26 September 2020

Vote Yes on Measure RR

For all the criticism of Caltrain that you might have read on this blog over the last decade, you might think that my support for the upcoming Measure RR 1/8th cent sales tax measure in the three counties served by the peninsula rail corridor would be tepid at best, and that I’m no friend of Caltrain. True friends, however, aren’t measured by giving unconditional praise. True friends question things that are taken for granted and start conversations about uncomfortable subjects. I see enormous potential for the peninsula rail corridor, potential that can’t and won’t be realized without stable and predictable funding. That’s why I urge you to vote Yes on Measure RR.

The peninsula rail corridor is under-developed
If a ride on Caltrain takes you back to 1985, that's no coincidence. Most of the fleet is that old, well past its sell-by date. And yet, with antiquated equipment and obsolete labor practices, this diesel commuter railroad still manages to carry the equivalent of three freeway lanes, and does so while covering a greater share of its operating costs (chart credit: Juan Matute) than any other transit operator in California. This level of financial self-sufficiency is unheard of for any freeway, and yet billions are spent on the futile exercise of adding lanes to the Bay Area freeway network and enabling the rich to buy faster trips on express lanes at the expense of gridlock for everybody else. A dense corridor with large job centers distributed throughout is ideally suited for regional rail, and the latent capacity exists to grow Caltrain into the equivalent of more than an eight-lane freeway, except faster, quieter, less polluting, and conveniently serving city centers. This can't happen without more investment.

Electric regional rail is the right technology choice
Here in Silicon Valley, we hear constantly about the next big technology leap: driverless cars, autonomous electric pods, door-to-door on-demand service hailed by an app, tunneled hyperloops, and endless promises of a clean, efficient and convenient science fiction future of seamless mobility. In that environment, it sounds positively retrograde to support what futurists often deride as 19th century technology, the same steel wheel on steel rail that first turned on the corridor in 1863. That framing misses the point: what we have here isn't a technology problem; it's a geometry problem. It takes space to move people. Short of inventing teleportation, you can't solve a geometry problem with the latest Silicon Valley technology, and none of these newfangled ideas can scale to the raw transportation capacity of regional rail, especially on a linear corridor such as the peninsula. There is no technology on the horizon that can carry this many people, using this little space, this fast, using this little energy. Throughput capacity is measured in units of people per square meter per second per Joule, and none of the exciting new mobility tech can beat regional rail on this metric. Hyperloops and pod cars have laughable throughput, and a driverless electric car sitting in traffic or queuing for a tunnel is still just another car, consuming the same scarce resource of space. All this new mobility tech is best thought of as a capillary network that will connect to the aorta of the rail corridor, each one enhancing the other in unclogging the circulatory system of our peninsula.

Caltrain is heading in the right direction
This isn't the first time that Caltrain finds itself in financial distress, and the big picture remains the same as it was ten years ago. The difference now is that the agency is actively planning for a better future, with its methodical business planning efforts showing a clarity of thought and ambition that is rare for an American transit agency. A logical plan driven by quantitative metrics is exactly the framework needed to convey and to realize the potential of the peninsula rail corridor, with a 2040 growth scenario that gradually builds on the foundation of the electrification project. A sound business plan is the seed; stable and reliable funding is the water to make it grow.

Much more than just a Covid bail-out
The pandemic and the high fixed costs of operating a railroad are putting a huge financial squeeze on Caltrain right now, all the more punishing because Caltrain derives a greater share of its operating expenses from fare revenue than any other agency in California. There is little doubt that the first step if Measure RR passes will be to bond against future tax revenue to survive in the short term. But that's not the point; RR was in the works before this started, and will be needed after it ends. As the economy revitalizes and transportation demand returns, Caltrain will be packed to the rafters again. All this talk of continued work-from-home and depressed transportation demand is myopic, mistaking our current predicament for a future trend. The creativity and vitality of our region is based on co-location and face-to-face contact--if it weren't, Silicon Valley or San Francisco simply wouldn't exist. Stable funding for Caltrain will ensure that modernization and service expansion won't stall after electrification is completed, and that we won't get stuck with mediocre commuter rail, just now with pantographs on top.

The reasons above come in addition to the strong arguments in support from Seamless Bay Area, Friends of Caltrain, and Streetsblog SF.  Please vote Yes on Measure RR.

Now back to our regularly scheduled tough love.

08 September 2020

High-Speed Rail DEIR

The first thing to notice about the new high-speed rail San Francisco - San Jose Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) is that it sets up a straw-man alternative B, which is set to be dropped in favor of alternative A because it is less effective and more expensive. So we'll focus on the preferred alternative A, and ignore alternative B entirely.
Caltrain In The Hole
Caltrain's Moderate Growth Scenario, in direct
conflict with the HSR DEIR assumptions

