26 November 2009

Electrification Blues

While overhead electrification using 25,000 volts AC is a widespread technology that is even found in several states in the Northeast, it has never been used in California and the relevant regulations either do not exist or do not allow for it. Caltrain finds itself in the unenviable position of blazing a new regulatory trail, with little success to show thus far.

Regulatory Wild Ride

In 2007, Caltrain filed an application with the California Public Utilities Commission to have a new General Order established for 25 kV overhead railroad electrification. This application was backed by a draft standard and a series of workshops, and attracted participation from electric utilities and freight railroads. Caltrain later realized that the duration for establishing a new GO and only then applying under it for permission to build the project would not meet their schedule for completion by 2014. Despite an FRA reviewer stating that the draft standard was "96% of the way to the finish line," Caltrain withdrew its application, scrapped the draft GO, and decided instead to file for a waiver of existing rules on a project-specific basis.

In June 2009, Caltrain filed a new application requesting authority for variances from portions of CPUC General Order 95, which governs overhead electric line construction in California. This application was shared among interested parties including the Union Pacific Railroad and its key customers on the peninsula.

UPRR protested the application. Its protest brief listed the following issues:
  1. Caltrain's proposed variances do not meet industry engineering standards. Among other items, UPRR states: "The issue of clearances is critical. Clearances determine, in part, the types of railcars that can be operated on a track and the types of loads that a car may carry."

  2. Caltrain's proposed variances conflict with UPRR's legal rights and obligations as a common carrier freight railroad. UPRR contends that constraints on the types and loads of railcars would constitute a forced abandonment or partial abandonment of UPRR's peninsula operations, which requires approval from the federal Surface Transportation Board--and not the CPUC.

  3. Caltrain's proposed variance would conflict with the trackage rights agreement established when the peninsula corridor was sold, especially the clauses concerning abandonment of freight service.
Caltrain folded immediately and withdrew its application, stating sheepishly:
Caltrain has learned that certain interested parties had more serious concerns with the Application than were anticipated. Rather than undertake discussion with such parties under the scheduling constraints of a Commission proceeding, Caltrain prefers to resolve these concerns separately and resubmit the Application at a later date.
In its protest, UPRR suggested the following timetable to resolve the issue:
  • 1 September 2009 - Prehearing conference
  • 14 October 2009 - Workshop re: engineering issues
  • 9 December 2009 - Further prehearing conference
  • 4 May 2010 - Hearing
  • 15 July 2010 - Final decision
What this reveals, if nothing else, is that UPRR will vigorously defend its rights on the peninsula corridor, even without prodding from local residents who oppose HSR. This does not bode well for other regulatory changes that will be required, in particular a waiver of GO-26D to allow level boarding at station platforms--another move that is sure to attract a protest from UPRR.

Vertical Clearance Issues

The basic issue that underlies all this legal maneuvering is one of clearance dimensions, especially vertical clearances, where high-voltage overhead electrification infrastructure (contact wire, supports, etc.) might interfere with the operation of excess-height freight cars.
  • UPRR and its customers (especially the Port of San Francisco) want the unimpeded future ability to operate so-called excess-height freight cars, such as autoracks and double-stack container cars, none of which currently operate on the peninsula north of Santa Clara.
  • Such excess-height freight cars are up to 20'3" tall measured ATOR (above top of rail), with a recommended clearance of 23 ft ATOR for any obstacles such as bridges and tunnels.
  • Caltrain's plans to electrify the peninsula showed the 25 kV contact wire at a typical vertical height of 23 ft (7.0 m) ATOR, in compliance with these recommendations.
  • High-voltage wires require additional stand-off clearances (about 1 foot) to prevent arcing to trains or bridges, i.e. short circuits.
  • The peninsula corridor has numerous bridges with clearances at or less than 23 ft ATOR (see graphic at right), where the overhead wire would get closer to the top of freight cars than the recommended clearance.
  • Caltrain has proposed de-energizing the overhead electrification at night when freight trains operate. This might allow the wire to get down to about 21 ft ATOR (shown as a black dotted line in the graphic.)
  • Electrification support infrastructure underneath bridges can take up several feet vertical clearance, especially when configured for high speeds (125 mph) where a single trolley wire is insufficient.
  • Increasing vertical clearances under existing bridges and tunnels by undercutting the rail bed is often complicated by utility lines, culverts or creeks that pass under the tracks.
Clearly, excess-height freight cars will considerably complicate if not preclude electrification, and something will have to give.

