Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Andrew Bogan on Palo Alto City Council and HSR

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

Note from Robert: The below post is by Andrew Bogan, who was in attendance at last night's meeting and offered this very perceptive look at the council and its approach to the HSR project. I'm especially thankful to Andrew for posting this since all I have to go on from here in Monterey are news reports which are not always accurate or useful (I'm looking at you, Gennady Sheyner).

In Defense of NIMBYs?

The Palo Alto City Council met on March 30, 2009 for their second major discussion of High Speed Rail (HSR). The specific focus of the meeting was to approve the HSR scoping letter from City Staff to the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) for the Peninsula's Project Level EIR/EIS scoping comment period, which expires on April 6 (this date was previously extended one month by CHSRA in response to a written request from the City of Palo Alto). In addition to amending and approving the scoping letter, the City also amended and then formally approved the agreement for their participation in the Peninsula Cities Coalition, which was largely organized by Palo Alto Council Member Kishimoto. The third decision related to Palo Alto's planned letter with comments and objections to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB) with regard to the Caltrain and CHSRA Memorandum of Understanding that will most likely be adopted on Thursday by Caltrain's board. After the public meeting session ended, the City Attorney addressed Council in a closed session to update them on the details of the Atherton lawsuit against CHSRA that is trying to invalidate the completed Program Level EIR/EIS. The statute of limitations to become a plaintiff has expired, so the discussion was on whether the City should or should not file an amicus curiae brief in support of the plaintiffs, which includes the Town of Atherton, the City of Menlo Park (the two towns north of Palo Alto on the Caltrain corridor) along with myriad environmental groups and some "rail supporters". The Palo Alto Daily News had some of the best local media coverage of the meeting.

The Council heard brief comments from City Staff, from Lee Lipert of the Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission, and from the Palo Alto Historic Resources Board. Dominic Spaethling and Rod Young from the CHSRA attended the meeting, but did not speak. Mayor Drekmeier stated that CHSRA Commissioner Rod Diridon had apologized that he was in Los Angeles and could not attend and that Quentin Kopp was hospitalized with an unspecified ailment. In addition, 14 members of the community (your correspondent included) spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. This was significantly fewer public comments than the 35 or so made at the first HSR council meeting in early March. The tone of public comments were also significantly more constructive, with the prior session's rantings largely absent. A majority of speakers specifically stated their support for HSR, although most voiced objections or concerns about how or if it should come through Palo Alto. Two speakers were expressly in favor of HSR and supported having the proposed mid-Peninsula HSR Station located in Palo Alto (including your correspondent).

The Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commission added 26 items to the 36 existing items in Palo Alto's scoping letter, for a total of 62 points for CHSRA to address within the EIR scope. The Commission was not asked to take a stance on HSR in general or on the amicus brief and did not do so, though some members of the Commission clearly support the project. The Palo Alto Historic Resources Board provided a list of historic properties in Palo Alto near HSR's proposed route, starting with our City's ancient tree, El Palo Alto, and continuing to include the Southern Pacific Depot (aka University Ave Caltrain Station and underpass), the Green Meadow neighborhood (with its mid-century modern design and architecture), and the possibility of Southgate being a "potential historic district" (whatever that means). Green Meadow's historic homes were described to be a few hundred feet from the tracks at their closest point, so the concerns are mainly with regard to noise and vibration. A speaker from the Green Meadow community stated that "not a single household in Green Meadow supported HSR above ground". So the NIMBY concerns have moved beyond Southgate, Palo Alto's NIMBY capital.

Many of the residents who spoke said the train tracks were adjacent to their property (mostly on Mariposa in Southgate or on Park Boulevard), so as Council Member Burt said, when people complain about Palo Alto NIMBYs, they need to understand the tracks are "literally in their backyard". Jim McFall's architectural rendering of an elevated structure for HSR at Churchill was shown briefly, again, though his remarks last night focused on differing views of the width of the Caltrain right of way alongside Southgate and whether or not the correct figure is 75.3 feet wide with a 6 foot rear lot line easement. Some pictures from CHSRA show Southgate's backyard fences within the defined right of way, suggesting that they might be removed without compensation through eminent domain. In his excellent rendering, McFall should space out the catenary supports correctly and add trees and vegetation to mitigate the structure's visual impact. William Cutler had the best new visual of the evening, a large cardboard pyramid, representing the size of the ones in Giza, Egypt that showed the amount of dirt needed for a mile long elevated HSR structure. His point was to emphasize that any above ground HSR solution would entail massive scale construction in and around existing homes, probably for several years. Mr. Cutler supports HSR, but is very worried about elevated structures of any significant size in Palo Alto. A petition with about 100 signatures in support of filing an amicus brief alongside Atherton was also presented, although that is a surprisingly small number of signers in a city of more than 50,000 people more than a month after they began collecting signatures. One of the NIMBY speakers stated she was "for high speed rail, but not here, not now". It was unclear what being "for high speed rail" meant to her, perhaps she likes trains to be safely on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Another NIMBY called HSR an "airport runway in my front yard". One of the few new opinions shared last night was an older gentleman who spoke strongly in favor of HSR and reminded Council that having a HSR Station in Palo Alto would significantly slow down the speed of many of the trains passing through our city, greatly reducing the total noise produced.

The most elusive part of the meeting, and the most important, was trying to read the positions of individual Palo Alto City Council Members. With one exception, the Council held their views quite closely and were difficult to read, but one observers perspectives are below:

1. Mayor Drekmeier: He generally seems to support HSR, but requested that the 101 corridor be considered again, despite recognizing that CHSRA had already done so and would likely ignore his request. There was no mention of the impossibility of building HSR on 101 since many sections have traffic from sound wall to sound wall with a narrow concrete barrier in between that would not even be wide enough for a pillar supporting an overhead structure, let alone any kind of at grade alignment. 101 would be a good route, except it is not feasible. The mayor is a very rational person and will eventually understand this. His support is critical in Palo Alto for HSR and I hope it continues.

2. Vice Mayor Morton: Our vice mayor was the only Council Member to state his personal positions on HSR openly and it was telling that none of the others did so despite his explicit request to them. Vice Mayor Morton is of the opinion that no above ground solution is acceptable, a tunnel will never get funded, and HSR must terminate at San Jose. He believes a Palo Alto HSR Station would be a disaster and must be stopped. Vice Mayor Morton is prone to odd outbursts, like his public threat to sue the CHSRA at a Community Scoping Meeting last month and his constant inflammatory statements about Stanford University's dirty tricks and bad faith negotiations with the City. Vice Mayor Morton is dangerous, though his droning style and limited interpersonal skills probably do not pose a huge barrier to the HSR project. He does deserve credit for taking a firm stance, even if it is in favor of NIMBYism. He is a reliable opponent of nearly all development.

3. Council Member Kishimoto: She supports HSR in concept and is originally from Japan, where they built the first HSR in 1964, when she was about 10 years old. Her efforts have largely focused on educating the public about the EIR process and she has organized the Peninsula Cities Coalition, which will likely include Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, and Mountain View. Sunnyvale may also join and some other cities like Burlingame, Redwood City, and Belmont have attended some meetings, but may not join in the end. Kishimoto is trying to organize a small conference with the cities, CHSRA, urban designers, engineers, and project finance experts to try to explore all options to fund a tunnel and other HSR issues on the Peninsula. Her position is clearly pro-HSR, but she recognizes that her most vocal constituents strongly prefer a tunneling option at this point and she is prepared to advocate for it. Supporters of HSR should watch Kishimoto's lead closely, she can be a terrific ally for the project--but don't ignore the tunneling option for the mid-Peninsula, or HSR could lose a very savvy and talented supporter. She has plans to run for State Assembly.

4. Council Member Yeh: He seems broadly supportive of HSR, but very poorly informed about the details. He expressed many concerns with the Caltrain/CHSRA MOU and its description of a four track solution. He is also skeptical of Rod Diridon's ambiguous and sometimes contradictory statements to Council in the past, which is only reasonable. The YouTube videos produced by Palo Alto NIMBYs of Diridon's remarks to Council at meetings last year and last month do illustrate confusing double speak from CHSRA that has compounded the distrust of the Authority in Palo Alto and neighboring communities. Then again, how anyone thinks HSR could run on the same two tracks as Caltrain is unclear. It does not take long for a 125 mph train to catch a 79 mph train, ruining the efficiency of the entire system. As Clem would say, this is not rocket science (or biophysics for that matter).

5. Council Member Burt: Despite his usual support for HSR, his position has hardened somewhat in the past month and he expressed explicit support for the NIMBY concerns (NIMBY was his language, and it was not intended to be derogatory). The YouTube videos of Diridon saying nothing is final, then that lots of things could not be changed at this stage with regard to alignments and the number of tracks clearly angered Burt, which is understandable. He asked if anyone could imagine supporting 125 mph trains running 20 feet above existing back yards. He was very discouraged by the response he got from Caltrain regarding their MOU with CHSRA, saying that he was assured the PCJPB would represent Palo Alto's interests, but he felt they had not done so. According to Burt, Caltrain essentially told Palo Alto that it was too late to mention their concerns about 4 tracks and other specifics in the MOU. His statement about the need to build a coalition of cities and to consider "parallel strategies" sounds a lot like growing support for either filing an amicus brief or suing CHSRA in a new lawsuit. The NIMBYs have successfully turned at least one formerly pro-HSR council member into a tunnel or nothing advocate. Rod Diridon's inconsistent comments were very damaging here.

