Saturday, November 28, 2009

Why An HSR Design Competition Is An Excellent Idea

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

One tried and true practice for designing projects with a great deal of public interest - and public controversy - is to hold a design competition. Many important public memorials have been designed this way, including the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and the World Trade Center Memorial in lower Manhattan.

Such competitions serve several purposes. They open the often contentious process of designing important yet potentially divisive projects to public scrutiny, enabling the public to participate in the selection process (therefore making them more invested in the project itself, instead of as bombthrowers from the sidelines). They also help people see what is possible and what is desirable in a particular project by having architects imagine new and interesting ways to design the project. Instead of an abstract concept or a feared design, like the "Berlin Wall" on the Peninsula, people can see something that interests them, inspires them, and gets them to see the project not as a threat but as a possibility for welcome change, an opportunity to do something new, interesting, useful, but that meets their own goals and desires.

It is in that vein that calls for an HSR design contest on the Peninsula are such a welcome development:

Joseph Bellomo has a simple proposal for the California High-Speed Rail Authority: Leave the design of the proposed high-speed rail to the world's brightest designers.

Bellomo, a Palo Alto architect whose projects emphasize modular construction, energy efficiency and sustainable design, laments that the design of the controversial 800-mile rail line has so far been dominated by teams of engineers, each working on a separate segment of the line.

So while other local architects, urban planners and concerned residents are busy lobbying the state for underground tunnels, Bellomo advocates a different approach for selecting the design of the proposed line -- an international design competition.

Last month, Bellomo sent a letter to the rail authority, the state agency charged with building the $45 billion rail line, proposing a two-tiered international competition in which architects and designers from around the world would send in proposed designs for the entire line. The proposals would be narrowed to three finalists whose ideas would be further developed.

"The only way to get good design, holistic design, is through competition," Bellomo said.

I'm not as convinced that we need a design competition for the entire route, but a design competition for some elements of the project, including the Peninsula Corridor, makes quite a lot of sense. It would help make the CHSRA seem like less of an outside invader and more of a facilitator of modern designs for a modern urban landscape, allowing residents and architects and planners to come together to present innovative designs appropriate to the location.

This is especially valuable on the Peninsula because the objections to HSR there are almost entirely aesthetic (though they're rooted in deeper issues of economic opportunity and a desire of some to protect what they have at the expense of others). The desire for a tunnel is driven by the conviction that an elevated structure designed by CHSRA will merely resemble a giant freeway. As we've shown before, above-grade HSR tracks can be built elegantly, blending well with their surrounding urban environment. A design competition can show ways to build HSR that meet both the operational criteria of the CHSRA and the other criteria of local HSR supporters. Such a design competition will never silence the hardcore HSR deniers, but that isn't the purpose here.

Bellomo isn't just calling for a design competition in the abstract. He is also offering his own idea, which you can find at his site (scroll down about halfway to find the HSR section). His proposal is for what he's calling a "solar corridor", an elevated track with a steel enclosure that holds photovoltaic solar panels. His Peninsula design leaves two Caltrain tracks at-grade, allowing for its electrification, and a either a single or double track in the elevated viaduct. In some ways this resembles Rafael's La Vitrine concept from back in March, though with important differences.

I can't say I'm sold on the Bellomo concept. And it's unclear whether the visual impact of the "ribs" would be embraced by the locals. Also left unstated is what happens to the at-grade tracks at existing grade crossings. But I am glad to see him giving some thought to how to implement HSR along the Peninsula.

His idea of an HSR design competition for selected segments of the route is a very wise idea. It won't solve everything, but it is worth embracing.

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33 comments:

Anonymous said...

"they're rooted in deeper issues of economic opportunity and a desire of some to protect what they have at the expense of others" Robert you are absolutely full of shjt

Anonymous said...

It sounds pretty accurate to me.

All ABOARD! said...

Nail on the head accurate.

Rafael said...

The CSS process already creates plenty of scope for architects to participate in the design of the above-ground alternatives being considered for the Caltrain corridor.

Architects would bring two critical qualifications to the table, relative to civil engineers:

(a) aesthetic sensibilities
(b) ability to manage decision-making processes involving a lot of emotions

That said, very few architects are also themselves civil engineers. Santiago Calatrava is the only one I know of.

More to the point, I know of no architect at all who is also a railroad engineer. These specialists need to work together in multi-disciplinary teams, with each respecting the unique expertise of the other.

