Saturday, November 7, 2009

Warren Buffett's Bet on BNSF

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

by Rafael

Recently, Berkshire Hathaway, the company led by renowned investor and industrialist Warren Buffett, announced a takeover bid for the 77% of shares in the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad it does not already own. Remarkably, the offer price of $100-a-share is around 30% above that of the share price before the takeover bid was announced. Even though the $44 billion deal is Berkshire Hathaway's biggest-ever, Buffett will still have $20 billion of cash on hand even after it closes. "It's an all-in wager on the economic future of the United States," said Buffett in a statement. "I love these bets."

A discussion thread in the NY Times' Room for Debate blog looks into the possible motives for the acquisition and Buffett's modus operandi. The panel of contributors perceives his grand bet primarily in the context of freight rail operations, which remain the most eco-friendly way to move bulk goods over land. That said, one of BNSF's core activities in the eastern US is hauling coal to power stations. (via Infrastructurist)

Even competitor Union Pacific has hailed Buffett's decision as a "strong positive statement" for the industry. Berkshire Hathaway has a 1.9% stake in UPRR but is not looking to expand on that.

BNSF owns and operates tracks in California and in Los Angeles in particular, notably between Redondo Junction (downtown Los Angeles) and the Arizona border and, between Bakersfield and Richmond. The company has a track record of solid cooperation with Amtrak California and Metrolink, it gives them scheduling priority and even measures Amtrak on-performance while on BNSF track.

In the context of the California HSR project, BNSF is open to at least discussing the partial sale of rights of way and/or air rights above them. CHSRA is relying on a deal with BNSF for the Redondo Junction to Fullerton and the Calwa (south Fresno) to Bakersfield sections of the planned network. The section between south Stockton and Calwa is suboptimal for HSR, but CHSRA's preferred alignment along the CA-99 corridor will be difficult to implement without a deal with UPRR, as will other sections of the network.

What, if any, impact might the Berkshire Hathaway acquisition of the remainder of BNSF have on California HSR?


Anonymous said...

He knows that the company's assets are worth more than the share price - plain and simple.

Assets in this case = ROW, and he sees that they pretty much hold monopoly ownership of available ROW to build HSR. I wouldn't be surpised if this is nothing more than a plan to cash in on those assets. The more interest he shows in operating freight - the more desparate becomes the situation for the government to obtain ROW for HSR, the more price can be extracted for the use/sale of ROW. Berkshire is an investment company, not a railroad operator.

Anonymous said...

Berkshire is not normally interested in buying up assets and selling them off, say after breaking them up into parts. They purchase companies based on fundamentals. He is one very smart guy.

I don't agree that their motive is to cash in on the assets at all. I believe he sees long continuous growth and profits from the company, that he sees it as having good management and he see it staying in his portfolio for decades.

Anonymous said...

Sure, well there are ways to cash in on the assets without selling them. charging pretty penny to lease or share or rent (taking a good chung of operating expense off the top (before profit) from HSR. Yes, I can see why that would be a long term profitable business.

Alon Levy said...

BNSF doesn't have monopoly on HSR rights of way except in parts of the LA Basin. In the Central Valley, California can choose among 4 rights of way - BNSF, UP, I-5, and SR-99. And elsewhere, the BNSF lines are too curvy to be used by themselves, with the Interstates being much better for HSR construction.

Rafael said...

@ Alon Levy -

both politically and commercially, bypassing Fresno and Bakersfield via I-5 is a non-starter.

UPRR hasn't given any indication that it is willing to sell any land or even air rights anywhere at all for the purpose of constructing any passenger-only tracks. They turned down BART in eastern Contra Costa county, just as they turned down CHSRA in southern Santa Clara county. They're the railroad of "No".

Tracks close to CA-99 would probably be feasible in most of the Central Valley, though the freeway itself has a lot of squiggles. However, there is no available median through Fresno and the corner of the 99/58 interchange is much too tight to support express trains at 220mph.

So, I don't share your optimism about all the alternatives CHSRA supposedly has.

Perhaps a more interesting question is if Warren Buffett sees HSR as a potential money spinner. If so, he could decide to take stock rather than cash in any right of way/air rights deals. No indication of that so far, though.

Alon Levy said...

