oerlikon construction porn photos above are of excavation down (which is even harder!), not widening via straight forward soldier pile type action. It's the principle and the competency that matter, not the particular project.

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  33. Hi Clem, Wonder if I might insert an off topic question here... for our friendly resident train guru...

    How do power supplies for HSR systems work? Do new power stations need to built along the way? Or do they just plug in to the existing local power supply? (Or tap in to those huge State wide high voltage lines we see as we drive down I5?)

    I imagine some sort of local beefing up of the electrical delivery system is needed?

    At what intervals? (every town? every 20 miles?...) How near the tracks?

    Is beefing up of power infrastructure something CHSR has included in their financial plan, or is it something the communities will be expected to build/provide using some other funding mechanisms?

    Thank you kindly for educating us on what you know on this subject.

  34. Most HSR systems, and most new electrified lines for that matter, are powered by 25kV single-phase electrification. They get this power from the grid at substations, which are placed approximately every 30 miles along the ROW, near places where high voltage transmission lines cross. I don't think this generally requires making any huge modifications to the power grid, although it definitely requires close coordination with the grid operator to make sure everything works right, as single-phase AC railway electrification isn't exactly the best thing for the grid. If you want more details, there's lots of information out there about the Caltrain electrification project, which looks like it will be very similar to what HSR will use (and will actually be used by HSR trains between SF and San Jose).

  35. @Neighbor

    It is likely that the electric infrastructure will just be a beefed up version of Caltrain's existing plans. See DEIR/EIS here, especially Chapter 2.

  36. Regarding electrical power systems, tiny substations, basically transformers plus a bit, are needed, quite near the track, on a regular basis (I can't remember the how-many-miles numbers, but they're probably in the Caltrain documents).

    The modern substations are very small; I'd swear I've seen ones which are less thanthree feet cubical. They can tuck them inside nearby buildings in dense areas or give them their own miniature shacks in less dense areas. It's small, off-the-shelf stuff, nothing you'd notice if you weren't explicitly looking for it.

    The electrical system planned for CAHSR is essentially the same as the ordinary power grid system (AC of the same frequency, same voltage as one of the standard high-voltage distribution line types), so it's a lot like any small, local voltage-dropping transformer substation.

    The substations do need to be connected to appropriate-voltage lines, which may mean some power pole upgrades in the immediate vicinity.

  37. If the tracks are FSSF through Mountain View, are four platforms needed? Can the Caltrain services stopping at MV be on the slow tracks, for a layout of FS-island-SF?