|Map of VTA's BART extension|
|Actual expenditures from VTA|
Measure A (2000) sales tax, 2015
As can be readily observed, the Measure A money is nearly gone, and the BART tunnel through San Jose is not even started. That's why another half-cent transportation sales tax Measure B was passed in Santa Clara County in November 2016 to raise a further $6 billion through the year 2047. Exactly like 2000 Measure A, 2016 Measure B promises lots of funding for Caltrain, an ample 16% slice that includes grade separations ($700M) and capacity improvements ($314M). The small print, however, allows the VTA board to re-program the funding as it sees fit, adapting spending to "unforeseen" circumstances such as, perish the thought, an over-budget BART extension.
With San Jose and VTA suffering from a severe case of BART tunnel vision, it's important to take a more holistic view of what it means to provide the residents and workers of San Jose with a top-notch rail transit network.
San Jose Pan-Galactic Inter-Dimensional Station
San Jose planners will insist that creating a network is their highest priority, and to that effect, their Diridon Station Area Plan seeks to establish a new "Grand Central of the West," as described in Section 2.5 of the plan:
San José Diridon Station will be the best connected transportation hub on the West Coast with the convergence of virtually every mode of public transportation. Activity will increase dramatically with the addition of high speed rail and the extension of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to Diridon station, combined with significant growth by current intercity rail, commuter rail, light rail and bus operators. These new services and growth in demand will create the need for a significant expansion of the existing station.This ambitious station development plan rests on two fundamental but unstated assumptions:
- Caltrain, ACE and Amtrak will continue to operate Diridon station as a terminus, where out of service trains are parked for extended layover periods, wasting valuable platform space as train storage.
- As a result, high-speed rail will not fit within the ground-level footprint of the station, and will most likely require an entirely new elevated facility built over the existing station.
|Ridership assumptions for Diridon|
Caltrain and high-speed rail consultants have conducted a sophisticated simulation study known as an "operational conflict analysis" that predicted an intolerable traffic jam, with peak-hour delays of nearly an hour.
Trains need to hustle in and hustle out without occupying enormously valuable platform tracks. As will become clear, the simple practice of not parking trains in the worst place to park trains enables a far more efficient and affordable at-grade station configuration for San Jose that provides the same great network effect and transportation benefits for the heart of Silicon Valley, saving enormous sums that can be re-invested to achieve a much better outcome for riders and taxpayers.
Here's San Jose done right:
1) Extend Caltrain through San Jose
|Falling short: census data for the Caltrain corridor in San Jose,|
overlaid with Caltrain service levels for April 2017.
One challenge is jurisdictional, with Union Pacific owning the tracks south of milepost 52 and VTA currently holding the rights for only ten daily round trips. However, UPRR does not make intensive use of these tracks, and as a profit-making enterprise would likely be receptive to an outright transfer of ownership while retaining trackage rights to continue operating its Coast Subdivision freight service as before. This would simply extend the existing arrangement between CP Coast (milepost 44.7) and CP Lick (milepost 51.6), where the Caltrain owns the right of way and dispatches the track, southwards to CP Coyote (milepost 59.9).
Another challenge is institutional, with VTA having a vested interest in making commuters use the Santa Teresa branch of its light rail network. The Caltrain San Jose extension would parallel this line, possibly cannibalizing some of its ridership.
|Built-up areas shown in black on a map|
by the DLR Earth Observation Center
(Global Urban Footprint). Tamien,
Capitol and Blossom Hill are shown
disconnected, as they are today.
Turning all Caltrain service at Blossom Hill would improve service for hundreds of thousands of San Jose residents and workers, at some increase in capital cost (to electrify) and operating cost (12 minute longer runs). On the other hand, it would greatly reduce Caltrain's requirement for tracks and platforms at Diridon station. Caltrain would operate through the San Jose Diridon station much like it does at the Palo Alto University Avenue station, using just two tracks and two platform faces. If that seems hard to imagine, remember that Palo Alto has almost 60% more ridership than San Jose Diridon; any perceived need for all those tracks and platforms at Diridon, and the profoundly mistaken notion of a "South Terminal", arises from existing jurisdictional boundaries and Caltrain's unhealthy habit of parking trains in the worst possible place to park trains.