UP is the railroad of no where it has a monopoly. It's possible CAHSR could cooperate with it where it has to compete with BNSF. I'm not optimistic, but there are some alternatives in case Buffett decides to screw over CAHSR.

looking on said...

From Rafael:

UPRR hasn't given any indication that it is willing to sell any land or even air rights anywhere at all for the purpose of constructing any passenger-only tracks. They turned down BART in eastern Contra Costa county, just as they turned down CHSRA in southern Santa Clara county. They're the railroad of "No".

It is so unfortunate to see how this project has been so poorly planned and now you see the results.

Why weren't expert planners, and not politicians involved in the root plans? Just thinking about the stupidity of this group, doing an EIR using the UPRR corridor, when they had been told it wasn't available, thus the loss of the lawsuit

BSNF may be cooperative, but without competition on route corridor choices, their price will be high --- whatever the market will bear will be the outcome.

The whole project has been politically driven with development interest pushing the effort. It has never been about planning and building a people mover from north to south, but it is about bringing escalating land values and encouraging growth and sprawl in the central valley.

Its about the general contractor, PB, building the most expensive possible system to ensure the most jobs and profits for those on the inside.

Anonymous said...

@looking on - you've pretty much described every transportation infrastructure project in United States history.

I agree with you that it's despicable, but it's the American way. It's how we do things - this ain't Germany, France, or Japan.

Alon Levy said...

Looking On, the Central Valley sprawl requires building HSR to the Bay Area. If the developers you fear want this to happen, they need to figure out a way of crossing Pacheco Pass without pissing off UP.

Anonymous said...

creating jobs and profit is not despicable in a capitalist society.
What he sees is that as the move towards green continues and becomes more critical, the railroads will become the most important and profitable mode of freight transportation in the country and with their land holdings, port access, and distribution centers they will be poised to be THE key cog in the transport wheel, and that's just freight, not even counting hsr. There are only a handful of railroads in america and only two really big ones so if you own one of those you are as close to a monopoly as you're gonna get. Its a smart move irrespective of whether hsr happens anywhere.

Anonymous said...

Expect to see further investment in bnsf. imporved row, infrastructure/facilities consolidated corridors and a move towards speed and efficiency similar to the the produce train in the northwest.

looking on said...

Alon Levy:

Well reading this blog, I thought the only problem was figuring out a way to get from Diridon station for a few miles until out of the urban City of San Jose.

If you listen to the CHSRA, no problem, they will get this done. They are going ahead with project level EIR work right now.

From my vantage, I see the big problem as being funding. Certainly director Crane also views this as the major problem. Yet a year ago he was pushing the public/private partnerships that were going to make all this happen. He certainly sold the Governor on the concept.

Anonymous said...

Looking on,
The project was poorly planned and now we're seeing the results? Do you know what the hell you're talking about? (probably a dumb question). Nothing can stop HSR from building adjacent to the UPRR ROW in Santa Clara Co. See Monterey Why. or even 101. They're still determining the actual route from Diridon to Pacheco Pass; hence recent scoping meetings in SCCo. In other words, NOTHING WAS, OR HAS, BEEN SET IN STONE. This is a work in progress, and when its up in running by 2020, its going to be awesome.

Anonymous said...

Repeat after me LO,
THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS! By the way, will you ride the trains in 2020?

Rafael said...

@ jim -

the upgrade that will really count is positive train control for all shared rights of way. Hopefully CHSRA will be smart enough to insist on something that's already been developed and debugged on someone else's nickel (e.g. ERTMS) and get BSNF to sign up to that.

Reducing technology risk by leveraging off-the-shelf solutions is why CHSRA picked steel wheels over maglev, after all.

Anonymous said...

@rafael- it does seem like a no brainer for the railroads to invest in such tech. everything from double tracking, added crossovers, ATC, welded rail, and on and on. The railroads are slow to adapt for some reason. I think in part because of the vast territories, huge expense, adn teh fact that they are profitable without it. Like most industry, it wont change until economic forces make it necessary.

Anonymous said...

If Buffet's primary interest is in the future of freight - then the company is likely to become more like UPRR in protecting its freight lifeblood - its ROW.

