12 December 2015

Optimizing the Midline Overtake

The most important piece of infrastructure required for "blending" HSR with Caltrain on the peninsula rail corridor is an overtake facility, basically a several-mile long stretch of up to four tracks that will enable faster trains to overtake slower trains.  Caltrain studies have shown that the best performance (measured by robustness to cascading delays) can be achieved with a midline overtake  from San Mateo all the way through Redwood City.  Preliminary engineering and environmental clearance for this infrastructure is now resuming, with the recent award of a $36 million contract by the CHSRA to engineering firm HNTB.

The baseline configuration for this overtake is described in Caltrain's blended operations analysis, and assumes rebuilt stations at Hayward Park, Hillsdale, Belmont, San Carlos and Redwood City with four tracks and outside platforms in the tried and true style of the 1930s Pennsylvania Railroad. High-speed trains would use the center pair of tracks to overtake slower trains on the outside pair of tracks, as shown below (click figure to enlarge):

For comparison, the figure also shows a better solution that ensures the highest level of punctuality for all trains using the corridor.  This optimized overtake configuration differs from the baseline configuration as follows:
  • The slow trains run in the middle, so that disruptions to local commuter service (for example, when an incident blocks a track for hours) do not disrupt high-speed service when commuter trains are re-routed around the incident location.  This track configuration is known as Fast-Slow-Slow-Fast (FSSF) as opposed to the traditional SFFS.  Real world examples of FSSF can be seen in train cab videos from Sweden and Australia.
  • All commuter stations are built with central island platforms.  This allows commuter trains to use either platform face without confusing passengers, and requires only one set of station amenities (shelters, elevators, escalators, stairs, ticket vending machines, PA systems, train arrival screens, lighting, benches, etc.) because there is only one platform.
  • A major new interchange station at Redwood City, with four platform tracks and additional train storage sidings.  This station (described below) would serve as a transfer point for HSR, Caltrain and future Dumbarton trains, as well as non-rail transportation modes.
  • A carefully planned future-proofed high-speed rail junction where the Dumbarton rail corridor meets the peninsula rail corridor, preparing for the inevitable arrival of passenger rail service across the Bay.
Here's how it would ideally play out.

Short Term: the San Mateo Grade Separation

Preliminary rendering of new
Hillsdale station with island platform
The next step in the decadal process of grade separating the peninsula rail corridor will soon begin in San Mateo.  A new $180 million grade separation project is in the final stages of planning for 25th Avenue (currently a grade crossing) as well as 28th and 31st Avenues (currently not connected).  Concurrently with this project, the busy Hillsdale station will be moved a bit north of its current location and turned into an island platform.

This project is caught in an interesting political bind.  There is on one hand a rush to complete it by 2019 before Caltrain's electrification project, to minimize disruptions to Caltrain service.  On the other hand, due to its strategic location, this project will form a key building block of the blended system with HSR, which still needs to be environmentally cleared.  It is a near certainty that this portion of the corridor will require four tracks to enable trains to overtake each other, but any attempt to design and build it as such is likely to run afoul of HSR opponents who will accuse the CHSRA of advancing their project through CEQA piece-mealing.

The southern San Mateo grade separation design will have to be very carefully considered to preserve the ability to add two additional tracks with as little disruption as possible.  Road underpass profiles and bridge abutments should be designed for four tracks, as should the elevated structure that will support the tracks.

The choice of an island platform configuration for the new Hillsdale station is either a sneaky way to build a wide four-track embankment in preparation for yet another new station with SFFS outside platforms, or is an excellent choice for FSSF because it allows future tracks to be added without rebuilding the station for a second time.  One hopes the station access (stairs, ramps, etc.) will be designed to allow the platform height to be raised easily from 8" to 50".  An intelligently designed San Mateo grade separation would atone for the terrible failures of the San Bruno grade separation, designed with great hostility towards higher speeds or additional tracks.

Medium Term: Redwood City HSR Station

Amsterdam Bijlmer (photo by tataAnne)
could just as well be the future
Redwood City train station.
While the CHSRA's plans for a mid-peninsula stop have been shrouded with ambiguity for several years, Redwood City stands out as a more optimal location for a new HSR station than Palo Alto or Mountain View, the other two locations in the running.  Unlike its neighbors to the south, Redwood City favors strong urban growth, has a large amount of railroad land available, and is reasonably well-connected to the existing road and transit network.  Redeveloping the antiquated but popular Sequoia Station shopping center would enable the construction of an elevated four-track station with plenty of capacity to support not just HSR but also Caltrain cross-platform connections and future Dumbarton service.