The simplest solution, one that is in the best interest of the people footing the electrification / HSR bill (yes, that's you), is for Caltrain to file an application with the STB for a partial abandonment of freight service, resulting in a permanent restriction to AAR Plate F clearances (freight cars 17 ft ATOR, with overhead wire at 20 ft as shown by the green dotted line in the graphic above). This would not impede any of the current freight operations on the peninsula, and would facilitate the construction of trenches for certain grade separations in sensitive residential areas.

A Clash of Titans

Ultimately, Caltrain's role in this situation is secondary. The players who hold the cards are the UPRR, the California High Speed Rail Authority, and the Federal Railroad Administration. It is unclear if these players have any interest in the simple solution. Will they think about who should pay for this? Freight is and always will be a minority rail user on the peninsula, and it's hard to think of a reason why taxpayers should spend millions of dollars to buy UPRR and its customers complicated and maintenance-intensive solutions like movable overhead conductor rails or gauntlet tracks, especially when excess-height freight cars already have ample access to key regional facilities like the Port of Oakland.

We've already seen what gold plating for freight can do: expensive infrastructure is built on the taxpayer's dime for some hypothetical future need, and then languishes unused. Exhibit A is the Kelly Moore freight spur in San Carlos, which has yet to see its first freight car.

18 November 2009

Focus on: Atherton

If the term wealthy enclave means anything, Atherton (per capita income about 20 times population) is it.

The leafy town of Atherton abuts a mere 0.8 mile of the peninsula rail corridor, and yet may turn out to be the greatest friction point for HSR on the peninsula--and possibly anywhere in California. This is not because of technical difficulty, but rather because the town is more willing and able than most to employ legal means to get its wishes: as a first priority, a routing of HSR that is not through Atherton (namely, via the Altamont Pass), and as a last resort, the construction of a tunnel to put Caltrain and HSR completely out of sight.

In an 11-page letter sent to the CHSRA in late 2007, the Town of Atherton detailed its concerns about the HSR project. Refer to Chapter 22, p. 101 of the Bay Area to Central Valley Program EIR/EIS. The letter includes the following claims:
  1. properties will need to be condemned to build HSR through Atherton;
  2. partially condemned properties are subject to remainder damages "easily in excess" of the value of the entire property, to compensate owners for noise and visual impacts in perpetuity;
  3. the remainder of the property may not be condemned unless it is actually needed for the project; condemnation to limit remainder damages is not sufficient to support the taking.
In short, Atherton warned that running HSR through town would entangle the project in an expensive and drawn-out legal battle. That battle has already begun: Atherton was a co-plaintiff in a partially successful legal challenge brought by environmental and transit activists against the above-mentioned EIR, forcing it to be revised. Doubtless this is only the beginning.

Horizontal Alignment

Despite the controversy around the issue of eminent domain, the Caltrain right of way (see maps for mileposts 27 and 28) is 80 - 85 feet wide and straight as a ruler everywhere along the 0.8 mile section that falls within Atherton town limits. In principle, this is sufficient space to accommodate four tracks, although temporary construction easements may still be required to build the grade separation structures at Atherton's two grade crossings, Fair Oaks Lane and Watkins Avenue.

Trees are highly prized in Atherton, and many large volunteer trees growing on the railroad right of way would have to be removed. Caltrain's electrification EIR identified 80 trees that would need to be removed for a two-track at-grade electrified configuration; a wider four-track arrangement would likely result in even more tree removals.

Vertical Alignment

The existing tracks slope down at a gentle (less than 0.5%) grade to the north, and cross a drainage ditch known as the Atherton Channel at Watkins Ave. The vertical alignment of the tracks through Atherton is intimately linked to the choices made in neighboring Menlo Park, which has several closely-spaced crossings that would require a consistent vertical alignment to be used through both cities. The existing alignment is shown in the figure below, created from Caltrain track survey data.