2) Build high-speed rail at grade.
|Thousands of cubic yards of concrete,|
zero marginal transportation benefit
Operationally, HSR would have to quit the same nasty habit of parking trains in the worst possible place to park trains. Trains would have to layover somewhere north of Diridon, or continue onto the peninsula rail corridor. There is no operational need for longer station dwell times than two or three minutes within the Diridon complex: get in, board and/or alight passengers, and most promptly and importantly, get out. Go layover somewhere else than the bustling city center.
Rather than cower in the shadow of a new "iconic" bridge proclaiming loudly that they are just a flyover neighborhood, residents of San Jose's Gardner district would gain a grade separation at Virginia Street, improving neighborhood access that has been so brutally cut off by the I-280 and SR-87 freeways, and eliminating the sound of railroad horns--even freight train horns.
3) End the BART extension at Diridon/Arena
As planned by VTA, the BART to San Jose Phase II project doesn't just take BART to San Jose, but takes BART beyond the San Jose Diridon/Arena station, veering north to parallel the Caltrain / HSR corridor for a redundant 2.5 miles, ending in Santa Clara. While this configuration might have made sense long ago when BART harbored ambitions to "ring the Bay" by linking Millbrae and Santa Clara, the present state of affairs argues for a different solution.
From a transportation perspective, it makes no sense to spend ~$1.5 billion of scarce transit dollars (pro-rated from the $6 billion cost of the entire Phase II project) on a 9000-foot tunnel leading to a huge Santa Clara station complex just to provide a third way to ride between San Jose Diridon and Santa Clara, two locations already well-linked by Caltrain and VTA's 522 express bus.
|BART maintenance yard at Las Plumas|
Avenue in San Jose, an alternative
that was withdrawn in EIR process
Another argument against truncating the BART extension concerns a planned airport people mover that would link Santa Clara to the SJC terminals, tunneling under the runways. Using a small portion of the $1.5 billion savings of ending BART at Diridon/Arena, the people mover could run straight to Diridon station, without the need for tunneling under the runways, and connect not just with Caltrain and BART but directly with high-speed rail--seamlessly merging the airport and the train station.
4) Use Newhall Yard for HSR
As it turns out, there is a better use for Newhall Yard than BART storage and maintenance, namely, HSR storage and maintenance.
As previously mentioned, long non-revenue runs to stage trains to/from their terminus are operationally inefficient, but BART can get by because nobody else uses their tracks. If the HSR storage and maintenance yard were to be located in Brisbane, these non-revenue runs would consume scarce and valuable operating slots on the extremely constrained peninsula corridor "blended system," further compromising service quality for all rail passengers.
A better plan is to have only a small storage / layover yard in Brisbane, with a larger facility perfectly located just north of San Jose Diridon at Newhall Yard, which would allow a portion of the HSR service to originate / terminate in San Jose without gumming up the peninsula rail corridor. Recall the blended system will be limited to 4 trains per hour per direction unless long stretches of the peninsula corridor are expanded to four tracks, an idea that faces twin obstacles of funding and community opposition.
Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton
In Germanic countries, there is a guiding principle in rail system design known as Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton, or roughly, organization before systems before concrete. It gives the order of priorities for quickly and affordably increasing train traffic: first you re-plan your operations, and if that doesn't cut it you improve your technology, for example by using shorter signal blocks, and only as a last resort do you pour concrete.
What is about to happen in San Jose is the exact opposite: legions of consultants primarily from a civil engineering background are (surprise!) recommending a concrete-intensive solution to a problem that is ill-posed because it hasn't first been attacked from the standpoint of re-planning train operations. The entire edifice is built on the nasty habit of parking trains in the worst possible place you could think of to park trains.
The planners and engineers working on the future of the Diridon Station area need to be sent back to the drawing board with new operating assumptions:
- Turn all Caltrains at Blossom Hill, operating San Jose Diridon as just another intermediate stop
- Turn all legacy diesel trains (ACE, Amtrak) at Tamien, away from the bustle
- Turn all high-speed trains originating or terminating in San Jose at Newhall Yard
The Bay Area can ill afford transit mega-projects of low utility, such as the redundant BART segment beyond Diridon/Arena to Santa Clara, the giant HSR station in the sky, or more downtown train parking. The cost is outrageous, and the opportunity cost is shameful.