Seems like people transportation should stay on people transportation corridors and freight should stay on freight row. The two are actually completely incompatible, they don't need to hit the same places on the map (in fact preferable to keep frieght OUT of the downtowns and neighborhoods where ideally HSR would like to be), the technologies are different, and the purposes are different.

The state should be looking at building HSR on freeway corridors which the state can just take at will, and keep freight corridors for freight.

Anonymous said...

Agree with anon @5:21 that freight corridors should be kept separate from passenger corridors.

That said, CHSRA and Caltrain need to immediately work to kick all freight trains off of the passenger corridor on the peninsula (since that is by FAR the primary purpose of the tracks there).

Following 99 or using eminent domain to snag other areas in the Central Valley does seem better than dealing with the freight railroad mafia.

Also, the Grapevine is completely out because it would conflict too much with a freight corridor, but the Tehachapis route would mostly be away from the freight ROW (through tunnels and such).

reality here said...

The project has as much of a chance of being up and running by 2020 as the proverbial "snowball down in hell" If they get the funds, 2025 maybe, more likely 2030.

And anon 5:34, pray tell how do you kick UPRR off the CalTrain corridor?

Anonymous said...

The problems aren't as big as some make them out to be though. First, The transbay terminal is moving along on schedule. and while some can argue nit picky details, fact is, there will be an hsr station there as planned.
The catrain row, with four tracks, can accommodate two dedicated hsr tracks, two caltrain tracks, with UP able run on one of the caltrain tracks and with the flexibility for caltrain and hsr to shre tracks when needed during a disruption.

The row from san jose to gilroy - UP hasn't been ruled out and there is still room adjacent / monterey highway, as well as ample space in the 101.
Bnsf is likely good to go for south of fresno and the only place in question is north of fresno, where while not the first choice, bnsf can be used if need be.
So nothing here is insurmountable. Its just a matter of working through it and thats part of the process.
With the test track located between fresno and bakersfield on the bnsf, the matter of laying track and catenary is pretty straight forward. I don't know how long it takes to build catenary, but laying ballast and track goes like a well oiled machine.

Anonymous said...

And anon 5:34, pray tell how do you kick UPRR off the CalTrain corridor?

The nuclear option that has been discussed here. UP doesn't own the tracks, and the counties that do own the tracks have the option of eliminating freight service if "substantial" changes to passenger service are needed. Obviously put in place for a potential BART line, but HSR would easily qualify as well.

It's time for CHSRA to play hard ball with UP.

Alon Levy said...

Anon at 5:21, sometimes it makes sense for HSR to follow freight rights of way. It doesn't have to be on the same tracks; the rights of way are usually wide enough for two extra track. As far as technologies go, HSR is a lot more compatible with heavy freight rail than it is with highways...

Anonymous said...

Jim @ 633 nailed it!

Reality here (or more like "wishful thinking" here), any sources or facts to back up your 2025-30 BS? Of course you don't (just speaking from your rump!).

Anonymous said...

and I doubt anyone has to play hardball with anyone. They'll come to a back room deal that benefits both parties. If catrain can indeed force UP, then UP know that and it would be a waste of time to put up a fuss about it. They'll work it out. besides like I said, hsr and caltrain doesnt preclude freight operations.

Anonymous said...

if anyone is interested there's lots of new central subway goodies posted here. interactives, videos, station designs etc. quite the extravaganza of levels and escalators and so forth.

Koala Labs said...

As the President of BRM (Bellingham Railway Museum...see my interest in the BNSF acqisition lies in the new ownership (by Warren Buffet) of the Great Northern Paasenger Train Station at the S end of D street in downtown Bellingham.
Our museum ( a 501(c)(3)non-profit org.) currently located temporarily at 1320 Commercial street in downtown Bellingham WA 98225 (for the past 6 years), would like to move in to a permanent location, namely the Historic Landmark ''D'' street train station.Please help this project proposal..send e-mail to and

Koala Labs said...

Hello to Warren Buffet.
As the president of BRM (Bellingham Railway Museum) a 501(C)(3) non-profit org. see I am seeking funding to add educational field trips from local Bellingham WA 98225 elementary schools to this museum. Ours is a 100%all volunteer run non-profit org. for the past 6 years.
We are at a stage where we are ready to hire an Executive Director so as to expand the range of educational opportunities to our local children so as to enrich their learning about 1) ''How Trains Work'' 2) How rail transport can contribute to the ''GREENING'' of the environment 3) The rich history of rail transport as it contributed to the development of Bellingham over the past 100 years.
E-mail me at and

Anonymous said...

