07 April 2012

Primarily Two Tracks

Figure 4 from Caltrain's study, showing several possible locations for new overtake tracks.  Not all would be built.
In recent days, the high-speed rail Draft Revised 2012 Business Plan as well as the Caltrain Blended Operations Analysis were released to the public.  Both of these documents refer to the peninsula blended solution as a "primarily two-track" system, in the hope of allaying fears of massive eminent domain takings of homes and business-- fears that are largely unfounded, but fanned relentlessly by the local press and project opponents.

The confusion continues over what "primarily two tracks" precisely means, because neither agency seems ready to come out yet and state it in crystal clear terms.  The process still needs to unfold.  Luckily, enough data has already been published to allow a reasonably good reading of the tea leaves, down to the nearest tenth of a mile.

Phase 1 will be electrification, according to the memorandum of understanding currently being put in place by MTC and other parties.  This project already has federal environmental clearance and is very close to state environmental clearance, although a strong push will be made by opponents to subsume Caltrain's electrification EIR into the peninsula HSR project EIR, a document that will not be finalized (let alone litigated!) until 2015.  This phase of the project will not add any tracks, so the total length of quadruple track will stay as it is today (2 miles in Brisbane; 1 mile in Redwood City; 2 miles in Sunnyvale).
  • Purpose: improves Caltrain, enables future peninsula HSR
  • Time frame: 2013 - 2019
  • Total miles of quadruple track: 5
  • Grade-separated fraction: 61% (64 of 104 road crossings)
  • Trains per peak hour per direction: 6
  • Cities impacted by construction: none
Phase 2 will be a concrete viaduct through Santa Clara, completed at the same time as HSR reaches San Jose sometime in the mid-2020's, enabling a one-seat ride to San Francisco under the so-called "Bay-to-Basin" scenario.  If the CHSRA's grandiose plans (described in an October 2011 report to the legislature) are to be believed, this will entail building a massive double-decker station complex at San Jose.  A new four-track HSR station will hulk over the existing Diridon Station, perched on massive concrete straddle bents.  A more than 3-mile-long, 60-foot-tall viaduct will be constructed northwards, joining the existing corridor at approximately milepost 44.5, north of the Santa Clara Caltrain station.  Overpasses at Hedding and De La Cruz will be demolished and rebuilt as underpasses to make room for the new double-deck rail right of way.  Note that Caltrain's study considers this phase as part of the "baseline infrastructure" and therefore does not count it as additional tracks.
  • Purpose: enable single-seat HSR ride to San Francisco
  • Time frame: mid 2020's
  • Total miles of quadruple track: 8
  • Grade-separated fraction: 61% (64 of 104 road crossings) 
  • Trains per peak hour per direction: 8 (6 Caltrain + 2 HSR)
  • Cities impacted by construction: Santa Clara
Phase 3 will be the "short" mid-line overtake from 9th Ave in San Mateo (milepost 18.3) to Whipple Ave in Redwood City (milepost 24.8), which enables HSR service to increase from 2 to 4 trains per hour during the peak.  The data tables in Caltrain's study show that this overtake facility provides nearly all the benefits of the "full" mid-line overtake that extends southwards through Redwood City, but presumably at far lower cost.  The transportation-industrial complex's approach to the short mid-line overtake might very well entail demolishing the entire Belmont - San Carlos grade separation and replacing it with a four-track viaduct on concrete stilts.  A more realistic implementation will likely be to tack on another 15 feet of width on each side of the existing grade separations to accommodate new overtake tracks, something that should have been done in 1999 (but why do it right when you can do it twice?).  In San Mateo, new four-track grade separations will be built at 25th, 28th and 31st Avenues.
  • Purpose: increases HSR peak capacity from 2 to 4 trains per hour per direction
  • Time frame: late 2020's
  • Total miles of quadruple track: 14.5
  • Grade-separated fraction: 63% (67 of 106 road crossings) 
  • Trains per peak hour per direction: 10 (6 Caltrain + 4 HSR)
  • Cities impacted by construction: San Mateo, Belmont, San Carlos
Phase 4 will be the "full" mid-line overtake, also known as the Great Redwood City Grade Separation, creating a new mid-peninsula HSR stop at Redwood City and grade-separating a dense cluster of six grade crossings.  The four-track mid-line overtake will be extended southwards to milepost 26.3, merging with the existing four-track section.
  • Purpose: adds mid-peninsula HSR stop
  • Time frame: late 2020's
  • Total miles of quadruple track: 16
  • Grade-separated fraction: 69% (73 of 106 road crossings) 
  • Trains per peak hour per direction: 10 (6 Caltrain + 4 HSR)
  • Cities impacted by construction: Redwood City 
Beyond that, it gets murkier.  Presumably, the 33 remaining grade crossings that are not removed under Phases 1 - 4 will be addressed on a case-by-case basis, with grade separations designed and built in consultation with the respective cities.  San Francisco's downtown extension to the Transbay Transit Center may finally be built.  Additional passing tracks may be constructed where it's relatively easy and cheap, for example the remaining 2.5 miles from Lawrence to Santa Clara and the "north overtake" in Caltrain's study, an additional 8.2 miles of quadruple track from Brisbane south into Burlingame.

Only one thing is quite certain: the peninsula rail corridor will categorically NOT remain a two-track operation, even if it might still use "primarily" two tracks.  At a minimum, approximately 16 miles or over a third of its length will be quadruple-tracked.  As the process unfolds, it will become apparent that the cities of Belmont, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo and Santa Clara will be the first to suffer the construction impacts.