03 July 2017

The Overtake That Won't Be

In its renewed environmental review process for the San Francisco to San Jose project, the high-speed rail authority is considering the alternatives for the peninsula rail corridor. The outlines of the new draft EIR are emerging, and this is where politics meets engineering.

Interested stakeholders keep asking about how the blended system will actually work, with Caltrain and high-speed rail sharing the scarce resource that is track capacity. The issue is being studied in some detail behind closed doors by an entity known as the Joint Scheduling Working Group (JSWG), consisting of experts from HSR and Caltrain aided by their respective consultants. As of the end of 2016, the JSWG had produced a first report on its work, which was shaken loose by a public records request from CARRD. Before digging into this, let's take a look back at how we got here.

2012 Blended Operations Analysis (Caltrain/LTK)

While the original four-tracks-all-the-way HSR plan was collapsing in a firestorm of community opposition, Caltrain commissioned a study of blended system operations (8 MB PDF) from consultant LTK Engineering Services, to see if blending Caltrain and HSR primarily on the two existing tracks was viable. The 2012 study concluded that without any additional tracks, the corridor could support up to 6 Caltrain + 2 HSR trains per hour per direction, increasing to 6 Caltrain + 4 HSR with overtake tracks.  Key results were:
  • With speeds limited to 79 mph, the most reasonable option with 6 Caltrain + 4 HSR was a "short middle overtake" between Hayward Park (San Mateo) and Whipple Ave (Redwood City).
  • A "long middle overtake" all the way through Redwood City provided only marginal performance improvements.
This study legitimized the blended system, which has ever since been the favored approach to bringing HSR to the peninsula rail corridor. The study contained numerous disclaimers to the effect that no official decisions had been made regarding future service levels, programmed overtakes, stopping patterns or scheduled trip times... all the important considerations that feed into a railroad's product, namely its timetable.

2013 Additional Blended Operations Analysis (Caltrain/LTK)

A short while later, LTK published another report (2MB PDF + 14MB Appendices) that can best be characterized as an expansion and refinement of the 2012 analysis, considering additional options. Key results were:
  • Unlike the 2012 study, the "long middle overtake" performed significantly better than the "short middle overtake."
  • A new option, the "middle 3-track overtake" (between San Mateo and Palo Alto) performed almost as well in simulation, although it assumed all HSR trains entered the corridor on time, unlikely in practice.
  • Other overtake track options did not fare as well.
The disclaimers continued, with the conclusions of the study being described as "educational."

2016 Joint Schedule Working Group Report (HSR/SMA)

The key chart in the SMA study
(PDF page 62 / slide 48)
The JSWG was established in April 2016, a while after HSR had engaged the services of Swiss rail consultancy SMA. To avoid a standoff between dueling agencies and consultants, Caltrain/LTK and HSR/SMA are now comparing notes on their respective plans for the blended system. The JSWG's 2016 draft year end report (10 MB PDF) provides important context to the decisions now being made to select a "preferred alternative" for the HSR blended system EIR. This study is interesting for three reasons: it is the first blended system study led by HSR, it offers insight into the evolving ideas of the JSWG, and it is not sugarcoated because it wasn't intended for wide public distribution. Key results were:
  • The "no additional passing tracks" case is shown to support 6 Caltrain + 4 HSR per hour per direction, unlike in the LTK studies, provided that headways are tightened and Caltrain passengers don't mind sitting in a siding for 6 or 7 minutes during these overtakes.
  • The "short middle 4-track overtake" degrades Caltrain trip times, since overtakes don't naturally tend to occur there.
  • The "middle 3-track overtake" performs better than any other option, thanks to allowing bidirectional operation through almost its entire length, unlike in the LTK study where half the length of the overtake track was dedicated to each direction.
Tea Leaf Reading
The grotesque station-in-the-sky
proposed for San Carlos under
the short middle 4-track option
The constant refrain that nothing has been decided yet continues to this day, but the tea leaves are becoming quite readable. Here is some informed speculation:
  1. The HSR team really, really doesn't want to build the "short middle 4-track overtake," generally because they have no money and specifically because the SMA analysis has shown this scenario to be a poor performer operationally.
  2. However, the HSR team is reluctant to withdraw any alternative this late in the preparation of an EIR, after it was carefully introduced to the public through countless outreach meetings, workshops and open houses. Sudden change scares people.
  3. In order not to build the "short middle 4-track overtake," the HSR team has engineered it into a straw man alternative, using the prospect of grotesquely massive concrete viaducts towering fifty feet over San Carlos and Belmont to strategically elicit vigorous public opposition. It's working, but unbeknownst to them, San Carlos and Belmont have little to worry about.
  4. Due to having no money, the HSR team strongly favors the "no additional passing tracks" alternative. The mediocrity of the resulting Caltrain timetable, and the amount of time spent by Caltrain passengers waiting to be overtaken, is of little concern to them. But that's okay, since San Carlos and Belmont made them do it.
  5. The HSR team probably dreads resistance from Caltrain stakeholders who don't want the peninsula rail corridor being taken over to Caltrain's detriment. Strong resistance could force the HSR team to revive the "middle three-track" alternative that had previously been eliminated from the EIR process (see slide 15 in this outreach presentation), setting back the environmental review schedule.
  6. If the assumptions in the SMA analysis stand up to closer scrutiny, the "middle three-track" scenario could actually be a viable compromise for the blended system. It would no doubt be expensive due to the number of new grade separations, but the result (if one believes SMA) would be fast and robust service for both HSR and Caltrain, with reasonably-sized grade separations in every town from San Mateo to Palo Alto. In the last year, the winds of public opinion have turned more favorable to grade separations in Menlo Park and Palo Alto.
One thing is sure: the "middle three-track" alternative should be added to the HSR EIR and studied in detail, with an eye towards designing the future blended system timetable. The timetable is the product, and it will soon be time to decide on one.


