Friday, August 26, 2011

The High-Speed Rail/Caltrain Two-track Charade

One of the longest running battles with the high-speed rail authority has been the threat of their joining Caltrain on the Peninsula rail corridor.  When word of that got out -- that the rail authority intended to build an elevated viaduct on the corridor for four tracks; two for HSR and two for Caltrain, panic rippled through all the communities along the fifty miles from San Francisco to San Jose.  Much hand-wringing.  "What are we going to do about this?  We don't want HSR elevated; we want it below ground."  Those of us who said, "we don't want it at all" unfortunately were not heard at all. 

Needless to say, the rail authority, even as they persisted in telling us how much they were listening to us, were simply ignoring us.  Their elevated four track alignment was pre-determined -- cast in concrete, so to speak -- and they could care less what any of us did or didn't want.

However, lots of people on the Peninsula raised a persistent and huge stink about this. And finally, the media and then the politicians, heard us.  We were a big pain in the rear for the rail authority and they were happy to take their train building business out to the Central Valley for the time being and away from all us Peninsula NIMBYs and our troublesome ways.  One of the former Board members from San Jose, Rod Diridon, called us "rotten apples" at a Board meeting.  That made the newspapers!

Anyhow, the rail authority never gave up on their intention to run their trains on elevated viaducts on the Caltrain corridor. They merely put it on "hold."

Recently, the problem was "solved" by Congresswoman Eshoo, State Senator Simitian and State Assemblyman Gordon, who agreed and went public with an alternative solution for the rail corridor:  There would be no elevated for the time being; there would be only two tracks and these would be shared by both Caltrain and HSR.  Sounds good, right?  It would be a compromise. It would "save Caltrain" as well as high-speed rail which, by now, has a richly deserved dreadful reputation.

Well, no. It's not so good.  First of all, this would be only a stage or step in what the rail authority calls "phased implementation." That means, they will do anything, agree to anything, just so they can get a footprint on the rail corridor. It's temporary, after all.  They don't have the funding to build anything at this time anyway, so getting some use of Caltrain tracks is better than not getting on the rail corridor at all. 

In truth, there's nothing compromising about it.  The rail authority intentions haven't changed.  They are still determined to build their elevated viaduct when they have funds from Washington.  Until then, they'll settle for what they can get without funding.  The important thing is to lock in the route, which includes this Caltrain corridor.  It's like the camel's nose in the tent. First the nose; finally the whole beast.

The charade never ends.  Caltrain went through this ritual of a "study" to test the efficacy of running both trains --  a commuter and an inter-city train system -- on the Caltrain tracks.  They said they had to do this to determine the feasibility.  Yeah, right; like they didn't know the outcome of the study well in advance.

Surprise!  It turned out to be feasible. Who knew?!  "It's a significant development" says one of their spokespersons. Right! "Significant" for high-speed rail because it opens the door well before there is even a CEQA EIS/EIR certifying any of these alignment alternatives. 

And, by the way, what's in it for Caltrain? Grade separations that would come with the HSR construction of the elevated viaduct, as well as electrification costs assumed by the high-speed rail authority. That's what Caltrain has wanted from HSR all along.

Calling it "blended" is Madison Avenue-speak.  Sounds ever so much nicer and puts an economical spin of lower costs on this joining on two existing tracks, rather than building four. And, all the credit goes to those stalward politicians, Simitian, Eshoo and Gordon, for their brilliant suggestions.  Why am I angry about this?  Because our goal has been to deny high-speed rail access to the Caltrain corridor, and this slams the door on that option.

All the design details about the use of the current two tracks must be understood as interim, or 'pre-funding.' Presumably, the tracks will need to be electrified.  How that will be funded and under what rubric has yet to be determined.  They will electrify for both rail systems and tear it all up and start over when they have the funds to build the elevated viaduct.

Those who believe that "we're getting to something that does work," as has been quoted, are kidding themselves.

It won't work. It's not meant to work.  As soon as they secure sufficient funding to begin building the elevated alignment, we will be told by the rail authority that they need to have their own, dedicated tracks after all, and that the two track arrangement is totally inadequate.  And, a few of us will not be surprised, because "we told you so!"

Study: High-speed rail could share track with Caltrain
By Janis Mara
Posted: 08/18/2011 06:34:35 AM PDT
Updated: 08/18/2011 06:34:47 AM PDT

A new Caltrain study shows that its trains can share the same track with a high-speed rail line, agency officials said Wednesday, an outcome that would address Peninsula residents' and lawmakers' concerns about the impact of building new tracks through their neighborhoods.

Six electric commuter trains and four bullet trains shuttled per hour between the Hayward Park station in San Mateo and the Redwood City station on a blended track in a computer simulation created by LTK Engineering Services. The mock-up assumed such variables as an electrified track, an advanced signaling system and a new set of passing tracks, none of which currently exist. The cost of the signaling system alone is roughly estimated at $250 million.

"It's a significant development," Caltrain spokesman Seamus Murphy of the analysis. "A lot of people have major concerns about the cost of the (high-speed rail) project and its impact on communities. This answer is encouraging, because it shows we do not have to build a separate track."

The idea of a "blended" rail system was proposed in April by state Sen. Joe Simitian, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon. The proposal was meant to alleviate the concerns of Peninsula residents about what will happen in their areas if a second set of tracks is built as planned to accommodate the high-speed trains. As it stands, the project involves building such tracks, which could wipe out nearby buildings and disrupt traffic patterns.

The blended system could still involve building extra tracks. Under one scenario advanced by Caltrain, a 7- to 8-mile four-track section would be built near the middle of the Peninsula line.

This would enable the bullet trains to pass Caltrain's commuter trains, allowing the faster trains to maintain their speeds.
The survey released Wednesday is still in the preliminary stages.

There will be a second set of findings followed by a draft analysis, according to Miriam Lee, the acting director of Caltrain's modernization program.

A transportation activist expressed guarded optimism about the survey.

"There are many ways to skin a cat, and hopefully we're getting to something that does work," said Elizabeth Alexis, co-founder of Palo Alto-based Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design. "The devil is in the details. We really have to look at the details and understand all the implications."

"This is the beginning, not the end, of an interesting conversation," she added.

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