29 December 2012

Grade Separation: The Decadal View

For the last few years of debate around the issue of high-speed rail, grade separating the peninsula rail corridor was often cast as an all-or-nothing proposition.  This extremist view clouded two important facts: first, the corridor is already mostly grade-separated (in 2013, only 40 road crossings out of 104 between San Francisco and San Jose will remain at grade); and second, grade separation is a slow and inexorable process that takes place over many decades.

If we assume the next several decades will be like the last several decades, we can take an educated guess about how and in what order grade separations will be built.  The criteria for prioritizing each project could be:
  • creating long, uninterrupted stretches of grade separated right of way to enable higher train speeds without compromising safety
  • creating a four-track mid-line overtake facility to increase the capacity of the corridor, to support initial HSR service
  • separating crossings that rank highest in the CPUC's Section 190 Grade Separation Priority List
  • delaying the most expensive and politically costly projects until last
Phase I is simply the completion of the San Bruno grade separation in 2013.  The San Mateo / San Bruno grade crossing being replaced was once rated #7 statewide on the CPUC's priority list.

Phase I: San Bruno Grade Separation

Phase II consists of four projects in San Mateo County, opening up two long stretches free of crossings by the early 2020s, including 14.8 miles free of crossings north of Burlingame, and 6.5 miles south of San Mateo.  This enables the future construction of the "short" mid-line overtake envisioned in Caltrain's corridor capacity analysis, and leaves only a few dense clusters of crossings within San Mateo County.  The new grade separations, in order of priority, are:
  1. 25th Ave in San Mateo, the only grade crossing that remains between San Mateo and Redwood City.  Along with new grade separations already planned at 28th and 31st, this project enables the future 4-track mid-line overtake.
  2. Broadway in Burlingame, an extremely congested crossing that has been slated for grade separation since the 1970s.  It rates #11 statewide on the latest CPUC priority list.
  3. Linden Ave in South San Francisco, originally planned as part of the San Bruno project, but dropped from the final design in 2007.  Grade-separation at Linden is accompanied by the closure of Scott St, which becomes a pedestrian tunnel.
  4. Center Street in Millbrae, a grade separation that will require a U-shaped elevated ramp due to the nearby BART subway tunnel box.  Such are the consequences of bad planning.
Each of these projects is independent and can be negotiated on a case-by-case basis with the four affected cities.  Starting in San Mateo County allows at least another decade for the Pacheco vs. Altamont debate to run its due course, legally and politically; these four projects are useful either way.

Phase II: San Mateo County Grade Separations
Phase III occurs mostly in Santa Clara County, creating a new stretch free of grade crossings from the southern half of Palo Alto all the way to San Jose in the late 2020s, assuming the routing of HSR over Pacheco survives as currently planned.  The last two grade crossings in San Francisco are also eliminated as part of the downtown extension project.  This phase includes the following six discrete projects:
  1. Mary Ave in Sunnyvale, the corridor's busiest grade crossing in this county, with more than 25,000 daily vehicles
  2. Sunnyvale Ave
  3. Rengstorff in Mountain View, with about 18,000 daily vehicles
  4. Castro in Mountain View, with about 9,000 daily vehicles
  5. Charleston and East Meadow in Palo Alto, with a combined ~30,000 daily vehicles plus numerous pedestrians and bicyclists
  6. 16th and Common in San Francisco, as part of the DTX project
Together, these six projects create a new 16-mile stretch of track that is entirely free of grade crossings.  The corridor is now left with just three dense clusters of grade crossings, in San Mateo / Burlingame, Redwood City, and PAMPA (Palo Alto - Menlo Park - Atherton), highlighted in orange in the figure below.  Note that these three dense clusters contain 27 crossings, and that to get this far, only 12 existing crossings were newly separated.

Phase III: Santa Clara County Grade Separations
Phase IV is the Great Redwood City Grade Separation.  This project, potentially for the early 2030s, would prolong the four-track mid-line overtake by three miles, by removing six grade crossings in downtown Redwood City.  Removing this cluster first makes sense from the standpoint of increased corridor capacity, the lowest number of new structures, the short mileage, and the entire project being politically simplified by virtue of its containment within Redwood City limits.

Phase V is the Great San Mateo / Burlingame Grade Separation.   This is a tougher project because it involves some of the most highly constricted portions of the corridor.  It also involves political and technical coordination between two neighboring cities, adding an additional challenge.  The sheer quantity of crossings (13 grade crossings + 4 obsolete grade separations within 2.4 miles) is also a complicating factor.

Phase VI is the Great PAMPA Grade Separation.  This project is left for last because it lies in the most expensive real estate on the corridor, involves coordination between three different cities, and is liable to cause the fiercest political and legal backlash anywhere on the peninsula.  Delaying it until last, perhaps into the late 2030s, allows the customarily long planning process to run its course without undue haste in all three affected communities.

We didn't arrive at today's state of grade separation (more than half) overnight.  It resulted from a slow and steady process that began in earnest in the 1940s.  The future is likely to be similar, and the peninsula rail corridor can reach a far improved state by separating just 12 more crossings over the next couple of decades, as described in Phases II and III.  This dozen should be prioritized for construction, before any of the crossings in the remaining dense clusters are touched.

13 December 2012

Why Island Platforms Rule

Many words have been used to describe the myriad reasons why island platforms are best, and why express train traffic should be on the outside pair of tracks.  To amplify those points, here is a picture of what a Caltrain station could be.

In a true public transit system, trains and buses should connect seamlessly.  Anyone who has transferred between Caltrain and buses knows that the transfer is rarely direct; it usually involves a circuitous path on foot, occasionally requiring an umbrella, followed by a slow bus ride around a bunch of convoluted islands that are often configured opposite to the bus' main direction of travel.  Combine that with irregular timetables that are poorly adhered to, and what you've got is a time-wasting, ridership-killing mess of a connection.

It doesn't have to be this way, and the addition of passing tracks for the blended system is a perfect opportunity to rectify the situation with seamless transfer stations that:
  • provide the shortest route from one vehicle to another
  • allow each vehicle to pick up or drop off passengers without going out of its way
  • provide shelter from the elements
  • provide permeable access to pedestrian, bike, bus, and other road traffic
  • enable coordinated clock-face schedules

02 December 2012

Transbay Update

Early mockup of Transbay layout
Since our previous coverage of Transbay, a gigantic hole has been dug where the old Transbay Terminal used to be.  That's the part you can see.  Behind the scenes, design of the yet-to-be-funded DTX (Downtown Extension) from 4th & King to Transbay continues.  Millions have been spent to bring the design up to "30% engineering" where the details of tracks, stations, and tunnels have been sufficiently defined, down to the inch, to support construction bids and final design.

The TJPA was kind enough to share the latest overview engineering drawing (PDF file) with Friends of Caltrain.  This drawing is marked 'preliminary'.  Sadly, it does not reveal any substantive changes since 2009, and the DTX remains the same slow, 35 mph conflict-ridden mess that it was then.  Where previously it might have earned an overall grade of D, we'll give it a C-minus.  Some improvements were made around the margins, but certainly nowhere near what it could be.  Let's take a closer look.

