One aspect of yesterday's extensive thread entitled "Of Lawsuits, Tunnels and Tall Trees" that I feel did not receive enough attention is the matter of knock-on effects of grade separation strategies and, that of where CHSRA will put the mid-peninsula station. Other than the tentative Hanford/Visalia/Tulare station, this is the only one that CHSRA has not nailed down yet.
Knock-On Effects of Grade Separation StrategiesIn deciding which type of partial or full grade separation they want to see implemented, the mid-peninsula communities of Redwood City, Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto need to negotiate not just with CHSRA but also with each other. Once HSR becomes operational, there will be three railroads in the peninsula corridor: Caltrain, HSR and Union Pacific. ACE and/or Amtrak (Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin, California Zephyr, perhaps even a Coast Corridor sleeper service from SF to LA until HSR is available) could conceivably seek limited trackage rights up to 4th & King in San Francisco in the future, especially if and when the old Dumbarton rail bridge is restored to active service. That means the grade separation solutions in the mid-peninsula must also consider the need for turnoffs toward that bridge at the border of Redwood City and Atherton.
Serving everyone's needs requires that the gradients of at least the Caltrain tracks be kept low enough for freight trains (2.2% max) and, that all stations be on level track sections. Keeping everything at grade achieves this nicely, but it would also make full grade separation of the corridor more expensive and intrusive for properties adjacent to both the tracks and the cross-roads. That means it is not technically possible to elevate tracks in Menlo Park and not do it in downtown Palo Alto as well. Likewise, you cannot run tunnels under just downtown Palo Alto. The impact of the level at which tracks will run near the San Francisquito creek extends as far north as Redwood City and south to at least Oregon Expressway in Palo Alto, if not further.
CORRECTION: Except for deep tunnels under San Francisquito Creek, it appears there is in fact enough run length to accommodate a mix of grade separation solutions without turning the alignment into a roller coaster (h/t to Clem).
The Port of San Francisco has asked Caltrain to enable the operation of extra-tall AAR plate H freight cars, e.g. for transporting imported cars stacked not two but three high. It may be a serious case of the tail wagging the dog, but this wish might nevertheless be granted, e.g. as part of a grand bargain with UPRR on an ROW deal for SJ-Gilroy or, with the city of San Francisco on CHSRA/JPB contributions toward the DTX tunnel to and trainbox under its new showcase Transbay Terminal Center.
The overhead catenary system would have to provide not just physical but also electric clearance for plate H freight trains. The latter refers to the minimum vertical distance to the 25kV overhead catenary system that is required to avoid electric arcing (i.e. short circuits). This is especially critical at overpasses and in tunnels.
Any new long covered trenches or tunnels in the corridor might therefore have to be taller than required for Caltrain and HSR alone. Extensive undergrounding would also introduce another safety concern, as diesel-powered freight trains would need to run through several underground stations. EPA is tightening emissions regulations for remanufactured and new diesel locomotives, but all California rail operators have large numbers of dirty legacy units.
UPDATE: Retrofitting diesel locomotives with pantographs to avoid diesel emissions in tunnels is possible, but someone - e.g. the cities demanding that tracks be put underground - would have to pay for that, in addition to the much greater cost differential for a drilling four long, large-bore tunnels in the first place.
HSR Station OptionsIn addition to track work, the city that gets the mid-peninsula station will have to deal with the mixed blessing of becoming a regional transit hub. The primary challenge is figuring out how to manage - or better yet, avoid - additional car traffic by offering connecting transit and bicycle infrastructure, while eliminating free parking in the station environs. Below are maps that showcase the kinds of issues urban planners will have to deal with when HSR comes to their town.
Officially under consideration are Palo Alto and Redwood City. The former already generates more Caltrain traffic than San Jose. The latter is arguably better located for (connecting) service to and from from the East Bay, though that argument has been weakened by the decisions in favor of Pacheco Pass and the BART extension to Santa Clara.