Just don't make the mistake of equating high-capacity transportation infrastructure with a static memorial site or building. The former is by definition a highly dynamic construct, the result has to actually work in terms of rail and cross traffic operations.

---

Wrt to Bellomo's specific proposal: putting HSR on an elevated structure, however graceful, while keeping Caltrain and UPRR at grade does not deliver full grade separation of the right of way. While CHSRA is not formally required to deliver that, it would be a very bad idea not to.

Caltrain alone expects to reach 10 trains per hour (each way) during peak periods as early as 2025. If each passing train forces a grade crossing to be closed for an average of 90 seconds, cross traffic will be impeded an unacceptably high 50% of the time. Individual closure events may last for 3 minutes. In the peninsula, that might be enough to induce road rage in some drivers.

Let's not even get started about the E Meadow crossing.

It's unclear to me what purpose a single elevated HSR track would serve. HSR has to be a high capacity system, otherwise don't bother building it at all.

Also, fully enclosing a single elevated track would require a tube approx. 25 feet in diameter. Soundproofing depends on mass, so it will need to be heavy.

Bellomo's slender and angled(!) columns look hopelessly optimistic for supporting such a structure in nominal conditions, never mind in high cross winds or during an earthquake.

If an enclosure is to be considered at all, e.g. between San Francisquito Creek and Embarcadero Ave in Palo Alto, it should be for tracks at grade level. Further north and south, other solutions may make more sense in the context of established motor vehicle and bicycle traffic patterns.

Each grade crossing in the SF peninsula needs to be looked at individually, subject to constraints on elevation changes for the tracks. As long as heavy freight must be supported, that means more massive structures and gradients of no more than 1%. However, frequent elevation changes are still undesirable for freight trains and express HSR passengers alike.

Anonymous said...

There is no way an elevated can be erected thru Palo Alto that will not be blighting unless it is along the 101 corridor.

The competition idea is simply a trojan horse. The best Bechtel-Balfour-Beatty could impose is Brutalist Lite.

Anonymous said...

Russia: Bomb caused train crash that killed 26

High Speed Train Crash

Rafael said...

To illustrate my points regarding enclosures and vertical elevation changes, here's a video. It shows the view from the driver cab of a shinkansen train traveling at 250km/h over a box bridge. A rectangular enclosure with glass panes on the sides could look similar.

A few seconds later, the video shows a "roller coaster" section of the busy Tokaido shinkansen between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka. The train appears to be traveling at around 250km/h at first but then slows down considerably, perhaps to avoid churning passengers' stomachs.

I'm fairly certain that US-style heavy freight trains could not negotiate the gradients shown.

AndyDuncan said...

I'm all for a design competition, but cost needs to be controlled. We don't need a $4b TBT at every stop along the route.

HSRforCali said...

This doesn't have to do with the discussion, but I recently came across a map on the Transit Coalition's website that shows the permitted speeds along each section of the HSR system. Between Palmdale and Bakersfield, it shows speed will be between 150 and 200mph. But since it's flat empty desert land, (up to Tehachapi at least) couldn't trains reach 220mph on this segment? This could probably help cut travel time.

Here's the web page URL by the way: http://transittalk.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=highspeed&action=display&thread=722

AndyDuncan said...

The land from Bako to tehachapi is anything but flat.

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HSRforCali said...

@ AndyDuncan

I'm talking about the area between Tehachapi and Palmdale.

Rafael said...

Some examples of HSR stations that were architected rather than merely engineered. It's uncommon for track structures to receive a similar level of attention to aesthetic detail.

1) Lyon St. Exupery airport station: TGV Satolas, architect Santiago Calatrava. Note that the station is on the branch down to Marseille, so trains between Paris and downtown Lyon never reach it. SNCF does not operate TGV trains between downtown Lyon and Marseille, so locals couldn't even use the TGV system to reach their local airport, even though both have TGV stations. An express streetcar is now being constructed instead.

Other HSR stations by Calatrava:

- Lisboa Oriente + The Nations Park (TOD) in Lisbon, Portugal.

- Liege Guillemins and environs (TOD), Liege, Belgium

2) the planned new railway station for Stuttgart, Germany. Architect Christoph Ingenhoven (both videos in German).

It is the centerpiece of the regional Stuttgart 21 project and part of the EU's Paris-Bratislava/Budapest priority axis. The new station will replace a very large and sophisticated terminus station with a eight underground run-through tracks. Note the large sculpted skylights-cum-columns.

