15 March 2015

News Roundup, March 2015

Regulations for 25 kV electrification.  After two years in the making, CPUC proceeding R1303009 appears to have produced the new rule book for stringing up high-voltage rail electrification in California, although the final document is still to be formally adopted by the Public Utilities Commission.  The final draft hammered out after numerous meetings by the high-speed rail consultants, freight railroads, utility companies and other interested parties thankfully bears little resemblance to the original draft proposed by the high-speed rail consultant, which was a mess.  While the new rules apply only to dedicated high-speed rail corridors without grade crossings or freight trains, the language is flexible and there appears to be room allowed for parties such as Caltrain and UPRR to agree on those particular items on a case-by-case basis, without resorting to an entire new CPUC rulemaking process for the peninsula rail corridor.  Most importantly, the new rules provide a clear framework that allows detailed engineering design of Caltrain's electrification project to proceed with a very low risk of future regulatory surprises.

Grade separations.   An unfortunate series of accidents and suicides have re-ignited the debate over grade separations in PAMPA (Palo Alto - Menlo Park - Atherton).  This portion of the corridor abuts some of the most expensive real estate on the peninsula and is home to the most contentious and litigious environment for local decision-making (or lack thereof, as the case may be), and it is gradually dawning on these communities that Something Must Be Done.  Grade separation is often misunderstood as an all-or-nothing proposition, when in reality it is a process that has been underway for decades.  The peninsula rail corridor is already 62% grade-separated today.  Communities up and down the peninsula are starting to talk more about finishing the remaining 38% of the job.

Quiet zones. Palo Alto recently conducted a study session on quiet zones, which would stop routine horn-blowing at grade crossings.  Curiously, the systematic use of train horns before every protected grade crossing is an American practice not usually seen in other countries, where crossing gates combined with visual and audible warnings are considered to provide a sufficient level of public safety.  But then again, those other countries don't have lawyers like ours.  The staff report contains a nice overview of the process for establishing a quiet zone; the main impediment seems to be the local community's assumption of legal liability for grade crossing collisions.

Peninsula HSR reboot.  After spending $45 million on environmental clearance and design of the original and much-reviled four-tracks-all-the-way peninsula HSR project, the California High-Speed Rail Authority shelved the plans with nothing delivered.  The Authority recently submitted a Project Update Report to the legislature, stating that a new environmental clearance for the peninsula segment is scheduled for completion in 2017, with construction complete in 2028.  [UDPATE 3/21]  Furthermore, an obscure Ridership Technical Advisory Panel Review of the California High-Speed Rail Ridership and Revenue Forecasting Process dated December 2014 includes the map graphic at right, and states that the Authority "has requested a stand-alone analysis of two individual segments of the overall system, to assess the viability of each segment operating independently for a handful of years prior to the completion of the system. (...) The Bay Area segment would require improvements to existing rail infrastructure. HSR service would be blended with existing Caltrain commuter rail."  The peninsula schedule may be pulling to the left.  To clear an EIR that fast, for a project so much more controversial than mere electrification, the process would have to be re-started very soon.  This may or may not be related to the choice of...

New Caltrain CEO.  Jim Hartnett was selected as Caltrain's new chief.  He is a consummate local political insider with no background as a transportation agency executive, other than chairing the Caltrain board of directors and vice-chairing the board of the CHSRA.  While he will no doubt be well equipped to navigate the choppy waters of inter- and extra-agency politics, he is less likely to shake up the Caltrain organization or to bring fresh outside-the-box thinking to the development of the "blended system."  While Caltrain has plenty of political and organizational problems to work on, the technical aspects of blending will determine the success of the rail corridor for decades to come.  Will Hartnett do anything about the top ten problems facing Caltrain, or will he just hold the current course?


  1. That was some world-wide search they did to find somebody uniquely qualified to triple-dip the county, county and tri-county payroll and then soon enough triple-dip the pension systems, all while continually gutting bus service, widening the freeways, and blowing out the rail capital budgets with consultant overheads that reach towards 100%.

    And just imagine! Finding the perfect staff person to run a multi billion dollar engineering program based on best global economic and technical practices sitting under their noses, knocking back a few drinks right at the same bar in cosy Redwood City.

  2. The PA Daily Post (not on the internet) in an editorial opinion, took deadly aim at the appointment of Hartnett to be the CEO of CalTrain, replacing Scanlon.