Trying to tell the hardliners on this site that freeeway alignments are the way to go is hopeless.

I believe that the underlying mentality at play here is to build a sort of TEE in California rather than a genuine hsr. Electrified passenger rail of the type that Europe has enjoyed for many years.

This of of itself a nice enough idea but it will require ongoing subsidies ala Amtrak and will greatly disappoint voters who were told to expect something revolutionary. Selling out the Grapevine for the Tehachapis was conterrevolionary.

And of course our feckless politicos don't have clue one about the incipient hsr boondoggle.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 9:26am -

(a) 220mph top speed will make the California HSR network one of the most advanced in the entire world.

(b) The last TEE ran in 1991. Snap out of your time warp.

(c) For the umpteenth time, the Tehachapi route was chosen because it requires fewer miles of tunneling, all individual tunnels are less than 6 miles long and both the Garlock and San Andreas faults can be crossed at grade. Do you really want anyone to be stuck miles inside a mountain when the Big One hits?

Palmdale lucked out, the Grapevine route was simply both more expensive and less safe.

Anonymous said...

@anon 926

better hardline than hardhead. The system as designed is optimal for getting the highest ridership and serving the largest number of people in california.

Express and Semi express travel times between Sf and LA and LA and SD at 125-220 are exactly in line with hsr around the world and further, the vast majority of trips will be to. from and between, intermediate stops, (as all californians are quite moblie not just Angelinos) and those intermediate travel times will blow other forms of transport out of the water in terms of speed.
And for the 429th time, why would you go grapevine were there are no people when you have half a million people in LA county waiting to be connected to the rest of the state. ( does one sign a contract of immobility with the devil when one moves to northern LA county, never to be seen or heard from again?)

I mean really what about it is so difficult to understand and why on gods green earth are you so obsessed with an extra 10 minutes?

Anonymous said...

It will work out to an extra half hour.

And I am not worried about a Grapevine tunnel. What are you going to do if BART's transbay tube breaks open?

Anonymous said...

Theres a big difference between the transbay tube which performed perfectly as planned in 1989, and crossing the SA fault .

The transbay tube lies in between the hayward and san andreas faults it does not cross them. It does not cross a section of crust that is moving in opposite directions and is not prone to snapping movements. It moves with the underlying surface and is also flexible.

A grapevine bore would cross the fault at very active area where not only are the pacific plate and north american plate moving in opposite directions but also in an area up extreme uplift ( those mountains are there for a reason)

Even without and earthquake the tunnel would become out of alignment over time and correcting this misalignment in a tunnel under a mountain would exhorbitanly expensive and would be a ridiculous undertaking.

Crossing the fault on the surface allows for easy maintenance and re alignment of tracks on an annual basis.

Anonymous said...


look here where it says "offset" this movement which takes place both underground and on the surface is continuous regardless of whether or not there is an earthquake. see the misalignment of the creek. Row on the surface can be visually monitored maintained and corrected and easliy accessed. Now build a an expensive tunnel and a few years later it is already misaligned then how do you realign a tunnel? youd have to shut down the system and go underground and rebuild. Over and over and over again in perpetuity.

per the USGS: " During the 1906 earthquake in the San Francisco region, roads, fences, and rows of trees and bushes that crossed the fault were offset several yards, and the road across the head of Tomales Bay was offset almost 21 feet"

how would you fix a tunnel hundreds of feet underground the snapped like that? think about it.

also from the USGS "Surveying shows a drift at the rate of as much as 2 inches per year."
considering the critical nature of hsr track geometry, how are you going to do maintenance to correct track and tunnel at that rate, ? answer, you can't.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 10:10am -

"It will work out to an extra half hour."

And from which part of your body did you extract this pearl of wisdom?

@ jim -

while BART's transbay tube does not cross a major fault, the subsoil at the connection points at either end is potentially prone to liquefaction. Just because the tube held in 1989 doesn't guarantee it will hold in future earthquakes, especially the predictable peril on the Hayward fault.