1. Analysis of an ideal Transbay station interlocking

In the TJPA drawing, the Mission Bay station (built underground and alongside the existing 4th & King terminal) is laid out as in the diagram below.  Inbound traffic comes from MT2 (Main Track 2) and exits on MT5 or MT2, and outbound traffic comes from MT4 or MT2 and exits on MT4.
If we assume that MT4, MT2 and MT5 from a three-track tunnel that feeds the six-track Transbay Transit Center (TTC), we have 3 x 6 = 18 possible routes from the DTX tunnel to the TTC platform tracks numbered T21 through T26 from south to north.  Each of these 18 routes through the interlocking (also known as the "throat" of the station) is labeled by a single letter at the entrance and the exit. In this context, a route is one particular alignment of the tracks, established in the anticipation of a train using it to traverse the interlocking from one track to reach another.
Without getting into expensive simulations, a complex interlocking can be analyzed using a route locking table.  All table elements representing routes that lock each other (converge, diverge, or cross--i.e. conflict, and cannot be simultaneously set without risking a collision) are marked with an 'X'.

To evaluate the performance of the DTX track layout as proposed, we need to compare it to the ideal case, a track layout that cannot be improved upon because it has the fewest possible route conflicts.  If we assume that the entire facility must remain on one level (with no tracks passing over or under each other) then conflicts necessarily occur between any route that crosses over another, for example routes f and m in the diagram above, or routes that share a portion of track, such as m and n.  By inspection of the diagram, we can construct the ideal route locking table below.

Ideal route locking table for Transbay
This is the most conflict-free this interlocking design can ever be, and illustrates why stub terminals are avoided whenever possible.  234 out of 324 possible routes (72%) conflict with each other at best, so we would like a Transbay design that doesn't make an already bad situation even worse.

The route locking table can be improved (representing the pros and cons of various layouts more realistically) by weighting each route combination by the number of trains it carries, because we don't care if seldom-used routes happen to conflict.  Instead of filling each cell of route locking table with an 'X', we compute a weight that represents the relative frequency of route combination a,b as n_a * n_b / N^2, where n_a is the number of trains using route a, n_b using route b, and N the total number of trains.

The weights for the current Transbay design are computed by recalling that all Caltrain traffic is routed to/from platform tracks T25 and T26, while all HSR traffic is routed to/from platform tracks T21 through T24.  Furthermore, MT5 is intended for inbound traffic, and MT4 for outbound traffic.  MT2 is used more rarely to relieve congestion.  For the "blended" system planned for 2029, let's assume the following traffic levels in trains per hour:
  • 6 inbound Caltrains, 4 of which use MT5 and 2 use MT2 to get out of the way of HSR
  • 6 outbound Caltrains, all of which must use MT4 to serve Mission Bay
  • 6 inbound HSR (of which 2 are dead-head moves with no passengers), using MT5
  • 6 outbound HSR (again with 2 dead-head moves), 4 of which use MT4 and 2 use MT2 to overtake Caltrain at Mission Bay.
Out of those 6 x 4 = 24 movements per peak hour, ten use MT5, four use MT2, and ten use MT4.  Distributing that traffic to the corresponding platforms, we obtain the traffic-weighted route locking table for the "ideal" interlocking, subject to non-ideal platform segregation per TTC plans.  Because of this segregation between HSR and Caltrain platforms, each route is used exclusively by HSR (shaded in blue) or exclusively by Caltrain (shaded in yellow).

Ideal route locking table, weighted by traffic
The sum of each row or column is a measure of how conflict-prone each route is.  It comes as no surprise that the worst actors are routes q and r (because of high outbound Caltrain traffic) as well as e and f (because Caltrains inbound on MT5 must cut across the entire interlocking to reach their assigned platforms).  The 0.70 route locking rate means that two typical routes through the interlocking will conflict 70% of the time.

This implies the best Transbay track layout that can ever be designed will allow two trains to simultaneously move into or out of the station without regard to each other only 30% of the time.  Timetable planners and dispatchers will have their work cut out for them even on a good day.

2. Analysis of the Transbay station interlocking as designed

Inspection of the latest DTX track layout shows that it is configured like so:
The dotted lines show two curved 'emergency' crossovers, known as XO-201 and XO-202, that were provided in response to Caltrain's request for emergency operational capacity.  They will be used only when a failure occurs, and not during normal operations.  Without those crossovers, Caltrain was one failure away from total shutdown.

What immediately jumps out to a casual observer is that each pair of platform tracks (T21-22, T23-24, T25-26) necks down to a single turnout, preventing simultaneous routes from being established on both sides of the same platform.

By inspection of the DTX layout, one can draw up the traffic-weighted route locking table below.
As-designed route locking table, weighted by traffic
The cells highlighted in orange are those that differ from the ideal layout discussed previously.  The route locking rate has increased, to 0.75.  The unused emergency crossover XO-202 single-handedly accounts for 0.03, the lion's share of the increase.  The free-route rate of 0.25 is down from 0.30 in the ideal case; in other words, the probability of a conflict-free route is 17% lower than for the ideal layout.

For an already constrained and inherently conflict-prone stub terminal, it is unacceptable to make traffic jams even worse than they need to be, and yet that is precisely what the proposed DTX track layout will do.

The simplest improvement to be made is to add crossovers in the curved throat where the DTX enters the train box, to enable simultaneous and conflict free movements to/from opposite sides of the same platform.  This achieves the lowest-possible route locking rate.  The Caltrain curved crossover, XO-202 connecting tracks T25 to T24, is the most important one of these and needs to become part of normal operations.  Two more curved crossovers need to be added to allow simultaneous movements to reach HSR platforms.  The three missing crossovers are shown below.
DTX track layout with three crossovers added to achieve "ideal" route locking rate
Better yet, the Caltrain and HSR platforms should be desegregated to give dispatchers the flexibility to avoid conflicts when they do threaten to arise.  The route locking table gives the likelihood that any two randomly selected routes will conflict, but if a dispatcher can send a train to any platform or track, such conflicts can be avoided completely.

3. Another problem entirely: interlocking length

Route conflicts are one problem, but not the only problem with the DTX design.

When a train occupies the station "throat" interlocking, the duration of that occupancy must be minimized so that those conflicts that do inevitably arise (especially during off-timetable situations) are as short-lived as possible.  This conflict duration depends on the signaling system (through such parameters as route setting time, signal watching time, approach time, clearing time, and release time), and also on the time when the train physically occupies the interlocking.  This we can do something about; it is related to the length of the train, its speed, and the length of the interlocking.

As currently designed, the throat interlocking extends over a considerable distance from the TTC train box all the way down to Bryant Street. The November 2012 plans show the interlocking stretching from STA 148 to STA 173, a length of 2500 ft or 750 meters.  The speed is constrained at both ends, 35 mph at the south end and 22 mph into the train box.  We can take 29 mph or a nice round 13 m/s as a realistic average speed through the interlocking.

The physical occupancy time for one train is equal to (train length + interlocking length) divided by speed.  To this we can add 30 seconds of route clearing/setting time, and 30 seconds of approach time after the route has been set but before the train enters the interlocking.  For example, a 400 meter train moving at 13 m/s through a 750 meter interlocking will tie up a route for (400 + 750) / 13 + 30 + 30 = 148 seconds.

Using the assumed traffic levels as well as train length parameters below, we can run a simple randomized trial to quantify the relationship between throat length and the cumulative duration of route conflicts.  For each trial, the timing of train arrivals / departures is randomized over one hour (admittedly a worse assumption than reality, where conflicts are avoided by adhering to a timetable) and the total duration of conflict between routes is computed, after applying the route locking factor to account for routes that are mutually compatible.

