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Letter: The hard questions about high-speed rail

Original post made on Jun 10, 2008

I recently rode to Menlo Park on the train with a Caltrain official and had the opportunity to ask him a number of questions about how his agency would cope if voters approve the high-speed rail project in November.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, June 11, 2008, 12:00 AM

Comments (16)

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 10, 2008 at 1:19 pm

Mr. Wilson, here are the answers to your questions that your fellow passenger failed to provide. They appeared in this newspaper last December:

Viewpoint - Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Guest opinion: High-speed rail: doomsday for MP

by Martin Engel

There is a disaster coming to a city near you. No, wait, it's in your own city.

Do you believe that if you live in Menlo Park, but not near the rail corridor, whatever happens there won't affect you? Guess again. The only thing worse than high-speed rail for Menlo Park's downtown would be a tornado at the same time as a major earthquake. Menlo Park will look the same either way.

The high-speed rail is on the state ballot next year — 2008. It will, if it passes, be the down payment for the train to go through Menlo Park. But not quietly, unnoticed, in the middle of the night. Au contraire!

Just what will happen if the high-speed rail bond issue passes?

• All four crossings — Ravenswood, Oak Grove, Glenwood and Encinal — will become major construction sites for three years, as will the entire 8,500 feet of the rail corridor through Menlo Park.

• Caltrain states it wants to widen the corridor and lay four tracks regardless of the high-speed train.

• The track bed will be raised 15 feet throughout Menlo Park.

• When the rail corridor is electrified and widened, heritage trees will be cut down along the length of the right of way through Menlo Park.

• Major downtown businesses will be lost due to construction. Other cities have already suffered through this.

• Major traffic disruptions will occur throughout downtown. Traffic will be rerouted. We can expect major gridlock throughout the three-year construction period.

• Enormous air pollution will be caused by the diesel equipment and the ongoing construction.

• Caltrain will need temporary tracks outside of the rail corridor to continue operating during construction.

• Construction easements and eminent domain takings along the rail corridor will be necessary for the construction process and the temporary tracks.

• Caltrain projects that the costs for six grade crossings for Atherton and Menlo Park will be over $1 billion. The only source of such large dollar amounts will be the high-speed rail bond issue.

What are the consequences of high-speed rail in addition to the downtown being torn up for three years? For one thing, a barrier will be created down the spine of Menlo Park; a Berlin Wall, 15 feet high, that separates east from west. Such massive barriers have to be seen to be believed. Their impact will be monumental.

Many people say, well, we don't want that, but we do want a trench that puts the tracks below ground. Good luck with that. All the engineering decisions for the rail corridor will be made by the high-speed rail authority. They will do what is in their best interests, not in ours.

Another consequence of high-speed rail will be maintaining the Caltrain commuter schedule for three years or more on temporary or "shoofly" tracks. These tracks will run next to the rail corridor in construction easements and on city streets. It is difficult to imagine how intrusive this will be.
Mr. Wilson, the answers your received from the Caltrain spokesperson are in character.
Especially with the support of the CHSRA bond issue funding, they will be the proverbial elephant in the living room. To put it bluntly, they don't give a damn about any of us.

Let me be absolutely clear about my position: I believe that this is not about commuter service or mass transit or the environment, all claims to the contrary notwithstanding. It's a boondoggle of monumental proportions, pork-barrel politics, and self-serving empire building. If this construction proceeds, and I believe it will, it will do incalculable harm to Menlo Park.

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Posted by John Wilson
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 11, 2008 at 3:36 pm

Thank you, Mr. Engel, for your comments. I have no doubt you know what you're talking about. However, unless these facts are acknowledged in open public forum by CHSRA staff, they will be dismissed as the alarmist ravings of a crank. In fact, it is my suspicion that the full consequences of this are much worse than your description above.

It is a shame that bureaucracies are so backward. I personally spoke to Mr. Diridon about his technology choices in 2003 (you can bet he doesn't remember the interchange), and he was firm to the point of insult that their mind was made up. One can only wonder what benefit the Authority expects to get from this dead end they've created for themselves. Perhaps everyone gets salary and health insurance, until it collapses, wasting the considerable money spent advocating for the train to nowhere.

I highly endorse efforts to improve our transportation system. This proposal shows no promise of doing that, I'm afraid.

John Wilson

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Posted by concerned
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 11, 2008 at 5:39 pm

I don't think we should get side tracked on implementation issues, as big and ugly as they are. The real issues are whether high speed rail will help transit for our community, how much will it cost, and how will those costs get paid.