6. Council Member Klein: A skeptic all along, Klein is very concerned about the Caltrain MOU and worries that Palo Alto's concerns may not be listened to by CHSRA. He is not, however, an obstructionist or a NIMBY. Klein's concerns are practical and well thought out, like the need to determine who owns the air rights above the right of way in Palo Alto and who owns the ground underneath. Klein knows this is a long, slow process and that it is very early still. He has talked theoretically about using everything from lawsuits to state legislative action and new ballot initiatives to influence the process in the future, but he is not inclined to do anything rash. He insisted that the language in Palo Alto's letter to CHSRA say that HSR may go "along or below 3.8 miles" of Palo Alto right of way, suggesting that he supports tunneling, but almost nothing else. Overall, Klein would likely support HSR in a tunnel and he does see the value to California of the project as a whole. He will likely be a formidable opponent of anything elevated, as he knows city politics and the law very well (he is a Harvard-educated lawyer).

7. Council Member Schmid: Soft-spoken and razor sharp, Schmid has kept his views on HSR very close to his chest. He is unsure that a Peninsula Cities Coalition will actually benefit Palo Alto and generally views our City as unique, with different interests from our neighbors. He requested careful study of ground water and toxic plumes under the right of way. He also wants CHSRA to explicitly detail any potential above ground eminent domain for all the possible alignments as soon as possible, seemingly so as to understand the costs of that eminent domain to offset the costs of tunneling, at least by a tiny bit. This would probably create a firestorm of protest, but he is correct that it is better to have that now than later. He wants to explore offsetting tunneling costs with air rights and generally prefers tunneling if it is technically feasible. As one of the most logical and rational Council Members, Schmid will not likely take a public stand on HSR until well into the EIR details. My guess is that he will become a valuable supporter if CHSRA takes Palo Alto's concerns seriously and a fierce opponent if they do not. He strongly believes in cost/benefit analysis, since his PhD is in economics from Columbia.

8. Council Member Barton: Generally a supporter of HSR and an academic architect and designer himself (at Stanford), Barton has supported HSR strongly in the past and continues to do so. However, his preference is for all the rails to be underground, so that more development can be built using the right of way's air-rights. He did, however, express concerns about CEQA review and if the Caltrain MOU's mention of 4 tracks consists of a change that would require reopening the Program Level EIR. That would almost certainly be a mess and create multi-directional legal battles that could take years to resolve. It was a disappointing comment from an otherwise reliable HSR supporter. Barton, like several other council members, appeared to not understand that the MOU's mention of 4 grade-separated tracks did not rule out tunneling. This misconception is a major problem on the Council, as was pointed out in the Palo Alto Daily article.

9. Council Member Espinosa: Absent last night and always difficult to read. Espinosa, like Yeh, is quite young for a city council member and generally is pretty forward thinking. He seems to be broadly supportive of HSR on the Peninsula and actually asked staff earlier in the month to consider removing any mention of the Altamont alignment from their letter. However, he is politically astute and only did so after midnight, by which time most of the NIMBYs had gone home. It is unlikely that Espinosa would object to HSR if the alignment adequately mitigates Palo Alto's concerns, but his voice is unlikely to sway the whole Council.

In summary, the consensus view last night of the Palo Alto City Council was to continue working closely with CHSRA on the EIR for High Speed Rail, to pressure Caltrain to be more answerable to their constituent cities and three counties, and to organize a louder voice that includes neighboring cities--all constructive actions. Basically, if a tunnel is feasible then HSR will almost certainly have unanimous support on the Council. If the final alignment is an elevated structure, then a majority of Palo Alto City Council will almost certainly try to block it ever being built, which they may or may not succeed in doing since HSR has bipartisan support at the highest levels in Washington and Sacramento. However, opposing tunneling on the mid-Peninsula will be a high stakes game, since it could derail the entire project. On the other hand, a well designed tunnel would likely be supported not only by Palo Alto, but also by Menlo Park and Atherton, essentially removing the only major organized opposition to HSR in California. That might just be worth the cost of a tunnel, even if it is several billion dollars. After all, every year of delay on a $45 billion dollar infrastructure project is billions worth of construction cost inflation (which has been around 5% in recent years) and lost revenues from operation. Appeasing the Peninsula might pay for itself, if the accounting is done correctly.

Andrew A. Bogan, Ph.D.
Palo Alto, California

Palo Alto Demands Control Over HSR Project Design And Operations; Whines When They Don't Get It

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

UPDATE: The council did in fact vote to file an amicus brief in the Menlo Park-Atherton suit against the CHSRA. The vote was 5-3. Kishimoto, Barton, and Drekmeier were the no votes; Espinosa was absent. The original post starts now:

Last night's Palo Alto City Council meeting showed just how absurd the city's approach to the HSR project has become. Despite the fact that most residents still support high speed rail, and that even those who want a tunnel are trying to reconcile the city's design preferences to the need for fast and environmentally friendly passenger trains, the city council seems to be demanding a level of control over the project's operations and fundamental design that is wholly inappropriate for ANY one city to have, especially a small city like Palo Alto.

According to the San Jose Mercury News report of the meeting:

The city council on Monday voted unanimously to send a letter to Caltrain's board of directors asking them to change the wording of a memorandum of understanding with the state authority, which is in charge of building a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco rail line. The letter objects to the "level of specificity" of the agreement, which would lay the groundwork for the high-speed trains to share Caltrain's land. Caltrain's board of directors will vote Thursday on whether to approve the deal.

These council members are pissed off at the four-track plan contained in the proposed Caltrain/CHSRA Memorandum of Understanding. As the article explains:

The council's specific objection was to a passage of the agreement stipulating that "ultimate configuration of the Caltrain corridor will be a four-track grade-separated high speed rail system, with mixed traffic from Caltrain commuter rail and the high speed train service capable of operation on all four tracks to enable Caltrain to achieve service levels of no less than eight trains per hour in each direction. In some places the corridor may consist of more than four tracks."

The city responded, "This level of specificity indicates that options and alternatives will be determined without meaningful public input and consultation. Palo Alto requests removal of any commitment to specific track design or operational condition without public input and required environmental review."

Translation: Palo Alto believes that a four-track design will make it difficult to build a tunnel, and therefore will almost certainly mean an above-grade structure. Palo Alto doesn't want that, and even though a four-track design is the best solution from an operational perspective Palo Alto's city council seems to believe they have the right and the power to impose inferior and inefficient solutions on the rail corridor to suit their own purposes.

Palo Alto city council members who are whining about this are implying that the four-track arrangement in the MOU is the same as saying an above-grade structure will definitely be built. It's a dishonest stance, as some people tried to explain last night:

Transit officials have said the passage actually does not commit Caltrain or the high-speed rail authority to any specific track design. A four-track, grade-separated system could be achieved through any number of design options, including a tunnel, a trench, or an above-ground structure. The authority has stated for years that its system would be fully grade-separated, which means that cross streets must pass either under or over the tracks.

The agreement does specify a minimum number of tracks, which Caltrain officials said was a safeguard to ensure the high-speed trains don't squeeze out local service. Council Member Yoriko Kishimoto passed on that message to her colleagues Monday night, but they still felt the three-county transit agency had overstepped.

Several city officials pointed out that High Speed Rail Authority Board Member Rod Diridon had told the council no decisions had been made and all options were still open. They said the agreement the authority was poised to sign with Caltrain contradicted that claim.

With each passing day the Palo Alto city council is losing credibility, and last night's meeting was a stunning example of this. They were told that no decisions had been made regarding the structure, but proceeded to dishonestly behave as if they had been.

What does the proposed MOU actually say about all this?

Ultimate configuration of the Caltrain corridor will be a four-track, grade-separated high speed rail system, with mixed traffic from Caltrain commuter rail and the high speed train service capable of operation on all four tracks to enable Caltrain to achieve service levels of no less than eight trains per hour in each direction. In some places, the corridor may consist of more than four tracks.

What the MOU lays out are the basic operational requirements of the Caltrain corridor. I don't see a damn thing that precludes a tunnel. I do not see any clear indication that Union Pacific's freight demands have been met, but that's another matter entirely. What the MOU lays out are the conditions that ANY implementation, whether above-grade or below-grade or a tunnel, will have to meet. And what some in Palo Alto are upset about is that the conditions weren't rigged to ensure a tunnel will be built.

Gennady Sheyner's recent article in Palo Alto Online is useful in shedding light on this ridiculous attitude on the part of the council:

Councilman Pat Burt, who is a member of a recently formed council subcommittee focusing on the high-speed rail, said the section of the memorandum describing the track design "stuck out like a sore thumb."

Burt said he was concerned about the contradictory statements from rail authority officials, who have long presented the four-track design as one of several that would be considered.

Is that actually what was promised? And does the proposed MOU actually violate any such promise? I am unconvinced that it does. Sheyner writes:

As recently as March 2, Rod Diridon, member of the rail authority's board of directors, told the council that the agency would consider every viable option.