Nevertheless, since there will be no HSR service between San Jose and Oakland in the foreseeable future, bus feeder services across the Dumbarton road bridge will have to be offered to avoid excessive additional traffic near the station areas. Another complication is that both candidate locations are located near shopping centers that offer ample free parking, intended for use by their customers. It is entirely possible that HSR passengers arriving by car would abuse these parking lots. One possible workaround is to always require motorists to pay for parking near the HSR station. Retail outlets would then validate the first hour or two for customers that spend above a threshold amount. Any surplus would be used to help subsidize local and regional transit services, which after all bring in not just rail passengers but also customers from further afield.
In addition to bus or streetcar services and for-fee car parking, Caltrain/HSR combo stations need to provide ample for-fee parking for bicycles - preferably guarded or based on biketrees to curb theft and save space.
The chosen host city should also provide safe bicycle access routes, as is common practice in e.g. Houten (Holland). Bicycles are emissions-free and use road space more efficiently that four-seater cars that are - let's face it - most often used to transport just one or two persons. Cycling therefore ought to be a popular way to catch any type of train, especially in summer when air quality is at its worst and gasoline at its most expensive.
City bikes with electric assist systems, already all the rage in China and parts of Europe, greatly increase the bicycle catchment area for train stations, in terms of both distance and terrain. It may even make sense for cities and passenger rail operators to encourage the purchase of folding models, possibly with electric assist, as these can more easily be stowed on trains and even, recharged. That would increase ridership and reduce demand for bicycle storage.
Another option are fleets of sturdy conventional bicycles that people can rent at no or very low cost, e.g. Velib' in Paris (France) or CityBike in Vienna (Austria). However, their success depends largely on high population density and flat terrain, a combination in short supply in California, though Palo Alto might qualify.
To illustrate possible solutions for the candidate locations for the mid-peninsula HSR station, I have prepared three exploratory maps. These do not reflect any official plans from any agency or city.
Note that these do not show the details of the station layout, e.g. side vs. island platform(s). The Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog is a more appropriate venue for those. All I intend to highlight here is the need to accommodate four tracks, of which at least two must have two full-length (1/4 mile) level boarding platforms. Even if these are not fully built out right away, the space for them must be reserved up front, as must adequate room for pedestrian flow into and out of the station on both sides of the tracks.
Keep in mind that CHSRA could still decide to cancel its plans for a mid-peninsula station altogether in the context of the project-level EIR/EIS for this segment of the HSR route.
Option 1: Redwood City
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Note the existing Sequoia Station's proximity to a large shopping center and the city's main street, Broadway. The map also shows the convenient access to the business park at Network Circle and the Dumbarton bridge beyond it, as well as the turnoffs for future commuter rail service across the bay.
The bus route to Union City is indicated in orange. A new bus terminal next to the station could feature a publicly accessible green roof that would serve as an additional small park. The building could feature a second story with transit-oriented offices or else, support services for transit users/shoppers: a post office, a supermarket, dry cleaning, a day care center with for-fee reservation by the hour etc. Just for kicks, I also sketched (in red) a streetcar route that would link the station to several business parks in the area. There is a legacy rail ROW out to Seaport Blvd, but otherwise this is just an crazy idea of mine.
Option 2: Palo Alto
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Note the proximity to Stanford University, Stanford Shopping Center and the city's main street, University Avenue. The latter has already been grade separated against the railroad tracks as well as Alma St. and El Camino Real (see Focus On: Palo Alto). Both the rails and Alma St. were moved west some 85 feet to ease construction of the underpass. The resulting chicane would prevent HSR express trains from passing at 125mph. The existing station building will also have to be moved or replaced when the alignment is straightened out again. That means the Alma/University interchange will also have to be extensively modified unless the rails are moved into very deep tunnels with sufficient overburden at the underpass, which would open up a can of worms (see above).
If the rails remain above ground, it might make a lot of sense to leverage two of the existing connectors between the two roads to return Alma St. to grade level, but with a chicane in the other direction. The space in-between would be used for modified turn-offs into and out of the underpass.