Here are some realistic parameters for the "blended" scenario planned for 2029:
  • Caltrain train length: 180 m
  • HSR train length: 400 m
  • Speed through interlocking: 13 m/s
  • Caltrain movements: 12 per hour
  • HSR movements: 12 per hour (including 4 dead-head movements to/from yard)
Effect of interlocking length
on average route conflict duration,
over the span of one hour
As can readily be observed in the graph at left, the relationship between the typical cumulative duration of conflicts and the length of the interlocking is strong, which implies that making the interlocking as short as possible will (a) facilitate the construction of a workable blended timetable by allowing closer spacing between train movements, and (b) facilitate timetable recovery after something goes wrong by reducing the cascading effect of delays in the station throat.

Note that things will get exponentially worse if traffic increases, as it may in the long-term horizon beyond the blended system.

As currently designed, the layout of the Transbay interlocking betrays little or no attempt to minimize overall length.  The resulting length of 750 meters is grossly excessive; it can and should be reduced to less than 400 meters.  A shorter layout for the interlocking would dramatically reduce route conflict duration--by fully one third compared to the current design--even if it requires the use of #10 turnouts and more turnouts and crossovers in the curved portion of the station throat, where the design speed limit is just 22 mph.  Why not take advantage of this tight speed restriction to do the dirty business of routing trains to the correct track?

This solution isn't obvious to American designers because it requires the use of non-standard track elements that may be considered exotic under typical U.S. freight rail AREMA standards, such as slip switches, curved turnouts and curved crossovers.  Indeed, this prejudice explains why the curved crossovers in the DTX design are usable only in emergencies. While designing "by the book" is always a safe option, it is unfortunately not feasible to engineer a compact throat layout for Transbay using standard turnouts.  Unlike the 100-ton coal hoppers with worn wheels anticipated by AREMA standards, this facility will only ever serve trains with very light axle loads, and maintained to the most exacting specifications.  Much of the conservatism and design margin built into AREMA standards is completely unwarranted for Transbay, and inevitably leads to a mediocre layout.

4. Conclusion

Transbay will be a special station, probably the most valuable piece of rail real estate west of the Mississippi.  As an inherently constrained stub terminal, it demands excellence in design to achieve the highest possible capacity. While the current track layout may be deemed adequate for the blended Caltrain / HSR scenario planned for 2029, the twin failings of unnecessary route conflicts and excessive length will rapidly reveal themselves as fatal weaknesses when traffic demand increases or minor incidents throw timetables into disarray.  Such entirely avoidable self-inflicted delays will cause excess traffic to be diverted to 4th & King, a terrible outcome for passengers as well as the economic vitality of the TTC and the city of San Francisco.  Minor changes to the DTX track layout can address these failings.

06 October 2012

Formulation of a Service Quality Metric

The quantitative formulation of an overall quality metric, which can be extracted from an arbitrary timetable, is necessary to objectively answer the question “is proposed timetable A better than proposed timetable B?”

Such metrics facilitate the trade-study and optimization process of planning a new timetable, and must take into account several factors, including not just the quality of the service provided to passengers but also other factors that passengers don’t think about, such as robustness to disruption, fleet size and crew time considerations.

For today, however, we will focus exclusively on quantifying the quality of the service provided to passengers.  This particular formulation proceeds in eight reasonably simple steps, pulling together earlier information on timetable metrics and demographics.  It is only one example of how one might formulate a service quality metric, something that Caltrain has never explicitly done and could benefit greatly from doing as they share the pros and cons of various blended service plans.  This is one way to do it; what's theirs?

Step 1: Extract trip time and wait time statistics for each origin and destination pair.  By straightforward analysis of the timetable, one can figure all the possible trips between any origin station A and destination station B (including transfers) during a one-hour span during the morning peak.  One can then determine (in units of time):
  1. The average trip time between A and B (Tmean_AB)
  2. The fastest trip time between A and B (Tmin_AB)
  3. The average wait between trips that connect A and B (Wmean_AB)
  4. The longest wait between trips that connect A and B (Wmax_AB)
The first two metrics measure trip time on board the train, and the next two can be used as a proxy for measuring typical wait times on the platform.  The trip time and wait time figures are intrinsic to the timetable and can be extracted by a computer program.

Step 2: Compute an “effective” trip time from A to B by computing a weighted sum of the time components extracted above. This is where judgment calls start to be made. Taking into account the waiting times Wmean and Wmax is just as important as the actual trip times Tmin and Tmean, in order to properly account for the frequency of service. For example, the effective trip time could be defined as:

Teff_AB = (30% of Tmin_AB + 70% of Tmean_AB) + (20% of Wmean_AB + 15% of Wmax_AB)

The trip time term (30% of Tmin_AB + 70% of Tmean_AB) accounts for some trips being shortened by express service. The waiting time term (20% of Wmean_AB + 15% of Wmax_AB) properly penalizes long service gaps, but remains shorter than the waiting time incurred when the passenger shows up randomly, which is 50% of Wmean_AB.  This lower weighting reflects the fact that passengers don’t show up randomly, but usually time their arrival at origin A for a particular trip to destination B.  For example, when trips are available every 15 minutes, the waiting term works out to a quite reasonable 5 minutes. The effective trip time is a reasonably good measure of how long it will take you to get from A to B.

Step 3: Determine the “effective” speed between origin A and origin B. This is simply distance divided by time, or: V_AB = d_AB / Teff_AB where d_AB is the distance between A and B. This process is repeated for every origin and destination pair A-B, and describes not the speed of a train, but the average speed of a typical trip from A to B including waiting time, based only on the available service provided by the specific timetable being considered.

Step 4: Compute weighting by population and jobs.  This is where census data enters the calculation, as it must.  For the morning rush hour, since ridership consists primarily of people going from their home near A to their work near B, we calculate a potential ridership weight based on how many people live near A and how many people work near B.  This simply reflects that if a lot of people live near A and work near B, it is more important to provide fast service between A and B than between other station pairs where fewer people and jobs are located.

The “home weight” Whome_A of origin station A is a simple gravity sum (1/r squared law) of the residential population, taken from the 2010 census, as described previously in greater detail.  Each person is divided by the square of how far they live from station A, to reflect that people who live further away from the station are less likely to use it. To prevent over-counting people who live very close to the station (where the 1/r squared term diverges), anyone living closer than ¼ mile from the station is considered to live ¼ mile away.  The resulting weights are shown at left, in orange.

Similarly, the “work weight” Wwork_B of destination station B is a simple gravity sum of the number of jobs over $40k, again taken from census data. Each job is divided by the square of how far it is from station B, to reflect that people who work further away from the station are less likely to use it. Once again, to prevent over-counting jobs located very close to the station, any job closer than ¼ mile from the station is considered ¼ mile away.  The resulting weights are shown at right, in blue.

Step 5: Compute weighting by distance. Regardless of where people live and work, there are upper and lower limits to how far they will typically commute by rail. Extremely short trips are less likely because of the overhead of access and egress to and from the station at each end of the journey. Conversely, extremely long trips are less likely because of their sheer duration.  As it turns out, the typical rush hour trip on Caltrain turns out to be about 25 miles, or 40 km.

For our purposes, the distance weighting is constructed by drawing a curve with a peak at 40 km. This distance weight starts off at zero for a trip distance of less than 7 km (reflecting no demand for such short trips), peaks at a distance of 40 km, and decays slowly thereafter.  Converted to miles, it looks like the figure at left.  The underlying math to draw this curve is a Rayleigh distribution with a peak at (d-7) = 33, where d is the trip distance in km.