"We're going to look at every alternative that was brought before us," Diridon told the council. "We'll do a thorough evaluation of every one of those alternatives."

Diridon also indicated in October -- one month before California voters approved a $9.95 billion bond measure for the project -- that Palo Alto staff would be involved in the decision-making process, which will involve a wide range of alternatives, including two-track systems and four-track systems.

"All of those will have to be examined," Diridon told the council in October. "Whether (the trains) will be in a tunnel, in a trench covered, in a trench open, whether they'd be on-grade and elevated would be studied."

"Your staff would be deeply involved in that," he added.

As I read Diridon's quote, he didn't make absolutely clear whether a two-track or four-track implementation would be among the items Palo Alto would be involved in. Nor is it clear what "involved" would include - and we do not know what meetings were held between Caltrain, the CHSRA, and city staff. Sheyner and some of those that he quotes appear to believe that "deeply involved in" a process meant that Palo Alto would get to help decide the outcomes, which would be an interpretation they chose to make and not one that is inherently truthful or accurate.

In fact, if one read the actual proposed MOU, they'd find that it does indicate that local governments like Palo Alto will continue to be involved and consulted:

III. C. High speed rail must be designed, constructed and operated in a manner fully consistent with the operational requirements of the Caltrain commuter rail rapid transit service and with consideration of the cities on the Peninsula through which the high speed rail system will be constructed and operated....

IV. A. Formulation of a plan for community outreach to the affected community, counties and governmental and regulatory agencies, and other operating entities in the corridor

That looks to me like they're planning to involve Palo Alto.

As Sheyner's article makes abundantly clear, however, to some members of the Palo Alto City Council, it's not involvement or consultation they way - but veto power over the basic conditions of the HSR system. It is neither right nor democratic to give ANY city that power, and it is extremely bad planning to fit the system around Palo Alto's own demands, instead of fitting Palo Alto's requests around the system's needs. But some in Palo Alto insist on going right down that road:

But even at that time, Councilman Greg Schmid warned that an above-ground line could hurt the community and made it clear that he was only supporting the proposition because of the possibility of running the rail underground.

"I think of high-speed rail lines going down the Peninsula and dividing the communities the way rivers used to divide communities in the Middle Ages," Councilman Greg Schmid said at the October meeting. "It's not necessarily in our interests to have this division take place in an area where the networking of ideas is the key to success."

This comment is both absurd and revealing. Absurd, because rivers were until the 19th century indispensable to civilization as they were THE primary method of transportation, offering the cheapest and fastest and most efficient movement of goods and people for most of the history of human civilization. Communities usually formed around and because of rivers, not in spite of them. I'm not sure that Londoners who had to cross the Thames in the 1590s to attend the Globe Theater would see the river as a barrier, but of course, some dude in the 21st century obviously knows better than they do about their own lived experience within their communities.

Which shows how ignorant Greg Schmid appears to be about Palo Alto's own history. In the 19th century and for some of the 20th century as well, railroads played the same role as rivers - providing the basis for communities. Palo Alto exists because of the railroad and was built around it.

The comment is also revealing because it shows that, in fact, members of the City Council were aware of the plans for the HSR line to be built above-grade before the November election, despite the claims of many residents that "omg we had NO idea!" Schmid's comment shows that those who say they didn't know about the above-grade possibility were not paying attention - and I don't see how that's the CHSRA's fault.

Other city officials made clear that they believe they should have the ability to determine the operational requirements of the system, a totally inappropriate demand:

Burt said he was concerned about the inclusion of the four-track design in the memorandum between the two agencies.

"We thought it was inappropriate," Burt said Friday. "It's a cart getting ahead of the horse."...

"I think the point we're trying to make to the HSRA (High Speed Rail Authority) is that they should not predetermine the outcome," Kishimoto said. "We expect that it will be a truly open process."

The city has also drafted a letter to Don Gage, chairman of Caltrain's board of directors, asking that the section specifying the four-track design be removed or altered.

"This level of specificity indicates that options and alternatives will be determined without meaningful public input and consultation," the letter reads.

I'm sorry folks, but Palo Alto doesn't get to determine alone what the entire state needs and deserves in terms of passenger rail capacity and service. You just don't. That's not democratic, that's bad planning, and it's just ridiculous. The CHSRA has shown it is willing to give the city the opportunity to participate in the process of deciding how the system and the service will be implemented. But folks like those quoted here are playing a different game entirely - thinking that if they want a two-track solution that they should get it, even if that is not practical or reasonable from an operational standpoint.

And when we see Palo Alto city council members making inflammatory and dishonest statements like these, from last night's meeting:

"We think that's a duplicitous message, and we intend on pointing that out," said Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie. Council Member Larry Klein added, "There are decisions being made, decisions have been made by Caltrain, and I think that taints the process."

Council Member Pat Burt said he was disappointed with Caltrain's approach. "I'm less hopeful than I was that we're going to have our voices listened to by just being persuasive and collaborative," he said.

Well, it doesn't speak very highly of the city council, which appears to have slid into outright HSR denial - just 5 months after unanimously endorsing Prop 1A, and in spite of their constituents' desire to see HSR built and integrated effectively with Caltrain. And the council even went into closed session last night to discuss filing an amicus brief in support of Menlo Park and Atherton's suit against the HSR project.

I'll leave it to Palo Alto residents to explain what exactly the hell is going on with their city council. From my perspective they seem to have taken leave of common sense, honesty, and reality. They're upset that Caltrain's board did its job by ensuring Caltrain can continue to expand its operations under the Caltrain 2025 plan by signing the MOU. They're willfully misinterpreting CHSRA statements and trying to poison the well - especially in the media and therefore in the public mind - with their deliberate distortions of the truth.

Their behavior makes it difficult for sensible and practical solutions to be delivered. There are some good people in Palo Alto pursuing tunnel solutions, and others who want to find ways to build an above-grade structure more effectively and in line with what the city needs.

Monday, March 30, 2009

To Catch A Train

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

Trains are wonderful, but they usually don't stop at the origin nor at the destination of passengers' journeys. This is especially true of medium-to-long-distance itineraries. Instead, a train trip generally consists of at least three parts: getting to the station, riding the train and connecting transportation from the station at the other end. In addition, riding a train almost invariably involves (short) walks between vehicles and also at either end of any given trip.

Transportation planners like to scope these literally pedestrian issues out of their projects because there's a lot of work but relatively few construction dollars associated with them. Plus, addressing them would actually require co-ordination with other projects, a potential political minefield they prefer to avoid. However, allowing pedestrian access to fall through the cracks - e.g. between HSR stations and airport check-in counters or, between SF Transbay Terminal and Embarcadero BART/Muni - is a sure-fire strategy for failing to meet the ridership forecasts for the shiny new big-ticket services. Ideally, CHSRA should designate one member of its board to take on responsibility for adequate pedestrian facilities at transfer points. The state legislature should also insist that HSR feeder funds from prop 1A are used to optimize connections, rather than just local/regional transit capacity.

The general assumption on this blog appears to be that passengers could and would take local/regional transit to reach the nearest HSR station. Indeed, some $950 million of prop 1A are reserved for capital improvements to qualifying heavy rail "HSR feeder" services like Amtrak California, BART, LA Metro, Metrolink, Caltrain, ACE and NCTD. That's not nearly as much money as it sounds. For example, there will be little or no money left over for local/regional connecting bus services. Expect nothing at all to be available for improving pedestrian connections, e.g. between the Transbay Terminal in SF and Embarcadero, the nearest BART station.

However, like it or not, the vast majority of Californians never uses transit at all or at least, very infrequently. For the most part, that's because service tends to be infrequent and slow, except during rush hour. In addition, not everyone feels comfortable sitting or standing near strangers. Instead, decades of cheap gasoline/kerosene have enabled low-rise sprawl and got California residents used to either driving the whole way or else, driving to an airport, parking their car, flying and getting into another car at the other end. That other car might be an airport shuttle van, someone coming to pick them up or, a rental car. In short, travel within California is very oil-intensive and the hope is that HSR will make a dent in that.

However, a common objection to the California HSR project is that local transit should be put in place first, lest HSR cause massive traffic problems near downtown stations. The counter-argument is that politically, HSR serves as an anchor project big enough to prompt/accelerate the development/expansion of local/regional transit that's long been talked about but never properly funded. There is some evidence of this in that voters LA, Santa Clara, Marin and Sonoma counties all voted to increase local sales taxes to pay for improved rail transit, in addition to approving prop 1A on the statewide ballot.

Still, counting on local transit funding to ride the coattails of HSR is risky in that it forces both types of services to receive massive infusions of cash at the same time. If the political appetite for passenger rail were to dry up for any lenght of time, there's a good chance that funds intended for bread-and-butter local transit at the federal and state level would be raided to keep the politically sexier HSR project alive, with knock-on effects at the county and city levels. There is some evidence for this as well, in the shape of last-minute re-allocations of funds already within the transportation section of HR1, the stimulus bill. Indeed, the capital expenditure budgets of passenger rail and other transit services are liable to be raided at anytime by the politically entrenched highway-and-runway lobby.

