California high-speed train in the new Transbay Terminal (Image Source: NC3D)

“San Francisco’s planned high-speed rail station in the new Transbay Terminal would be obsolete within two decades, state transportation officials warn, forcing them to rethink the design.”

UPDATE: The part of the story that didn’t get picked up by the Chronicle according to a plugged-in reader:

The consultants hired from SNCF said two years ago that the box needed eight HSR tracks and at least six (preferably eight) tracks for Caltrain, in order to have smooth operations and minimal potential delays. The CAHSRA purposely ignored them until now because bringing up a design flaw like that would have threatened winning the votes and getting funding in place. All politics, and not necessarily anything wrong with it unless they don’t fix the design now.

Perhaps our headline should have read “planned”…

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by Joe

    Is it me or is good ol king Quentin determined to see the Transbay terminal replacement fail?

  2. Posted by steve

    no worries. palo alto, menlo park and atherton are going to force massive delays in the HSR project and possibly re-routing (SJ termination or Altamont) before the tracks make it to SF. perhaps the transbay terminal should just move to san jose?

  3. Posted by FormerAptBroker

    It will never make any sense to build high speed rail in CA. At $100 million a mile (what it cost to build the 3rd St. rail line in SF without buying any land) we just don’t have the money…
    P.S. As a Cal grad I do like the color of the proposed train…

  4. Posted by anon

    I love this part:
    “The High Speed Rail Authority now believes that the station would have to be able to handle 12 trains an hour, or one every five minutes. Under that scenario, eight to 10 tracks would be required, Alberti said. He said the Transbay team only learned of that three weeks ago.”
    So they’ve been studying this for decades and just discovered a fatal flaw in their plan 3 WEEKS ago. Can’t we do ANYTHING right? I mean, they’ve only been building high speed trains all over the world for decades.

  5. Posted by anonn

    Wow. It isn’t as if there’s a lack of wide open spaces along much of this route either. One would think plans for large numbers of tracks would have been part of any scenario studied. When did California start getting everything wrong?

  6. Posted by Usually Named

    “Can’t we do ANYTHING right?”
    Any the solution for any problem in Sacramento and San Francisco is to, what, spend more? Tax more?

  7. Posted by Po Hill Jeff

    anonn: the large numbers of tracks are for the terminal station, not the right-of-way in general…

  8. Posted by theo

    It will never make any sense to build high speed rail in CA. At $100 million a mile (what it cost to build the 3rd St. rail line in SF without buying any land) we just don’t have the money
    High speed rail is not the same as the 3rd street light rail. 90% of the mileage is just laying track through desert and farmland, not reconstructing a major urban artery.
    And I wonder how Japan, with land prices much higher than California, ever managed to build thousands of miles of HSR?
    There’s nothing special about building in California. The only thing that’s unique about the US is our inability to manage any large construction project aside from sprawling interstates. And our inability to learn anything from other countries. Here’s another great example!

  9. Posted by flaneur

    In this instance, it seems government deserves the bad name it gets on talk radio… As a fan of high-speed rail, I am disappointed. Note that one platform and two tracks for Caltrain was probably totally insufficient as well. Even more so if you want to include a shuttle express service to the airport like they have at Heathrow. Two levels like Grand Central is probably the way to go.

  10. Posted by Brutus

    The consultants hired from SNCF said two years ago that the box needed eight HSR tracks and at least six (preferably eight) tracks for Caltrain, in order to have smooth operations and minimal potential delays. The CAHSRA purposely ignored them until now because bringing up a design flaw like that would have threatened winning the votes and getting funding in place. All politics, and not necessarily anything wrong with it unless they don’t fix the design now.

  11. Posted by flaneur

    Brutus – Looks like I might have to eat my words. I am impressed by your knowledge of this. Do you have an inside track?

  12. Posted by sf

    And the non- SOM tower design is looking uglier and uglier…

  13. Posted by scurvy

    “And I wonder how Japan, with land prices much higher than California, ever managed to build thousands of miles of HSR?”
    @theo: It was a failed attempt to stimulate their economy. They wasted trillions (inflation adjusted) on their projects. Gee, sound familiar?
    Even the, rail is still inferior to the car. Scientifically proven by Top Gear. ;)

  14. Posted by rinconhillbilly

    @ scurvy:
    “Even the, rail is still inferior to the car. Scientifically proven by Top Gear. ;)”
    Not in Vietnam =]

  15. Posted by Zig

    “The CAHSRA purposely ignored them until now because bringing up a design flaw like that would have threatened winning the votes and getting funding in place.”
    Sounds very likely as this is how we do things in transit planning in America.
    Another dirty truth is ridership estimates on almost any public transit or rail project is purposefully over estimated.

