Blog Archives

CAHSR’s Preliminary Alignment on the Peninsula

Narrow Right-of-Way in San Mateo

For the past six months, I’ve been working with AutoCad, Google Earth, and the California High Speed Rail Authority’s website with the goal of creating an up-to-date .kml file of the current proposed route for the CHSR, with specific attention to the alternative analysis. Starting with today’s post, and continuing for the next couple months, I will be presenting the 2010 proposed alignments and analyzing the alternatives that the CHSRA will carry forward. The purpose of these kml files is not to show the exact route but rather to help gain a general overview of the alignment alternatives and the types of structures necessary for each alternative.

As a native San Franciscan, I thought it would be best to start with San Francisco and head south during this review of the California High Speed Rail alignments. This section has been a major talking point as a part of the entire California High Speed Rail debate. Due to prohibitive costs,the High Speed Rail Authority has been reluctant to bury a significant portion of the alignment,much to the dismay of local communities who fear not only lowered property values, but also the prospect of their communities being “divided in two” by the high speed rail right of way.

Along with the Los Angeles to Anaheim section, this section of the alignment is unique in that,at this point in the design process, there is only one horizontal alignment under consideration;that is, there is only one right-of-way path. In this section, alignment alternatives along I-280 and US-101 were ruled out due to design challenges. An I-280 alignment would have been too curvaceous to allow for the Prop 1A guaranteed 2 hours and 40 minutes between LA and SF and the US-101 path would be too expensive due to the multiple overpasses already in place on the freeway. Instead, the CHSRA chose to pursue the current Caltrain right-of-way as the preferred horizontal alignment.

That is to say, the Caltrain alignment is not without its design challenges. The right-of-way in some parts of the peninsula is only 50’ wide, much narrower than the 91’ expected to be necessary for even the narrowest of high speed rail structures. Downtown San Mateo and Redwood City, in particular, present difficult engineering challenges due to their narrow right-of-ways. As of September 2010, the HSR Authority settled on three designs. Design A includes more aerial structures and is likely to meet the most opposition from Peninsula cities. Design B places many of the aerial structures below grade in trenches or tunnels. Design B1, labeled B1 because it is a variation on Design B, places even more track below grade.

On the corridor, HSR will be sharing the right-of-way and the four tracks with an electrified Caltrain, meaning that the HSR will be restricted to 90mph on the Peninsula. The Authority is also choosing between a possible “Mid-Peninsula Station” in Redwood City, Palo Alto, or Mountain View. Either one or none of these stations will be selected.

You are free to view this map but please know that it is not affiliated in any way with the California High Speed Rail Authority, and Sam only used publicly available information to compile it. If you’d like to share it, please attribute it to Sam Levy or Wilshire/Vermont. He spent a lot of time getting this thing together. -Karl

Enjoy.

Sorry about the ads. WordPress won’t host a .kmz file.

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San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center: A New Approach

Cross Section of the Transbay Transit Center, courtesy of transbaycenter.org

San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center is an ambitious project consisting of a train and bus terminal, several gigantic high rise buildings and an elevated park above the terminal. The Center will replace the current Transbay Terminal bus facility, a relic of streetcar service across the Bay Bridge. The current facility has low ceilings, low capacity and is seismically unsound. It is also unable to accept underground train platforms.

With the understanding that a new transit center is needed, several options were explored regarding the train box under the station. In the original plan for the center, the bus platforms were to be built first, opening in 2015, with the train platforms and subterranean mezzanine being built later, under the functioning transit center. Such a plan contains the obvious fallacy that building a massive train station under an operating building is massively expensive, especially when the building was not conceived in the first place to accept such underground facilities. This argument was one of the main reasons why a new transit center is being built in the first place.

A stroke of fate has enabled the designers of the Transbay Transit Center to change their approach from top-down to bottom-up. High speed rail money from the Federal Railroad Administration and the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) is paying the 400 million dollar cost of installing the train box at the same time as the rest of the transit center. 400 million may be difficult to stomach for a train station, but given the status of infrastructure spending in the United States, leaving the train box for later would likely have been its death knell. Estimates for the future cost of a train box under the completed transit center were nearly double the cost. I applaud the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) and its consultants for bringing together this funding and ensuring that the transit center will fulfill its potential.

The inclusion of the train box at the beginning of the project brings many issues with its design to the forefront of discussions on the transit center. The CAHSRA has required platform space to run trains at five minute frequencies. This requirement is ridiculous. Not even Japan’s Shinkansen High Speed Rail Service, the busiest in the world, runs at such frequencies. As you can see in the image above, this mandate by CAHSRA robs platform space and tracks from Caltrain. The current train box arrangement would only allocate Caltrain two tracks and one island platform, limiting capacity into the Transbay Transit Center to less than current peak hour headways on the line. Any future service increases to cope with the inevitable increase in ridership due to electrification and direct service to Downtown San Francisco could only run as far as the current 4th & King terminal due to capacity constraints at the Transbay Transit Center platforms. This artificial constraint would defeat much of the purpose of the Caltrain Downtown Extension Project to connect Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center. The train box will fit six tracks and three island platforms. Instead of a 4/2 split in favor of CAHSRA, the spilt should be the oposite with Caltrain being allowed use of 4 tracks. The demand and frequency for Caltrain’s local service along the peninsula will be much higher at all times of day, hence it should have more track space.