Step 6: Combine the population, jobs and distance weights to obtain a ridership potential matrix.  The ridership potential matrix R is a matrix of size N squared, where N is the number of stations.  Each element R_AB of this matrix represents the "potential" ridership (in arbitrary relative units) that can be tapped into during the morning commute from origin A to destination B.  This ridership potential matrix has an important property: it is independent of any timetable, and concisely describes the underlying demand that inherently exists out there--regardless of how or whether that demand is met by rail service.  Each element R_AB is given by the product:

R_AB = Whome_A * Wwork_B * Wdistance_AB

Note that the matrix R is not symmetric, because the number of residents and jobs near each station differs.  For example, far more people will want to commute to SF Transbay in the morning than from it, since the number of jobs within a half mile of that station is greater than all the jobs within a half mile of every other Caltrain station all the way to Gilroy combined.

Step 7: Compute the service quality matrix. The service quality matrix Q is again a matrix of size N squared, where N is the number of stations. Each element Q_AB of this matrix represents the quality of morning rush hour service from station A to station B, and is given by the following formula:

Q_AB = R_AB * V_AB

This combines R_AB, the timetable-independent ridership potential from origin A to destination B, with V_AB, the timetable-dependent effective speed from A to B.  If you have a preferred AM origin and destination (as most commuters do), then you can compare your Q_AB for various timetables to see how any given timetable will meet your own specific needs.

Step 8: Extract overall service quality scores. The service quality metrics must be bench marked against some reference, so they are simply normalized against the most current timetable.  That means today's timetable will score 100, by definition.  By adding the elements of Q over all possible origin and destination pairs, we can quantify the degree of service improvement and compute a score for the entire timetable as well as a score for each individual station. The overall timetable service quality score is S = ΣQ / Sref, i.e. the sum of all the elements of Q divided by the corresponding sum for today's timetable.

An entire timetable can now be distilled to its essence, a single service quality score.

We are now empowered to compare various timetables and understand quantitatively the pros and cons of each.  This method will tell you objectively whether timetable A provides better overall service than timetable B--and if you happened to disagree with the scoring outcome, then your argument would be with the scoring method and not any particular detail of this or that proposed timetable.  Beyond the mathematical minutiae of the rather simple scoring method presented here, the larger point is that there needs to be a defined scoring process and a framework for stakeholders to discuss what makes a good timetable.  This scoring process is absolutely essential for planning future blended service on the peninsula.  Caltrain's approach so far has been to prescribe a certain skip-stop pattern (see Tables 7 and 8) and restrict all analysis to that particular pattern, seemingly without regard to overall service quality!

27 September 2012


Today another $40 million was pumped into Caltrain's CBOSS project, a unique reinvention of the wheel that is nearly certain to fail based on the past track record of similar projects in the Bay Area.

The cheerful press release contains the following gem:
The system, which costs $231 million, is fully interoperable with freight traffic using the Caltrain corridor and future High Speed Rail trains.
This one sentence could easily make one choke twice on the same pretzel.  First, the astronomical cost of more than $4 million per route mile is more than triple the world standard for similar projects.  Second, the claim of interoperability with HSR is an outright lie according to Caltrain's own contracting documents.

Interoperability, in this context, means spending additional millions to outfit each and every high-speed train in California (in a fleet that will dwarf Caltrain's) with CBOSS on-board signaling equipment.  Under this definition, CBOSS is no more interoperable with future "High Speed Rail trains" than it is interoperable with the red rail-cycle pictured above.

14 July 2012

HSR and Grade Crossings

The Palo Alto Daily Post, bastion of journalistic integrity, has on several occasions reported as fact that the blended HSR system on the peninsula would require 100% grade separation in order to share tracks with Caltrain, resulting in dozens of seized residential properties.

Not so.

When sharing tracks with other trains, high-speed trains can and do use grade crossings on a daily basis, with all their attendant risks.  Examples of this practice abound in Europe, where new HSR networks have been patched into existing rail networks.  High-speed trains are limited to the same speeds as other trains when using grade crossings, and are exposed to the same collision risk.  The trains are built to take it (the relevant standard is EN 15227) and have been involved in dozens if not hundreds of grade crossing accidents over the past three decades.  When a train collides with a car, damage to the train is usually only cosmetic.  But high-speed trains have also collided with trucks and farm tractors, with more dire results, but only one known passenger fatality in 1988.  A small sample of those horrors is provided at right.

On a mostly grade-separated corridor like the peninsula, new grade separations are desirable primarily because they reduce gate down-time and speed the flow of road traffic, and secondarily because they reduce the risk of collision with pedestrians, cars and trucks.  They are not inherently required to operate high-speed trains in a blended system, any more than they are required to operate Caltrain.  Suggesting otherwise amounts to baseless fear-mongering that is best confined to the editorial page.

06 July 2012

Now What?

In an historic vote, the legislature today approved a funding package worth about $8 billion to begin construction of the first high-speed rail system in the Americas.  To make the package politically more palatable around the state, it included the immediate release of $706 million of so-called "book end" funding in the form of Proposition 1A bonds specifically allocated to the modernization of Caltrain, per the recent Memorandum of Understanding approved by all involved agencies.  The $706M total includes $600M of high-speed rail funding and $106M of non-HSR connectivity funding, from pots of money that are subject to different constraints.  These sums form the lion's share of a $1.456 billion funding package that covers both electrification and a new signal system for the peninsula rail corridor.

While this is no doubt a landmark occasion to celebrate for supporters of modern rail transportation, today's vote will probably not cause anything dramatic to happen on the peninsula in the short term.  Consider:

Taxpayer Lawsuits.  The opposition remains fervent and relentless, and a lawsuit challenging the release of $600M of HSR bonds to improve the Caltrain commuter rail system, with not a high-speed train in sight for more than a decade, is a near certainty.  Protections are built into the law, and require several conditions to be met for release of the funds.  Approval by the legislature is only one of those conditions, and the interpretation of the remaining ones is likely to become legally contentious.

The Environmental Clearance Process.  In April of 2010, Caltrain's electrification project had already obtained federal environmental clearance under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) as the Caltrain board of directors came within a few dramatic minutes of certifying the Final EIR under California's Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.  The board stopped short, under a surprise threat of a CEQA lawsuit, preferring to resolve any issues outside of the legal system before certifying the FEIR.  While the scope of the electrification project has not changed under the recently approved MOU, the project has now become the first in a series of incremental investments leading up to the "blended system" envisioned in the latest HSR business plan.  That means the electrification EIR may go back to square one for yet another round of public circulation (following prior rounds in 2004 and 2009), a process that is likely to take several years.  It would be surprising to see a new FEIR before 2014.

CEQA Lawsuits.  The sole enforcement mechanism built into CEQA is the lawsuit; it is therefore expected that lawsuits could follow the certification of any EIR.  While clearing electrification as a stand-alone project might be legal under CEQA, the issue is complicated by the project's new association to high-speed rail.  The two-tiered environmental clearance process adopted by the HSR project has already run into serious resistance, with the Bay Area to Central Valley Program EIR about to enter its third round of litigation since 2008.  HSR opponents could easily argue that funding the electrification project under Proposition 1A requires the prior clearance of both this program EIR as well as the project-level EIR for the "blended" San Francisco - San Jose section of the HSR project, including all the project phases expected to be completed after electrification.  Those later phases would include more controversial measures such as the construction of new overtake tracks and new grade separations.  This document is yet to be drafted; while the peninsula project EIR for the full-bore four-track system (still allowed for in the program EIR) was almost ready to circulate as of late 2011, it will require extensive revisions before it conforms to the "blended" configuration.  And that's before it becomes mired in what could become years of CEQA litigation.