These budget shenanigans will be going on all through the planning and construction phases of the California HSR project at both the federal and especially, at the state level. Urban traffic planners and station architects therefore need to anticipate a wider range of connecting transit options than just local transit. Moreover, the appropriate mix of options will be vastly different in the major HSR locations (SF, SJ, Fresno, LA, Anaheim, Sacramento, San Diego), at stations near airports (SFO, PMD, ONT, MER?) and at stations in smaller towns (Bakersfield, mid-peninsula, Gilroy, Modesto, Burbank, Riverside etc.)

Perhaps, then, we ought to take a closer look at connecting transportation from the customer's point of view. They will base their choice of vehicle on multiple parameters: door-to-door travel time, risk of delays, flexibility to reschedule, convenience, safety/security, comfort, privacy and fare cost - plus old habits that may be hard to break. No single strategy will work for every passenger, so station designers and local traffic planners have to reserve adequate room for multiple modes of connecting transportation.

1. Walking: If you work in e.g. the financial district in SF and commute by BART, chances are you just hoof it for the last few blocks. There's no reason to assume that someone coming up from LA on a high speed train won't do exactly the same. Pedestrians average no more than 2.5 mph, less if they need to stop at traffic lights. That said, it is a little light exercise and you don't have to wait around for a bus to show up - one that might not drop you off exactly where you need to be anyhow. The converse is also true: in a number of places around the state, people are increasingly choosing to live in condos close to a subway or light rail line rather than chase after a McMansion out in the boonies, where the car is the only possible option for commuting to work, often dozens of miles away. Transit villages are a welcome new phenomenon, but their long-term popularity will depend on the future price of oil.

2. Cycling: In flat but crowded places like Holland and Denmark, China, Vietnam etc. bicycles are perceived first and foremost as modes of transportation. Sure, there are special bikes intended for strenuous exercise, but those are a separate category. In California, that category is almost all there is: road racers and mountain bikes. City bikes are often perceived as being strictly for kids too young to drive a car. This obsession with bikes as exercise machines may explain why pedelecs (bikes with electric assist motors) haven't really caught on yet in the Golden State, even though they let you climb hills and brave headwinds without working up much of a sweat - deal if you're about to board a train.

There are plenty of folding designs on the market and, they're much easier to take along on any type of transit. Folding pedelecs are a new category that is only just emerging, thanks to recent advances in Li-ion battery technology, permanent magnet motors and control systems for the assist motors in these muscle-electric hybrids. China is arguably the world leader at the economy end of this emerging market.

Even in Europe and Japan, many railroads still think of all bicycles as equal and are only just beginning to wake up to the potential of folding bicycles and pedelecs to increase their catchment areas without having to sacrifice space for passengers who pay full fare. Just slide your under your seat (and perhaps the adjacent one, too) - done. At first, the notion of taking a folding pedelec along on a high-speed train may seem absurd, but if you travel light it's actually a perfectly sensible option, especially if there is a courtesy outlet to let you recharge. Pedelecs are limited to 20mph by law in California and you have to be 16 to ride one. Range on a single charge is typically on the order of 15-30 miles, depending on conditions and on how hard you pedal.

The biggest drawback is that bicycles are vulnerable in traffic unless there are designated bike lanes or better yet, segregated bike paths. In California, cities are loath to close traffic lanes or entire streets to motor vehicles without a special permit - pedestrian zones are almost unheard of (except in purpose-built shopping malls). The second biggest is that biking in wet or extremely hot weather is no fun at all, so transit planners tend to discount it as an unreliable ridership source. That may be a mistake, since pedelecs are by far the most affordable personal electric vehicles and the weather in California's population centers is reliably sunny for at least four months out of the year.

3. Local Transit: If you happen to live or work near a bus, light rail or subway stop with frequent and reliable service, then that may be the best option for either the first or the last leg of your trip. Unfortunately, it may not be on the other end - you may have to settle for one or more slow bus connections or else, shell out for more expensive direct service. Excellent connecting transit at one end a city pair only boosts HSR ridership if the same is true at the other end. In California, the volume and frequency of transit service varies greatly from county to county. The recent rapid run-up in gasoline prices prompted a renewed effort to spruce up transit services and, HSR stations provide a suitable anchor for multimodal hubs in major cities. Unfortunately, those same gasoline prices burst the housing bubble so it remains to be seen if these plans will come to fruition. Offering a single ticket valid on all transit services in a given region (e.g. the Bay Area) could boost off-peak ridership.

4. Taxi/Limo/Sharecab Service: For those who place a premium on their time and/or their privacy, catching a cab or arranging for a limo may be the preferred option, much as it is at airports. Sharecabs (cp. airport shuttles) are not private and usually less comfortable, but they do get you to exactly where you need to be at more moderate cost. HSR stations will be excellent anchor locations for sharecab services based on vans that can transport up to 8 passengers and their luggage, supplementing fixed-route local transit or replacing it where none exists today. There is a case for subsidizing sharecab services, as they ease congestion and the related air pollution in downtown areas.

5. Personal Car: Driving your own car to the station is often cited as the most convenient or even the only practical option. Sure, there's traffic and you need to pay for parking but you can get there fairly quickly, without having to wait for local transit, in comfort and privacy. Plus, you can take stuff along - it's especially hard to travel light with children or disabled persons in tow. Pets are another issue for anyone considering train travel. Fortunately, most railroads already operating high speed trains do permit them provided they don't bother other passengers. A leash and muzzle are often required to at least be on hand and, a half-price ticket may be required for large dogs.

However, the biggest downside is at the far end of the trip: either someone has to pick you up, you have to use a taxi/shuttle or, you end up renting a car. Add it all up and simply driving yourself all the way starts to look like a way more attractive option for a family of four. And therein, perhaps, lies the biggest challenge of all: persuading Californians to travel more frequently within their state but with less stuff, to make going down to Disneyland or up to San Francisco a simple weekend trip with just one night's stay rather than a major multi-day outing. For those living in the Central Valley, either destination could easily be an occasional day trip.

Conclusion: Getting the most out of HSR means adjusting the way way you work and play - it's not a drop-in replacement for the lifestyle you lead today. In particular, more frequent outings within the state will inevitably mean less frequent leisure travel to other states or overseas. The upside is that more tourism dollars stay in California, doubly so if HSR + connecting transit attract larger numbers of out-of-state tourists.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hooray For Victorville!?

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

Remember that whole Las-Vegas-to-Disneyland maglev concept that Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev) is still pushing because it's supposedly "more Vegas"? While he's been making waves in Congress, private investors have quietly pursued an alternative based modern non-compliant multiple unit trains trains running on dedicated tracks. Diesel-electric option would run at a top speed of 125mph, whereas an electrified version could run at 150mph (top speed is currently limited by the lack of FRA rules, not the available technology). Note the faint overhead catenary in the above picture, with nary a pole in sight. Or a second track, for that matter, but perhaps that is only needed at one or more points along the route.

The big idea is to relieve congestion on I-15 and at McCarran airport in Las Vegas so folks in Southern California have an easier time getting to Las Vegas. The investors had become disillusioned with prospects for public funding for a fast a rail link. The hardest part is securing a viable ROW through Cajon Pass, which is heavily used by rail freight and includes a crossing of the San Andreas fault. Therefore, the current plan simply calls for the line to terminate at a giant new parking lot northeast of Victorville. Southern Californians would drive there, park and take the train the rest of the way.

This then is DesertXPress. FRA has announced the closing date for public comments on the draft EIR/EIS: May 22, 2009. Before then, there will be three more public hearings on the project.

  1. Las Vegas Area
    Tuesday, April 28, 2009
    5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
    Hampton Inn Tropicana
    4975 Dean Martin Drive
    Las Vegas, NV 89118

  2. Barstow Area
    Wednesday, April 29 2009
    5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
    Ramada Inn
    1511 East Main Street
    Barstow, CA 92311

  3. Victorville Area
    Thursday, April 30 2009
    5:30 – 8:00 p.m.
    Green Tree Golf Course
    14144 Green Tree Boulevard
    Victorville, CA 92395

From the California point of view, there are a number of pluses and minuses here:

  • PLUS: private companies are funding an HSR line (standard gauge steel wheels)
  • PLUS: final nail in maglev coffin (at least on the California side)
  • PLUS: congestion on I-15 should ease quite a bit
  • PLUS: diesel trains require far less fuel than cars at the same occupancy rate
  • NEUTRAL: SoCal-Las Vegas not part of federally designated California HSR corridor
  • NEUTRAL: no stop in Barstow (limited water to support population growth)
  • MINUS: project not integrated with California HSR
  • MINUS: project not integrated with Pres. Obama's smart electrical grid
  • MINUS: tracks (and OCS, if any) not designed for operation at 220mph
  • MINUS: max. gradient 4.5% (vs. 3.5% for California system)
  • MINUS: only limited relief for McCurran airport in Las Vegas
  • MINUS: requires people to drive out to Victorville and park there

IMHO, there would be a lot of value in getting SoCal-Las Vegas included in the officially designated national HSR corridor for California as soon as possible. Sure, the Republicans would have a field day (for a day) but it's still the smartest thing to do.

