05 May 2019

Thoughts on Grade Separations

The emerging Caltrain business plan is broaching the issue of grade separations, a decadal process that has been underway, well, for decades. We're already 63% of the way there today, with another dozen new grade separation projects in various stages of planning or construction. Achieving a reasonable level of grade separation for the peninsula corridor is estimated to cost $8.5 - 11.1 billion, a shockingly large sum that we'll just round to $10 billion. As we try to grasp the enormity of that figure, here are some contrarian thoughts:

1) Don't spend train money on car projects. The benefit of grade separations accrues primarily to automobile travel, with the elimination of gate down time. An intensive grade separation program can eventually unlock additional operating slots for more trains and eliminate the occasional incident, yielding benefits to train riders. Some grade separations are necessary, such as when expanding to four tracks. In the short term, however, the greatest benefit is the removal of an inconvenience to drivers, which in our car-centric society is held as a worthy goal seemingly regardless of cost. Rail dollars are a lot scarcer than road dollars, especially in this era of federal disengagement, so the last project we should spend them on is a project that facilitates car travel with little improvement for train riders. Rail funding should be used to make real and measurable improvements to train service, a standard by which most grade separations rate poorly. So you still want a grade separation? Build it with road funding.

Anticipated gate down times,
under various scenarios in the
Caltrain business plan
2) Quit whining about gate down time. Caltrain put together a nice summary of gate down time, the number of minutes per hour that grade crossing gates block traffic during rush hours. Today the average is 11 minutes, and under future growth scenarios it could increase to 17 - 25 minutes, with a few crossings faring worse than average. If that sounds intolerable, think about a typical roadway intersection with a traffic light. If both roads are equally important, the "gate down time" of a traffic light is 30 minutes. If one road is more important, the lesser road (for example, Ravenswood Ave where it meets El Camino Real in Menlo Park) sees "gate down time" well in excess of 30 minutes, let's say 40 minutes per hour. Nobody is clamoring to grade separate the Ravenswood / El Camino road intersection. There's an obvious double standard here, and the guidelines for what qualifies as unacceptable delay should be set the same way as they are for the grade separation of a road intersection. Gate down time should only rarely, if ever, be the reason to build a new grade separation.

3) There are few economies of scale in grade separation. Doing them all as a package does not save money. The process we have, where local jurisdictions often exert tight control over every aspect of design and construction, does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all approach. Each grade separation is different. Grade separation designs do not depend on each other in the majority of cases where they are widely spaced. While a corridor-wide strategy is important to have, the execution of that strategy and the securing of funding is inherently a city and county issue. If we are going to have a corridor-wide funding approach, it must go hand-in-hand with taking away local control. Jurisdictions that insist on local control should be left to figure out the funding on their own. Palo Alto, where interminable and futile discussions of tunnels continue to this day, should not be allowed to control the design process if their project is paid for through a corridor-wide funding measure.

4) If $10 billion is an okay expense, then there are far better ways to spend it. Especially with rail money at stake, there are much better ways to spend $10 billion than by building a lot of grade separations for cars that produce zero improvement to train service. There are a lot of good investments that should be made to improve the amount and speed of train service:
  • Extend all platforms to 8-car length. If you put all the platforms that Caltrain ever built in the last 20 years end to end, they would stretch about 5 miles long. This is not an expensive project; it can be done for about $0.05 billion. It should already be underway, but inexplicably isn't.
  • Convert the entire train fleet to 8-car EMUs, starting by exercising the rest of the existing Stadler contract option of another 59 cars, increasing the fleet to 24 trains. The diesels are retired from the peninsula, which is a condition for starting any level boarding projects. This costs about $0.4 billion.
  • Convert the entire system to level boarding to speed trips and improve punctuality. Depending on how this is done (high platforms or low platforms, or some combination thereof) and over how long a period of construction, this would cost about $0.5 - 1 billion.
  • Build a new EMU maintenance and storage facility near Blossom Hill (San Jose) and extend frequent electrified service through all of San Jose. Including any extortion by UPRR, the owner of the tracks, this ought to be feasible for less than $1 billion.
  • Build a new transit center in Redwood City to enable cross-platform transfers between locals and expresses. Call it $0.5 billion, and throw in the downtown grade separations for another $0.5 billion to allow four tracks.
  • Expand the EMU fleet to enable 8 train per hour peak service. Expanding the fleet to 32 trains would require another 64 EMU cars, for about $0.5 billion.
  • Extend the platforms at highly patronized express stops to 12 cars in length, and extend expresses to 12 cars. This would require extending about half the fleet by 4 cars, or another 64 EMU cars. Including platforms this might cost about $0.8 billion.
This isn't an exhaustive list, but unlike grade separations, all of these projects have immediate and measurable positive effects on the quantity and quality of service provided to riders. This list achieves most of Caltrain's "moderate growth" scenario but without HSR. The tally for all of these projects is still less than $5 billion, so if $10 billion for grade separations sounds at all palatable, this list ought to be a no-brainer.

Grade separations are nice, but their cost and benefit should be weighed very carefully on a case-by-case basis. The cost should be borne by who benefits. The business plan process will hopefully create the framework to have the difficult conversations about what not to pay for with rail funding. Grade separations should be built with highway funding unless there is a clear and measurable benefit to rail service.