The Lead Agency Issue.  The high-speed rail authority has in the past been openly hostile to funding Caltrain improvements.  The new leadership, under board chair Dan Richard, may not be much different.  Richard, like Kopp before him, is a longtime supporter of the expansion of BART, which has always been in invisible tension with Caltrain enhancements.  While he has extolled the merits of the blended book-end approach to gain political support for the entire HSR endeavor, this stance could very well weaken now that the legislative hurdle is passed.  Prior to the vote, he was quoted as saying "The Legislature wanted to emphasize that this money would be there for (the Bay Area and Southern California). And they’re right," highlighting that it is the legislature pushing this funding, not the CHSRA.  Indeed, the Authority, and the transit industrial complex behind it, may be reluctant to push for the peninsula improvements (a) because the opposition there is intense, (b) because of inter-agency rivalry with Caltrain, and (c) because the proposed projects do not involve large-scale civil works of the sort that Parsons Brinckerhoff likes to design, and its acolytes in the construction industry like to build.  Progress on the electrification project could thus depend on which agency leads the EIR process and pushes the project to fruition.  Caltrain is both competent and motivated, but the CHSRA could easily drag its feet--after all, the legislature has only authorized the bond funds to be spent, but the CHSRA retains full authority over when to actually spend them.  All the MOU demands of them is "good faith," which has been in demonstrably short supply.

CBOSS.  While the spotlight is on the electrification project, the MOU and newly passed HSR funding also covers Caltrain's new Advanced Signal System, also known as the Communications Based Overlay Signal System or CBOSS, and often criticized on this blog.  This project is a necessary pre-condition for the operation of light-weight European-style trains, and must be completed by the end of 2015 under a federal mandate that shows signs of being delayed to 2018 or 2020.  Despite Caltrain's repeated insistence to the contrary, CBOSS will not be compatible with HSR other than by fitting two separate, expensive, and functionally redundant signaling systems on high-speed trains, an unavoidable and inconvenient truth that may call into question the wisdom of spending even one cent of HSR money on CBOSS.  A far better outcome would be to make the peninsula rail corridor a testbed for the actual train control system to be deployed on the HSR system, based on the increasingly mature worldwide ERTMS rail signaling standard.

The Timeline.  The money is available only until June 30th, 2018.

UPDATE: The Poison Pill.  At any time before then, a single stroke of the pen from the Department of Finance can transfer the money to the Central Valley projects, per the Budget Act of 2012, Section 2.00, Item 2660-104-6043, Section 3, Provision 2.

The legislature's momentous step leaves many questions unanswered.
  • Is the funding of Caltrain improvements using high-speed rail bonds legal?
  • Will opponents hog-tie the electrification EIR to the high-speed rail EIRs in a bid to delay?
  • Can the existing electrification EIR be tweaked, or is it back to square one?
  • How eagerly will the CHSRA push electrification forward, if the focus is initially in the Central Valley?
  • Is it legal to spend HSR money on CBOSS?
  • Will the project be shovel-ready by June 30th, 2018?
  • How will questions of leadership be resolved, among Caltrain, the CHSRA, Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the regional design consultants?
  • Will the agencies finally treat technical compatibility between Caltrain and HSR, as long advocated in these pages, as the priority that it ought to be, allowing any train to use any track to serve any platform?
Only one thing is sure, there is a lot more sausage-making still ahead of us.

02 June 2012

Is Demand-Based Planning a Myth?

Original photo by qviri
With over 80% of riders using Caltrain to commute to their jobs during rush hour, one would think that the service would be planned around where people live and where people work, using cold hard numbers from the census.  That's known as traditional demand-based planning: provide service where the most people will use it.  It's not rocket science, and demand-based planning is used all around the world to plan excellent rail service.

But not here on the peninsula.

In a contrarian argument made circa 2005, Caltrain's operations staff claimed that demand-based planning is a myth. (14 Mb PDF file)   At the time, Caltrain was crowing to its industry peers about the success of the Baby Bullet.  The keys to success included "Questioning Traditional Planning Processes" and "Trusting Your Intuition".  Numbers don't matter, just go with your gut!

In the years since, there has been plenty of hard evidence that the Baby Bullet has severely reduced ridership at many locations, especially in Santa Clara County.  Indeed, data from the 2010 census can be correlated to the latest Caltrain ridership data without ever looking at a timetable to reflect quite accurately which Caltrain stops are under-served and falling short of their ridership potential.

Maybe demand-based planning isn't such a myth after all.  Maybe numbers don't lie.  Here's hoping that objective, quantitative metrics will play a central role in planning future blended operation scenarios with high-speed rail.  This stuff is too important to trust anybody's intuition.

26 May 2012

U.S. Supplier Enters ERTMS Market

In a move that amounts to a clear acknowledgement of the increasing worldwide supremacy of the ERTMS ("European" Railway Traffic Management System) technology standard, General Electric Transportation Systems recently became the first U.S. signaling supplier to enter the ERTMS market.

GE Transportation Systems is the same company slated to supply the on-board and wayside components of CBOSS, Caltrain's new-fangled train control system that will be paid for with HSR funding while being technically incompatible with the HSR train control system.

One could briefly entertain the illusion that common sense might prevail, and that with a minimum of contractual upheaval CBOSS could evolve into the first U.S. installation of ERTMS, a solution that could eventually be extended to the entire California HSR system.  Unfortunately, in the blinkered world of parochial agency interests, spending money (over $200 million of it for SF - SJ alone!) is a higher aspiration than providing a good technical solution.  Compatibility is for sissies; why do it right when you can do it twice?

07 April 2012

Primarily Two Tracks

Figure 4 from Caltrain's study, showing several possible locations for new overtake tracks.  Not all would be built.
In recent days, the high-speed rail Draft Revised 2012 Business Plan as well as the Caltrain Blended Operations Analysis were released to the public.  Both of these documents refer to the peninsula blended solution as a "primarily two-track" system, in the hope of allaying fears of massive eminent domain takings of homes and business-- fears that are largely unfounded, but fanned relentlessly by the local press and project opponents.

The confusion continues over what "primarily two tracks" precisely means, because neither agency seems ready to come out yet and state it in crystal clear terms.  The process still needs to unfold.  Luckily, enough data has already been published to allow a reasonably good reading of the tea leaves, down to the nearest tenth of a mile.