In addition, the map shows a more radical idea that is not at all essential to HSR operations but in keeping with the transit-oriented spirit of the project: converting the section of University Ave. between the modified Alma St. and Webster St. into a pedestrian zone with al fresco dining etc. A single traffic lane down the center would be retained for vehicles with a permit, e.g. police, fire, ambulance, sanitation, handicapped transport and delivery trucks at certain hours of the day. Normally, it would be reserved for bicycles. All of the parking spots would disappear, motorists would need to make do with the parking lots along Lytton and Hamilton. Local traffic, possibly including a courtesy shuttle to the Caltrain/HSR station, would be routed around the pedestrian zone via these roads plus Webster and Alma. The European experience shows that shopkeepers' fears about losing foot traffic are misplaced, as shoppers actually flock to pedestrian zones within easy walking distance of transit stops and/or parking.
Vehicular through traffic would be encouraged to use the existing one-way express streets Homer and Channing, located several blocks south-east of University Ave.
Another feature of the map is a bus terminal located next to the station. An existing nearby restaurant could be relocated to the second floor there to make room for a nice plaza in front of the station, for drop-off/pick-up and taxi waiting service. As in Redwood City, the bus terminal building would feature a green roof, part of which would be used for al fresco dining in this case.
Also note the optional two-story car park at the north end of the station platforms, with a publicly accessible green roof to replace the soccer pitch and corner park that would be lost during construction. Alternatively, capacity could be added across the street at Stanford Shopping Center by adding a second story there, iff Stanford Shopping Center is amenable to that.
The final feature worth pointing out is the red area opposite El Camino Real from the station. The land is owned by Stanford University, which could decide to develop it for a transit-oriented hotel-and-conference center for visiting academics, cultural venue and/or affordable housing for graduate students. This is optional and not at all essential for the success of the HSR station.
Bonus Option: Mountain View
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This city is currently not under consideration for the mid-peninsula station, perhaps because that would give Santa Clara county three stations vs. just one for San Mateo county. Nevertheless, the location may be worth considering for three reasons:
a) VTA Light Rail already connects Mountain View to the "Golden Triangle" of Silicon Valley, a collection of high-tech businesses in the area bordered by I-101, 237 and I-880. The existing light rail track(s) will have to be moved to permit construction of two dedicated HSR tracks - if not up front, then definitely at a later date. Since the light rail approach to the station is single-track, one option would be to move that to the median of Central Expressway, terminating in Stierlin Rd. A pedestrian overpass would facilitate access to the train station.
b) The location is close to several major highways: I-101, Central Expressway, 85 and 237 plus, the area's largest employment and entertainment cluster - Shoreline - is near the shortest route to Dumbarton bridge. That means Mountain View arguably has a larger catchment area than even Palo Alto, which may explain why it already attracts almost as much ridership on Caltrain.
c) The city of Mountain View has been pro-active in planning ahead for the arrival of HSR tracks (h/t to Clem Tillier).
The town's main street, Castro, currently features a busy grade crossing. Existing overpasses in the area preclude elevating the tracks and, a deep underpass would be disruptive to the station and other properties near the intersection. The map therefore shows Mountain View station remaining at grade with the crossing permanently closed! A drastic step, to be sure, but one that may be required for HSR even if its trains end up just passign through.
To compensate for the loss of access to Central Expressway in particular, traffic would be re-routed via N Shoreline, W Evelyn and Whisman. Also shown are alternative access routes to and from 85 and 237 that skirt residential areas. With road space at a premium near the station, traffic is already constrained northbound at the station. Note that the direction of traffic flow around the bus stop circle might have to be reversed. However, there is no room right next to or across Central Expressway from the station for a bus terminal, as in the other two locations.
Also shown is the option of turning three blocks of Castro St, a popular local destination for lunch, into a pedestrian zone with traffic routed around it via side streets. Note that there is no large shopping mall near this station.
Finally, note the existing bike lanes and dedicated path out to Shoreline business park (Google et al), amphitheater and lake. The path extends all the way to Palo Alto airport. Unfortunately, N. Shoreline is too narrow to permit extending VTA light rail all the way out there, so concertgoers arriving by train will have to hop on the bus across to Union City instead. It should use the frontage road to avoid I-101, which is often congested.