Sunday, January 11, 2009

Menlo Park Wants To Talk

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

With the California High Speed Rail Authority, that is:

Five months after joining a lawsuit against the proposed California high-speed train, Menlo Park officials are launching a negotiation campaign with the same state body it is suing.

The campaign will be launched Tuesday after the city council last week voted the high speed rail issue as its top priority for the upcoming year. The effort will consist of a subcommittee of two city council members and various city staff officials who will send comments to and meet with officials from the California High Speed Rail Authority....

Mayor Heyward Robinson said the subcommittee's formation does not mean the city will pull out of the lawsuit fighting the project's environmental certification, which Menlo Park and Atherton joined in August along with several other groups. Instead, officials will simultaneously negotiate with the High Speed Rail Authority while remaining a plaintiff in the suit against the state body.

"They're different entirely," Vice Mayor Richard Cline said on the suit and negotiations. "One is
going to be handled from a legal perspective "... and the second part will be representing our community and having a dialogue about the (planning process)."

It's good to see Menlo Park taking a proactive approach to working with the Authority on HSR planning, although it would be immeasurably helped if they dropped the lawsuit. After all, Menlo Park residents voted FOR Prop 1A with the clear knowledge that it meant a high speed train would run through their community.

Menlo Park officials likely believe this is a carrot-and-stick approach. And yet this frivolous lawsuit runs the risk of further delaying the HSR project. The state's budget crisis is already making it unnecessarily difficult for the Authority to proceed with its planning work. The last thing they need is to be burdened by a lawsuit.

It's time for Menlo Park to work constructively with the Authority, and drop the lawsuit.

32 comments:

bossyman15 said...

mmm they says they want track below grade.

mmm i wonder how much that would cost.

Anonymous said...

Here's an idea for Menlo Park: why not put the Caltrain line in a trench? Local topography favors that, I think, over an embankment (it looks like a long, shallow downgrade to Redwood City). And given the relatively narrowness of the corridor, I think this is the option with the least impact on the surroundings.

Rafael said...

@ anon -

hey buddy, can you spare a few hundred million?

Jim said...

The people of Menlo Park should be embarrassed to be acting like such babies. They voted for it, now they want to hold up the project. A project for the people of California. I hope the whole state is watching these people act like selfish babies.

Spokker said...

I was riding Caltrain this weekend through Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, all those places.

There are sections where the ROW looks wide enough to accommodate four tracks. Then there are sections that don't look wide enough.

But in taking a closer look, you'll realize it's mostly just trees in the way. There are some houses, but they aren't the "really nice" homes some have suggested in the past. There are some backyards too. Like I'm going to cry for some dude losing a section of backyard he probably never uses anyway.

I was sitting on the east side of the train, by the way. On my return trip it was too dark to see anything on the west side.

I've ridden Caltrain before, but I must say that these stations look like they are actually somewhere. In Southern California we seem to put our commuter rail stations in giant parking lots, in huge industrial parks, or away from city centers.

I really love that whole Caltrain setup they have going on. The Baby Bullet service is incredible. Electrification just might make that line perfect in my view.

Spokker said...

Electric trains aren't as loud as diesel ones right? Won't the noise issue actually be improved? I don't get it!

Rafael said...

@ Jim -

as a whole, Menlo Park did vote in favor of HSR but it's a small number of people right next to the line that will be impacted most. Some of those apparently have the ear of city officials, hence the schizophrenic policy described in the post.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: while HSR must be grade separated because it will run at speeds of up to 150mph in the peninsula corridor, Caltrain is another matter. It's top speed is currently 79mph, after electrification and signaling upgrades that will go to 90mph. There's an option to upgrade the catenaries for service at 125mph but with HSR having passed, it's unlikely it will ever be exercised.

If Menlo Park wants to keep all of its existing railroad crossings and avoid eminent domain proceedings against homeowners to widen the corridor, they can ask to retain Caltrain at grade, with quiet zone grade crossings. HSR would run on separate tracks on an aerial fitted with transparent (i.e. double or triple glazing) sound walls.