Phase 1 will be electrification, according to the memorandum of understanding currently being put in place by MTC and other parties.  This project already has federal environmental clearance and is very close to state environmental clearance, although a strong push will be made by opponents to subsume Caltrain's electrification EIR into the peninsula HSR project EIR, a document that will not be finalized (let alone litigated!) until 2015.  This phase of the project will not add any tracks, so the total length of quadruple track will stay as it is today (2 miles in Brisbane; 1 mile in Redwood City; 2 miles in Sunnyvale).
  • Purpose: improves Caltrain, enables future peninsula HSR
  • Time frame: 2013 - 2019
  • Total miles of quadruple track: 5
  • Grade-separated fraction: 61% (64 of 104 road crossings)
  • Trains per peak hour per direction: 6
  • Cities impacted by construction: none
Phase 2 will be a concrete viaduct through Santa Clara, completed at the same time as HSR reaches San Jose sometime in the mid-2020's, enabling a one-seat ride to San Francisco under the so-called "Bay-to-Basin" scenario.  If the CHSRA's grandiose plans (described in an October 2011 report to the legislature) are to be believed, this will entail building a massive double-decker station complex at San Jose.  A new four-track HSR station will hulk over the existing Diridon Station, perched on massive concrete straddle bents.  A more than 3-mile-long, 60-foot-tall viaduct will be constructed northwards, joining the existing corridor at approximately milepost 44.5, north of the Santa Clara Caltrain station.  Overpasses at Hedding and De La Cruz will be demolished and rebuilt as underpasses to make room for the new double-deck rail right of way.  Note that Caltrain's study considers this phase as part of the "baseline infrastructure" and therefore does not count it as additional tracks.
  • Purpose: enable single-seat HSR ride to San Francisco
  • Time frame: mid 2020's
  • Total miles of quadruple track: 8
  • Grade-separated fraction: 61% (64 of 104 road crossings) 
  • Trains per peak hour per direction: 8 (6 Caltrain + 2 HSR)
  • Cities impacted by construction: Santa Clara
Phase 3 will be the "short" mid-line overtake from 9th Ave in San Mateo (milepost 18.3) to Whipple Ave in Redwood City (milepost 24.8), which enables HSR service to increase from 2 to 4 trains per hour during the peak.  The data tables in Caltrain's study show that this overtake facility provides nearly all the benefits of the "full" mid-line overtake that extends southwards through Redwood City, but presumably at far lower cost.  The transportation-industrial complex's approach to the short mid-line overtake might very well entail demolishing the entire Belmont - San Carlos grade separation and replacing it with a four-track viaduct on concrete stilts.  A more realistic implementation will likely be to tack on another 15 feet of width on each side of the existing grade separations to accommodate new overtake tracks, something that should have been done in 1999 (but why do it right when you can do it twice?).  In San Mateo, new four-track grade separations will be built at 25th, 28th and 31st Avenues.
  • Purpose: increases HSR peak capacity from 2 to 4 trains per hour per direction
  • Time frame: late 2020's
  • Total miles of quadruple track: 14.5
  • Grade-separated fraction: 63% (67 of 106 road crossings) 
  • Trains per peak hour per direction: 10 (6 Caltrain + 4 HSR)
  • Cities impacted by construction: San Mateo, Belmont, San Carlos
Phase 4 will be the "full" mid-line overtake, also known as the Great Redwood City Grade Separation, creating a new mid-peninsula HSR stop at Redwood City and grade-separating a dense cluster of six grade crossings.  The four-track mid-line overtake will be extended southwards to milepost 26.3, merging with the existing four-track section.
  • Purpose: adds mid-peninsula HSR stop
  • Time frame: late 2020's
  • Total miles of quadruple track: 16
  • Grade-separated fraction: 69% (73 of 106 road crossings) 
  • Trains per peak hour per direction: 10 (6 Caltrain + 4 HSR)
  • Cities impacted by construction: Redwood City 
Beyond that, it gets murkier.  Presumably, the 33 remaining grade crossings that are not removed under Phases 1 - 4 will be addressed on a case-by-case basis, with grade separations designed and built in consultation with the respective cities.  San Francisco's downtown extension to the Transbay Transit Center may finally be built.  Additional passing tracks may be constructed where it's relatively easy and cheap, for example the remaining 2.5 miles from Lawrence to Santa Clara and the "north overtake" in Caltrain's study, an additional 8.2 miles of quadruple track from Brisbane south into Burlingame.

Only one thing is quite certain: the peninsula rail corridor will categorically NOT remain a two-track operation, even if it might still use "primarily" two tracks.  At a minimum, approximately 16 miles or over a third of its length will be quadruple-tracked.  As the process unfolds, it will become apparent that the cities of Belmont, Redwood City, San Carlos, San Mateo and Santa Clara will be the first to suffer the construction impacts.

04 March 2012

The Hybrid DMU, Unicorn of the Rails

The hybrid DMU is a diesel multiple-unit train with a twist: it has on-board energy storage to enable energy recovery, similar to an electric train that feeds power back into the grid when slowing down.  Just as in a hybrid automobile, this energy store helps to start the train rolling again, and reduces energy consumption in stop-and-go operations.  Peninsula cities and stakeholders, ever more astute on rail matters, perceive three important benefits in the hybrid DMU:
  1. It keeps high-speed rail out.  In discussions of Caltrain electrification and the slow beating-around-the-bush process that is leading up to the certification of the electrification EIR, high-speed rail has become the central issue. Electrification is viewed in some quarters as the camel's nose under the tent, so a renewed push is underway to ensure that all the alternatives other than electrification have been duly considered.
  2. It keeps unsightly high-voltage poles and wiring at bay, preserving views and presumably residential property values in some of the most affluent areas in the nation.
  3. It spares Caltrain, the perennially funding-starved agency, the burden of spending $785 million of scarce capital dollars to string wires over its tracks.
The hybrid DMU is viewed as a synergistic technology that solves all three issues in one fell swoop, in a classic Silicon Valley win-win-win.

There's only one little problem: it doesn't really exist.

Okay, almost.  There do exist a handful of hybrid DMUs in Japan.  These advanced technology trains, instantly knowable to any city staffer via a simple Google search (keyword hint: 'hybrid DMU'), operate in Japan.  The fleet numbers three cars on one line, and ten cars spread among four other lines.  Each car seats about 45 and tops out at 60 mph.  Their power output is less than a Chevy Tahoe hybrid's.

The Law of Diesel Trains

To understand why the hybrid DMU will never work for the peninsula corridor, look no further than the laws of physics.  What Caltrain needs is a singular focus on better service: quicker trips, more frequent stops, higher capacity, and less waiting for the next train.  That requires big, fast trains with one key quality: punchy acceleration, precisely the reason why the EMU (electric multiple unit) powered by high-voltage overhead lines was invented and perfected.  To achieve high acceleration, the laws of physics dictate high power and low weight.

A diesel train makes all its power on board and sends it to electric motors that drive the wheels; it is essentially a rolling mini power plant.  The nicest and newest rolling mini power plants used by Caltrain today generate 3,600 horsepower for a million-pound train.  In metric units, that's about 6 kW/ton, and as any Caltrain rider can attest, it doesn't exactly pin you to your seat.  The problem is that rolling mini power plants are heavy, and if you want more power, you'll need to haul around even more weight.  This is the Law of Diesel Trains, directly derived from Newton's Laws of Motion.  More weight does little to help with acceleration, so diesel basically can't scale up.

The EMU, on the other hand, doesn't schlep around a rolling mini power plant.  Its electricity is generated off-board by a real power plant, of the PG&E variety.  The electric grid, hooked up to gigawatts of generating capacity, can provide essentially limitless power to a train.  That endows a typical EMU (of the sort available off-the-shelf from many manufacturers) with a power-to-weight ratio of about 12 kW/ton, or double the giddy-up of a diesel train.  For short bursts of acceleration, high-voltage EMUs can briefly exceed their continuous power rating and draw even more power, hitting up to 18 kW/ton.  For those still keeping track, that's triple the acceleration of Caltrain.  For reference, BART cars achieve a respectable 15 kW/ton.