First, it would establish that HSR out to Las Vegas shouldn't be a completely separate project, even if the tracks won't join up right away. That would give USDOT (i.e. Ray LaHood) some leverage to force integrated planning.

Second, the designation would make the tracks through the desert eligible for federal HSR dollars, which could fund the wider curves and tighter geometry tolerances required for future operation at 220mph. The DesertXPress sidesteps the thorny issue of the endangered Desert Tortoise by hewing close to I-15 east of Barstow. Nevertheless, some opposition from at least Indian gambling interests in California is likely, though siting the western terminus at Victorville makes the train less of a competitive threat.

Third, early electrification of the line would make a whole lot of sense if phase 2 of the project included a nearby HVDC power line to carry renewable electricity from the Mojave desert and Nevada to population centers in (Southern) California. But please, don't put a big solar farm and a relief airport next to one another.

Fourth, an early connection to the California network would do more to relieve McCarran airport, since 30% of its flights are to or from California cities that will be served by California HSR. At peak times, e.g. during major conventions, Las Vegas could leverage Palmdale as a relief airport, provided LAWA doesn't hobble it with a solar thermal plant right next to the runways. At 200mph cruise speed, travel time would be just over an hour. Fully leveraging California HSR and Palmdale airport would eliminate the need for a new Ivanpah Valley relief airport between Primm and Jean in Nevada, not far from the BrightSource's Ivanpah solar thermal power plant on the California side.

Sixth, project integration would permit both sides to pool both political clout in Congress and purchasing power.

The tricky part is figuring out how to integrate the projects. A spur off the SF-LA-Anaheim starter line at Mojave would make a lot of sense, but DesertXPress may not be interested in going anywhere but Victorville. A connector from there to the phase II spur between LA and San Diego is theoretically possible and would give San Bernardino an HSR station. We'll see.

Early electrification of the DesertXPress line would be excellent but it's something their web site has not previously mentioned. Note that CHSRA is currently planning its own, electrified test track in the Central Valley (part 1, part 2), which will become part of the starter line and spur to Sacramento.

View Larger Map

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Union Pacific Speaks

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

Never let it be said that I don't give HSR deniers credit where it is due. Morris Brown has obtained a copy of a letter from Union Pacific to the California High Speed Rail Authority laying out their stance on HSR implementation between San Francisco and Gilroy. Their overall attitude is one of "we own the corridor, either through easements or outright ownership, and you're going to implement HSR according to our guidelines."

The SF-Gilroy corridor is broken up into three pieces:

1. SF to Santa Clara, owned outright by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCBJPB - set up in 1991 to run Caltrain) but where UP has an easement to run freight

2. Santa Clara to Lick, "a point approximately three miles south of Diridon Station" - UP "owns and has primary operating rights on Main Track Number 1".

3. Lick to Gilroy (and ultimately to Moorpark in Ventura County), owned wholly by the Union Pacific Railroad.

UP's stance as laid out in the letter is, in essence and going in reverse order:

3: No way in hell will HSR trains use the UP ROW between Lick and Gilroy. Their specific language is:

Union Pacific has no intention of allowing or permitting the Authority to build or operate the HSR within Union Pacific's right of way southward of Lick. The Authority should take this into account as part of the EIR/EIS for the San Francisco — San Jose segment.

2: Depending on how freight trains are mitigated, UP is fine with HSR between Santa Clara and Lick - but UP will be the final arbiter of what this means. Their specific language is:

The Authority must not undertake any action that interferes with Union Pacific's ownership and operation of Main Track No. I without prior approval from Union Pacific and the commuter agencies identified above. All adverse impacts must be mitigated to Union Pacific's satisfaction.

1: UP expects to not only maintain, but potentially increase, freight service along the Caltrain corridor, insists that its easement be respected, and that HSR be built to not adversely affect freight operations in any possible form.

Specifically, UP demands the following, which is most directly applicable to the Caltrain corridor:

(i) Slow speed freight trains and high-speed trains are incompatible on the same
tracks at any time, including cross-overs. Union Pacific requires overhead clearance of 23 feet 6 inches, which is higher than the Authority contemplates for its electrical system. The Authority must provide grade-separated cross-overs for freight trains at necessary locations. The Authority must not contemplate operation of freight trains on any HSR trackage at any time (and vice-versa). If necessary, completely separate freight trackage must be provided. HSR must comply with all applicable FRA regulations.

As far as I can tell what UP is saying is that at least one track has to be set up for freight trains, and if that requires a totally separate track, so be it - CHSRA and PCJPB are UP's bitch when it comes to making changes on the Caltrain corridor.

What does this mean for the battle over HSR implementation on the Peninsula? Brandon in San Diego lays it out like this:

any proposal to retain freight's ability with any necessary tunneling having the intent to accomodate HSR + Caltrain at the expense of an above ground alignment accomodating freight...
...will mean:
1) more costly tunneling efforts (bigger/higher, longer due to softer grade changes, and/or... ventilation) or
2) the tunneling to accomodate Caltrain + freight cannot happen at all.

If so on #2, that means Caltrain may remain above ground and possibly at-grade where they already are... and our friendly peninsula bergs are SOL.

I think that's a pretty good summation. Ultimately I think this deals a pretty significant blow to the tunnel concept as being floated by the Peninsula cities, who have floated a concept of a two-track tunnel. Unless the tunnel has four tracks and is large enough to accommodate UP freight, it's not going to meet UP's standards. Another option is to build a two-track tunnel and let UP continue operating freight trains on the surface above the tunnel, which is an absurd solution and also makes it impossible for cities to sell "air rights" to develop land above the tunnel to pay for the tunnel's costs, as some have proposed.

The only other option for Peninsula cities would be to pursue federal law that would limit UP's negotiating power. UP notes that their freight operations in this region are regulated by the federal Surface Transportation Board. Congress and the White House could, if they wanted to, pursue new laws and regulations pushing or even forcing freight railroads to accommodate HSR and other passenger rail even if they're reluctant to do so.

I am not sure we should expect that to happen. President Obama has shown hardly any desire to piss off large corporations like UP, and Congress has shown little interest in modernizing railroad law. If the federal government is serious about implementing HSR, they're going to need to attend to both, and the dispute over the Caltrain corridor may be a good place to start. But I am not confident it will actually happen.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The AP Falls for Joseph Vranich's HSR Denial

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

Wow, for some reason this week seems to be HSR Denier Week in the media. First we had Daniel Goldberg's moronic argument as to why California's passenger rail system is perfect just the way it is. That was a blog post on a relatively small newspaper's site, and came and went pretty quickly.

Late this week, however, a much bigger piece of HSR denial hit the national media in the form of an AP article by Deborah Hastings that was carried in the San Jose Mercury News, the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other major papers. The article, titled "Billions for high speed rail; anyone aboard?" gives considerable space to letting noted HSR denier Joseph Vranich space to attack high speed rail without rebuttal. So it's our job to provide what Deborah Hastings wouldn't - facts.

But this country has never built a high-speed "bullet" train rivaling the successful systems of Europe and Asia, where passenger railcars have blurred by at top speeds nearing 200 mph for decades.

Since the 1980s, every state effort to reproduce such service has failed. The reasons often boil down to poor planning and simple mathematics.

This is simply not true. As her own article shows, the actual reason is simple and singular: the United States has not shown the political leadership necessary to see HSR projects through to completion, largely because passenger rail has for the last 50 years been starved of funding in favor of roads and airports.

California is the only state with an active project, and its proposed cost is more than five times the stimulus amount. The $42 billion plan is far from shovel ready—it's still seeking local approvals—but it's farther down the track than any other state with an outstretched hand for a slice of Obama's high-speed pie.

This is also untrue. In addition to the already-identified list of projects the California HSR project can begin by 2011, it is believed that large chunks of the system can be ready by 2012 or 2013.

It doesn't help that Hastings steadfastly refuses to point to the role of Republican HSR opponents in killing these projects. Jeb Bush played the leading role in 2004 in killing Florida's project, and George W. Bush did the same while Texas governor in the mid-1990s. Southwest Airlines' opposition to the Texas project also played a significant role.

After misleading readers about the fate of HSR in Texas and Florida Hastings then lets Vranich spew some HSR denial:

"In virtually no way does the Acela Express perform near overseas standards," says author Joseph Vranich, a former Amtrak public affairs spokesman and president of the High Speed Rail Association. In 2004 he wrote a highly critical book titled, "End of the Line: The Failure of Amtrak Reform and the Future of America's Passenger Trains."

He's equally unimpressed with the federal stimulus money.

"Here's what's going to happen: The (Obama) administration will issue these funds in dribs and drabs—to this project and that project—and the result will be an Amtrak train from Chicago to St. Louis that takes maybe 15 minutes off the travel time."

Current Amtrak travel time between the two cities is about five hours, 30 minutes.

Nobody expects Obama's HSR stimulus to all by itself produce true high speed rail in this country. But if it is accompanied by a real national strategy - and Obama's budget plans suggest he is interested in doing that - then the HSR stimulus can help initiate that project, which is all anyone ever expected anyway.