Then again, such a quake could easily devastate the entire East Bay from Milpitas to Point Richmond. If the Calaveras fault slips as well, the economic damage could be on the order of $170 billion, to say nothing of the lives lost. The BART tube would be the least of our problems. Basically, the entire Bay Area might be in worse shape than New Orleans after Katrina.

HSR tunnels under the Grapevine would greatly increase seismic risk for the sake of cutting a few minutes off SF-LA line haul time.

Anonymous said...

a big one on the hayward fault is probably the most likely thing to happen and the worst thing to have happen as it runs directly under major transport corridors, right through schools and hospitals, and for the entire length, through some of the most densely populated urban area in the country. Its gonna be bad for sure.

I found this on the bart tube but its written in god knows what language... looks like algebra or something. anyway says an 8.0 would likley result in liquefaction but doesn't say how much if any damage that would cause. You know they built it on bed of special materials, but how much movement can the tube withstand should they liquefy? Appears they are looking at ways to reinforce. Too me it seems a good solution might be to pump concrete underneath. They used that method in other applications ive heard.
also seems they should have driven piles into bedrock first, then laid the tube on top of such a foundation rather than just trenching it in mud. but what do I know.

Clem said...

The transbay tube lies in between the hayward and san andreas faults

You guys are worried about the wrong tunnel. The Berkeley Hills Tunnels are far more worrisome and cross an active fault underground. Exactly what is being described as infeasible for the Altamont alignment in the Niles Canyon area.

how do you kick UPRR off the CalTrain corridor?

Assuming the political will is assembled to do this, it would not be difficult at all--especially if residents realize the impact on them from freight specifications like a 1% maximum grade.

We're talking about a billion-dollar giveaway to UPRR... so it's better to buy them out for whatever they want.

UPRR has bigger fish to fry than a Podunk freight backwater like the peninsula. Dumping all the rail freight traffic onto 101 would increase five-axle truck traffic on the freeway by just 25%. Yawn.

Anonymous said...

anyway, freight train can use one of the caltrain tracks just like they do now, so there's no problem.

Rafael said...

@ jim -

from that Bechtel paper:

"Conclusion: Both deterministic and probabilistic liquefaction evaluations of the fills below and around the Transbay Tube show that liquefaction of these materials is more than likely under the earthquake scenarios postulated in the paper.

In view of this, BART is currently carrying out a) a field investigation intended to obtain the in-situ properties of the fills, and, b) engineering evaluations of various schemes that would prevent liquefaction or at least minimize its effects on the tube."

Considering the source, there may have been some drumming up of business here, but the potential for liquefaction is real enough. Near the interface with the much stiffer tunnels on land, there is particular risk of stress concentrations in the tunnel walls if the subsoil should liquefy, i.e. give way. Leaks or even catastropic failure are a possibility, but even unacceptably large plastic deformation would force BART to suspend service.

There are special concrete mixes that can be poured and will harden underwater. The hard part would be injecting that grout into the gravel bed already under the end sections of the BART tube while it remains operational.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Dumping all the rail freight traffic onto 101 would increase five-axle truck traffic on the freeway by just 25%.

Increase truck traffic on 101 by 25% and how often does traffic stop? How many trucks will there be in 2020? and 2030? And extra lane in each direction won't be cheap.

Right now there isn't much freight on the Peninsula. Take it away and it will never come back. People need lumber and sheetrock, granite coutertops and beer. All of the people create lots and lots of garbage. All the garbage will never be more than a few trains a day but that's how many trucks?

Ten dollar a gallon diesel will make the nice electric freight train, running partially on hydropower and nuclear look really really good. Can't do that if there's no track.

Rafael said...

@ Adirondacker12800 -

Clem has suggested turning the SF peninsula into a short freight line with limitations on axle load and maximum permitted gradients well above 1%. Light/medium freight would remain possible, but heavy freight would be prohibited.

That sounds like a reasonable compromise to me, provided adequate solutions for the turnoffs to freight spurs can be identified in the context of full grade separation of the primary right of way.

Anonymous said...

I think the reno trench/alameda corridor type solutions where various agencies cities companies, work together to consoldate into corridors makes sense and should be implimented all over the state.

Anonymous said...

Vote no on the water bond as payback for the Tehachapis caper.