  16. Posted by Zig

    “And I wonder how Japan, with land prices much higher than California, ever managed to build thousands of miles of HSR?”
    They were built mostly post WWII if I am not mistaken. Not sure they had to worry about high land prices, NIMBYS or CEQA
    One interesting element of rail in greater Tokyo is much of it (I have read 40% of suburban rail) is built by the private sector for profit. Its all about density and land development there.

  17. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    This is a non-issue. Even if the transbay design could not accommodate all HSR runs, does it even need to ?
    Half of the HSR runs could originate/terminate at San Jose without much impact on SF service levels (calTrain would fill the gap). Keep in mind that the passenger network model that HSR fills is roughly the short haul airline business between the bay area and LA. Over half of those flights leave not from SFO but rather OAK and SJC.
    As hard as it is to imagine, there are indeed people living outside of the SF 7×7 who travel to LA.
    …that said, I don’t know if there is enough room near the SJ station to store the HSR trains that would originate/terminate at SJ. Actually now I am wondering where these trainsets would store if their endpoint were SF. I guess at the 4th & King yards.

  18. Posted by David

    What a joke.
    Here’s a simple solution:
    1) high speed (which will never be built, so who cares) to have its “Bay Area” station in San Jose, the largest metropolitan area in the Bay Area anyway.
    2) “Baby Bullet” transfer trains take passengers whose final destination is SF.
    3)UPGRADE Caltrain. It’s a joke. 80 years ago suburban commuter lines in Chicago were traveling at 90 mph along the South Shore electric line. This is nearly 100 year old technology. Electrify Caltrain, upgrade the tracks & crossings and speed it up.
    Stimulus bonus:
    Hire all these out-of-work construction people to deconstruct the houses in Tracy etc that should never have been built. Ditto for Detroit. A lot of cities need to be downsized post-bubble.

  19. Posted by YIMBY

    Dig up 2nd St. for HSR tunnel? And then dig up 4th St. for Central Subway tunnel? Has anyone considered the potential cost savings in just digging up one street (probably 3rd St. would make the most sense) for bi-level tunnels, such as the way Market St. was dug up for the BART and MUNI lines? Is there some engineering reason this couldn’t be done at a significant cost savings? Plus, a 3rd St. Central Subway alignment would allow it to connect to the Montgomery St. Station at Market St., and then continue up Kearny St., which would provide more convenient access to the FiDi for CSW riders.

  20. Posted by zig

    David in your simple solution does CalTrain continue on to the TransBay Terminal?
    The thing with San Jose; its the only big city in the US with a lower day time population. Building your hub in San Jose is a mistake as the whole idea of San Jose being a big city is rather arbitrary. In the ways that matter to transit and rail San Jose is a big suburb with a small inconsequential downtown.
    Same reason BART to San Jose will be a failure. Few people are going there.

  21. Posted by Zig

    “Dig up 2nd St. for HSR tunnel? And then dig up 4th St. for Central Subway tunnel? Has anyone considered the potential cost savings in just digging up one street (probably 3rd St. would make the most sense) for bi-level tunnels, such as the way Market St. was dug up for the BART and MUNI lines?”
    I think the answer is we don’t allow for comprehensive transit planning so this is not possible politically.

  22. Posted by Average Joe

    Zig @ 12:17… Tokyo & Osaka/Kobe rail is not only for-profit, but there is competition. Different companies have different lines serving the same communities, but there is also a clear distinction between such “commuter rail” and HSR (“bullet trains”) which is a separate entity connecting metro areas. Much as the proposed system for California would connect SF/LA (and others) without replacing BART, Caltrain, etc. In that sense, CAHSRA is a proven model.
    However, a major issue for CAHSRA is going to be that they made a political decision to have terminals in the centers of central valley cities (instead of skirting them via farmland). Yes, they’ll generally follow existing right-of-way, but the legal speed limits for traveling through Modesto, etc will prevent CAHSRA from EVER being truly competitive with air travel. It will be better than Amtrak (how could it not?) but I’d only choose it over SWA if I had huge luggage and TSA becomes even more onerous.

  23. Posted by Brutus

    flaneur – yes, I do have some inside knowledge through some old co-workers that have since moved on to the public sector (not working directly in the CAHSRA, but doing some work with them).
    Just keep this in mind with everything related to CAHSR – Kopp knows politics – specifically California politics and how to get things done here.

  24. Posted by jeff2

    3)UPGRADE Caltrain. It’s a joke. 80 years ago suburban commuter lines in Chicago were traveling at 90 mph along the South Shore electric line. This is nearly 100 year old technology. Electrify Caltrain, upgrade the tracks & crossings and speed it up.
    Thank you David!

  25. Posted by redseca2

    I would have just counted the tracks at Termini Station in Rome and said “that sounds about right”.

