25 September 2019

Risk and Opportunity in Redwood City

Lowe, a major real estate development firm, is preparing to redevelop Redwood City's Sequoia Station, an outdated strip mall adjacent to the Caltrain station, into a 12-acre mixed-use project with towers up to 17 stories tall.  If that is eye-opening to residents of Redwood City, consider that few people yet know that a greatly expanded Redwood City station is the keystone transfer node to enable the growth envisioned in Caltrain's business plan service vision. This new station will require slightly more land than the railroad already owns, and can only be located in Redwood City, the sweet spot that lies halfway between San Francisco and San Jose at the connection point to the Dumbarton rail corridor.

This creates a risk: if a commercial development project is allowed to proceed without respect to the future real estate needs of the railroad, then Caltrain will be constricted and unable to build the optimal infrastructure to support future growth.

Additional Land Needed For Caltrain

Caltrain and Samtrans have extensive land holdings at the Redwood City transit center. Still, just a bit more is needed to build a high-functioning piece of infrastructure, and be could traded for other parcels. Click to expand the map:

Land needed for future expanded station in Redwood City (shaded green)
Design Principles

The absolute worst way to build it.
Existence of this city rendering is
reason enough to be concerned.
To ensure that the Sequoia Station project becomes an exemplar transit-oriented development, rather than relegating Caltrain to the role of development-oriented transit, the rail agency and the developer should agree on some broad design principles.
  • Think Big. Redwood City is one of the few stops on the peninsula rail corridor not surrounded by a sea of low-density single-family housing. Intensive land use and transportation must fit together to achieve a dynamic yet sustainable low-carbon future.
  • Form follows function. No amount of architectural flourish or amenity can make up for a poor station design. Optimize for convenient access, easy transfers between trains and buses, short walks, direct and intuitive routes.
  • Put the station at the center of the action, right over Broadway. Don't shove it to the north, out of the way of the development. The city rendering at right shows precisely what NOT to do.
  • Configure the station as two island platforms to facilitate cross-platform transfers, without time-consuming vertical circulation or platform changes. The Caltrain business plan's staff-recommended service vision relies entirely on these Redwood City cross-platform transfers; every single train that pulls into Redwood City will make a timed transfer to another same-direction train docked at the opposite edge of the same platform. Denoting express tracks as 'F' for Fast and local tracks as 'S' for Slow, the optimal layout is FSSF with two islands, resulting in F-platform-SS-platform-F. Again, the city rendering shows precisely what NOT to do: passengers would not only have to change platforms, but also cross the tracks at grade.
  • Elevate the train station to reconnect the street grid and make the railroad permeable to pedestrians, bikes, and other traffic. A busy four-track station is fundamentally incompatible with at-grade railroad crossings, and the only reasonable way to grade separate at this location is by elevating the entire station. Obstacles to pedestrian circulation such as the Jefferson Avenue underpass would be removed. Once again, the at-grade city rendering shows what NOT to do.
  • Use four-track approaches from the north and the south. Cross-platform transfers are most efficient if trains do not have to arrive and depart sequentially using the same track, which adds about 3 minutes of delay. The best transfer is one where the two same-direction trains can arrive and depart simultaneously on their own separate tracks. Temporal separation is efficiently established by having the local train stop one station away from Redwood City (southbound at San Carlos or northbound at a new Fair Oaks station at Fifth Avenue) at each end of a new four-track segment that will ultimately measure four miles. In this arrangement, the express trains naturally gain on the local trains without a single passenger being delayed at Redwood City.
  • Include turn-back tracks. Preserve room in the right of way north and south of the station for turn back pocket sidings, between the central slow tracks. Dumbarton rail corridor trains may not necessarily "interline" or continue on the peninsula rail corridor, so it's important to give them a convenient place to transfer and turn around without fouling other train traffic on the express tracks (hence FSSF arrangement). Same thing for a possible San Mateo local, which could serve the more densely spaced stops north of Redwood City.
  • Don't be constrained by discrete city blocks. It could make sense to build structures or connect them over and across the tracks, more tightly knitting the station complex into surrounding mixed-use neighborhoods. This has some surmountable safety and liability implications, but buildings on top of busy stations are a common feature of successful cities around the world.
  • Plan for long 400-meter platforms, not Caltrain's standard 700-foot platform length (again as seen in the city rendering of what NOT to do). While statewide high-speed rail plans currently do not include a stop in Redwood City, it is becoming enough of a destination and a regional transportation node that it makes sense to build a station large enough to future-proof it for service by long high-speed trains, regardless of what the California High-Speed Rail Authority might have to say about it.
  • Think ahead about construction sequencing. Redwood City should be grade separated in one project from Whipple to Route 84, including the elevated station, taking advantage of Caltrain's land holdings to minimize the use of temporary tracks. A shoo-fly track would have to be built on Pennsylvania Avenue (within the railroad right of way) to make room for construction of the western two-track viaduct. Trains would begin using the elevated station while a second eastern two-track viaduct is constructed. Pennsylvania Avenue could re-open later, under the new four-track viaduct. Construction sequencing may drive how much extra land is needed for the railroad, so it's important to think it through up front.
If these design principles are respected, the re-development of Sequoia Station will present not a risk but an amazing opportunity to enhance Redwood City by realizing its full potential as the fulcrum of the Caltrain corridor and of a new regional express network reaching across the Dumbarton bridge and beyond.