Clem said...

lumber sheetrock granite coutertops beer garbage

No no no no. More like sand, gravel, more gravel, scrap metal, etc. Half of the car loads must be for Granite Rock alone.

Compared to the freeways in LA, 101 sees little truck traffic. Even doubling "little" is not a big pill to swallow, especially when you consider that this traffic could occur only at night (as it currently does) without requiring any additional lanes.

freight train can use one of the caltrain tracks just like they do now, so there's no problem.

There very much is a problem for building grade separations that are context-sensitive, and saying there isn't won't make the problem go away.

I've suggested doing away with very long trains or full car loads, to allow the grade separations to be built with steeper grades (2.5% or so) and for lighter axle loads (22500 kg, instead of 32000 kg). That would be a context-sensitive solution.

Throwing a billion extra into massive excavation and concrete pouring just so big brawny AAR freight trains (and their Neanderthal Amtrak cousins) can come up the peninsula is money flushed down the toilet.

BruceMcF said...

Anon-11:05am 7 November: Isn't the idea that Berkshire bought BNSF primarily to do X, Y or Z with the California HSR system a bit of internet hyperbolic absurdity?

I mean, someone looks at that map of BNSF's network and says, "clearly, 'e done it to screw the California HSR system over" is more than a one taco short of a combo meal.

The US can either go suicidal in response to the coming series of oil price shocks and then they need the railroads to ship the coal, or can get serious about expanding the quickest domestic capacity that can be brought online, wind turbines, and then they need to get the long haul HVDC lines strung up - and a single landlord to work with is a heck of a lot easier than hundreds or thousands.

Anonymous said...


Why in the world do you think they, UPRR, can be bought out --- same flawed reasoning that has the CHSRA in a mess right now.

They are going away --- they don't have to go away.

The Authority keeps telling us these tales. We will make a deal with the UPRR, no problem.

The lawsuit on the corridor is "frivolous" -- no problem.

We have heavy interest from private investors --- raising the funds --- no problem.

Quit drinking the lemonade.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 5:10 - UPRR wouldn't need to be bought out on the peninsula, since they don't own it in the first place. They lease the rights to use it.

Anonymous said...

anon 5:23:


They have track rights that are not time limited. Yes, they don't own the land, but they have very strong track rights, and nothing in their track rights agreement says these can be purchased.

So, yes they don't own the land, but they have track rights to use the corridor and without their consent you can't take them away.

CalTrain has been dancing around this issue for months and months, with the usual from the board statement "we have good relations with UPRR" --- we will work it out. Yet the issue never gets settled. Time to face reality folks, they are here to stay.

The lawsuit now shifted to Sacramento from Peterson, reflects on this issue.

Clem said...

Why in the world do you think they, UPRR, can be bought out

Because they are a profit-seeking enterprise seeking to maximize shareholder value?

Or have I got that wrong somehow?

Lick to Santa Clara is a critical backup link in their network. Santa Clara to San Francisco is a little-used branch line they could easily do without.

UPRR wouldn't need to be bought out on the peninsula, since they don't own it in the first place. They lease the rights to use it.

It's unlikely that UPRR would give up their rights unless there's something in it for them.

Just what they would want would be revealed by pursuing abandonment proceedings with the Surface Transportation Board, for example under section 8.3.(c) of the trackage rights agreement.

Rafael said...

@ Clem -

as you rightly point out, one of the more important remaining freight rail customers in the SF peninsula is Granite Rock in Redwood City. It might make sense to give them incentives to relocate to an alternate waterfront location that will always be served by freight rail.

No demand for heavy freight rail = no point in running heavy freight trains in the SF peninsula. This strategy might be cheaper than invoking 8.3c, paying off UPRR in abandonment proceeding and forcing companies like Granite Rock to switch to trucking.

The snag is that in the middle of a recession, no city is interested in losing jobs of any kind, including heavy industrial ones.

Robert Cruickshank said...

Moving Graniterock is much easier said than done. They're not going to have an easy time getting the permits and local approval to build another such waterfront site anywhere else in the Bay Area.

From a long-range perspective, it would actually make sense to preserve freight rail on the Peninsula to SF. Peak oil alone would indicate that a city such as San Francisco, that still is very much dependent on shipped goods for its economic survival, would want to preserve a freight rail connection if it already had one.