Trying to make American trains run faster will always go off the rails, Vranich says, as long as planners keep trying to recreate overseas systems. "We're not Europe. We're not Japan. We're looking at shorter travel times, through population densities that are much higher."

Wait a minute. I thought the flaw with HSR in California and the US is that we had too little population density for the ridership to be there. Now the flaw is that we have too much?

It's hard to keep HSR denial straight these days.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Important Is UPRR To California HSR?

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

Note: The Blogger service will be down for scheduled maintenance on Thursday 3/26 between 4:00pm and around 4:10pm. We apologize for any inconvenience.

On Tuesday, an article in the Hollister Freelance discussed the HSR project from the perspective of Gilroy and the cities that will be in the catchment area of the planned stop there. The piece is timely, since the High Speed Rail Authority will host a project-level EIR/EIS scoping meeting in Gilroy this week (cp. heads-up at the end of this post):
  • Thursday, March 26
  • 3-7pm
  • Hilton Garden Inn, Ballroom A, 6070 Monterey Road, Gilroy
Three potential concerns are listed: the notion that HSR would bisect the community (cp. our post Grade Separations Done Right), the potential noise impacts (cp. our posts Thunder Alley and La Vitrine) and, the position of Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR):
  1. Spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said her employer gets "very skittish" about freight trains running in close proximity to high speed rail, whose equipment is very light, [very] fast and carries [lots of] passengers. A UP train derailed and spilled coal onto an [adjacent] light rail line in [Littleton, Colorado on 11 December of 2007, causing the light rail train to derail as well. None of the 30 passengers on board was injured but] Mz Richmond characterized the incident Richardson as "too close for comfort", adding that safety is her company's primary concern.

  2. She also raised concerns about continued access to the existing customer base and winning new business, because freight trains cannot easily and safely cross high speed rail lines at grade. It would be counterproductive if bullet trains ended up forcing freight onto the state's and the nation's roads.

  3. In the same vein, Joseph Thompson, a transportation lawyer in south Santa Clara county claimed that CHSRA had not yet clarified how it would cross UPRR's tracks between Santa Clara (where they run west of UPRR's Alviso line) and Pacheco Pass, well east of Gilroy. He asserted that "Union Pacific's eminent domain trumps High Speed Rail's" because it had been delegated by Congress and President Lincoln.
As a first step, let's look on the map where CHSRA's preferred route would have bullet trains running on or next to UPRR's right of ways.

View Larger Map

The sections of concern are south SF-Gilroy, south Fresno-Merced, the northern approach to Tehachapi Pass, Mojave-Palmdale in the Antelope Valley and part of the Inland Empire route for the phase II spur to San Diego. The Merced-Sacramento section and the "HST/commuter overlay" that is "under consideration" would also raise concerns. All told, roughly 50% of the entire preferred HSR route requires appropriate agreements with UPRR.

Note that while the PCJPB owns the Caltrain ROW, the terms of the 1991 contract with SP - which UPRR acquired in the context of a merger a few years later - give UPRR limited but perpetual trackage rights and 30-minute windows during which it may run its trains "at commuter speeds". For more details, please see Clem Tillier's posts Freight on the Peninsual, Port Pork and Memorandum of Understanding. Legally, CHSRA only needs to deal with the PCJPB, but the latter needs to ensure UPRR's rights are upheld in the process. That could put Caltrain in the middle of a dispute between CHSRA and UPRR, so it should insist on three-way negotiations for issues related to operational safety.

Now, let's examine the concerns raised above in reverse order:

Re 3: In the 19th century, Congress declared that privately owned for-profit railroads were performing a public service by moving goods and passengers around the country. To that end, Congress delegated to them strictly limited powers of eminent domain for the purpose of expanding the public service. In practice, that referred to widening rights of ways, acquiring land for new turnoffs, sidings, yards etc. The idea was to protect railroads against speculators and other landowners who could otherwise exact extremely high prices because railroad alignments must meet certain minimum radii, maximum gradients etc.

The delegation of eminent domain was not intended to allow railroads to prevent competition or other public services from being delivered. Since Nov 4 2008, California HSR is arguably a public service in development. It is therefore not immediately clear that UPRR's powers of eminent domain would trump those of the state of California, let alone those of Congress. However, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will seek eminent domain against UPRR anyhow, even for air or ground rights needed to cross. The objective should be to negotiate in good faith.

Re 2: For now, CHSRA, Caltrain and others are drafting plans that ensure existing freight operations can continue unhindered. In practice, that may mean the monopoly dispatcher for a given corridor may need to instruct one or more bullet trains to slow down or stop to give a freight train the opportunity to cross over to the non-HSR tracks via a diamond. Alternatively, the split of HSR and regular tracks could be defined such that most freight movements are anyhow unaffected. For the remainder, one option would be grade separation between the HSR tracks and freight spurs off the main line. Another, possibly cheaper alternative would be to pay UPRR and its customer to stop using a given spur.

Re 1: UPRR has been in business for 146 years, during which time they've forgotten more about freight railroad operations than CHSRA can ever hope to learn. In particular, they are fully aware of the risk of derailments, which is very small but non-zero. Since US-style heavy freight trains can be up to a mile long, the engineer in charge of a train may not even notice the derailment of a single truck on a single car at first. Indeed, major derailments involving cars tipping or toppling over and fouling adjacent track are quite rare. Usually, a train can be brought to a full stop long before that happens.

UPRR's concern relates to the early detection of a derailment event and, to sending early warning to the operator of the service on the adjacent track - preferably via computer-to-computer messaging to avoid delays related to human-to-human interactions. Time is of the essence because a bullet train traveling at 300km/h can take 40 seconds to come to an emergency stop (less if traveling at e.g. 200km/h). During this time, it can cover well over a mile. With CHSRA planning up to 12 trains per hour each way (esp. on the network's trunk line in the Central Valley), the probability that a bullet train traveling at high speed would be within 60 seconds of the site of a freight rail derailment could be as high as 40% during peak travel periods. That's if the freight train has already derails, a very low probability event.

The upshot is that even if the bullet train's automatic/European/positive train control system were notified of a derailment on an adjacent track and applied the emergency brakes immediately, there would still be a high residual risk of a follow-on collision if the derailed freight train were to foul the bullet train tracks. If that were to happen at significant relative speed, the result could be catastrophic loss of life.

It is a fairly pathological scenario but one that is at least theoretically possible. In general, engineers define a hazard as the product of the probability of occurrence and the damage done. Indeed, Burlington North Santa Fe (BNSF) has not raised a red flag on this issue (at least not in public), perhaps because it perceives the hazard as much lower than UPRR does.

In any event, UPRR published a press release on June 4, 2008, giving notice that it had had no discussions with CHSRA on operational safety in two years and no interest in selling any of its ROW. Mehdi Morshed, the authority's senior engineer, responded with a terse press release of his own, stating that HSR would not share track with UPRR freight trains and citing the excellent safety record of HSR elsewhere in the world (cp. Union Pacific's HSR Games). Note that the circumstances of the 1998 Eschede disaster in Germany had nothing to do with freight trains and everything to do with the hubris of Deutsche Bahn's engineers - it is simply not germaine to the issues raised by UPRR.

That does not mean there is no hubris on CHSRA's part here. US freight railroads are private companies that must pay property taxes on their rights of way, while their competition - the trucking industry - gets a heavily subsidized ride on the nation's highways. Considering US freight rail operators are for-profit corporations, it is not surprising that they should try to make do without expensive active safety systems and keep maintenance overheads on their infrastructure and rolling stock as low as possible without compromising safety in the existing operational context. UPRR does not want to increase its cost of operations just to accommodate high speed rail.

In other words, if CHSRA wants to have any chance of sticking close to its preferred route, it will need to sit down with UPRR and discuss safety concerns regarding derailments in the California context. Unless and until UPRR's engineers are satisfied that these concerns are being taken seriously and adequate measures to keep the hazard acceptable are feasible, the business managers will not be willing to offer any part of the ROW. Moreover, they may raise a red flag with FRA even if no land is transacted. Considering a mile-long heavy freight train traveling at 70mph represents a vast amount of kinetic energy, the civil engineering approach ("add more concrete") may not be sufficient to prevent track fouling in the event of a freight train derailment.

Similar concerns apply to a freight train derailing and hitting a support column for HSR on an aerial structure or, fouling an open trench containing HSR tracks.

FRA has already done some work regarding the aerodynamic interactions between Amtrak Acela Express and freight trains on adjacent tracks. The largest impact was on empty, tall freight cars passed at a relative speed of 110mph. At higher speeds, the response was less pronounced in spite of the greater load pulses at the bow and stern of the passing train because those pulses also lasted less long. The aerodynamic shape of the Acela meant its interactions were less severe at 150mph than those produced by conventional Amfleet trains at 125mph. In any event, the interactions were not considered severe enough to cause a freight train to derail.

The inverse problem, i.e. the serious derailment of an HSR train - mercifully an extremely unlikely event, even in an earthquake (cp. Shake, Rattle and Roll) - could set the scene a follow-on accident with an approaching freight train. However, since there will be far fewer freight trains and they travel at lower speeds, this hazard is a secondary concern. Besides, life is risk, there is no such thing as 100% perfect safety in the transportation sector. The cost of safety measures has to be commensurate with the hazard reductions they achieve.