It wouldn't be the prettiest thing ever built, but it would be quieter than what is currently being proposed and far less disruptive during the construction period. The cost would likely be higher than for an embankment, but perhaps not all that much. Eminent domain, massive earthworks, underpasses, four brand-new tracks and temporary shoofly tracks for Caltrain all add up to a pretty penny as well.

Menlo Park would still have the option of constructing full underpasses for selected cross roads at a later date, at its own expense.

Anonymous said...

Rafael: is it that much more expensive to do below-grade than above-grade? Also, I was very much under the impression that Caltrain and HSR would be sharing tracks along the peninsula. Operationally, it's far more convenient to let Caltrain expresses and HSR share tracks, and if you're building an elevated structure, you might as well put all the tracks up there. Caltrain would benefit from full grade separation too, with increased reliability at least, and likely increased speed. While the PCJPB is talking about 90 mph, NJ Transit is looking at a 125 mph top speed for the next generation of MU trains, in order to better fit in with the Acela and other Amtrak trains on the four track NEC line.

And if you do end up building an HSR elevated structure above Caltrain, keep in mind that it will need to provide 23 feet of clearance under it. The top of the catenary poles will be over 50 feet off the ground.

Rafael said...

@ anon -

your impression is incorrect. HSR and Caltrain will be sharing a ROW but run on separate tracks, thanks to FRA rules prohibiting mixed traffic. There will be a few exceptions like the DTX tunnel in SF and, whenever Caltrain's "Baby Bullets" need to overtake local trains and there's no HSR train around. That is obviously only possible where there are four tracks side-by-side.

And yes, grade separating Caltrain all the way would definitely be a nice to have. My point is, the FRA does not mandate it for the speeds at which Caltrain will be operating.

Unlike NJ Transit, the Caltrain stations are too close together to readily support running at top speeds of 125mph, the acceleration and deceleration would require very beefy electric motors and cost a bundle in utility bills.

Digging a trench wouldn't be all that expensive, but securing the walls with concrete is, especially in earthquake country. So is dealing with sewer pipes, storm drains etc. Golden rule: you don't go below grade level unless you absolutely have to.

As for the tops of HSR catenary poles being 50' off the ground in a stacked configuration, so what? They'll be very nearly as high up if the planned embankment is built.

Final note: there is nothing preventing Caltrain from setting up a new business unit operating short trainsets capable of matching long-distance bullet trains in terms of speed and acceleration in the Caltrain corridor only. This "regional HSR" service would replace the baby bullets and run on the HSR tracks.

Clem said...

Not the trench idea again! Oh my, where to start....

Maybe the bottom line $$$: it will be of absolutely NO benefit to HSR riders or taxpayers footing the construction bill. The only benefit is to the local community, so they should not expect the HSR project to pay for it. Let them finance it by selling air rights on the freed up ROW surface.

There are good reasons to build tunnels and aerials, but sparing the ears of abutters (who are currently subjected to CONTINUOUS Caltrain horn blowing through their town!) is not one of them.

@Rafael: what is this recurrent notion of yours of segregating HSR and Caltrain express service? Those FRA rules you mention (with exceptions still being negotiated, by the way!) will not prohibit mixed traffic so long as proper safety measures (modern signaling, positive train stop, etc.) are employed. With 125 mph top speed, baby bullets would do SF - Millbrae - Hillsdale - Palo Alto - Mountain View - San Jose in 37 minutes (assuming a liesurely 0.5 m/s2 accel/decel rate with 1 minute station dwells). It would be extremely shortsighted to prevent 100% inter-operation of HSR and Caltrain bullets.

The notion of 90 mph service comes from Caltrain's existing electrification plans, which are about to be made obsolete by HSR. To play better with HSR they're going to have to increase their baby bullet speeds a bit.

Also, there is no such thing as an "upgrade" to catenaries from 90 mph to 125 mph. Good for one, good for the other... it's a trivial matter of tuning the mechanical tension.

Pass the popcorn...