01 September 2019

Electrification Delayed

Caltrain's electrification project is showing ominous signs of falling badly behind schedule. There are at least five bearish indicators:

Slippery milestone
Slipping Milestones. One key milestone reported in the project's monthly progress reports is known as "Electrification Substantial Completion." From the December 2018 report to the July 2019 report (over a span of 7 months), the milestone has slipped from 6/23/2021 to 12/31/2021 (a bit over 6 months). When a major milestone slips almost day for day, you know the project has gone sideways. The latest PMOC report from the FTA shows that the contractor's date for this key milestone has slipped well into 2022, over a thousand days late relative to the milestone date promised when the contract was signed.

Severely under spend plan
Significant Under-Spending. The amount of money spent to date is about $640 million less than planned at the start of the project. If the value of the work accomplished is commensurate with the amount spent, then the project is 1.5 years behind schedule. However, there are strong indications of inefficiencies (such as "differing site conditions" disrupting foundation installation) and unplanned scope (such as the new grade crossing constant warning time solution) that make it exceedingly likely that the value earned so far is less than had been planned for the amount spent. From an earned value perspective, the CPI is likely under 1 (over budget) and the SPI below 0.6 (further behind schedule than the spend curve might imply).

The little engine that couldn't
Foundation Chaos. As is plainly obvious to anyone riding the train, foundation installation is not a spatially or temporally orderly process. Digging into the ground reveals old utilities, and often reveals the recently-installed CBOSS fiber optic cables, evidently placed by the contractor where it was easiest (right where foundations need to go) with the as-built configuration either incorrectly documented or not at all. This is another CBOSS issue that could end up in court. Conflict with these cables does not bode well for PTC testing or activation, or for the cost of foundation and pole redesign and relocation. Recent indicators show a slight uptick of foundation productivity, but it still lags well below the monthly average of 174 that must now be sustained every month to complete on time. The all-time record is 122, and indications are that August 2019 totals have slid back considerably below trend.

Missing tasks are delayed and
on the critical path
Missing Schedule Tasks. By all accounts, the long pole in the tent (the critical path of the Balfour Beatty schedule) is the design, installation and testing of the signal system modifications, including the new grade crossing warning system. However, such a task is nowhere to be found in the schedule published in Appendix C of the monthly report, which obscures any insight into the true status of the project. Having recently set $150 million on fire with CBOSS, Caltrain is understandably skittish about revealing further unforeseen costs and delays associated with signalling, but it seems inexcusable at this juncture that the public master schedule would show only "OCS," "Traction Power," and "Segment Testing" tasks for the electrification contract, when all the action is in the missing task "Signal System Modifications," which is very much on the critical path in Caltrain's internal schedule and the contractor's schedule.

Proliferation of Schedules. There is apparently no agreement between Caltrain and their contractor on what the real program schedule is. The public schedule in the monthly report is served with a cautionary statement that Balfour Beatty is reporting a significant delay, but the completion milestone is still optimistically set to 12/31/2021. When you end up with several schedules, there is effectively no longer a project schedule. It's anyone's guess when the project will be done, and chances are increasing rapidly that it won't be in 2022, despite Caltrain's increasingly desperate insistence that everything is fine.

Right now would be a good time to come clean about what's really going on. Total transparency is the only saving grace that can spare Caltrain from accusations of project management incompetence.