The station complex would feature two shared (HSR or Caltrain) 400-meter island platforms centered between Broadway and Brewster, easily accessible from both streets.  Bus connections would be conveniently located under the station. To the north of the platforms, a pocket turnback track would allow Dumbarton trains to reverse without fouling other traffic.  Similarly, to the south of the platforms, another pocket turnback track would allow southbound Caltrain locals to terminate in Redwood City before turning northwards again to serve the densely-spaced stations of San Mateo County, allowing Caltrain to serve more passengers with fewer trains and crews.  Thanks to the FSSF configuration, all this to-and-fro by commuter trains would stay well out of the way of HSR.

This would be a large train station and quite a tight fit (if you're curious about exactly how large and how tight, download this KML file into Google Earth to view the station footprint and track layout).  It would be a big change for Redwood City, but with a huge payoff: the tracks would no longer form a barrier through town, and the Sequoia Station shopping center would be merged with the station to form a gateway and a destination in its own right that is connected to downtown.  HSR service could make the city a very desirable location for business.  The new station could become the centerpiece of the ambitious revitalization strategy described in Redwood City's downtown precise plan.  But this idea is not without pitfalls, as the size of the station could be compared to plonking a couple of Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in the middle of town.  To use the tired slogan, it needs to be done right.

Medium Term: a New Fair Oaks Station

Approximate location of new Fair Oaks
station island platform, view to northeast.
Overtake would extend just beyond
platform to the right (south).

The key to reliable overtaking on a multiple-track railroad is to ensure that the average speed of the slower train being overtaken is sufficiently slower than the average speed of the faster overtaking train.  One of the ways of ensuring a good speed differential is to have the slower train make station stops that the faster train doesn't; each station stop is worth about 2.5 minutes.  Therefore, locating stations on the four-track overtake section is helpful.

This brings us to a lemon of a station immediately south of the midline overtake: Atherton.  Located in an area of very sparse population and jobs density, Atherton should be permanently closed.  This closure would come not only as a show of appreciation commensurate with the town's support of Caltrain modernization, but especially because census data shows clearly that Atherton is precisely where you would never place a train station.

To replace Atherton, a new Fair Oaks station should be built just 0.6 miles to the north, at the 5th Avenue grade separation.  The overtake section would be extended a bit southwards, just beyond the station, enabling locals to be passed while stopped at the central island platform that can be accessed from either side of 5th Avenue.  The new Fair Oaks stop would be equidistant from Redwood City and Menlo Park, and located in an area with very high population density that could support thriving ridership, in contrast to Atherton.

Longer Term: a Seamless Dumbarton Connection

Dumbarton rail has been an uncertain prospect for decades, with some political backing but insufficient funding.  While it may take another few decades for the money and the will to finally materialize, large concentrations of employment and the need for additional transbay corridor capacity make some form of passenger rail service inevitable.  The Dumbarton corridor also happens to be ideally suited for high-speed rail.

The key node is Dumbarton Junction, which should be reconfigured in such a way that trains can enter and leave the peninsula rail corridor swiftly and seamlessly.  This will likely involve a flyover track, enabling southbound trains to enter the Dumbarton corridor without crossing (and therefore blocking) any of the northbound tracks.  To minimize the altitude of the flyover, the Rte 84 / Woodside Road overpass would be turned into an underpass.  As for the Redwood City station, the fit would be quite tight with a 90-foot corridor width where the flyover track begins.

While the flyover may seem like an expensive solution to a problem we don't yet have, planning for it now (if not actually building it) will save money in the long run when passenger rail service grows.

Design Values

No matter how the midline overtake is ultimately configured, it must reflect design values that are clearly articulated.  One of these values should be compatibility between Caltrain and HSR.  It's not enough to talk about the "blended system" without actually taking the steps to make the two systems seamlessly interoperable, allowing any train to use any track to serve any platform.  This means no tracks can be dedicated to one operator at the exclusion of another.  Everything must be shared, including the platforms at the new mid-peninsula station.  This sharing contributes to another important value, robustness to service disruptions.  The fast-slow-slow-fast track layout is the key to ensuring that a commuter train delayed in Belmont won't create a statewide domino effect that eventually makes a train late in Los Angeles.  A third important value is future-proofing.  Infrastructure like the midline overtake will define what is possible (and not) for generations to come.  It would be short-sighted not to plan for a fast and seamless connection to the Dumbarton corridor, even if its future use isn't well-defined today.

The midline overtake is the key to an effective blended system.  When evaluating its design, ask yourself: is it compatible?  Is it robust?  Is it future-proof?