Anonymous said...

Hm. I didn't realize trenches were quite so complex or expensive, but thinking about things like the Alameda Corridor, I guess they are. A back of the envelope calculation shows something in the range of 80-100 million per mile, which is considerable, and probably considerably higher than retained fill construction. None the less, it really should be included as an option and costed out so that Menlo Park knows exactly how much they have to pay to get what they want.

As for the FRA compliance issue, to the best of my knowledge, the official Caltrain plan at this point in time is to obtain an FRA waiver in order to operate non-compliant EMU trains on the San Francisco-San Jose corridor, potentially mixed with compliant passenger trains and time-separated from freight trains. The HSRA doesn't have any particular plans about this sort of thing yet, as the project hasn't advanced that far, but there's talk of using this arrangement on the Caltrain corridor, as well as on the Fullerton-Irvine section. Whatever they end up doing, it will most likely build on the work that Caltrain is doing right now to get the regulatory framework they need to run European trains.

I also suspect that Caltrain's 90 mph plan is really a matter of budget reality: any higher speed would require significant grade separation which they can't afford alone, but could if HSR kicked in some funding. And in terms of operations, I think it makes a great deal of sense to have a 125 mph top speed for the express commuter trains, potentially allowing the aforementioned 37 minute Baby Bullet. It doesn't make sense, though, toput commuters on the actual HSR trains, as it would lead to unacceptable conditions for HSR passengers at rush hours. Nor would it really make sense to have a separate Caltrain fleet just for running SF-SJ shuttles on the HSR line, because this would end up as an isolated fleet of about 5 trainsets, not interchangeable with either the main commute fleet or the main HSR fleet. You might think this HSR commute fleet is superficially similar to the "Javelin" HSR commuter trains in Britain, but the whole point there is that they run considerable distance on the conventional network before switching to the high speed line for a quick trip to London.

bossyman15 said...

caltrain and hsr sharing same ROW is good idea but there are something that brothers me...

how would HSR make money on that route if people would just take caltrain because its cheaper fare than HSR?

Alex said...

@ Anonymous -

I completely agree with you about continuing to run Baby Bullet service to alleviate the rush hour traffic flowing onto the HSR trains, it would become extremely inconvenient.

I'm confused about what you said about Caltrain needing grade separation in order to increase their speed on the Baby Bullet train. As far as I can tell, HSR will be grade separating the entire peninsula route because it is mandated by the FRA at the speeds it will be traveling. Because the HSR line is using the Caltrain ROW, doesn't this mean that THEIR entire route will be grade separated too if they are using the same four tracks?

Clem or Rafael, what do you think is restricting Caltrain from increasing their planned speed through the peninsula? I think that Anonymous' point about rush hour traffic affecting HSR service is a very good one. Wouldn't it be a better idea to run the Baby Bullet service at comparable speeds to HSR in order to continue to serve the rush hour commuter passengers?

Anonymous said...

bossyman15: HSR wants to charge you $100 for going from LA to SF, not $20 for SJ-SF. In fact, if there are reserved seats, and all the SJ-SF commuters buy up all the seats, then the LA-SF riders can't buy them, and the operator loses potentially $80 on each seat. On the other hand, on off peak trains, if there are more empty HSR seats than local SJ-SF demand, it might well make sense for Caltrain to pay the HSRA to let Caltrain riders use them, since it's effectively free revenue for the HSR and saves Caltrain the trouble of running a whole separate train of its own. Now, I don't have nearly enough idea of HSR traffic patterns and off-peak demand for Caltrain express service, so I don't know whether this kind of thing would be feasible off peak or on weekends, but I know for sure that during rush hour it just won't fly.

Spokker said...

Local HSR trains will probably allow SF-SJ riders.

The express or limited HSR trains will probably make SJ a stop where you can only board the train, not get off. Express trains might skip it altogether.

Amtrak does it. For example you can't ride the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Fullerton.

political_i said...