    Dave Price, the editor, really has exposed the whole situation. When "friends of CalTrain" try to put a measure on the ballot to subsidize CalTrain's operating deficits, this ridiculous appointment of Hartnett, who has no background for managing a large organization, or any real "train knowledge", will sway plenty of voters to say no.

    So much ammo to again subject CalTrain to incompetence and bloated budgets. All should remember the price tag for CBOSS is at $231 million. That PTC system, which just had to be invented at CalTrain, rather than use an off the shelf system, is so bloated in cost it really is a major scandal. (The electrification project just got a boost in cost of $300 million)

    Anyway, you can read the Post's editorial at:


    1. I have yet to hear from a single transit advocate who is even slightly positive about Hartnett's new position.

      Should be interesting to watch CBOSS in the coming months. They're wrapping up the easy part (installation) and starting into testing & commissioning. That is the program phase where schedules and budgets usually blow out, because this stuff is much harder than it looks. Where the steel wheel hits the rail... Anybody remember the MUNI Meltdown?


    2. I guess I honestly don't understand why HSR has to go to San Francisco via the Peninsula. After all the costs of upgrading the old SP trackage wouldn't it be just about the same cost to build a new transbay tube? Make it four tracks instead of two and give BART a boost by linking into its existing tracks between West Oakland and the wye.

      The Transbay Terminal is between Mission and Howard at Main, right? That's only three blocks from the water. A new tunnel for HSR and BART could come down Howard to the terminal with BART peeling off to the north just before it, undercrossing the existing tunnel and the new T subway line before heading out Geary. Lord knows the Bay Area needs a subway along Geary before it needs ANY OTHER major transportation improvement. Nearly 100,000 riders every day take one of the four versions of the 38, and there are buses both a block to the north on Clement and two blocks to the south on Balboa serving the area as well. Muni unfortuntatly can't pay for it alone. But with HSR funds to build the tunnel BART has the ability to build the subway inside the city.

    3. Routing HSR from San Jose up to Oakland would be no picnic either. The proponents of an East Bay HSR route via the SP Mulford Line (former BART director Robert Allen) tend to gloss this over, but there would be dozens of grade separations needed just like the peninsula. And contrary to what we usually read in the local press, there is plenty of room to expand peninsula rail capacity.

    4. Downtown Menlo Park has only 55 feet, but of course who cares except for residents of Menlo Park, many of whom would like to maintain their quality of life and not see their city become a shanty rail abutting visual and audio monster plagued community.

    5. Morris, I think you've got that backwards. Compared to a slightly elevated 100% grade separated and electrified rail alignment, Menlo Park today truly is a "shanty rail-abutting visual and audio monster plagued community". The diesel fumes. The clanging bells. The chugging locomotives. The traffic gridlock. The continuous horn blowing from one end of town to the other, especially as UPRR freights roll through four times a day... or is it night? And all those huge vacant lots. About the only redeeming feature of the rail corridor through Menlo Park is the historic depot, the oldest in California. There is not much else worth clinging to here.

  3. Clem: Since my home is only about 450 feet from the tracks, and my office only about one-quarter of a mile from the tracks,(and train station) I think I know pretty well how being near the Caltrain tracks currently affects the community. I have lived in my home over 40 years now.

    When a few years ago, when the mental giants who occupy the engineering facilities of Caltrain, decided raising the horns to the top of the cabs, the horn volume increase to the surrounding community was immense. It created an uproar in town and until Caltrain reverted to the lower position we suffered plenty. The surrounding foliage and structures do wonders to attenuate the horn noise. Elevate the tracks, and this comes back along with plenty of extra wheel and locomotive noise.

    True full grade crossing will quiet the horns at those crossings, but not at the station. With electrification we lose not only tons of trees, but also will be subjected to the twenty foot high catenary poles and their electrical lines.

    The huge impacts will be to the area in Menlo Park, (and also extending to Atherton) from the station south. There are tons of homes, apartments, and new residential development in the works along this part of the corridor.

    In any case this is only the least of the problems. If Gov Brown has his way, for sure HSR will run on these tracks, and it regardless of the lies and myths being propagated, will require 4 tracks, not the present 2 tracks. The land takings in Menlo Park will be immense and forever divide the town. (even further).

    BTW, UPRR certainly doesn't roll 4 long freights a day through the city. At night usually one, and sometimes one during the day also.

    Traffic gridlock is a problem only at Ravenswood (currently at least). In general the horn blowing is not continuous, but I'll admit some aggressive engineers at worse than others. Diesel fumes are not a problem.