I also endorse efforts to improve our transportation system, including making it a seamless well-coordinated system. It is now anything but that. It takes 4 separate trains to get from SFO to Menlo Park (the airport train, the BART train north to San Bruno, the BART train back south to Millbrae, the Caltrain south to Menlo Park) and then you're still on your own.
High speed rail won't help this at all. In fact, it might make things worse because it is not designed to help local commutes. That's where the bulk of transportation occurs and where improvement is needed. High speed rail is an expensive diversion from fixing local and regional problems.

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 11, 2008 at 5:55 pm

"concerned" you have it right, to my mind. The transit problems of California are not inter-city, they are intra-regional. It's in the two population centers, Bay Area and LA Basin, were major investments will produce results. The high speed train is a luxury toy for the well-to-do and a terrible waste of resources at the most critical of times economically for this State.

Mr. Wilson, I commend you for your thoughtfulness and sympathize with your sense of despair over the intransigence of the rail promoters. I assure you that taking the stand I have over the past several years has generated considerable, shall we say, argumentum ad Hominem. I have been called all sorts of names, in print. Like you, however, I feel that we must say truth to power, regardless of the consequences.

You are right, neither Caltrain nor CHSRA acknowledge any of the issues raised by my colleagues or myself. Indeed, Quentin Kopp is dismissive of any challenge with such statements as “I have confidence in my engineers and what they tell me.” Don’t you find that re-assuring? I know I do! In fact, since his lead engineers are Parsons Brinckerhoff, we can all have confidence in their words and deeds, given their track record with the Boston Big Dig.

By the way, you point out the lack of a public forum for CHSRA and my statements, thereby inviting their rejection. As it happens, even the words from CHSRA don’t agree with one another and their “facts” seem to change as frequently as their press releases.

Fortunately, the Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing of Alan Lowenthal is now investigating all these ambiguous words and the absence of a great deal of information in the bond issue language as spelled out in AB3034. I direct your attention to a Committee Report “Oversight Hearings of the California High-Speed Rail Authority” June 2008. TRANSPORTATION/_home/01-11-08BackgroundReportHSRHearing.doc

Perhaps we will all learn about the character of this boondoggle in due time and before the voters of California are asked to make such a dreadful choice.

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Posted by follow the money
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jun 12, 2008 at 12:04 am

I for one would love to be able to hop on a train in Menlo Park and wind up in L.A. a couple of hours later. But I don't understand how anyone can justify the cost, given that the state doesn't seem to have a lot of extra spending money, that local transit is largely ineffectual (meaning that high speed rail passengers would arrive at their destination and then be stuck without a car) and that routing high speed trains through densely populated metropolitan areas cannot help but degrade the quality of life for residents of those areas.

Never mind that we're in a recession or that we may not be able to finance a project of this scope. I'm all for progress, but applying 19th century solutions to 21st century problems represents a step backwards.

Expect to see huge amounts of money spent on advertising to entice you, the voter, to approve this boondoggle in November. But before you vote, ask yourself who is paying for these ads and why.

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Posted by rafael
a resident of another community
on Jun 12, 2008 at 9:36 am

Test - my last post was not published.

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Posted by rafael
a resident of another community
on Jun 12, 2008 at 11:09 am

The maximum speeds HSR is planning for each segment of the network are documented here. Note that the option of building a new rail bridge at Dumbarton has been discarded.

Web Link

The figure of 100-150mph in the Caltrain corridor is consistent with Caltrain's own electrification program, which calls for 90mph for its own local and "baby bullet" trains, with an option to support 125mph in the future.

Web Link

Only a fraction of all high speed trains will pass through Menlo Park at the top speed permitted for this section of the network. The rest will stop at either Redwood City or Palo Alto and therefore be in the process of slowing down (via recuperative braking) or accelerating.

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Posted by rafael
a resident of another community
on Jun 12, 2008 at 11:10 am

Caltrain has indeed constructed a raised berm in San Bruno to implement five consecutive level crossings via dips in the roads rather than deep underpasses. However, that is not the only way to achieve the grade separation required by the Federal Rail Administration for sections in which the speed limit for passenger trains exceeds 125mph. It is also strongly recommended wherever heavy train traffic would unduly reduce the capacity of a crossing road.

For some communities, it may make sense to construct a motor vehicle over- or underpass for the major crossing(s) and permanently close minor ones. Pedestrian/bicycle over- or underpasses sometimes represent an acceptable alternative to outright closure, especially if they are ADA-compliant.