Caltrain is the only commuter rail I've seen that has stations 1-2 miles apart. Does this indicate a need for better transit connections from neighborhoods? Would it benefit Caltrain to have stops every 2.5-4 miles instead of 1-2 miles?

Electrification will help but I also think that stations need to be spread out more. 1-2 miles are really only good for metro systems.

arcady said...

political_i: Caltrain isn't a "commuter rail" in the modern american sense of serving large suburban park and ride lots built in empty fields. It's more of a "regional rail" line, and is much more like the historic Eastern commuter lines (Metro North, LIRR, NJ Transit, SEPTA). Those by and large have a fairly similar stop spacing, and also tend to serve the town centers of a string of towns along the route. SEPTA Regional Rail even has a few lines that are practically urban rail, with stop distances less than a mile.

Spokker said...

Caltrain can have as many stops as they want to put on the line. They smartly started express service so it kind of makes it all a moot point anyway.

If you aren't at an express station, now you can ride a local train to the limited stop portion of the line and ride the rest of the way to your destination. That's better than nothing.

In any case, you can't please everybody, but I think that Caltrain pleases a lot of people.

Brandon in San Diego said...

I cannot get over somthing pretty fundamental... what would motivate the CHSRA to sit and negotiate with Menlo Park?

If I were the CHSRA Board and Menlo Park approached me.. I'd respond that there is nothing to talk about so long as there is an active lawsuit.

.. I'd call that an opening negotiating tactic.

James said...

During rush hour send the scheduled HSR south from SF and immediately follow with a Baby bullet on the same high speed line. Or as an HSR enters Caltrain territory send it north immediately followed by a baby bullet. Similar to the baseball express which leaves first after the game and skips the first few stations, so too the HSR would stay ahead of the baby bullet. Then take the baby bullet off the line before the next HSR is due. Why would a baby bullet foul up the HSR if it was scheduled so?

Jim said...

I think trenching both railroads through menlo park and atherton would be a good idea so long as menlo park and atherton pay the difference in cost. The res of us aren't going to pay for a bunch of uppity yups to have their delicate sensibilities protected. This type of thing has run rampant in california for far too long and is the main reason the state is so far behind in every aspect. Let's stop being a state full of pansies and start being the state that leads the world again.

arcady said...

James: that's exactly how such things work everywhere else in the world. In Switzerland, if you stand at a station just outside the city (any city), you'll see an Intercity train, followed by a regional express a couple minute later, followed by the all-stops local train a few minutes after that, and this pattern repeats every half hour. Everything is carefully timed so that the express can overtake the local right as it gets to the next major station. Having a four track line actually makes some things considerably easier, since you don't have to worry about Caltrain locals, and if need be, the express can cross over to the local track to get out of the way of an HSR train. A good model for this kind of operation is probably the Kings Cross suburban zone north of London, with its mix of 75 mph local trains, 100 mph regionals skipping most stops, and 125 mph intercity trains. Just to add to the excitement there's a two-track section in the middle of the four-track line, and a busy flat junction at Hitchin, where local trains foul all four tracks to get to the Cambridge branch. There's an dispatching simulator (SimSig) that you can try to get a feel for what it's like managing traffic on such a line. Another decent model is the NEC in New Jersey, with four tracks hosting a mix of Acelas, other Amtrak trains, and New Jersey Transit commuter expresses and locals.

Rafael said...

@ Clem -

I'd love for Caltrain and HSR to be interoperable, but unless and until FRA actually approves that, it's just not possible. Caltrain appears to be further along with its waiver application than CHSRA, but it's not yet clear what will happen with FRA now that Obama has selected a Republican (Ray LaHood) to be Secretary of Transportation.

Btw, running at 125mph requires not only a tweak to the catenaries but also more powerful trainsets. The bi-level Siemens Desiro EMU rolling stock Caltrain wants to buy maxes out at 140km/h (~90mph).

@ bossyman15, Alex:

HSR fare SF-SJ: $6 (2005 dollars)
Caltrain fare SF-SJ (4 zones): $7.75 (2008 dollars)

Both reflect one-way full fare tickets. HSR will almost certainly offer discounts for frequent travelers, as Caltrain already does.

