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.

40 comments:

  1. One reason for grade separation is when it allows to eliminate several grade crossings in the proximity. Just by looking at the total price tag, it looks to me as if every grade crossing should be replaced by a over or underpass. This does not make any sense at all…

    As grade separation projects are not strictly railroad, the town and/or regional government must pay its share, which should actually be beyond 50% of the total cost. In some places, a grade separation project may include considerable rearranging of utility lines, at least if there is an improvement, the utility owners should contribute too.

    I agree with the extension of platforms, but I would really not make a difference between express stops and local stops; extend all platforms to at least 300 m (aka 12 car lengths). This would considerably improve the flexibility of the system (such as run an express train as local when there are problems, etc.)

    By looking at world standards, level crossings with full gates and signal protection count as "best deal", much better than grade separation (except for main roads or similar, of course).

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think that grade separations are about more than "cars". This makes the desire for "cost/benefit" analysis much harder.

    BART construction would be much cheaper if BART had crossing gates. But it doesn't. People know, without it needing to be said, that when they vote for BART funding, it is for an "isolated topology". When BART runs behind your house, kids and cars aren't "threatened".

    Does BART kill fewer people per year than Caltrain? I don't know, but I would guess 'yes'. How many auto/truck collisions does Caltrain average? For BART, the answer is 'zero'. How much is that worth?

    https://abc7news.com/traffic/caltrain-apologizing-following-another-collision-with-car/1023064/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed; given the number of delays from suicide and car-accident incidents in the 2 years I took Caltrain to San Antonio, I think grade crossings definitely improve the rail passenger experience too. And as someone who lived near the tracks in San Mateo, grade separations also improve the quality of life generally (by reducing / eliminating the need for trains to sound their horns).

      Delete
    2. Good points, train riders are helped if only a bit. The costs have to be spread in proportion to the benefits.

      Delete
  3. One of the reason why BART require grade crossing, is because of third electrical track on the ground.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I guess you mean "grade separation"…

      Apparently, on Long Island, grade crossings are not considered to be an issue because of the third rail (more because they don't have full quadrant gates, and idiot drivers).

      Also, the Southern electrification in England does not have issues.

      Delete
    2. In New York, third rail power still allows grade crossings.

      http://cs.trains.com/trn/f/742/t/175310.aspx

      Delete
  4. I could not find English version but you can find images from this PDF.

    https://www.ihi.co.jp/var/ezwebin_site/storage/original/application/397f115b42ee5a203343b32cf56fd0aa.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  5. The same situation plays out with Pedestrian Over Crossing grade separations. While the main beneficiary are motorists who do not have to wait for a stoplight pedestrian cycle, these POCs are almost always paid for out of funds earmarked to improve pedestrian facilities. Because "Pedestrian" is the first name of POC ya know.

    To add insult to injury, most pedestrians would rather cross at grade than climb up and over a 20' high bridge. Then include the lateral detours introduced by switchbacks or spiral ramps.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think it makes sense to make a distinction for grade separations near stations vs far from stations. Consider RWC station. Grade Separations there would be built with a new station which could also include commercial/residential development all as one package. Thinking something like Berlin Hauptbahnhof which includes office space above the tracks. In RWC case, the adjacent Safeway could be rebuilt as part of that effort and perhaps used to offset the costs of the station - like Transbay District. Furthermore, office lease could be paid to Caltrain to subsidize the operations - like Hong Kong MTR. Mountain View, Diridon, and San Mateo might be good candidates for that as well.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I don't understand how they came up with that price tag. It says a grade separation cost ranges is $255-355 million, even though Caltrain is doing one right now for $180 million (including a new station).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The San Mateo grade sep is being done without a shoofly, which reduces the cost a bit.

      Delete
    2. Sure, but do all remaining grade seps require shooflies?

      Delete
    3. I'm not sure why shooflies add that much cost as long as you have the RoW. In this case, the 25th street separations actually LACK the needed RoW, as you can observe on the northern end. At some point the SB track will be shifted on the new embankment which will free up the room to finish the embankment for the NB track - which might take a few months. That's another factor as to why Hillsdale is completely closed.

      One thing about the costs is that all future grade separations that require changes in the horizontal track alignment will also require moving of electrification infrastructure. It's unlikely they would allow trains to "coast through" no matter how short the break is.