So what do the Japanese know about hybrid DMUs that we don't?  Most importantly, they do not claim zippy acceleration as a benefit.  The hybrid DMU does three things for them: save about 10% on fuel, cut down nitrous oxide emissions, and cut the noise of an idling train down to an electric whisper. Beyond those benefits, the 'D' in DMU makes it follow the Law of Diesel Trains.  The Japanese hybrid DMUs manage barely 5 kW/ton, probably because they haul around not just a mini power plant, but also big heavy batteries.  Here in the US, more stringent crashworthiness standards would make such trains even heavier and their performance even more anemic.

The inescapable conclusions are thus:
  • Hybrid DMUs provide only about one third of the acceleration required to enable meaningful Caltrain service improvements. A simple technical litmus test for future Caltrain rolling stock is the power-to-weight ratio, required to be at least 12 to 15 kW/ton.  Hybrid DMUs don't qualify.
  • Hybrid DMU technology has never been scaled up beyond the size of a bus.
  • Hybrid DMU technology inherently cannot be scaled up to achieve higher power-to-weight and acceleration in large (600 - 1000 passenger) configurations.
The mystical powers ascribed to hybrid DMUs by peninsula stakeholders rightfully earns them the nickname of 'Unicorn of the Rails.'  It's time for them to realize that by undermining the choice of EMU technology and promoting hybrid DMUs, they are also undermining the future of Caltrain--intentionally or not.  Caltrain can be faulted for many things, but their choice of high-voltage EMU technology as the path to modernization is unequivocally correct and technically justified, regardless of what happens with high-speed rail.

26 February 2012

Will BART Bust a Move?

The unfortunate reality of Bay Area transit politics is that twenty-eight agencies compete for funding and ridership with very limited coordination.   At the top of this pile is BART, the biggest of them all.  Not so much BART the transit operator, but BART the expansion-thirsty transit-industrial complex (functioning somewhat like the military-industrial complex), as facilitated by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC).  (photo at right by cplbasilisk, modified with permission)

With recent developments in the peninsula high-speed rail story, it's worth taking a step back and imagining BART / MTC's next moves in this slow-motion game of political chess, assuming for a moment the following motivations:
  • Expand as much as possible, constructing the most new infrastructure in the most corridors using the most consultant engineering and "craft hours" of construction labor
  • Soak up as much federal, state and local funding as possible
  • Take over high-ridership corridors, even at the expense of other agencies
  • Ring the San Francisco Bay with BART, as initially planned in the 1950s
The resulting exercise can either be viewed as a crackpot conspiracy theory, or as a simple thought experiment rooted in recent history.  Where MTC and BART have successfully assembled billions of dollars for the Millbrae/SFO and San Jose/Santa Clara extensions, Caltrain has repeatedly floundered: no downtown extension, no electrification, no Dumbarton rail, and the list goes on and on...  Supposing this historical pattern were to be sustained, what specifically would be BART's logical next moves?

Move #1: Drop Support For Pacheco HSR.

The long-running Pacheco-Altamont controversy over the Bay Area HSR alignment, still simmering in the courts, is driven on one hand by not-in-my-backyard sentiment in communities impacted by the Pacheco alignment (notably Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton) and on the other hand by transit activists who argue that the Altamont alignment makes far more technical sense to serve the immediate transportation needs of the Bay Area in a coordinated and sustainable way.

BART and MTC were firmly in the Pacheco camp because of the need to preserve for BART a key piece of rail right of way between Fremont and San Jose (the former Western Pacific line, purchased by VTA in 2002).  This right of way would almost certainly have been claimed by HSR under any reasonable Altamont scenario.  Worse, a blended HSR/commuter rail project could have undermined the very purpose and need for BART in that corridor.

Today, this concern has been overcome by events, and the BART extension to San Jose is a done deal.  Pacheco HSR no longer plays a role in defending this important BART turf, and thus may no longer garner the same level of support from BART and MTC as it once did.

Move #2: Promote Altamont HSR with a BART Connection at Livermore.

The BART board recently approved a more detailed study of a future extension to Livermore, along I-580.  While this extension is a waste of money on its own merits (as are most BART extensions), and is still far from becoming reality, it could be sold as a key enabler for a phased implementation of HSR, especially under a budget-constrained environment.

Livermore as a BART-HSR transfer point has been considered before, if only discreetly, as part of the half-hearted "Altamont overlay" that the CHSRA has been studying in addition to the baseline Pacheco Pass alignment--always with the insistent disclaimer that the Altamont corridor serves a completely different "purpose and need" than the high-speed rail project.  Meanwhile, MTC suggested as recently as 2007 that HSR terminate at Livermore BART, absorbing all HSR ridership into BART (see comment L017-8).

As an interim phasing opportunity, Livermore BART would actually work quite well:
  • Earlier and quicker HSR service to downtown San Francisco and the greater Bay Area
  • Earlier and quicker HSR service to Sacramento (quicker than the Amtrak Capitols)
  • Cheaper construction with less tunneling to achieve "Bay-to-Basin" connectivity
The Livermore BART extension would be routed south along Vasco Rd. or Greenville Rd., past the Laboratory, to terminate just south of Livermore at a new BART/HSR interchange station on the outskirts of town.  This station would be located on an Altamont HSR alignment proposed by outside groups but studiously ignored by the CHSRA.  This Altamont HSR route is known as the SETEC alignment, after the French HSR consulting firm that performed the preliminary engineering.  The SETEC alignment is noteworthy in that it avoids major residential property impacts to Livermore and Pleasanton, one of the main arguments used by the CHSRA to select Pacheco in the environmental study process.

Here is a rough point-by-point comparison of Altamont/Livermore and Pacheco/Gilroy interim scenarios:

Altamont HSR to Livermore Pacheco HSR to Gilroy
HSR Trip Time, from Fresno

0:48 Fresno - Livermore0:39 Fresno - Gilroy
Continuing Trip to San Francisco  0:57 on BART

Livermore to Embarcadero
1:45 on Caltrain
Gilroy to SF (electrified)

Fresno - San Francisco CBD~ 2:00 (40 minutes quicker)
including transfers
~ 2:40
including transfers

Fresno - Oakland~ 1:50 (50 minutes quicker)~ 2:40

Fresno - San Jose ~ 1:50 (10 minutes slower)
assumes BART to SJ
~ 1:40
HSR Track Length 140 miles (25 miles more) 115 miles
Phase 2 HSR to Reach Sacramento

60 miles (50 miles less)110 miles
HSR Tunnel Length (interim)about 4 miles (6 miles less)about 10 miles

Using the money saved by tunneling only 4 miles to Livermore instead of 10 miles to Gilroy, the additional 25 miles of track to reach Livermore are easily paid for-- and then some, since 50 miles of track will already have been built to reach Sacramento, as opposed to zero for Pacheco.

Move #3: Dangle the Carrot of a PAMPA Subway.

The Palo Alto Weekly recently published an article headlined "Four-track design back on the table for high-speed rail," apparently implying that it was once off the table.  That seems to be the crux of a major disconnect between the city and the high-speed rail Authority.  The blended Caltrain / HSR plan, as proposed in recent months by Simitian-Eshoo-Gordon and currently being analyzed by Caltrain, was always viewed by the CHSRA as an intermediate phase, a stepping stone to the immutable objective of a four-track high-speed railroad through PAMPA (Palo Alto - Menlo Park - Atherton).  This viewpoint is borne out in the 2012 draft business plan.  Palo Alto, on the other hand, views the blended plan as a final state of the peninsula rail corridor for the foreseeable future, and believes that the four-track plan should no longer even appear in the program EIR.