If CHSRA has not yet done so, it might want to consider hiring a recently retired senior US railroad operations manager with an engineering background, specifically to reach a technical understanding and mutual comfort level with UPRR. Worst case, CHSRA may find UPRR unreceptive even after good faith efforts to address safety concerns. If CHSRA can secure a brand-new ROW that is sufficiently removed from UPRR's, e.g. in the San Jose-Gilroy section, it might well still be possible to proceed without having to redo that portion of the program EIR/EIS.

Plan B?

Otherwise, the only remaining option would be to select a route that minimized or eliminated statewide interactions between UPRR and the high speed rail system, even if BNSF remains willing to share its own ROW in the Central Valley. The most significant impacts would be on the way out of the Bay Area, on the detour via Palmdale, on the spur up to Sacramento and, on the spur through the Inland Empire - four major aspects of the planned network.

Nevertheless, a solution would be possible, at least for the starter line, see the following map. Please note that the alignment implementation details (at grade vs. below grade) are only valid for the section west of Tracy.

View Larger Map

For argument's sake, I've assumed an HSR-capable link across the San Franciso Bay at Dumbarton will prove infeasible because of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. However, I have assumed an arrangement acceptable to all parties will be found for the entire Caltrain ROW but not for the section down to Gilroy where more freight trains operate. Under that specific set of assumptions, the south bay HSR station would probably have to be moved from SJ Diridon to SantaClara/SJC to secure run-through tracks to the I-880 median. The HSR tracks would cross underneath UPRR's Alviso line and skirt the vast Newhall yard VTA has reserved for BART to the east. It would make sense to reserve part of that yard for additional HSR platforms and/or a yard, especially since it would lie one level below the BART facilities.

The next problem would be crossing over to Pleasanton/Livermore. The BART extension to Fremont Warm Springs and beyond means that CHSRA's Altamont variations based on a route through Niles are no longer feasible. Instead, the most likely option would be to tunnel underneath CA-262 and all the way across to Haynes Gulch (Calaveras Road). Six miles long, it would only just be legal to construct this without a third service/escape bore. At least the Calaveras, perhaps even the Hayward fault would need to be crossed underground. Fortunately, approaching Sunol from the south means the new route could bypass both Pleasanton and Livermore by tunneling across to El Charro Rd, one of the alignments being considered for the BART extension to Livermore. The HSR alignment might need to remain underground to cross under both the UPRR Altamont Pass line and Livermore municipal airport. The lakes near El Charro Rd might have to be drained, at least during construction. I'm not sure what they are used for.

HSR would continue east in the I-580 median, deviating only once to keep the alignment sufficiently straight for high speed service. In the interest of keeping express line haul time down, the Tracy station would end up in the I-205 median, well north of downtown. Beyond it, the CA-120 median and sections across farmland would connect the new route to the BNSF alignment just south of Escalon. Modesto would be served at E. Briggsmore, Merced county at Castle Airport with a possible detour around the Merced town.

The BNSF ROW through Fresno is not straight enough for high speeds, even if adequate noise mitigation measures could be found. It might make more sense to construct a western bypass for HSR/BNSF/Amtrak (3-4 tracks) through farmland and, to run a new DMU-based light rail service on the old BNSF ROW through town. This would deliver passengers from downtown to basic "beet field" HSR stations near Gregg and Bowles that would each be served by 50% of the trains originally slated to stop in downtown Fresno.

Unfortunately, even with all these measures, switching to Altamont implies a line haul penalty of 8-10 minutes for SF-LA express trains, relative to Pacheco Pass. To compensate, the detour via Palmdale would have to be sacrificed (cp. Future's So Bright...) in favor of the technically more challenging but already studied alignment across the Grapevine, past Lake Castaic Wildlife Preserve. For LA county, this sacrifice would presumably not be acceptable unless at least Ontario airport were well served by HSR as early as possible - not an easy proposition if UPRR refuses to co-operate (cp. Quo Vadis: LA- San Diego).

Conclusion: CHSRA had better get into UPRR's good graces, or the entire project could potentially face massive changes to the route, with the fate of some portions (e.g. Stockton - Sacramento) unresolved. The relevant sections of the program EIR/EIS would then have to be re-done, setting the project back by several years. In particular, simply buying land from someone other than UPRR but very close to its ROW may not be sufficient: UPRR could still raise a red flag with FRA if it feels its concerns regarding integrated operational safety and by extension, liability for accidents and loss of revenue, are not adequately addressed.

Daniel Goldberg Reaches New Lows in HSR Denial

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

On Monday the Ventura County Star ran a good article on high speed rail. That prompted on Daniel Goldberg, who writes a blog for the VC Star's website, to write one of the silliest pieces of HSR denial I've ever seen. Even though it's absurd on its face, it's worth deconstructing these arguments which are likely to be with us for some time, especially as contentious debates over HSR implementation continue.

Goldberg starts with:

On Monday's front page there was an article about $8 billion in stimulus funds that might be allocated to high speed rail. My initial response was "why can't we stop wasting money?" The high speed rail debate has been going on for years, I think if it really was worth it, we would have dont it by now.

Obviously Goldberg has no clue about how major infrastructure projects are designed and permitted in this country, nor is he aware that we were supposed to vote on this in 2004 but Arnold Schwarzenegger insisted on delaying the vote for HSR bonds to 2006, and then to 2008.

Yes, building the fancy train set might create some jobs, but what about the long run.

Does he assume the train will vanish after 10 years? That it's got some sort of Mission: Impossible self-destruct system? In fact the HSR system will be a central part of California's long-term economic strategy, providing jobs and savings for decades to come. One estimate was that 450,000 jobs would be created by 2030 by the system - nothing to sneeze at.

Our state is already equipped with airports in every major city. And most minor cities also have small airports.

This is more of the usual "air travel means trains aren't necessary!" nonsense we usually see from HSR deniers, people who have probably never actually used some of these small airports. Many, like San Luis Obispo airport, are seeing declining passenger levels and carriers are abandoning the small airports in droves. Of course, peak oil means that the cost of flying will continue to rise - $49 fares from SF to LA will be a thing of the past in 2018.

Furthermore, let us not forget about our current rail system. Besides the Metrolink accident that occurred late last year, the current system works. Trains run daily all over the state and in an efficient manner. This brings me to the old saying, "If its not broken, don't fix it." Lets hope the wiseguys up in Sacramento subscribe to it.

Obviously Goldberg has never actually used a passenger train in California. They run daily, and are efficient given their enormous constraints. But they are wholly inadequate to the task of meeting California's overall transportation needs in the way they can and should. It shouldn't take 12 hours to get from SF to LA via train. It shouldn't even take an hour to get to LA from Santa Ana on a train. California's passenger trains, especially the intercity trains, have attracted a lot of riders and dedicated supporters, but I doubt any of them would say that the present situation is adequate or acceptable.

Especially given the need to boost non-oil based forms of travel, for environmental, economic, and energy reasons. But then I'm guessing Goldberg doesn't believe in global warming either.

He concludes his ill-informed rant:

Back to the $8 billion at hand. I am plenty sure it can be used for a better purpose. What about all those teachers who were just laid off or buying books for students. I imagine it would be better to invest the stimulus money into education rather than on infastructure, and especially for infastructure we DO NOT NEED.

And in the actual version, the "DO NOT NEED" is in a much bigger font than the rest of the text, as if we're too stupid to understand that's his point without being shouted at.

As to the issue of other needs, like schools - we've actually discussed that very issue before, back in May 2008, and ironically based off another ill-informed bit of HSR denial that ran in the Ventura County Star.

The points are still valid today. HSR isn't taking money from schools. The state contribution comes from general obligation bonds, paid out over 30 years at what's probably going to be an annual cost of around $600 million (and that's the higher end of the estimate). Our K-12 schools, however, face a $9 billion cut this year.

If you want to fix our schools, we need to raise taxes. There's no way around it.

But the issues go deeper. Why is California's budget in a mess? For 30 years now we have had a structural revenue shortfall - in other words, for the last 30 years we have not raised enough tax revenue to pay for our basic needs. The solution to this is NOT to turn to bonds - a structural problem needs a structural solution, and bond debt isn't such a solution.

Bonds are properly used to build long-term infrastructure. To pay for ongoing costs like education, we need more tax revenue.

Further, the economic crisis - what I believe to be a Depression, but what many are now calling the Great Recession - is sending tax revenues into the tank. That economic crisis is largely due to the effects of high oil prices on an economy based on sprawl and automobile commuting. If we want to recover from this crisis, grow the economy, generate new tax revenues, and pay for schools, then we need to get off of oil NOW. High speed rail helps get us there.

Unfortunately, HSR deniers refuse to acknowledge any of this, and that means they and their silly arguments will be with us for many years to come.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BruceMcF on Transbay Terminal

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

Note from Robert: Bruce McF has been generous enough to allow us to post this excellent discussion of the Transbay Terminal trainbox and track issues that he wrote. In addition to the link to his own site he gave below, he posted it over at the European Tribune as well, where as usual there is a good discussion on this.

From Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

I was able to get an interesting look into the proposed future of Intercity Travel in the Bay at the Transbay Terminal (TBT) in San Francisco.