I'd just like to re-iterate my earlier point, because it appears to have been misunderstood. CHSRA is a planning agency, it will put HSR operations out to tender. HSR is not purely a long distance system, it will take many years before we actually see 96 daily trains in each direction between SF and LA.

In the meantime, there will be plenty of available slots for regional operators like Caltrain to offer supplemental HSR service on sections of the line. We might also see Metrolink offer Anaheim-Palmdale HSR service. Amtrak could decide to offer HSR service between Bakersfield and Castle Airport.

This is consistent with the Japanese model of "hadama" (short-distance local), "hikari" (regional semi-express) and "nozomi" (long-distance express) service on JR East's Tokaido shinkansen. The Japanese use a combination of markings on platforms and mandatory seat reservations during rush hour to keep dwell times at intermediate stations down to 50 seconds. SNCF requires seat reservations on all TGV trains.

Whenever slots on the California line will be auctioned, operators bidding to use all of it should be preferred. If and when SF-LA/Anaheim demand picks up, regional and local HSR providers would then have to scale back their operations. However, with safe headways of as little as 3 minutes and dwell times as short as a minute possible, there is enormous capacity to go around.

Continuing "baby bullet" service at below-HSR top speeds might be more difficult to implement, if only because turnouts suitable for speeds above 100mph are very long and expensive. It might be easier for Caltrain to offer just "local" (~90mph) and "hadama" (125-150mph) service levels using different trainsets.

@ Brandon -

CHSRA isn't a private company. As a public planning body, they may be legally obliged to negotiate in good faith with representatives of any affected community, even if there is a pending lawsuit. No-one said those negotiations mean havign to yield to the NIMBYs. The law does not require solutions that are optimal for residents living near the line, only that they meet generally accepted norms :^)

Moreover, the lawsuit specifically alleges that CHSRA failed to properly implement the legally required EIR/EIS process. The more CHSRA appears to be acting in good faith, the harder it becomes for plaintiffs to make their case.

arcady said...

Rafael: I think you assume too much. The fares, for example, are based on, at best, a back of the napkin calculation by someone a few years ago, especially intermediate fares. In reality, they'll probably be set in such a way to optimize revenue, and that generally also means a preference for longer distance riders. Also, you assume that Caltrain actually wants Desiro double deckers. As far as I know, they're just using them as an example. In reality, they'll probably put out a tender and get whatever is most cost effective given the requirements. There are plenty of double-decker MUs in Europe with a 100 mph top speed, and maybe it would be possible to push that higher. And in the end, I suspect that it will be Caltrain that has the ultimate authority to decide what gets done with their right of way and their tracks.

Clem said...

> And in the end, I suspect that it will be Caltrain that has the ultimate authority to decide what gets done with their right of way and their tracks.

I strongly doubt that. Caltrain has no money (gets strung along with a stop-gap budget every year). CHSRA will have tons of money. Also, if past experience is any guide, Caltrain may not have the ability or willingness to identify and defend their own best interests (i.e. those of their riders).

mike said...

Clem - Come on, Caltrain did so well in defending its interests with BART to SFO. ;-)

BruceMcF said...

@ Rafeal ... I'm wondering whether the compliance/non-compliance issue is more politically assymetric than you are allowing for.

Scenario 1. Running on track that is open to FRA compliant freight. Here you have substantial stakeholder resistance nationwide to setting up a precedent that could end up rebounding on their capital costs or path availability. So getting a waiver to run non-compliant trainsets in this scenario should be expected to be like pulling teeth, because if it was easy, it would encourage more people to try.

Scenario 2. Running on a new grade separated track not open to passage by FRA compliant freight. Here, it would seem that all stakeholder interests line up in favor of allowing it, so long as it is an effective operational plan (eg., local sweeper, hold at interchange station for express, becomes local trailer). For the entity holding the capital costs of the new grade separated track, it gives another stream of access fee revenue. For the entity proposing to run the trains, if they were not in their perceived interests, they would not be making the proposal. And for the freight railroads, it gets passenger train interlopers off their track for part of their route.