      Delete
  8. In the case of Mountain View, the tracks cut the City in half and are right by Central Expressway. Grade separation will also help crossing Central Expressway --> better access to Caltrain and better mobility for all residents (cars but also buses, shuttles, bikes and pedestrians). Worth also noting that Grade Separation was a selling point of the latest VTA funding measure.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Often, grade-separating the tracks will leave another parallel traffic sewer in place. Mountain View is doing it right at Castro by allowing peds and bikes to cross both the tracks and the traffic sewer. In Palo Alto, some people want to spend three billion (presumably of other people's money) to beautify the Alma traffic sewer, which would be left pretty much as is.

      Delete
  9. Also: we're going to need Caltrain to order a bunch more of these, which will be routinely damaged in grade crossing collisions.

    ReplyDelete
  10. @ Clem:

    My My... your title "Don't spend train money on car projects." is so disingenuous. Like SB-1, advertised as "fixing the roads" but underneath 40% ends up elsewhere, like funding for Caltrain capital projects...

    Your comment "Nobody is clamoring to grade separate the Ravenswood / El Camino road intersection." is just plain nonsense. I live in MP and that intersection has been studied and studied to death because of the need to be grade separated. Clem: You head is in the sand on this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My My... you probably missed my point: everyone is studying grade separating the train tracks from Ravenswood (Ravenswood is blocked for 12 minutes per hour by the train) while nobody is studying grade separating El Camino itself from Ravenswood (Ravenswood is blocked for 40+ minutes per hour by El Camino). I object to this sort of auto-myopic double standard. Your traffic congestion emergency isn't caused by the train!

      Delete
  11. The gate downtime isn't about how many minutes in an hour the gate/light is closed, it's how long the wait is. A traffic light that is red 60% of the time for through traffic isn't as convenient as a grade-separated intersection, but except in the heaviest conditions, the cycle is fast enough to clear people through. When a gate is closed for ten minutes, traffic backs up a long ways, and then it takes a while to clear out. This leaves lots of people idling for a long time, and creates a knot of congestion that spreads out.

    I live in Alameda, where the main routes to the freeway are three closely spaced drawbridges that are required to open for boat traffic for 22 hours a day. A boat coming through at 7:50 or 9:05 am will cause a backup about a mile long which then takes 15 more minutes to clear out. Between 8 and 9 am, the backup is almost never a full block long, and people waiting at the back of the line at the last light never have to wait more than two cycles to get through.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Other than for the occasional freight train, I've never experienced a 10 minute or greater wait at a grade crossing. The longest I can remember was in Menlo Park when a northbound train triggered the gates while it slowed to a stop, the gates then remained down for a southbound train to approach and stop, and then the northbound train kept the gates down while it pulled out of the station. And even in that total worst case scenario, the gates were still only down for a couple minutes.

      Delete
    2. Fair point, train traffic is not synchronized with traffic light cycles, but if abnormal traffic queue lengths are the primary concern then highway funding should be used to grade separate. We spend too much rail funding to relieve automobile congestion with little or no benefit to train riders. Case in point: blowing $84 million of high-speed rail funding (!!) to extend 28th and 31st avenue across the tracks in San Mateo.

      Delete
    3. Most of the rail funds come from taxes on auto gas, funds which should really be spent on road repair and expansion.

      Delete
    4. So, what you're saying is, using gas tax funds that were allocated by statute to use as rail funds is wrong?

      Delete
  12. @Reedman ... similar to BART deaths, well over 90% of Caltrain deaths are suicides. So nothing to do with safety. Short of platform screen doors, no amount of costly grade-seps will prevent ongoing free and easy access to station tracks. Despite having many grade crossings, a small proportion of Caltrain suicides already occur at stations (such as the one at Hillsdale which screwed up PM peak service a few weeks ago) ... as Caltrain is more fully fenced and grade separated, an unknowably small number of suicides might be deterred, but I'm afraid most will (sadly) just shift to stations.

    It seems most Caltrain vs. vehicle incidents in the past couple years stem from confused motorists mistakenly turning onto the tracks from grade crossings (and getting stuck) after attempting to obey their in-car navigation system instructions to turn onto a parallel adjacent street. The other older classic category of incident stems from those who in violation of CVC §22526(d) queue up across crossings while waiting for a traffic signal at a nearby intersection.