3) High speed rail station for Florence, Italy. Architects Foster + Partners.

Deep underground, but the architects decided against a full mezzanine so daylight can reach the platform level.

4) New central station for Berlin, Germany. Architect Meinhard von Gerkan.

The station features elevated tracks running east-west and underground tracks running north-south. It is served by 164 daily long-distance/ICE plus 324 regional/commuter plus 1100 S-Bahn trains (when they're running :-X)

AndyDuncan said...

@HSRForCali:

The run simulation showed in the August board meeting indicated a "speed limit" of the full 350kph between Sylmar and Mojave, those run simulations are using the specs from the AGV as the trainset, they show the train getting up to full speed along some of that route, so I'd guess that the map you linked to is either out of date or not granular enough.

All ABOARD! said...

ITs not flat but its easy building, and plenty roomy

58-1

58-2

58-3

58-4

Anonymous said...

You really don't think that the hsr is going thru these towns like Mojave without stopping there? Every burg is going to demand its own station. The whole purpose of the Palmdale detour is to enable a second LA in the high desert. Ergo you gotta stop there. It's all politics - ditto for the hsr being ordered to slow speeds due to high noise and vibration levels.

When you dumbed down to the Tehachapis you bought into a milkrun. TS

matt said...

Anon 2.42

AHHH Slippery slope!!! Once you stop in palmdale you have to stop in Bishop too!!!! AHHHHHHH beware!

Ok then We wont build Palmdale.

But dangit! Once you bypass palmdale then you have to bypass Bako, and Fresno, And San Jose, and all the rest and then all we have is TBT to LAUS....damnit! If only we were capable of rational decision-making instead of just irrational movements!

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 2:42pm -

... and now you know why the folks that wrote AB3034(2008) put in a clause that limits the entire network to 24 stations.

That means one station still has to be eliminated, actually. City of Industry? University City? Mid-peninsula? Irvine?

Won't be easy...

Brandon in San Diego said...

Function over Form

Interesting idea. For me, and I imagine for any one form an engineering background or train background, a design competition could be palatable if appropriate design parameters were in place for the wouldbe visionaries. Among those should be items which support, or not preclude, operating trains, maintaining tracks and stations and systems, access for personnel, ectera.

That goes without saying.

However, I cannot imagine anyone without experience in rail engineering to have the faintest idea how to proceed.

And for that matter, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to pursue such an effort, particularly if it involved the whole corridor. Stations, yes.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Brandon, I can see people taking a crack at grade separations. There's got to be a better way to do that than the "Berlin Wall" nonsense being peddled. I like how the San Carlos overpass is done, but even that is a variation on the basic theme.

I'm sure there will be more design competitions for some of the stations (there was already one for Transbay Terminal, and I think for ARTIC as well). Hopefully those will move us further away from the tyranny of trying to ape Santiago Calatrava and Estaçao do Oriente, which I've expressed my dislike of on previous occasions here.

All ABOARD! said...

I can't imagine why, when budgets are constrained, we would build anything but a a strictly basic, utilitarian system where all the money goes into reliability and not looks.

AndyDuncan said...

I can't imagine why, when budgets are constrained, we would build anything but a a strictly basic, utilitarian system where all the money goes into reliability and not looks.

I agree completely. Now, about that TBT...

All ABOARD! said...

(tbt isn't coming out of the hsr budget, aside from the train box, its a san francisco project padi for the residents and developers)

Eric said...

I can't imagine why, when budgets are constrained, we would build anything but a a strictly basic, utilitarian system where all the money goes into reliability and not looks.

Budgets are always constrained (if they aren't, that's a sign of a very poorly managed project).

People want to live and work in attractive environments. You really want to go back to the sixties and seventies when Caltrans just slapped in ugly-ass freeways wherever they felt like it, the local community be damned? You really think you can encourage the type of TOD that will make HSR economically beneficial if you don't consider aesthetics? Really??

Anonymous said...

You fellas act like Prop 1A is as sacrosanct as the Constitution. Oh hey, the Constitution can be amended. I guess if you change your mind and outlaw slavery you can build more than 24 stations on California's hsr.

If the Machine that runs this bankrupt state deems more stations are politically popular they will be added.

As far as that goes, if the electorate veers strongly to the right again this jury rig of a project could very well be aborted.

Joey said...

