10 June 2016

EIR Scoping Comments

The following are scoping comments regarding the San Francisco to San Jose project section of California's high-speed rail system.

System-wide Level Boarding: the blended system is a compromise, less than ideal for HSR and Caltrain.  The successful mixing of local and long distance express service on "primarily two tracks" will require the utmost coordination and reliability in order to satisfy the expectations of commuters and statewide travelers.  The key to punctual operation is to ensure that station dwell times are short and predictable, something that cannot be achieved with today's 8-inch-above-rail Caltrain platforms. The EIR should study a system-wide conversion to level boarding, as facilitated by Caltrain's procurement of dual boarding height EMUs.  Level boarding does two important things for HSR: it ensures that Caltrain commuter trains get out of the way of HSR in timely and reliable fashion, and increases the average speed of Caltrain services, unlocking additional track capacity.  The frequent service and punctuality that travelers will expect of HSR cannot be achieved without level boarding.

Fast-Slow-Slow-Fast Overtake Sections: four-track overtake sections should be configured with overtaking tracks on the outside and slow tracks in the middle (fast-slow-slow-fast) with central island platforms for Caltrain.  The major advantage of this configuration is to allow Caltrain to single-track as needed during service disruptions without fouling the express tracks.  While the track centers will need to shift outwards to make space for island platforms, the resulting curves can be built with very large radii and very low superelevation, with no impact to passenger comfort.  The station footprint requirements for fast-slow-slow-fast are minimal due to one island platform being narrower than two side platforms.  Examples of the fast-slow-slow-fast configuration exist in Sweden and Australia.  Given the operational advantages of this configuration, the EIR should study it as an alternative for any proposed four-track overtake sections.

Grade Separations: should any new grade separations be contemplated as part of the blended system, these should be engineered "not to preclude" the future addition of a third and fourth track. The peninsula corridor right-of-way is so generously sized that building new two-track-only infrastructure is short-sighted and potentially wasteful.  Even if grade separations are initially built for two tracks, the EIR should study full-sized bridge abutments and retaining walls as needed to support future expansion, even if such expansion is not part of the project scope.

Dumbarton Connection: some form of rail service in the Dumbarton corridor has been studied for decades and is likely to be implemented sometime in the next half-century, given regional development and transportation pressures.  Any changes to Dumbarton Junction that might be studied in the EIR should be engineered "not to preclude" a future seamless Dumbarton rail corridor connection, including a grade-separated flying junction for at least the southbound track.  While this may carry the political appearance of leaving the door open to HSR via Dumbarton and Altamont Pass, such political considerations should not be used as an excuse to sabotage the possibility of an efficiently designed rail junction with the Dumbarton corridor.

Mid-Peninsula HSR Stop: the EIR should study the possibility of a mid-peninsula HSR stop located in Redwood City.  With a common platform interface standard shared by HSR and Caltrain, the impacts could be quite minimal.  In the long term, a four-platform-track elevated (i.e. grade-separated) station should be considered for this location.

Platform Track Speeds: high-speed express trains currently run past Caltrain platforms at a maximum speed of 79 mph, with only a painted yellow line to warn people on the platform to stand clear.  Electric express trains operating at 110 mph (on primarily two tracks, and hence running past Caltrain platforms) are both faster and quieter, and have a higher chance of startling people standing on the platform, possibly causing them to lose their balance and fall towards the passing train.  The EIR should account for the impacts of constructing wider Caltrain platforms with ample clearance to stand clear of passing trains, with appropriate visual and aural warnings.

Hold Out Rule: the EIR should include a study of the impacts of modifying the few remaining stations (South San Francisco, Broadway, Atherton and College Park) that still have narrow at-grade center platforms, where no trains may move through the station while another train is stopped.  The hold-out rule is a disruptive and antiquated operational constraint that is contrary to the needs of a fast, flexible and high-capacity blended rail system; the cost of eliminating this constraint is minuscule in relation to the overall investment being contemplated.

Blended System Southern Boundary: San Jose Diridon, while an important HSR stop, is not a natural terminus for Caltrain services.  Large population densities in the vicinity of the Tamien, Capitol and Blossom Hill stops that are currently located on the "Gilroy Extension" of Caltrain should be served more regularly.  Moving the southern boundary of the blended system beyond Tamien to Blossom Hill would not only meet latent commuter demand on the congested 101 corridor, but also free up scarce platform capacity at San Jose Diridon by avoiding the need to turn any trains there.  For this reason, the EIR should consider the idea of terminating Caltrain service at Blossom Hill.

CEMOF Alignment: Caltrain's Central Equipment Maintenance and Operations Facility (CEMOF) was constructed with a double reverse curve that severely limits train speeds near San Jose, if an at-grade solution is contemplated.  Because achieving fast San Francisco - San Jose times is important to HSR's compliance with the terms of the HSR bond act, the EIR should study the possibility of reconfiguring the track layout of CEMOF, moving the main tracks from the east side of the facility (the slow double reverse curve) to the west side of the facility (a faster alignment, with only one shallow curve).  This would effectively exchange CEMOF yard tracks 8 and 9 with MT-2 and MT-3.  Personnel, equipment and materials can enter the facility through a tunnel under the main tracks, as is already done for access from the east.

Newhall Yard: VTA owns a large former UPRR freight yard in Santa Clara, currently slated to be used as a future maintenance facility for the BART to Silicon Valley project.  In the event that the BART Phase II project is value-engineered to terminate at San Jose Diridon (without a redundant and duplicative extension that parallels the blended system to Santa Clara, and with vehicle maintenance requirements met by BART's amply sized Hayward Maintenance Complex), the EIR should study the possibility of using Newhall Yard as a maintenance facility for HSR.