The DEIR assumes, in direct contradiction with Caltrain's official board-adopted service vision with eight trains per peak hour per direction (tphpd), that Caltrain will only be able to operate an inadequate six tphpd during the morning and evening peaks. By sub-optimizing the Caltrain timetable to be sparse and irregular, the high-speed rail authority is able to cheap out on new infrastructure by building almost no new overtaking tracks for alternative A. Where HSR needs to overtake, Caltrain is switched into a station siding ("in the hole") to wait five minutes, at Bayshore or Lawrence.
Meanwhile, the dense, regular and fast timetable envisioned under Caltrain's service vision also requires no new passing tracks, except at a new and expanded Redwood City station. Only when HSR is added to the traffic mix does the need for numerous new passing tracks arise; every single Caltrain overtake will still take place at the Redwood City station and nowhere else.
The Caltrain timetable scores highlight the enormous service quality difference:
What scenario do we subscribe to? Do we allow HSR to displace and cripple Caltrain? Does the arrival of HSR force Caltrain to build new passing tracks to continue operating its own service efficiently? Who pays for that, and to whom does the benefit accrue? Whatever happens, it is clear that the operational plans advanced by Caltrain and HSR are in direct conflict, with each agency laying separate claim to the valuable latent capacity of the rail corridor. Whatever the DEIR might say, both operators won't fit without significant new passing track infrastructure.
Section 3.2 of the HSR DEIR incorrectly states that Impact TR#14 (Continuous Permanent Impacts on Passenger Rail Capacity) would be less than significant, with the following dubious arguments:
  • A regular interval schedule could be maintained (You call Appendix 2-C regular!?)
  • The project would not decrease the performance of passenger rail services (Wrong!)
  • Operation of the project would not conflict with adopted policies, plans or programs regarding public transit (Also wrong!)
  • Operation of the project would not decrease the performance of transit systems (On the contrary!)
The HSR DEIR does not adequately discuss the transportation impacts of permanently crippling future Caltrain service, and alternative A stands in direct conflict with Caltrain's officially adopted service vision. Appendix 2-J fails to address the policy consistency of the DEIR with Caltrain's business plan and service vision board resolution-- indeed it fails to even acknowledge the very existence of the Caltrain business plan, one of the most important policy documents relating to the peninsula rail corridor.

Section 3.11 examines numerous safety and security implications of the HSR project, but inexplicably fails to mention the safety issues of operating trains at 110 mph past platforms crowded with waiting passengers. Many Caltrain stations have narrow (15-foot wide) side platforms that are cluttered with obstacles such as shelters, wheelchair lifts, and mini-high platform blocks, leaving little clearance from the yellow safety stripe behind which passengers are expected to wait, 9 feet from the track center line. Existing conditions are already borderline unsafe, such as when a 79-mph express blasts by the packed northbound platform at Mountain View. Increasing train speeds to 110 mph will likely require the yellow safety stripe to move further than 9 feet from track center, potentially resulting in incompatible and unsafe station platform configurations. The DEIR should include mitigation measures to maintain an adequate level of safety for Caltrain passengers waiting on station platforms.
Curve Straightening
Remember the Top Ten Worst Curves post from a decade ago? The DEIR describes how many of them will be flattened to enable higher speeds. Here's how they fare, in order of impact to trip times:

 Rank Curve ID
Current Speed
 Future Speed
 #1     C123 San Bruno
 65 mph  (was 60)
 100 mph
 #2 C111 Bayshore 65 mph
 65 mph (unchanged)
 #3 C159 Palo Alto (SB)
 79 mph
 110 mph
 #4 C130 Millbrae 75 mph
 105 mph
 #5 C135 Hayward Park
 79 mph
 110 mph
 #6 C183 Lawrence 79 mph
 110 mph

The most expensive one to fix will be San Bruno, due to Caltrain's lazy and inexcusable lack of foresight when their new grade separation design baked in a 65 mph speed limit. San Bruno was the subject of much yammering on this blog, but is now cast in concrete that will have to be demolished at great additional taxpayer expense. In the DEIR, the rebuilt northbound platform is inexplicably shortened to an operationally inadequate length of 627 feet; this should be increased to a minimum of 750 feet per Caltrain standards. The wholesale reconstruction of the station probably also rates a discussion of impacts elsewhere than under curve straightening; as described it's sort of a stealth project.
The curves previously ranked #7 through #10 were already good for 110 mph, so they will not be modified. However, there are some other extraneous curves that were not in the Top Ten list that will result in speed restrictions lower than 110 mph. These are:

 Curve ID
 Location Current Speed
 Future Speed
 C117 Sierra Point
 79 mph
 85 mph
 C118-C121 South SF
 79 mph
 100 mph
 C127 Near SFO
 79 mph
 100 mph
 C132 N. San Mateo
 79 mph
 100 mph
 C133-C134 San Mateo
 79 mph
 79 mph
 C171 San Antonio
 79 mph
 90 mph

Curves C133/C134, at the north end of San Mateo station, are particularly odd and ill-placed.

Separate Platforms Forever
Sadly, the DEIR enshrines the plan for separate station platforms for Caltrain and HSR, with not the slightest attempt to make the two systems operationally compatible. Neither agency seems inclined to solve the thorny technical and regulatory problems: Caltrain has gone so far as to procure dual boarding height trains, but then shrank back from the plan after metal had been cut, abandoning in-vehicle lifts that would allow boarding and alighting at different platform heights. This is not an easy problem to solve, but it is well worth the effort to create the operational flexibility that is taken for granted in other busy rail corridors around the world.

Ultimately, the whole high-speed rail EIR process feels like theater: by the time the funding materializes to make it worth expanding the system to the peninsula rail corridor, the proposed project will have been overcome by events. The environment of the project is a moving target, and right out of the gate, the draft EIR is already oblivious to its changed context.