BART's best move here is again to promote Altamont HSR.  For PAMPA, the advantages are thus:
  • No four-track HSR grade separations, ever
  • No additional right of way (a.k.a. eminent domain) needed, ever
  • No HSR traffic on top of commuter rail traffic (only 6 trains per hour per direction)
  • Future opportunity for a two-track BART subway, considerably cheaper to construct than a four-track high-speed corridor.  A two-track BART tunnel box is four to five times smaller, in cross-sectional area, than a four-track HSR tunnel box.  This makes it remotely feasible to have the cities participate in the financing of a subway, much as was done in Berkeley in the 1960s, to further enhance property values.
For BART itself, the main advantage of Altamont is of course to preserve the future possibility of ringing the bay by connecting Santa Clara BART to Millbrae BART.  The argument that BART can make in pleading this case is that all existing infrastructure north of Millbrae (i.e. fresh grade separations in San Bruno, and existing tunnels to San Francisco) would be dedicated exclusively to HSR, thus mitigating the astronomical cost of accommodating Caltrain detailed in the 2012 business plan.

As billions of dollars slowly coalesce for a possible blended HSR / Caltrain plan on the peninsula, time will become pressing for BART to bust a move.  If the motives that underlie the above narrative are remotely true, then any attempt to electrify the peninsula corridor shall be thwarted, just the same as it has been in past decades.

15 January 2012

The Bookend Approach

There's a lot of turmoil surrounding the California High-Speed Rail Authority these days.  Some want to forget the whole thing, while most sensible politicians (as well as the peer review group) seem to want to re-plan the project to start with the ends rather than the middle, so as to end up with something useful sooner--not to mention spending the federal money already allocated.  What if this actually happened in the coming months?

The first thing you can be sure of is that a tug of war would occur between the SF Bay Area and the LA Basin, with maybe just a sprinkle of money to placate the Central Valley.  Out of the six billion of federal and state monies currently available, let's assume that $2.65 billion ends up here.  Let's further assume that the money is actually spent in ways that enable high-speed rail, rather than poured down the usual black hole of BART extensions, never to be heard from again.  What could and should be built in the San Francisco Bay Area for $2.65 billion of high-speed rail funding?

The bookend approach, in order of priority:

NUMBER ONE: Deploy ERTMS, the train control system that will be used for HSR.  The peninsula corridor, which happens to be in need of a federally-mandated positive train control system but has nowhere near enough money to pay for it, could serve as the perfect testbed to import this key enabling technology of HSR to the United States.  In exchange for full HSR funding, Caltrain would agree to abandon their unfunded and HSR-incompatible CBOSS project.
  • HSR benefit: pilot deployment of ERTMS standard in the US, ready for expansion to the state-wide HSR network.  All regulatory hurdles cleared.
  • HSR funding share: $150 million (Caltrain can pay for other items such as the backup control facility) 
  • Environmental Clearance: not required 
  • Timeline: easily completed before 2015, following the example of Rio de Janeiro or Auckland.
  • Independent Utility: fulfills federal PTC mandate for Caltrain

NUMBER TWO: Electrify the peninsula rail corridor, exactly as already planned.  25kV overhead lines are 100% compatible with HSR and will enable a one-seat ride to San Francisco as soon as HSR reaches the peninsula.  Out of the $1.2 billion budget for the electrification project, $400 million is for a new fleet of Caltrain electric trains, and $800 million is to string up the wires.  It would seem fair to use HSR money for 50% of the fixed infrastructure, and let Caltrain / MTC come up with other funding sources to pay for the trains and the other half of the shared infrastructure.
  • HSR benefit: one-seat access to San Francisco and SFO, without changing trains in San Jose
  • HSR funding share: $400 million (50% of infrastructure cost)
  • Environmental Clearance: Complete and shovel-ready. Federal clearance is in hand, and state clearance is a simple matter of Caltrain certifying their EIR.  Preliminary engineering well underway.
  • Timeline: completed by 2016.
  • Independent Utility: provides faster, better, quieter, less polluting peninsula commute for over 10 million riders a year, and helps "ring the bay" with electric rail transit, relieving highway 101 congestion

NUMBER THREE: Build a mid-line overtake facility.  This 6.5 mile section of four-track railroad would expand the rail corridor from 9th Avenue through southern San Mateo, Belmont and San Carlos, ending at Whipple in Redwood City, by adding a new pair of tracks outboard of the existing tracks.  This adds just 15 feet on each side of existing grade separations.  The overtake would include new grade separations at 25th, 28th and 31st Avenues in San Mateo, and new stations with central island platforms at San Carlos, Hillsdale and Hayward Park.  Belmont already has a suitable island platform.  The mid-line overtake has already been identified as an important enabler of blended operations, by providing an opportunity for faster trains to pass slower trains.
  • HSR benefit: 20 minute shorter travel time to San Francisco
  • HSR funding share: $600 million (100% of the cost)
  • Environmental Clearance: not started.
  • Timeline: probably not complete by 2017 spending deadline of federal HSR funding, unless environmental clearance is fast-tracked.
  • Independent Utility: provides reliable overtaking of Caltrain locals by Caltrain expresses, at a four-platform Hillsdale station where passengers may conveniently transfer between a local and an express that dwell simultaneously on either side of the same island platform (see diagram above).  This improves service frequencies and trip times for millions of riders a year.

NUMBER FOUR: Build the downtown extension (DTX).  This 1.2-mile tunnel would extend the peninsula rail corridor to the Transbay Transit Center in the heart of San Francisco's business district.  This is a very pricey project at $3 billion YOE dollars, and one additional complication is that MTC recently gave it a very low benefit/cost ratio--most likely to protect BART ridership on the Millbrae line, and future plans to ring the bay with BART.  (A very frank, adult conversation will soon have to be had regarding unspoken aspirations for BART to ring the bay.)
  •  HSR benefit: Direct access to the jobs-rich San Francisco central business district, with excellent transit connections to the East Bay to maximize the HSR ridership catchment area on the first day of service.  Realizes full benefit of $400 million investment of HSR funds already made in the Transbay Center train box.
  • HSR funding share: $1.5 billion (50% of the cost)
  • Environmental Clearance: Complete and shovel-ready.  Both EIS and EIR are cleared, and preliminary engineering is well underway.
  • Timeline: could be completed by 2017 spending deadline of federal HSR funding.
  • Independent Utility: provides commuter access to San Francisco's central business district, where there are more jobs than near all the other Caltrain stations combined.  This would most likely result in a system ridership gain of 25% or more, easily 3 million new riders a year.
Some high-speed rail supporters will doubtless see this as a wish list of projects that benefit Caltrain at the expense of true high-speed rail.  However, these are exactly the four projects you would start with in order to build a modern standard-gauge electric railroad into the heart of San Francisco, just what is needed so HSR can run directly to San Francisco's business district from day one.  Insofar as Caltrain happens to also aspire to become a modern, standard-gauge electric railroad, yes, Caltrain benefits greatly.  But let us not forget that the non-HSR funding share to complete these four projects would be well over $2 billion; this is not a shameless and wasteful diversion of HSR funding, but a cost-effective investment in a compatible system that is more than the sum of its parts.

The very high level of "independent utility" for peninsula commuters should not detract from the fact that each of these four projects is a direct enabler of HSR service to San Francisco, effective as soon as the backbone of the system is completed using later tranches of funding.  In the meantime, the earliest investment would pay off immediately, in a way that it never could if a raceway to nowhere were built in the Central Valley.