Senate Info Hearing on High Speed Rail in California

Note that I am not trying to give "objective reporting" on this issue but rather to give vent to my reaction to watching the hearing online ... see The Troubling Discord Between Transbay and High Speed Rail Authorities for a less hot under the collar reaction..

One piece of information is that in California, when one public authority has the funding for sufficient staff and another doesn't, and it comes to a fight, it is considered fair game for the staffed up authority to toss up spin and red herrings and biased analyses, confident that the other authority does not have the capacity to answer promptly.

Late on in the piece is the technical guy from the Transbay Terminal (TBT) project putting in all sorts arguments against changing the design of the TBT "train box", without concern or regard for whether the arguments would be considered fair or impartial by a disinterested third party. He compared:

  • the station stopping time at a through platform to the station stopping time at a terminal platform;
  • the terminal turn-around for a regional rail service running between San Jose and San Francisco with a long distance rail service for a train that arrived from Anaheim/LA (or even, in Stage 2, San Diego); and
  • the number of services on single routes in Japan and Europe with the number of services for the main northern terminal for multiple routes in California

He wasn't the only one with tricks up his sleeve ... one of the Senators asked after the terminal capacity at Anaheim. The answer, by the way, was six platform tracks for what is supposed to be the secondary Southern Terminus when the full system is complete ... two more than the TBT proposes for HSR, at what is supposed to be the primary Northern Terminus.

How many HSR services should be allowed for?

On the other hand, the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) seems to be making claims that are difficult to support. They seem to have asked for an ability to support 12 trains per hour (tph), with 40 minute platform dwell times, claiming that they need 9 to 10 platform tracks.

First, the basic math ... 12tph with 40 minute platform dwells, inclusive of headways, is 8 platforms.

More fundamentally, though, where are 12 trains per hour coming from? That is a technical requirement for through stations, because the HSR line is designed to permit trains to pass at five minute intervals, and along the line, you cannot allow one service to block the next in line.

For the terminal station, the question is the number of services that might start or end at the station. For the California HSR system:
  • LA and the Bay is the backbone transport market for the HSR system ... there could well be demand for one LA/Anaheim Express and, half an hour later, one LA/San Diego Express
  • Running Express Routes drops off very useful trip pairs, so there will be demand for a Semi-Express, and the likelihood is that the hour that supports two Bay/LA Express services will support a Bay/LA/San Diego Semi-Express.
  • The Central Valley will be within three hours by an all-stops HSR to both LA and the Bay ... and within two hours of one, the other, or both. So in addition, one all-stations LA/Anaheim HSR service per hour providing access to and from the CV ... bearing in mind that while this is a smaller transport market, the HSR will grab a larger share of the total market

So this is 4 trains per hour ... 1 train per hour on four distinct services ... without even considering a Fresno special, or a spur at Mojave for Las Vegas.

And when the 400 seat single level, single set trains start filling up, its better for building ridership to increase frequency than to increase capacity. 2 LA/Anaheim Expresses per hour, split the all-stops CV into Express Fresno then all-stops to LA and all-stops to Fresno and Express to LA, and a mix of Express LA/San Diego and Express to LA then all stops to San Diego, and we are already at 6tph.

Indeed, as blogger DoDo on the European Tribune notes, the service schedule that the HSR ridership modeling is based upon (pdf) implies up to 8 trains per hour at the TBT.

Twelve trains per hour may be aiming too high, but six trains per hour clearly risks aiming too low.

Given the massive cost of building more capacity after the original foundation has been laid, the capability for eight (8) HSR trains per hour seems to be a perfectly reasonable expectation for the primary northern terminus for the system.

Following the trail of red herring

Now, when someone deploys deceptive comparisons and unbalanced comparisons, I have a reflex reaction ... a pile of red herring is normally used to cover something up.

And that something seems to be is a design flaw.

The TBT "train box" includes two "tail tracks", allows trains to get off the platform, either for overnight parking or for non-passenger operations like restocking and cleaning, without using up space in the tunnel.

What this means in theory is a train can arrive at an arrival platform, unload passengers (which is a very quick operation, since trains have far fewer passengers per door than airplanes), move to the tail platform to make room for the next train, get trach unloaded, seats needing deep cleaning looked after, food and beverage restocked, and then get move to the departure platform.

And the TBT tunnel access is designed with three tracks, which eliminates all sorts of potential bottlenecks:
  • Both Caltrain and HSR services arrive in the TBT on the central track
  • A Caltrain service departs from the Caltrain island platform using the "inner" tunnel track, which opens up the platform for an arriving Caltrain service
  • After the departing Caltrain service has left, the arriving Caltrain service switches over to the "inner" track to get to the Caltrain island platform
  • HSR services run directly to the central arrival island
  • Passengers depart the HSR services, the train goes to the tail track for restocking and to clear the platform for the next service, from the tail track to the departure platform, then depart using the "outer" tunnel track

This is a system that allows three different islands to be accessed with little interference, because only two islands receive incoming trains, and because each type of service has its own dedicated departure track ... so they can arrive in sync, dwell in station for different lengths of time, and leave on their own schedule.

In particular, it allows the HSR trains to be in the station for over 40 minutes, while only occupying the platforms for 30 minutes each, raising the capacity of four platforms from six trains per hour to eight trains per hour.

This also makes it easier to organize efficient movement of passengers, since passengers are either leaving or arriving at each HSR platform ... there isn't a the problem of departing passengers getting in the way of arriving passengers.

With this approach, 4 platform tracks support 8 trains per hour ... which is to say, adequate to the needs of the planned HSR system with enough spare capacity to allow for some growth.

The Design Flaw

The design flaw ... for supporting 8tph, that is ... may not jump out at you, but its in the picture, taken from the 2003 "locally preferred option" design for the TBT Environmental Impact Report. The right hand side is the tunnel from the present end of the rail line. The left hand is the turn to the tail tracks.

Now, the HSR platforms have to be designed for long trains ... once the capacity is filled with 8 car, 400 seat trains, they can be extended to 16-car, 800 seat trains, and then by moving to bi-level trains, 1400 seat trains. That means a 1,320 foot long platform. That means that the bottom two islands are for the HSR and the top island is for Caltrain. The bottom two platforms need to be stretched a bit, and the middle one straightened somehow ... but the TBT technical person said that that had been fixed up.

So, stepping through the pictured design:
  • Counting access tracks, three tunnel tracks split up to make six platform tracks. So far, so good.
  • For Caltrain to operate as described above, a switch will have to be added so Caltrain services can get from the middle tunnel track to the "inner" tunnel track which leads to the Caltrain platform. And since the outbound train has to leave the Caltrain platform before the inbound train can arrive, that will work just fine.
  • The two Caltrain platform tracks are connected directly to the Caltrain exit track, so that will work just fine.
  • For the HSR trains to operate as described above, the central island is the arriving platform, connected directly to the tunnel track that brings trains in. That will work just fine.
  • That leaves the bottom island as the departing platform. The two platform tracks at this island are connected directly to the HSR exit track, so that will work just fine.
  • And the tail tracks ... are not connected to the bottom platform track. Instead, the bottom platform track comes to a dead end. That is not just fine. Indeed, assuming that the TBT has the staff that they likely know all of this already, that might be what the pile of red herring is supposed to cover up.

What can be done to straighten up the mess? One approach is to swap the Caltrain platform from top to bottom ... and trim a substantial piece from the front (right hand side) of the bottom platform. In fact, trim enough from the front that the switch between the two platform tracks is after the single tunnel track has rounded the corner.

Note that this is just a rough sketch

Trimming off the front of the bottom island allows the middle island to straighten up. Straightening up the middle island allows the top island to straighten up.

The middle island can be straightened up a bit by extending the tail track directly from the middle platform, with switches connecting the top island, which gives more room before the platform track must bend to form the rail track..

This might not be enough for 1320 ft. of straight platform, but it'll be a lot closer ... and, after all, the CAHSRA is probably overstating how much straight platform they need, since the platform only needs to be straight for the passenger car portion. A little bit of bend for the driver cars at the front and rear of the train can be tolerated. If this can get 1200 ft.. of straight platform with a 60 ft. curved part on either side, that certainly seems like it ought to be OK.

So, if both sides are wrong, who is going to admit it?

The question that puzzles me the most is not the technical one ... as tight a squeeze as it may be ... but the political one. The TBT authority have made public claims that present a picture of basically being ready to go, except for the fantastical demands of the CAHSR authority. The CAHSR authority has made fallen into the trap of making an ambit claim that they will have to strain to support ... but if that costs them the political argument, the fact that the TBT train box is an inadequate design is likely to be lost in the collapse.

The only player that strikes me as having the opportunity to say, "wait a minute, here's a fix that won't cost all that much to implement" is Caltrain. But ... under the solution above, they are giving up a 900 ft. platform, connected to the tail tracks, for what could end up being a 800 ft. platform, with only one connection to the tail track, and that connection only available when the closest HSR platform track is empty.

To Be Continued ...

Anyway, that's the puzzle. But there's another possibility ... one which might be of more appeal to Caltrain ... so I am going to end this with an ellipses.