Abandoning freight rail on the Peninsula is functionally unnecessary, and from the perspective of long-range planning, is very undesirable. The only reason to pursue it would be to placate the Peninsula folks who want to bury the Caltrain/HSR tracks. I would prefer to avoid having to sacrifice Peninsula freight rail to appease them if we can do so.

Alon Levy said...

Robert, heavy freight will force the Peninsula section to be more expensive, regardless of whether there are tunnels or not. Aerials are more expensive than at-grade construction, and a 1% ruling gradient means longer aerial segments.

Anonymous said...

clem (and their Neanderthal Amtrak cousins) can come up the peninsula is money flushed down the toilet

okay if it werent for those ( very successful) neanderthal trains wining over californians to rail travel, you wouldn't be getting any high speed rail in cali ever so no dissing the real trains just cuz you like the wispy sissy froo froo trains ok?
building high speed rail does not mean the whole world has to stop what its doing to accommodate its holiness. and I can tell you right now that UP is not going to give up that freight operation and put that stuff on trucks. that just isnt gonna happen.

Anonymous said...

and the port of san francisco isn't gonna have any part of anyone trying to interfere with how things are done. and like rafael said earlier.... your talking about jobs. good jobs. just the sort of jobs we are trying to create more of. A port without a freight rail link is a ridiculous proposition. In fact im going to email the port commission and ask them what they think about the idea.

Anonymous said...

don't forget these guys -- gonna put them outta work too?

תוכנה לניהול חשבונות said...

UP doesn't own the tracks, and the counties that do own the tracks have the option of eliminating freight service if "substantial" changes to passenger service are needed.

Anonymous said...

and san mateo county and san francisco county both have shipping ports and industries/compnies/employees, that depend on freight rail

neroden@gmail said...

BNSF has been talking about electrifying most of their system, but said it would cost $10 billion, which at the time was "too much" to raise on the capital markets.

Note how much cash the corporate parent will have after purchasing BNSF. If Matt Rose can show Buffett that electrification gives a good return on investment, we may get a *fully electrified BNSF system*.

neroden@gmail said...

"No no no no. More like sand, gravel, more gravel, scrap metal, etc. Half of the car loads must be for Granite Rock alone."

Given that the main use of freight rail on the Peninsula is for non-time-sensitive bulk freight, and the main customers are near the Bay, surely *barge transport* is a more than adequate substitute for rail transport? (And even *more* energy efficient if used properly).

Clem said...

From a long-range perspective, it would actually make sense to preserve freight rail on the Peninsula to SF.

Oh, I agree on that sentiment, but the question should be at what cost? Preserving it isn't free, and it's legitimate to discuss who pays, how much, and who benefits.

Right now that cost is being buried and obfuscated in technical standards that limit gradients to 1% maximum and require enormous vertical clearances.

Nobody is attaching a price tag to those specs, largely because the taxpayer can't tell the difference and will blindly pay for the hidden additional cost. The benefit accrues to engineering consultants, construction companies, UPRR, the Port, and other peninsula freight customers... all of whom are quite coincidentally adamant that freight should be accommodated.

If UPRR and their customers want continued freight service, they should pay for the incremental cost, which I estimate is in the billion-dollar range (a ~20% premium on grade separations)

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

a long stretch of row from sf to sfo is wide enough for five tracks, as are other sections of the row.

I just think we need to have that freight access avail into the city - say we have "the big one" tons of materials will need to shipped in to the city for rebuilding. or other possibilities, supplies, evacuations, military presence, and number of things where heavy rail access would be needed. not to mention a major city with a port but no freight rail access will have a handicapped economy. Its just not right.

Rafael said...

@ jim -

if there is a major earthquake on the SF peninsula, there's a good chance the rails will be bent out of shape and therefore unavailable for some period of time. Barges would probably haul most of the debris away, not rail.

Absent an earthquake, restricting axle loads on the newly grade separated Caltrain tracks to 22.5 metric tonnes would not preclude freight rail service altogether, just heavy freight rail.

looking on said...


You say:

"If UPRR and their customers want continued freight service, they should pay for the incremental cost, which I estimate is in the billion-dollar range (a ~20% premium on grade separations)"

That is totally crazy. They should pay to keep the freight rights they already own forever, so that a new service can be instituted on the corridor, which has no benefit to them? Not a court in the world (well maybe only the US), will ever accept that that position -- it simply has no basis in law or common sense.

