The latest tweaks to the design of the San Francisco Downtown Extension (DTX) rail alignment can be seen in a March 2018 track plan and profile drawing. Because it largely follows the street grid, it's no secret that the alignment is full of sharp curves, which can only be traversed at slow speed. However, compared to a 2012 drawing, speed limits have dropped in several places from 40 mph to just 30 mph, because train speed evidently isn't a design priority when civil engineers get a blank check.
Back in 2012, the speed profile sort of made sense: starting from the basement of the Transbay Transit Center (left end of the diagram) the train would screech at about 20 mph through the sharp curve towards 2nd Street, speeding up to 35 mph along 2nd and through the curve towards Townsend. On that mostly straight bit along Townsend, speeds could pick up to 40 mph before dropping back briefly to 35 mph through the curve to 7th Street, then exiting along 7th Street at 40 mph (right end of diagram). If only one criticism were allowed, it wasn't clear why that final curve should be limited to 35 mph; there was plenty of space at Townsend and 7th to flatten it out to 40 mph, resulting in a simple and efficient stepped speed profile for the approach to Transbay.
Fast forward to 2018, and things are much worse. There is a new kink in the alignment where it connects to the existing tracks. The new underground 4th and Townsend station, at the city's request, has been shoved into the Townsend Street right of way in the hope of freeing up the existing rail terminal parcels for high rise redevelopment (where the 2012 alignment might have clashed with new building foundations). The rigid requirement for a straight island platform has resulted in a series of 30 mph kinks in the track. Elsewhere, the speed limit along Townsend has dropped by 5 mph.
The designers might argue this is only a few seconds lost, so no big deal, right?
How many seconds are wasted?
A train traversing the DTX will have to observe the speed limits not just for the length of each speed restriction, but for the added length of the train itself, as the limit applies from the moment the head end of the train enters a speed restriction until the tail end leaves the speed restriction. High-speed trains will be up to 400 m long, so this can really add up. We can simulate the time needed for a train to travel from a standing start at the end of a Transbay platform to a 40 mph entry into the existing Tunnel 1, a distance of about 2.2 miles. The results depend on the train type, and whether a stop is made at 4th and Townsend:
- 2012 alignment, single-length HSR: 4:04
- 2012 alignment, double-length HSR 4:17
- 2012 alignment, 8-car Caltrain EMU, no stop at Townsend 4:06
- 2012 alignment, 8-car Caltrain EMU, 30-second stop at Townsend: 5:04
- 2018 alignment, single-length HSR: 4:25 (+21 sec)
- 2018 alignment, double-length HSR 4:42 (+25 sec)
- 2018 alignment, 8-car Caltrain EMU, no stop at Townsend 4:27 (+21 sec)
- 2018 alignment, 8-car Caltrain EMU, 30-second stop at Townsend 5:19 (+15 sec)
To summarize and simplify, we can assume that every Caltrain will stop at Townsend, so the performance loss is 15 seconds per Caltrain movement, and roughly 20 seconds per HSR movement. That doesn't sound like much, but consider that trains are carrying hundreds of passengers, each of whom are individually delayed. The collective waste of time can be measured by multiplying the train delay by the expected ridership.
Today Caltrain has about 15,000 weekday boardings in SF, a number that Caltrain says could eventually quadruple. Let's say it only triples, and that 35,000 of those weekday boardings occur at Transbay and 10,000 at 4th and Townsend (which we won't count) making for 70,000 trips through the DTX approach. That's 70,000 trips x 15 seconds/trip = a million seconds wasted every weekday, or about 3 person-years of productive labor time per month of DTX operation. Over a year, about a quarter billion seconds would be wasted!
HSR eventually expects 18 million annual trips originating in the Bay Area, of which maybe half might involve Transbay. Combine that with a similar number of HSR trips terminating at SF, and you get 18 million annual HSR trips through the DTX approach. That would be a waste of another third of a billion seconds.
Every year then, about half a billion seconds would be wasted due to careless DTX alignment design.
How do we fix it?
Fixing it involves realizing that
- every second matters, a lot
- the marginal cost of the next second saved is more expensive than the last
- saving seconds is most efficiently and cheaply done in the slow parts of a system
What ought to still be possible is an alignment that starts at 20 mph through the screecher to 2nd Street, rises to 35 mph along 2nd Street, then rises to 40 mph along Townsend continuing without slowing around the curve to 7th Street. With this improved speed profile, train run times from Transbay to Tunnel 1 (relative to the 2018 alignment plans) would be:
- Single-length HSR: 4:02 (23 seconds faster)
- Double-length HSR 4:14 (28 seconds faster)
- 2018 alignment, 8-car Caltrain EMU, no stop at Townsend 4:04 (23 seconds faster)
- 2018 alignment, 8-car Caltrain EMU, 30-second stop at Townsend 5:02 (17 seconds faster)
The combined annual time savings would exceed half a billion seconds per year. As we watch the cost of the DTX project reach ever more dizzying heights, we should at the very least expect to get more transportation value out of the project. Careless and inexcusable engineering of a rail alignment that wastes so much of everyone's time only adds insult to the injury.