Another concern I have with the current design of the Transbay Transit Center is the lack of coordinated planning between the TJPA and BART about a possible future BART station in or adjacent to the complex. The need for a second Transbay Tube is widely recognized and a station at the Transbay Transit Center would be ideal, permitting a direct connection between high speed rail, Caltrain and BART. Provisions for a BART station could include simple, low-cost fixtures like entrance bellmouths, locations for fare gates and a larger mezzanine to accommodate future BART riders to the transit center. Like the train box, these (relatively) inexpensive inclusions to the project would eliminate future costs and integrate a future rapid transit station into the transit center.

My final concern about the current iteration of the Transbay Transit Center project is the slow speed at which construction on adjacent development is proceeding. Over six high rise buildings are planned as part of the project and much of the revenue TJPA is counting on is from the sale of currently vacant land owned by the authority to developers. Many of these towers were supposed to have begun construction in 2009 or earlier this year. Obviously current economic conditions have depressed property values and made large real estate developments less attractive. Fortunately, the towers near the Transbay Transit Center are transit oriented development in its purest form, with no limits on density or height. Hopefully developers will acknowledge this fact and gamble that the market for housing in urban areas will rebound, otherwise a large chunk of TJPA’s revenue will be lost.

With a nod to the future the Transbay Transit Center has refocused its priorities and now will be built in a more cost effective and timely manner. Hopefully this forward looking strategy will be further adopted, designing the terminal to be BART-ready for the time when the second transbay tube will be built. Regardless of this outcome, the Transbay Transit Center will be one of the most exciting transit stations in the world, connecting all parts of the Bay Area to the rest of California and providing the massive, Grand Central Terminal-style transit station that the Bay Area has always lacked.

Caltrain’s Amazing Waiver With the FRA

Caltrain commuter rail already provides a critical link in the San Francisco Bay Area by connecting San Jose, San Francisco and many transit-hungry towns on the peninsula. With bare-bones hourly service outside of commute hours, Caltrain still attracts around 38,000 riders per day, nearly as many as BART’s Fremont Line across the bay. In this context, the news of the Federal Railroad Administration granting Caltrain a waiver to operate non-FRA compliant electric multiple unit (EMU) trains on its line is brilliant news. For the first time in the history of the United States, modern, metro-like rolling stock will be allowed to operate alongside heavier diesel passenger units and even limited freight trains. Caltrain is a great laboratory for the FRA to test its newfound flexibility because Caltrain is one of the few commuter rail lines in the United States that could justify operation at near-metro frequencies. Also, Caltrain owns the tracks and right of way from San Jose to San Francisco and limits freight operations to hours when the passenger trains are not running. With this waiver, the electrification of Caltrain has a full green light in the regulatory sense. Unfortunately, funding for the project and Caltrain in it’s current iteration is paltry. Following is a short history of Caltrain and an explanation of its structural deficiencies that have decimated its budget and could drastically reduce service.

Passanger service along Caltrain’s current right of way has been continuously operating since the 19th century. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran commuter service itself until the 1980’s when the operation ceased to be profitable. The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) began to subsidize the operation, still run by SP. Finally in 1985, CalTrans fully assumed control of the commuter railroad, purchased new locomotives and rolling stock and branded the operation as Caltrain. The current governance of Caltrain was established in 1987 when the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB) was formed, composed of representatives from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. Unlike BART, the PCJPB lacks powers of taxation in its jurisdiction and is relies solely on contributions from member transit agencies, SamTrans, SCVTA and SFMTA. All three of these agencies are faced with massive funding shortfalls for their own bus and rail operations and have threatened to massively reduce subsidies for Caltrain. SamTrans has threatened to reduce its contribution by 23 million dollars. Such a reduction would cut all non-peak trains, including all trains on weekends. It is difficult to describe how tragic such a reduction would be.

To reduce operation costs and overhead the electrification of Caltrain is a necessity. The cost of running heavy, FRA-compliant, diesel locomotive hauled trains at 10 minute headways, as Caltrain currently does during peak hours, is astronomical. The bottom line with this FRA waiver is that Caltrain has received the first green light of many that will be crucial toward saving comprehensive service on the line. In the end, electrification and new rolling stock will be the saving grace of Caltrain. Who knows, with BART purchasing rolling stock soon we could see a unified look for rapid transit in the Bay Area with a joint purchase.