Anonymous said...

looking on - they don't have to pay then, and can instead be kicked off the corridor. The option is theirs to choose. And yes, any court in the world would side with the contract written with UP, which clearly states that the counties can kick UP off of the corridor if significant changes to passenger rail are undertaken. Any court in the world will uphold the rights of the OWNER of the corridor, rather than some company that simply leases the usage.

Cost Control said...

Looking on: UPRR doesn't own the Peninsula ROW. It only has limited track rights that can be revoked due to major improvements in passenger service. SP (which UPRR acquired in 1996 or so) sold the Peninsula ROW to the Joint Powers Authority because the freight on the line was too marginal and no longer profitable.

Cruickshank doesn't get it either. Removing heavy freight off the Peninsula according to an existing legal clause made during the sale from SP to the JPA would make the Peninsula Rail Program improvements dramatically cheaper in total cost, less disruptive to the surrounding community, and easier to implement. The conflict is that PB and HNTB are more than happy to profit from an overwrought and needlessly expensive design.

The public taxpayer has to foot the bill for all the extra cost for a design standard to accommodate heavy freight, and this is how you end up with ugly, solid berms. The stakes couldn't be higher in terms of what this project ends up looking like.

Anonymous said...

The "counties" may have the option to kick UP out but the counties have other things on their plate besides hsr. They have ports and business and future access to consider and railroad is a valuable asset. The businesses who use the railroad also bring jobs and tax revenue in. So don't assume the "counties" are just going to be gung ho about kicking up out.

Rafael said...

@ CostControl -

it's a misperception that retained fill embankments were suggested because of a desire to accommodate UPRR. They're simply the cheapest way to implement a series of grade separations in sequence and would therefore be preferred even if there were no freight traffic in the SF peninsula today.

Nor would kicking UPRR out reduce the number of tracks, four are needed to implement the desired speed profile and throughput levels. You can argue if those are worth desiring, but that discussion is independent of UPRR.

What Clem was talking about is the ability to implement shorter, steeper and potentially more frequent vertical transitions, to give individual cities more flexibility in choosing how they want the rails to run through their downtown areas.

Fwiw, I don't think UPRR will be kicked off the SF peninsula unless FRA declines to grant Caltrain a mixed traffic waiver. Another potential reason for invoking clause 8.3c a.k.a. the "nuclear option" is if the vertical grade separation project cannot accommodate turnoffs to existing freight spurs. For example, if the main line through RWC is elevated, how will freight trains reach the Granite Rock plant?

Cost Control said...

Rafael, it's as simple as this: steeper gradients mean shorter embankments and simpler grade separations. It allows more of the ROW to remain at-grade, which is obviously more cost-effective. Without heavy freight, any elevated structures don't have to be as burly (and expensive) to accommodate heavy loads.

Rafael said...

@ CostControl -

at grade works great for stretches that already have plenty of over- and underpasses, e.g. Palo Alto and, for extended stretches without any cross roads (rare in the SF peninsula).

Where that is not the case, keeping the tracks at grade would mean converting each and every remaining grade crossing to a deep underpass, tall overpass or closed permanently. If there are multiple such grade crossings in rapid succession (e.g. Menlo Park), it's cheaper to change the elevation of the rails. Moreover, existing intersections with frontage roads are preserved.

Eliminating heavy freight would permit concrete aerials with columns that support not just one but two tracks. However, to minimize both visual and actual mass, these structures are usually build without ballast for the tracks. Noise and especially vibrations impacts are usually higher than with retained fill embankments.

In terms of height and width of the cross-section, embankments are essentially the same whether or not heavy freight is permitted to continue. The only difference is the permissible gradient, i.e. the run length required to ascend from and descend to grade level. Any cross roads in the ascent/descent sections can be retained only via split grade separation or as deep underpasses.

Anonymous said...

i was reading something today, in the bay crossings newsletter, they are building a new ferry terminal at south city, but also, the organizations that represent the smaller ports such redwood city, are gearing up to showcase their importance and usefulness for the future, so any attempt to remove freight access from the peninsual is going to be met with opposition by more than just UP. The ports may be small now, but they have big plans.