Sure, its a bureaucratic decision, made by people whose power is the ability to say no, and whose clout rests on supposed expertise, so the political fight takes place on a playing field of technical claims and counterclaims. But its a political fight, nonetheless.

Rafael said...

@ Arcady -

Caltrain has evaluated non-compliant EMU trainsets from both Siemens and Alstom. Both options are rated at 87mph top speed, but the Siemens model accelerates faster. Faster models were not considered because at the time, there were no plans for service at higher speeds.

In its latest report on mixed traffic, Caltrain also mentions Bombardier as a potential supplier. However, it was Siemens that helped Caltrain with finite element analysis of crash scenarios at grade crossings, an essential component in getting FRA to consider a waiver.

Also, Siemens has a light rail assembly plant in Sacramento. It could fairly easily build Desiro rolling stock instead. Bombardier has plants in the US but not in California. Alstom has no assembly plants in the US at this time.

Conclusion: if Caltrain obtains a waiver to operate mixed traffic in its ROW (specifically, on two of the four tracks), it would indeed have to put the contract out to tender. However, there appears to be a preference for Siemens equipment at the present time. Caltrain has not yet published any documents on how the passage of prop 1A has affected its Caltrain 2025 project, which includes the electrification project.

@ BruceMcF -

UPRR has an easement to operate freight trains in the Caltrain corridor. Apparently, this amounts to a couple of daily yard switching trains collecting cars from customers and one that collects the partial consists and moves them to the main UPRR yard south of Fremont.

Afaik, UPRR uses FRA-compliant equipment for these services and will continue to do so. Because there are so few freight trains in the corridor, guaranteed time separation should be feasible, so FRA is likely to grant Caltrain's waiver.

One possible fly in the ointment is freight trains crossing HSR tracks, an issue closely related to which will be the fast and which the slow lanes in the peninsula corridor.

spence said...

From the article:

...officials will simultaneously negotiate with the High Speed Rail Authority while remaining a plaintiff in the suit against the state body.

"They're different entirely," Vice Mayor Richard Cline said on the suit and negotiations. "One is
going to be handled from a legal perspective "... and the second part will be representing our community and having a dialogue about the (planning process)."


I would love it if the CHSRA counter-sued Menlo Park for filing a frivilous lawsuit while simultaneously agreeing to meet with the local community to discuss the planning process. I'm sure Vice Mayor Richard Cline would understand that the countersuit is "entirely different" and merely a "legal process."

What a douche.

Clem said...

The lawsuit, while ill-timed with respect to Prop 1A, is not entirely without merit. The EIR/EIS process may indeed have been improperly biased in order to support the preconceived political decision to go via Pacheco instead of Altamont.

Remember, even if Menlo Park et al. win this lawsuit, HSR will still come through Menlo Park... but from Dumbarton instead of Palo Alto. No matter what the outcome, Menlo Park will get HSR, hence the legitimate need to negotiate with the CHSRA.

It's not such a cut-and-dry NIMBY lawsuit.

Spokker said...

It depends on what your position on Pacheco vs. Altamont is I guess. I personally couldn't care less, and think both should be built.

The SF-SAC time should be a priority too, even if the Capitol Corridor exists. It's a fun route and does a great job and probably continue to do so after HSR, but it's no HSR.

ACE is already as bare bones as it is.

Brandon in San Diego said...

Rafael,
Well, on the face of it, I understand and agree with you. However, the question still remains, what good comes out of negotiating with Menlo Park... other than what you stated... maintianing good faith and public support?

Other than that, the CHSRA position should already be known by Menlo Park. The only real message I can image that would be functional for CHSRA to provide, and MP to hear, would be confirmation or clarification on the implications if they wanted something different than what is planned.

And in my opinion, if MP wants something up and beyond what is planned, then they should have to pay for the cost difference. They should also have to pay for any study, planning or design of any changes.