31 August 2022

HSR Lays an Egg in Caltrain's Nest

California's high-speed rail project has finally reached a milestone 14 years after the passage of Proposition A in 2008 with the board's certification of the Final Environmental Impact Report for the San Francisco - San Jose project section.

This voluminous document has come a long way since the early days of a four-track 125 mph rail corridor initially envisioned for our region, having been whittled down to a two-track 110 mph "blended system" project that shares tracks with Caltrain without building any new overtaking tracks. Nevertheless, the cost estimates for the project have ballooned to $5.3 billion.

How do you add four high-speed trains per hour per direction, traveling at peak times between San Francisco and San Jose in just 48 minutes (by the way, 18 minutes slower than promised in the HSR bond measure) while building no new tracks and without disrupting Caltrain service? The answer is, you can't.

Instead, the high-speed rail project plans to take over the peninsula rail corridor and become a parasite to Caltrain. Here's how.

The FEIR's Volume 2 Appendix 2-C Operations and Service Summary contains what is described as an "Illustrative Timetable" of this blended service featuring 6 Caltrain + 4 HSR per hour per direction. The assumptions for this timetable include:

  • Caltrain is operated as a skip-stop service with 3 different stopping patterns.
  • Caltrain EMUs operate at up to 110 mph, their design top speed.
  • Caltrain station dwells are 30 seconds, consistent with system-wide level boarding.
  • Caltrain operates in salvos of three closely-spaced trains every half hour, leaving large gaps for high-speed trains to travel without being delayed by Caltrain. This bunching is flatly denied on page 3.2-91 of the FEIR, inconsistent with the Illustrative Timetable.
  • Two out of three Caltrains are held for about 5 minutes at either Bayshore or Lawrence station to allow high-speed trains to overtake them.

Additionally, we can make the reasonable assumption that peninsula commuters will be priced out of high-speed rail service, meaning that HSR will not provide many trips with origin and destination between San Francisco and San Jose. Every local peninsula trip taken on a high-speed train potentially displaces a longer statewide trip with much higher fare revenue for the operator, especially at peak times. In a yield-managed fare structure, local HSR trips will therefore be priced punitively. This isn't just speculation, it's well-established practice: Amtrak's premium Acela Express can technically be used to commute from Stamford, Connecticut into New York City, but it can easily cost you over $100 per trip, compared to the $15 peak fare on Metro North. In much the same way, every local SF-SJ passenger would potentially displace a more lucrative SF-LA passenger. Punitive local ticket prices will mean zero local ridership, so we shouldn't figure any HSR services into the scoring of service quality.

Let's put this in our handy taktulator and figure a score for this timetable. Remember, Caltrain's 2011 timetable is the baseline with a score of 100.

HSR FEIR Caltrain, no DTX: Score = 135 service points -- compare that to 147 service points with regularly-spaced 8 train per hour service, as planned in Caltrain's service vision and enabled by a new overtaking station in Redwood City.

HSR FEIR Caltrain, with DTX: Score = 235 service points -- compare to 250 service points with regularly-spaced 8 train per hour service as planned by Caltrain.

In both cases, the HSR timetable improves over the 2011 timetable (score = 100) by only 75 - 90% as much as the planned Caltrain timetable. Despite the higher train speeds, the bunched-up and irregular skip-stop service pattern with long overtaking dwells makes numerous Caltrain trips less convenient. On the plus side, this blended service can be operated with a fleet of 6 fewer trains than Caltrain's more frequent 8 tph service pattern. On the minus side, those trains will be more crowded. Note our taktulator tool measures service quality only from the standpoint of one typical user (weighted by origin and destination population and jobs density), without quantifying overall ridership demand or the resulting level of crowding.

Confronted by numerous stakeholders with the seeming contradiction between Caltrain's plans and its own blended service planning, the HSR authority offers Standard Response FJ-Response-GEN-4: Consideration of 2040 CaltrainService Vision and Caltrain Business Plan, with key points summarized below:

  • Caltrain's Service Vision is aspirational and isn't an approved or funded project.
  • The Service Vision is insufficiently defined to be analyzed in the EIR and is not "reasonably foreseeable" under CEQA.
  • The impact on Caltrain service wouldn't rise up to the level of a "significant impact" anyway.
  • The illustrative timetable is only used as a reasonable basis for analysis and there may exist better timetables.
  • It will be Caltrain's job to environmentally clear (and fund) future improvements associated with the Service Vision, such as additional passing tracks to support HSR service in the corridor.

In the HSR project's view, Caltrain will be fully on the hook for upgrading its own facilities to continue hosting HSR even as it becomes more difficult to do so. This sets up unhealthy incentives where capital projects that actually improve Caltrain service, and might create inconvenient "facts on the ground" for HSR, are quite likely to be delayed and de-funded to ensure the corridor stays clear for the future hatching of the giant egg that HSR just laid with this EIR.