Web Link
Web Link

CHSRA suggests on page 7 of its Final Bay Area to Central Valley EIR/EIS that its tracks in the Caltrain corridor would run "mostly at grade", presumably a reference to the downtown extension from 4th & King to Transbay Terminal in San Francisco - that 1.3 mile tunnel is *not* part of the HSR project, though it will obviously benefit. Apparently, CHSRA's idea is actually to minimize earthworks by piggybacking on Caltrain's plans.

Web Link

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Posted by rafael
a resident of another community
on Jun 12, 2008 at 11:10 am

The cheapest option would be to construct only a single motor vehicle underpass in Menlo Park, at Ravenswood Ave. and permanently close the other level crossings. An ADA-compliant pedestrian/bicycle underpass might make sense at Glenwood Ave. It is only if the City of Menlo Park absolutely insists on preserving all four of its existing connections between the land on either side of the tracks that the substantial additional expense of a raised berm and shoofly tracks would even be considered. I'm sure that's something both CHSRA or Caltrain would really prefer to avoid. If you do as well, perhaps it's your own mayor you should be talking to.

On the other hand, if the City of Menlo Park accepts sticking with an at-grade alignment and the closure of several road crossings, the budget available for the HSR project may permit the erection of visually acceptable noise mitigation walls for the entire 8500ft stretch within city limits - assuming that is what residents want. In a railroad context, such walls can double as anti-trespass measures, replacing flimsy chain-link fences. A wide variety of options are on the market, some less offensive than others. Most could be combined with trellises for climbing plants to reduce the visual impact. Here's a random sample:

Web Link
Web Link
Web Link

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 12, 2008 at 12:38 pm

Rafael, I have followed your thoughts on several blogs and wish to congratulate you on your thoughtful and well-informed discussions. We do, however, disagree on the basic fact of the high-speed train. You are an advocate for this train and I oppose it. However, in this thread let me merely comment on the impact of the train on Menlo Park. This has been the subject of discussions in joint study sessions attended by the City Councils of both Atherton and Menlo Park.

Redundancy: As you know, Caltrain has extensive expansion plans outlined in their Strategic Planning documents. In fact, they envision operating EMUs on an electrified line, presumably relinquishing their firm grasp on heavy rail hardware. They hope for additional tracks and grade separations. They will, in effect, become the Peninsula high-speed commuter train essential for urban mass transit. That is not the HSR intention. It would, therefore be redundant. We don’t need two high-speed train systems whipping up and down the Peninsula.

Intrusiveness: The two-track rail corridor on the Peninsula dates well back into the 19th century. Modest urban growth has benefited along the corridor and those towns, like Atherton, Menlo Park and some others have been able to sustain their quality of life; that is, that village/suburban "bedroom" residential character. Many of our grade crossings continue to be at street level and that too contributes to the small town quality. Doubtless the inexorable forces of change will not permit sustaining those attributes. On the other hand, the high-speed train will destroy any vestige of those qualities that have attracted residents here for generations. The HSR will intrude and bring with it high-density urbanization, commercial and industrial growth and impose a major cultural separator with the expanded rail corridor; in short, a developer’s dream and a resident’s nightmare.

If the gateway to the Bay Area is to be San Jose, why cannot the HSR go there and then on to Sacramento? Is it merely self-serving empire building? The Bay Area is in desperate need for comprehensive, multi-modal urban and regional mass transit. This HSR isn’t it. It will have no impact on traffic congestion on the Peninsula. It will remove no trucks from 101. It will not link East Bay and the Peninsula with superior transit choices.
The fact is, we don’t need or want it.

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Posted by rafael
a resident of another community
on Jun 12, 2008 at 4:00 pm

@ Martin -

thank you for your reply. I completely understand your desire to retain the bucholic small-town character of Menlo Park.

However, even you admit that's not going to last. Therefore, it's better to think about how it can best adapt to new realities of the 21st century. California's population is growing by about 250,000 people every year - so far, mostly in the Bay Area and Southern California. There is no reason to believe this long-term demographic trend is about to change. In addition, people are becoming ever-more affluent, so aggregate demand for mobility at all length scales is growing even faster than the population. Doing nothing is like sticking your head in the sand - it's not a viable option.

After electrification, Caltrain will have the capacity to run 172 daily trains. During rush hour, the headways will shrink to as little 5 minutes. Level crossings will become a major time sink for motorists commuting to work, regardless of whether there are two tracks or four. While they wait, their engines will idle. When the block is still cold (e.g. in the morning), the catalytic converter is not yet active, so air quality near such level crossings would become noticeably worse.