    1. True full grade crossing will quiet the horns at those crossings, but not at the station

      This is a regulatory issue which needs to be resolved. If anything though. 4 tracks would actually help this because it would mean that many if not all non-stop trains would not pass by the platforms.

      With electrification we lose not only tons of trees, but also will be subjected to the twenty foot high catenary poles and their electrical lines.

      Blocking your view of what, exactly?

      The land takings in Menlo Park will be immense and forever divide the town. (even further).

      Even if 4 tracks happen (debatable) and substantial property takes are necessary (debatable), how would it divide anything? The corridor would be slightly wider but the effect of grade separation would be much better connectivity between the two sides of the tracks.

    2. With elevated tracks routine horn-blowing at the station would be eliminated since there would be no pedestrian crossings. See Belmont (center platform) or San Carlos (outside platforms) for examples.

    3. To be fair, horn blowing is still quite common at the San Carlos station. I would estimate about 90% of non-stopping trains do it. That still makes for a lot less horn blowing than in Menlo Park, but not zero.

    4. I suppose there is little or no incentive for the non-stopping train operator not to blow. If someone should manage to get themselves hurt, the question will probably be whether the operator sounded the horn or not. I surmise the attitude is therefore "might as well blow" ... even when nobody is even visible on the platform.

      In Germany express trains whoosh past station platforms far faster and more frequently than Caltrain with nary a warning sound.

    5. If I recall correctly, most stations in Germany have an automated PA message warning that an express train will be passing through. "Achtung bei Durchfahrt des Zuges."

    6. Caltrain has that too now, the PA states "train approaching" although the timing seems somewhat random. Germans have an innate understanding that it is best to stay back from the tracks. Peninsulans don't: they sit on the edge of the mini-high sipping their Starbucks while opening their laptop as the bullet bears down on them, only to jump aside at the last second after insistent horn blowing.

    7. I think that partly has to do with the height of the platforms. People stand further back if they're four feet above the tracks versus only 8 inches.

    8. That's a good point, and a further argument for going high!

    9. Another option: http://picup.oliverlamm.de/files/IMG_1199281279_heavyguenni_web.de.jpg

    10. "To be fair, horn blowing is still quite common at the San Carlos station. I would estimate about 90% of non-stopping trains do it."

      If they're not blowing the f**king horns, they're violating policy.

      Next time you notice a train engineer not blasting the entire county while passing through or stopping at every single station, write and complain to Noted Global Transportation Expert Jim Hartnett about this clear violation of Caltrain, CPUC and national safety standards and policies. Children might die!

      Sad to say, morris brown has been right all along.

      Caltrain's only going to blow the horns more with more trains, and Caltrain's only going to employ more sub-assistant-associate conductors the more trains they run, and Caltrain's only going to cost more to maintain with electrification, and Caltrain's promised to just make more useless stops to slow electrified trains below diesels.

      Just stick a knife in it. Stop throwing good money (billions of good money) after bad. It's hopeless. Absolutely hopeless.
      Blow it up.
      Give up.

    11. Anonymous, do you know the station horn rule of BART, or other Heavy rail? If this is better than commuter rail, Caltrain should "Graduate" from FRA/commuter rail and join to heavy rail.

    12. BART beeps as it enters stations. (More a friendly "BART-BART!") Not at billion decibels.
      I don't know the agency/regulator's rules for beeping non-stop trains, but my experience as a passenger on platforms is that passing trains beep-beep also. It's not deafening, though, like the "here I am, arriving!" it is totally unnecessary.

      CPUC limits BART to 27mph entering (to stop) and passing through stations. I'd say "historical, due to old train control problems" except that BART has the same train hysterical control problems up to today!

      Yes, Caltrain should have been changed to "heavy rail" (meaning "regular old trains, anywhere except where the US Federal Railroad Administration screws things up".) Maybe there would still be some lower-decibel beep-beeping by non-stop trains, or maybe not even that. That could have been done. It should have been done. We'd be in an infinitely better position had it been done. Caltrain had the option. Caltrain knew it had the option. Caltrain was aware of the advantages of less terrible regulation. Caltrain could have swung it, politically and otherwise. Caltrain chose not to try. Because, in the end, Caltrain is about maximizing expense (consultant pork and scandalous agency overheads) and minimizing service (never solved problems are ones that need more more more more more money.)

  4. Sorry... above should have said "from the station North", not "from the station South"