  26. Posted by Poor in Pac Heights

    I like how the whole station has been designed and contract awarded AND THEN they ask the engineers if it will work or can handle the traffic load….hmmmmm…. maybe someone should have included them in the loop a little sooner

  27. Posted by RobBob

    David: Part of Caltrain’s long term plan is to run four tracks with entirely new electric rolling stock, and has been for many years now. They claim that all station and track improvements made since installing the experess train bypass tracks several years ago has been with this plan in mind. They have been making progress, it is just that their progress is on the slow side due to limitations in Caltrain’s budget. Perhaps the speed of their improvements will increase with additional funding from HSR — I know they were originally hoping for this money, but came up with a more extended plan when it originally became unclear when HSR would even show up on the ballot. As a daily rider of Caltrain who follows all of their published minutes and project information and updates, it seems to me that they are working on both the issue of electrification and our tracks. Don’t forget that HSR requires electrification (customariliy through overhead concatenaries), which is the same kind planned for Caltrain. It would only make sense that the two are both electrified when on the same alignment.

  28. Posted by RobBob

    One more thing I forgot, I believe the crossings will also be upgraded due to CAHSR. IIRC, the United States’ HSR policy requires complete grade separation for high speed rail (grade separation means that the rail and the roads must be on different levels, i.e., one must go over or under the other). This is something that Caltrain would not originally have directly addressed, since the current situation is that grade crossing improvement costs are the responsibility of the city in which the crossing exists. For example there was a study done on completing grade separation in San Bruno (see http://www.caltrain.com/sb_grade_separation.html). These four grade crossings would have cost approx. 80-90 million over two years.
    As for the speed, Caltrain’s current claim is that this is limited by the number of station stops and the acceleration time for the diesel engine. With electrification, a full service train stopping at every stop would cut 15 minutes off of the travel time from San Francisco to San Jose. I should note that their current “Baby Bullet” service takes 59 minutes from San Francisco to San Jose. Caltrain’s claims are backed up by the fact that even with CAHSR, you are not likely to see that great of an improvement in transit times within the bay area — it takes quite a distance for HSR to reach its maximum speed, which can (and potentially will) be restricted by individual cities along the route due to noise. This is in fact one reason to run the train away from populated areas on its longer stretches. This is even a problem in Europe, where many HSR trains do not reach their maximum speeds on many alignments due to train speed limitations.

  29. Posted by David

    I’m still bitter since I have friends who have witnessed my rants since Willie Brown rammed through the BART extension to the airport (cost: 5.5B) instead of improving caltrain (cost: probably 1/10 as much) in order to reward his contractor buddies.
    As for Caltrain shaving 15 minutes off of SF to SJ, that’s a significant improvement. 45 minutes is more than competitive with cars at that point.
    The Amtrak between Milwaukee and Chicago is always full, and it only runs about 70 mph on average. When it’s clearly competitive with autos, people will take the train, especially through congested corridors. I’m still skeptical re: HSR from SF to LA though. Regardless of my skepticism, the state doesn’t have the cash until it rolls back the budget to where it should be (i.e. let’s say 2000 levels plus population & inflation). Rant/off.