  1. I would think that any design would have an eye for an ultimate 4-lane corridor on the peninsula. It will be needed eventually, you'd think.

    1. You would think that, but this is America and we have a strong profit motive.

      Back in the day when SP ran things, that sort of planning is what they did because it saved them money: they acquired enough right-of-way for four tracks in the early 1900s and built their grade separations ready for four tracks. (Look under the Palo Alto University Avenue underpass and you'll see four sets of bridge girders!)

      Today it's a very different story: the government agencies who run these things are captured by the private sector, and the modus operandi is "why do it right when you can do it twice, and get paid for it." Planning for four tracks would hurt their future profits by making it cheaper to build.

      Call me cynical if you wish...

    2. You'd think that, but since technology is moving at a lightening fast pace, High Speed Rail is already outdated. By the time it is built, it will be ready for the museum.

    3. I don't buy that nonsense at all.

      Your Hyperloop and assorted gadgetbahn concepts, once they are fully engineered, will never match the sheer throughput capacity of HSR. 1200 passengers every 3 minutes (a figure commonly achieved on the busiest HSR systems today) is something the Hyperloop will never come close to. Do the math.

      Physics is physics, which explains why a Boeing 787 is no faster than a Boeing 707 despite the lightning fast advance of technology.

    4. To add to the point - there's no technical reason why we can't build supersonic passenger jets, but we stopped doing that decades ago. Turns out "going as fast as possible" isn't a viable goal for public transportation if the economics don't pencil out.

  2. Does anyone have a picture of what HSR is proposing for the San Carlos viaduct 50 ft in the air above the existing berm? that sounds just crazy.

    1. No 3D rendering exists that I'm aware of, but if I'm right about their motivations, there should be one forthcoming soon. In the meantime there's always the plans. The existing berm and grade separation bridges would be removed, and the sunken intersections raised back to ground level. Poof!

    2. Crazy? No, that's Caltrain for you. The idiots at Caltrain approved a transit-oriented development on the land where the bypass (US english: shoo-fly?) tracks were laid during construction of the existing underpass.

      After all, they said, HSR might not happen, so we cannot let HSR preclude us from building TOD. So to clear the (currently under construction) TOD apartments within the current righ-of-way, the tracks have to go up. Eyeballing th4 PDF on a low-res laptop, I believe lop-of-rail is 50ft above Holly St road-level of the current underpass; not 50 ft above current track level or berm. I'll check the PDF tomorrow on a high-res monitor.

  3. Watch the relevant June 26 San Carlos City Council meeting agenda item 9a (by clicking on it HERE).

    San Carlos councilmembers figure out the 50-foot viaduct is only necessary if the historic depot is not moved closer to El Camino. Naturally, they and some citizen speakers implore HSRA to study moving the depot to avoid the specter of replacing the existing berm with a 50-foot-high viaduct.

    Note also that at the 46-minute mark, Caltrain's Planning Manager Elizabeth Scanlon takes the podium and goes on to reveal that Caltrain and HSRA currently have differing views on the need for passing tracks. She says Caltrain has asked for all 4 passing track alternatives be included in the EIR.

    1. At the June 29th LPMG meeting they announced an unspecified delay to the EIR schedule. Perhaps this is related.

      CEQA requires a reasonable range of alternatives to be studied, so if they don't study the three-track alternative while their own consultant tells them it's the best, a judge will make them do it. They probably know this.

    2. Here is the reason for the delay:

  4. A 4-lane corridor is the only sane approach. The mismatch in equipment, culture and quality of service would doom other solutions.