Even with the program EIR in legal trouble, project-level environmental work is continuing, with the CHSRA's preliminary design alternatives including elevated, at-grade and below-grade variations of the vertical alignment through Atherton.

An elevated alignment, as originally suggested in the program EIR/EIS and as previously studied in neighboring Menlo Park, would raise the tracks about 15 feet and lower the roads by about 5 feet. Pedestrian sidewalks would stay at grade. The tracks would have to be elevated over all six crossings in Menlo / Atherton, as shown in the figure below. Note, the 1% grade specified for freight trains considerably lengthens the northern approach to such an elevated structure.

Putting the tracks in a trench would require lowering the rails by 30 feet, to accommodate tall freight cars under overhead electrification. The solid red line in the figure below shows a trench alignment. The tracks must rise back to grade at the existing Fifth Avenue grade separation to the north, so trains, tracks, poles and overhead wires would be out of sight for only a portion of Atherton. Again, freight-friendly 1% grades are shown.

Atherton's Folly

In the analysis of alternatives process for the San Francisco - San Jose project EIR, the CHSRA requested each city to state its preferred design alternative. Atherton's position is still that the Pacheco Pass HSR routing through Atherton is ill-advised, wasteful, expensive, and adds no transportation value. Should this route be built, however, Atherton proposes a tunnel concept that is ill-advised, wasteful, expensive, and adds no transportation value. An eye for an eye...

A letter from Atherton (see p. 5) states a preference for an unusual two-level stacked tunnel arrangement, with two HSR tracks in a tunnel on the lower level and two Caltrain / UPRR tracks in a trench on the upper level, as diagrammed in the notional cross-section at right. All roads would remain at grade, and the horizontal clearances would "fit well within" the 80 - 85 foot right of way, purportedly allowing trees to be preserved. The vertical alignment for such a tunnel is shown in the vertical profile (above) as a dotted red line. Accounting for the minimum vertical clearances, the HSR tunnel would bottom out about 75 feet below grade, well below sea level. The extensive ventilation head houses, emergency evacuation stairwells and pump houses required to operate such a tunnel are not shown in the diagram.

The claimed benefits of such an arrangement include:
  • No property takes and little loss of property value
  • No barrier or visual impact, little noise
  • Less cost than a twin-bore four-track tunnel
  • Upper level usable by diesel freight trains
The concept was originally proposed by Redwood City resident James Jonas, who calls it the Hat Trench. Jonas was invited to present the concept to Atherton's rail committee in summer 2009.

It remains unclear who would pay for such a pharaonic tunnel structure. While the price of property in Atherton is high, it remains small in comparison to a tunnel. Less easy to quantify is the price of a view and the price of peace and quiet. Are those truly worth $10,000 per linear inch? Atherton should have plenty of MBA's to figure it out.

NOTE: This post will be updated continuously, as warranted by additional information or new events relating to Atherton.

10 November 2009

CSS Kicks Off

Despite some earlier skepticism that the Context Sensitive Solutions process would be embraced in upgrading the peninsula corridor for high-speed rail, program officials now say they're signed up to it. This development was successfully precipitated by the Peninsula Cities Consortium (representing several peninsula cities in matters pertaining to the project) and Californians Advocating Responsible Railroad Design, (CARRD) a group of mid-peninsula residents concerned about project impacts.

A kick-off workshop organized by the Peninsula Rail Program was held on November 4th, featuring a nationally renowned CSS expert as well as the Peninsula Rail Program's newly hired CSS consultant, urban designer Bruce Fukuji. Here are the slides from their respective presentations:
(as a reminder, the Peninsula Rail Program or PRP is a 50-50 joint venture between Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority.)

For everyone who wants this project "done right," CSS presents a structured opportunity to build consensus about just what exactly "right" means. The commitment to use CSS is not a small one, considering that specific peninsula design alternatives are already being debated behind closed doors, and that the final project EIR/EIS is still planned for end 2011.

Playing out against a backdrop that includes the program EIR being decertified by the Atherton lawsuit, rail officials now seem to realize that the path of least resistance may lead through CSS. Failing to achieve a reasonable level of community consensus is likely to mire the project in CEQA lawsuits for a long time.

That's not stopping the local press from dismissing CSS as a gimmick.