As much as I know you'll dismiss this, it seems like CHSRA has some sort of logical parameters as to where to put stations and where not to. If you look at the populations of most of the cities along the route - all but a few are of populations greater than 100000 people (this includes Palmdale). I know the city of Tehachapi pushed for a station a little while back, though that doesn't look like it went anywhere. Truth be told, the 24 station limit looks like it exists for this purpose. It is not 100% final, and may in fact have to be changed at some point, but in the mean time it is probably preventing a flood of station requests from every cluster of buildings that happen to be along the route from flooding the authority. There is a method behind the madness.

Robert Cruickshank said...

The 24 station limit can be changed, but not very easily. It was put there partly to appease environmental groups concerned about the possibility of a Los Banos station. The Sierra Club, for example, saw the limit as a key reason to support Prop 1A.

So yes, of course the limit can be changed. But it won't be particularly easy. Environmental groups would be up in arms about it, unless there was another assurance that no Los Banos station would be built.

There's also the matter of cost and overall travel times. More stations mean longer travel times (except for express trains) and definitely means greater cost.

So there's really no political momentum behind changing the 24 station limit, not at this time. Tehachapi just isn't politically connected enough to make it happen. The system already hits the key population centers. What's left are smaller places that might get a station later on, once the system has been open and operating for a while, but I really don't see any reason to believe we'll go above 24 anytime soon.

Joey said...

I thought Los Baños was explicitly prohibited anyway (no station between Gilroy and Fresno or something like that...)

Robert Cruickshank said...

Joey, that is correct, thanks for the reminder. The 24 station limit was seen as an additional layer of protection against sprawl inducement, especially elsewhere along the route.

Morris Brown said...

Robert writes:


The 24 station limit can be changed, but not very easily. It was put there partly to appease environmental groups concerned about the possibility of a Los Banos station. The Sierra Club, for example, saw the limit as a key reason to support Prop 1A.

So yes, of course the limit can be changed.


Actually the station at Los Banos was eliminated and specifically mentioned, not because of a 24 station max limit, but for other reasons. As Prop 1A is written, you cannot have a station anywhere between Gilroy and Merced.

As Rafael has mentioned, a high speed rail project doesn't want to be turned into a slow commuter project with a station every 10 miles.

Well Robert I agree the 24 station limit can be be changed. However, the limit is written into Prop 1A, just as other provisions governing the project and the expenditure of bond funds are.

Being a voter approved proposition, it will take the legislature to propose amendments to Prop 1A. That will take a 2/3 vote of the legislature. Then the amendments will have to be put on a ballot and approved. That is the only way the language and requirements of Prop 1A can be modified.

Such a process might well be necessary, since there are other provisions in Prop 1A, that the Authority might well want changed.

I'm a bit surprised that, to the best of my knowledge, nobody here has brought up the fact that Prop 1A demands that a passenger be able to go from any one point on a corridor to any other point, without having to get off and transfer to another train.

This make the concept proposed of having the project go from LA to San Jose and then use a CalTrain bullet train to go the rest of the way to SF, not allowed under Prop 1A.

I would welcome any effort to get the voters of California to again approve or modify the project.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Actually, that too is a good point Morris, that the provisions of AB 3034/Prop 1A are not very easily changed. Also glad to see you reminding people that the oft-stated desire of some Peninsula NIMBYs to break HSR by forcing people to transfer to Caltrain at San José Diridon isn't likely to be permissible under that law.

Still, as much as you might like to see AB 3034/Prop 1A modified to suit your desires, or repealed outright, it's not going to happen. There is little chance of you getting the 2/3rds vote you'd need to gut the project or cancel it entirely. Especially once we get federal stimulus funds.

Eric said...

Actually, that too is a good point Morris, that the provisions of AB 3034/Prop 1A are not very easily changed. Also glad to see you reminding people that the oft-stated desire of some Peninsula NIMBYs to break HSR by forcing people to transfer to Caltrain at San José Diridon isn't likely to be permissible under that law.

Still, as much as you might like to see AB 3034/Prop 1A modified to suit your desires, or repealed outright, it's not going to happen. There is little chance of you getting the 2/3rds vote you'd need to gut the project or cancel it entirely. Especially once we get federal stimulus funds.


RC in swagger mode is always entertaining. He thinks he's not just some random gadfly, but someone who's really got some political clout.

Joey said...

Farewell, Blogspot. You have served us well.