    1. I note that you omitted to specify which operator would be worse. Maybe we're too dumb for "Elektronik vor Beton?"

    2. So if you exaggerate the difference between Caltrain and HSR, you get a low-speed heritage/museum railway and a Hyperloop?

    3. A low-speed heritage/museum railway is what we have today, with not very much exaggeration. As to a Hyperloop, show me one and give me the specs on it. White papers don't count.

  5. Clem,

    I submit that "too dumb" isn't the issue. "Not in the best interests of Caltrain's engineering contractors" seems more likely, nicht wahr?

    I don't get what your "worse operator[s]" comment is referring to. Can you explain, please?

  6. Facebook "very committed" to reactivating Dumbarton Rail corridor

    Facebook says reactivating the SamTrans-owned Dumbarton Rail Corridor in some way is a key part of their plans for the development. FB has already put $1m toward a SamTrans study to look at best short- and long-term courses of action to deal with Dumbarton corridor congestion.

    In a prior agreement, FB committed an additional $1m toward implementing the findings of the study, which is expected to be completed in the late summer or early fall.

    FB is "very committed" to reactivating the rail corridor. "It's in our backyard. And with 101 and other regional connectors being very congested, it just makes sense to find ways to utilize some of our existing resources that run right through the community."

    The hope is that adding density along the mothballed rail corridor will be a catalyst in increasing demand to justify reactivating it, whether that's light rail, bus rapid transit, a bike and pedestrian path, or something else SamTrans recommends.

    1. “Sacramento to Silicon Valley in one hour” is the Dumbarton Rail (Altamont) vision

      Dumbarton rail is the key missing link to seizing an historic opportunity to address our two most complex issues, traffic and access to affordable housing.

      The idea has been around for decades. It gained steam when SamTrans bought the 11.5-mile Dumbarton line connecting Caltrain in Redwood City with ACE, Amtrak and BART in the East Bay for $6.9m in 1994.

      The sticking point has always been insufficient riders to justify this project. Currently, however, SamTrans is finalizing a study of the Dumbarton highway and rail corridor, scheduled to be released later this summer. I anticipate that new ridership numbers will begin to reflect the enormous job growth in the Peninsula and South Bay and the value of potential connections to BART, Capitol Corridor and ACE rail. Taken together, these connections could create the groundwork for the emerging mega-region.

  7. All of this points to the obvious truth that the "blended plan" is a big fraud.
    The endpoint which is the goal of both Caltrain and CHSRA is 4 tracks through the peninsula. This has been Caltrain's goal well before HSR was on the scene.

    As mentioned here, the studies assume trains will all (both Caltrain and HSR) run at 89 MPH, else the studies won't produce the desired capacity needs. (this is being made even worse by the choice of the Stadler EMUs, which have capacity / unit deficiencies compared to the capacity per car of the present diesels.)

    Running at 89 MPH kills off any chance of HSR making trip times specified in Prop 1A. This will drag on for years and years. Despite claims of better service, the end result will be we need 4 tracks.

    1. Yeah dude, it will probably have to eventually be 4 tracks all or most of the way. Good thing SP had the foresight to purchase a wide enough ROW!

    2. @Morris, if you actually read them, the studies assume two speed limits: 110 mph, or the existing limit of 79 mph (not 89 mph).

      It has never been Caltrain's goal to quad-track the corridor, not even before HSR, unless you reach all the way back to the pre-war Southern Pacific days. See my comment re: Palo Alto University Ave above; that structure was built in 1940.

      The Stadler EMUs are actually the perfect choice for blending on two tracks, because their high performance can reduce the speed differential between commuter trains and high-speed trains, which reduces the need for passing (and the much-reviled passing tracks). A lower speed differential is key to increasing the corridor's capacity in trains per hour. Giving up a few seats per train in exchange for high performance in the short term (before adding the seats back with longer EMUs) is a cost well worth paying, if you want a successful blend that fits primarily on two tracks.

      Longer term (two generations from now) I think you're right and we'll need four tracks, just like we'll need 12 lanes of 101.

    3. You'd have to convince the local zoning boards that being as dense as Staten Island won't convert their green leafy suburbs into Manhattan.

  8. What action can members of the public take to ensure the 3 track option is given a fair study?

    1. Good question. I wanted to say send letters or make public comments, but those will be politely waved aside since scoping is already closed and the range of alternatives is "frozen". The only stimulus that might work is the credible threat of a CEQA lawsuit, on the basis that a reasonable range of alternatives was not properly studied. So everything centers on promoting the idea that the three-track option is among the most reasonable, in that it creates a compromise where everybody (Caltrain, HSR, peninsula towns) gives something and gets something.