    Since Caltrain does not appear to have a "drive-around" problem (can't recall a single incident!), the only practical advantage of more quad gates is that they'll more easily allow for more cities to apply for train horn quiet zones ... such as at the Fair Oaks Lane crossing in Atherton (the first and only Caltrain quiet zone).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The tracks in South San Jose had a particularly nasty non-suicide. A babysitter was caring for two kids, one a toddler, the other in a stroller. The toddler was hit by an Amtrak train.
      P.S. there was another Caltrain death in South San Jose this morning, sixth of the year.

      https://www.mercurynews.com/2010/04/25/san-jose-planned-overcrossing-where-toddler-killed-by-train-still-just-a-blueprint/

      Delete
    2. @Reedman, yes, I recall that tragic incident. Nothing to do with Caltrain, or eliminating grade crossings, or drive-arounds. It was an Amtrak train running on the UP line hitting a toddler, too young to know better and nowhere near a grade crossing who was in the care of a negligently clueless young lady who was not his mother.

      Of course, accidental ped deaths can and do occur, but my point was is that, thankfully, they're extremely rare on the Caltrain line, where nearly all the 12 or so ped deaths per year turn out to be intentional — so nothing whatsoever to so with "safety."

      Delete
  13. Keep your eyes on High Speed Rail. There is almost certain to be a push led by Senator Jim Beall, to divert funding now allotted to the Central Valley to electrify the tracks from Gilroy to San Jose. UPRR has not agreed, but negotiations are ongoing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. SJ to Gilroy makes more sense then a combo ACE-SJ-HSR system exactly how?

      Delete
    2. The only way I see Gilroy getting electrified at the expense of Merced-Bakersfield is if the feds are successful at mucking things up with the EIR/EIS delays. Even if they are successful, 2020 republicans will still need to hold onto the presidency to kill the CV project (CV construction is proposed to resume in 2020). Also, won't Gilroy-SJ need fed EIR/EIS approvals as well?

      Delete
    3. Regardless of whether Sen. Beall can reprioritize CV funds to SJ-Gilroy electrification, UP must first agree to allow it on their ROW ... or an entirely separate parallel ROW will first need to be acquired.

      Delete
    4. From what I am reading, the latter might be the better choice at the end of the day.

      Delete
    5. Also, good luck getting Southern Cal acquiescing to Beall's plan.

      According to the business plan:

      "The Authority will use the remaining bookend funds for Southern California—$423 million—to fund construction of the first phase of improvements at LAUS"

      Delete
  14. Morris Brown10 May, 2019 16:52

    The LA Times has posted a devastating article pointing out the FRA is not longer communicating with the Authority (since last August).

    https://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-bullet-train-trump-dispute-20190508-story.html

    California’s high-speed rail project and the feds are no longer on speaking terms

    Also quoted in the article are comments from DOT Secretary Elaine Chao speaking about the Feds cancelling HSR approved funding (a total of about $3.5 billions). Video of her comments can be seen on YouTube at:

    https://youtu.be/AB50BpjJqGE



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hell, if I'm the authority I would keep pushing through things like the maintenance facility, electrification of CV track, property acquisition and what not. There's enough to keep them busy until 1) Amtrak Joe comes into power or 2) lawsuits are settled and won.

      Delete
    2. Update: FRA has cancelled the contract, Newsom threatens a lawsuit. Fienstien chimed in and gave support to him.

      https://www.reuters.com/article/us-california-rail/u-s-cancels-929-million-in-california-high-speed-rail-funds-after-appeal-rejected-idUSKCN1SM2F9

      https://twitter.com/SenFeinstein/status/1129182493255512064

      Since it's obvious this lawsuit is spurious and serves no purpose other than to troll liberals, I'm really hoping Sec. Chao will just reverse the decision instead of ruining her reputation for Trump. And here in CA, hopefully it causes the legislature to create a dedicated funding measure for CHSRA in addition to cap-and-trade.

      Delete
    3. "Newsom and his team are predicting a $21.5 billion surplus.."
      https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article230196769.html

      It wouldn't take much. An additional commitment of 1/2 billion annually would go a long way in stabilizing and completing the project. It would keep smaller sections under construction and make eligible for loans on the larger sections.

      Definitely nothing to panic about. The "lost" fed billion wasn't to be used until 2021.

      Delete
  15. Palo drops City Wide Train Tunnel

    https://www.paloaltoonline.com/news/2019/05/14/proposed-train-tunnel-hits-a-dead-end-in-palo-alto

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not a decade too late. And people there are now also starting to discover the business plan and the prospect of new passing tracks south of Peers Park, if HSR via Pacheco Pass manages to survive.

      Delete