  30. Posted by Transbay Observer

    So what’s going on here?
    The first thing is that Quentin Kopp (California High Speed Rail Authority chairperson) and PBQD (lead CHSRA consultants) between them have about the worst record in transportation planning anywhere on the planet. Kopp and the Bechtel/PBQD consortium, you will recall, are directly and personally responsible for the BART to Millbrae fiasco, which went 100% over “budget” and carries than than 50% of the riders “predicted”. So full steam ahead on a project 40 times as large!
    Anything coming from the mouths of these characters is, by uniform and un-contradicted historical record, a tissue of lies, designed only to meet political ends. These people’s sole priority is to maximize public costs, to maximize private profits and to minimize public benefits. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again.
    In particular, their claim that upwards of 16 high speed trains per hour — that’s about forty aircraft at 100% occupancy!!! — will be running along the SF peninsula is simply a fantasy, one designed to secure pork barrel funding for the consultants involved. We’ve been down this road many times before, between BART to Millbrae, BART to Dublin, BART to Pittburg, Muni Third Street Light Rail, VTA Light Rail, etc, etc, etc.
    Anybody who claims that more than about 4 high speed trains — each potentially with a capacity of over 1000 seats! — per hour will be needed or will be running from San Francisco (or San Jose) is simply blowing smoke. And four trains per hour, along with six to eight Caltrains, do not need the “10 platform” stations or whatever that is being bandied about by people with no technical background and with simply appalling track records in rail planning. A six track station at the Transbay Terminal if configured correctly and if operated correctly is just adequate to meet the realistic needs of both Caltrain and High Speed Rail. It isn’t adequate to meet the needs of any train operators who propose to park trains underground at a multi-billion-dollar station for half an hour at a time, but here in the 21st (and indeed the 20th) century, one would be crazy to want to do that — at least outside the USA, where people care about efficiency.
    The second issue is that the Transbay Joint Powers Authority is, indeed, deeply and profoundly incompetent, and cannot design a railway station to save its life. It shares this attribute with every single US-based transportation agency and every single US-based transportation consultancy: our insular, “Buy American” contracting and our systematic dismissal and legal exclusion of the most competent transpotation professionals in the world (none of whome speak English as a first language) guarantees this.
    The unnecessary and stupid and easily rectifiable (at least easily rectified five years ago) problems with the rail operations and with rail passeger circulation at the Transbay Terminal have long been known to those who are not on the payroll. This is not news to the TJPA nor to Caltrain (whose staff “engineering” team basically designed the stupid, inadequate rail system on the back of an envelope nearly 10 years ago and then refused to budge an inch) nor the the High Speed Rail Authority consultants (who have incestuously been involved all along.)
    The third issue is that the newcomer Transbay Joint Powers Authority itself, as the agency in charge of the one of the only regional big dollar tickets in play, has been for years the subject of inter-agency turf wars, in which the staffs of large and powerful and very corrupt and self-aggrandizing pre-existing agencies (most particularly the SF Transportation Authority, but also the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and BART) have sought to either bring the revenue and spending (pork alert!) of the Transbay project under their personal control, or to kill the project and direct the juicy pork elsewhere.
    Put these all together and you have a disaster: a completely stupid design from an embattled and fundamentally incompetent agency, attacked by fundamentally technically incompetent and politically motivated outsiders who do not have the public’s interest’s at heart, completely outlandish new “requirements” introduced at the last minute in order to derail the entire project and thus redirect funding elsewhere.
    The only people who are going to lose are the tax-paying public and anybody who cares about or inhabits our local environment. The winners will be the same people who profited so handsomely from past disasters like BART to Millbrae or Third Street Light Rail and are profiting handsomely from such ongoing disasters as the Bay Bridge East Span, BART to San Jose, the Caldecott Tunnel and the SF Central Subway.
    Follow the money.
    In conclusion: A pox on all their houses!
    If you want to see public infrastructure done well, buy a ticket out of the country, because you’ll never see it here.

  31. Posted by Transbay Observer

    PS Want to see wonderful planning?
    Look at the picture at the top of this article. It accurately reflects the proposed trains level design of the Transbay Terminal, in which an oppressively dense forest of building structural columns are placed right along the edges of platforms and in which the platforms are sited on unnecessary sharp curves, resulting in (a) safety hazards; (b) an unpleasant passenger environment and (c) slowed down boarding and alighting and hence inefficient and slow trains operations (and hence requiring more platforms and more space and more billions of dollars to build larger stations.)
    What happened is that years ago a consultant team picked out of the air a structural grid on which the bus terminal would be built, and later the so-called winners of the so-called “architectural competition”, seeing which way the winds were blowing, cleverly and rationally did no design and no architecture and just adopted the exact crazy column grid and exact unworkable underground train station configuration.
    The columns do not even line up with the underground platforms even when the platforms are straight. It is that bad! It’s unbelievably bad. And nobody cares. That’s why we’re the greatest country in the world!
    Fortunately one can still travel to Germany or Spain or Japan or Taiwan or Sweden or France or China or Norway or Korea or Switzerland or the Czech Republic or, God help us, even to Italy or Britain, if one would like to see train stations in which the columns holding up the building above don’t get in the way of the passengers boarding the trains below.
    How could this possibly have happened? How could the Transbay JPA, the SF Transportation Authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Caltrain and the High Speed Rail Authority have all explicitly signed off on this madness (which they did!) repeatedly and over many years?
    Profound incompetence, political corruption, or both? Decisions, decisions…

  32. Posted by UGH!

    Will the station really be as ugly as the picture? If Transbay Observer is right, the incompetence is so bad on this project, I begin to wonder what the results, if any, will be?
    Are the station designs for Southern California this horrible as well?

  33. Posted by Jamie

    Would tunneling under Main Street to provide a loop for trains to head back south help things? I’ve always heard that Caltrain intends to keep some tracks/trains using Diesel for quite some time and leave their termination point at 4th and King … bringing just a couple into Transbay Transit Center along with HSR.

  34. Posted by RobBob

    Jamie: although I have no factual basis for this, my guess is that you would be correct — I can’t imagine Caltrain being able to afford replacing all of its rolling stock all at the same time. With their original timeline (which would have taken them to 2030) their plan was something like using these older trains for their routes to gilroy and across the bridge on the to-be-renovated rail bridge by palo alto.

  35. Posted by flaneur

    They might be able to sell their diesel engines ahead of their retirerment age to some other transit authority, and use the proceeds to buy new engines. It wouldn’t make much sense to offer service that stops at 4th station once the Transbay station is built.

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