  9. High-speed rail rattles Belmont
    Officials, residents warn against major track changes to accommodate HSR passing track

    Belmont Councilman Warren Lieberman urged the HSRA and Caltrain to try using existing infrastructure as thoroughly as possible before considering passing tracks. He said he had questions as to whether 4 high-speed trains an hour would be needed and forecasted opposition from Belmont resident and councilmembers to the adjustment to the Belmont stretch of tracks officials floated Tuesday.

    “I would tell you that if there is any significant likelihood that a passing track is needed because you’re going from two to three to four trains an hour, you will get such resistance from this community and likely from this council,” he said.

    Mary Morrissey Parden said she represented the Belmont Chamber of Commerce and city’s business community in opposing the passing tracks option, which HSR authorities said could also entail acquiring 5-30 feet of property from businesses on Old County Road to expand the corridor’s right-of-way on either side.

    “The Belmont business community will not support it,” she said. “They did not support [blended service] during any of our initial discussions until we heard the words ‘no passing track.’”

    1. TLDR: HSR tries to use Belmont to push Caltrain off their own corridor.

      The way forward is to tell HSR that if they don't want passing tracks they can have two trains an hour, not four. Something has to give and it sure won't be Caltrain. Then if they want four trains an hour build what their own consultant told them was best: 3 tracks, with bonus grade separations through all of PAMPA.

  10. @ Clem:



    'The Build-Out Scenario includes several major infrastructure modifications that would allow HSR and Caltrain to operate on the same line. The Build-Out Scenario includes a fully grade-separated alignment and widening of the entire route to
    accommodate four tracks.....'

    I also recall when Caltrain built the grade sep project in Belmont/San Carlos, Caltrain was saying this would be the last such project that didn't accommodate 4 tracks.

    The Stadler EMUs provide less seated capacity than the present diesel pulled train sets. We have been over all of the this before, but such issues are ignored by the FTC, which approved the FFGA, when it was so obvious that the FFGA did not meet the requested 10% capacity increase.

    I'll take your word for it, that the "blended plan" is supposed to accommodate higher speeds for HSR train sets. That was not my understanding. AS I implied, I understood the studies for the "blended plan" only worked if all the trains operated at the same speed.

    Your comment

    "Something has to give and it sure won't be Caltrain.", certainly in no way reflects the history thus far.

    Please recall, HSR was to run on it own dedicated tracks and the whole Peninsula corridor was to be grade separated, all paid for by HSR.

    1. FWIW the new 25th Ave grade sep doesn't accommodate four tracks either. They say it will, but I've seen the engineering drawings and all the bridge abutments are built for exactly two tracks.

    2. I was specifically told that the plan would be to go back later and build a second set of overpasses next the ones they are building now, as opposed to just doing it right the first time. As a resident nearby it is beyond frustrating.

    3. Please write to Board@caltrain.com or (even better) consider attending the Caltrain Board meeting on August 3rd and share your frustration with the Board members: http://www.caltrain.com/about/bod/Board_of_Directors_Meeting_Calendar.html

  11. Perhaps they sloppily said "will accommodate" when what they really meant was "won't preclude" 4 tracks?

    1. I'm getting a bit fed up with some of the "not to preclude" engineering going on these days. At some point, whether it's about four-track bridge abutments or level boarding platforms, you have to decide on a plan and stick to it. Indecisive "not to preclude" solutions will only get you so far. There. I got it off my chest.

  12. HSRA has posted some new YouTube videos:
    Geotechnical work on Pacheco Pass (drilling for rock & soil samples)
    San Jose vertical & horizontal alignment alternatives (viaduct, at-grade, trench)

    1. What could possibly go wrong? http://www.mercurynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/sjm-l-googbuy-0620-90.jpg

  13. Replies
    1. http://www.nydailynews.com/newswires/news/business/california-supreme-court-ruling-bolsters-bullet-train-foes-article-1.3362055

    2. California Supreme Court reinforces environmental review of rail projects

      In a ruling with implications for the future of high-speed rail in California, the state’s highest court ruled that while federal laws governing transportation trump state environmental laws for the most part, there are still areas where those state laws can prevail.

      The California Supreme Court ruled that because the state has a controlling interest in the railroad line in question, it must adhere to its environmental laws when deciding whether to reopen a freight rail line that traverses through Northern California.

    3. Honestly I'm unconcerned how this ruling would/could affect CHSRA than it could the NCRA, which is in a much more perilous predicament vis-a-vis their own project. Which is a shame because the north coast deserves rail service, even if it's a decrepit corridor it's a corridor that should have adequate connections into the rest of the state's rail network.

  14. Looks like Stadler did not need the Caltrain EMU order to build a factory in Salt Lake after all: http://www.metro-report.com/news/news-by-region/americas/single-view/view/stadler-completes-first-tex-rail-dmu.html