Also, given that 101 cannot be expanded, the alternative in the peninsula is basically to upgrade El Camino between Palo Alto and San Francisco into a full expressway, supporting a lot more traffic. The construction cost of the over-and underpasses that would entail then is at least equal to and probably much higher than for HSR now. Would more cars and trucks passing through really be a better outcome for Menlo Park?

As for Caltrain, they call their express service "baby bullet", but it's really just a regular train with a top speed of 79mph that doesn't stop quite as often. Instead of 76 minutes, SF-SJ takes 57. If the FRA approves the use of EMUs, they will reduce that to 66 and ~50 minutes, respectively. However, a true HSR express train will do it in 30. Therefore, HSR would add a third, quite separate level of rail service in the peninsula. There is no redundancy.

There are, however, lots of people who venture beyond the Bay Area for business or pleasure on a regular basis. Similarly, there are lots of people in the Central Valley and in Southern California that frequently venture beyond their immediate environs. Bringing California's primary regions closer together will be essential to getting future water, energy and other essential projects done. That's why HSR is a statewide intercity rail project rather than merely a motley collection of local commuter rail upgrades.

For example, if you had to board a "baby bullet" in SF and then change trains in SJ to get to a destination outside the Bay Area, it would add at least 30 minutes to your total journey - quite possibly enough to encourage you to fly or drive instead. That would completely defeat the purpose of HSR and also rip the heart out of the Transbay Terminal project. No, either let the bullet trains go all the way to SF or cancel the whole thing.

The latter would be your stated preference, but we'll see what the rest of the state has to say in November.

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Posted by concerned
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 12, 2008 at 4:27 pm

So who is going to guarantee that the train will even stop in Menlo Park? The baby bullets have changed the train schedule so there are fewer trains serving our town. Rafael does not seem to understand that the east-west crossings in Menlo Park are critical to get anything done in town (El Camino and the train tracks bisect the city) so it's ridiculous to consider having only one grade-separated crossing.
There is so much necessary to make public transit work within our region that I can't support adding yet another agency and infrastructure to it!

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Posted by also concerned
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jun 12, 2008 at 5:14 pm

Yes, Rafael certainly does not understand Menlo Park at all. But if the high speed rail authority has its way, and if the voters approve the fall $9.95 billion bond measure, they will have the power to do exactly what they want to do in our City. They will be glad to tunnel in San Francisco, but out here in the "boondocks", they will just close off our rail crossings in an attempt at being economical.

Right now, even though CalTrain dearly wants to electrify, they simply don't have the money. Even the thought of 172 trains a day (I wonder if we might be lucky enough to get 5 or 6 to stop here in the future), is mind blowing.

also concerned

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Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 12, 2008 at 6:06 pm

It is my understanding that, with electrification and the deployment of lighter weight rolling stock (EMUs), Caltrain will have, as Rafael states, the capacity to run as many as 172 trains daily. There are a number of prior necessary assumptions here.

1. They will electrify. That is, they will have funding from the CHSRA bond issue to do that, or they will have access to what has to be around $1 billion or more. The latter is far less likely.
2. They will have approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to run the lighter rolling stock on the same tracks as freight (Union Pacific). That also seems unlikely, given the nature of railway safety codes.
3. Without full grade separations on the Caltrain corridor, they will not be able to exceed the current 79mph. With grade separations, they can go as fast as 110mph. (The high speed train promises 125mph on the corridor.)
4. So, even if they can afford to electrify and do so, without grade separations they can't go faster than presently.

It's not clear to me what they mean by "train." Do they mean train-sets; that is, several coupled cars? EMUs can operate independently; each car is self-powered. I assume that one car does not a "train" make. They can also be coupled into train-sets. Train-sets at the present time are pulled or pushed by a locomotive, which EMUs don't require. So what 172 daily trains means exactly, I don't know, but it doesn't sound pleasant.

It should be clear to everyone by now that all this is pretty much contingent upon the passage or failure of the high-speed bond issue this November. That, you can be sure, is foremost in Caltrain's collective head right now. With passage, the impact of the bond-issue funded corridor developments on all of us in Menlo Park will be severe.

Our city transportation department may have contingency plans up their sleeves, but they sure haven't said anything about it. Indeed, they deny having given this any thought. Some people are saying, well there's lots of time. Well, yes there is, unless of course, there isn't.

Finally, my bottom line on all this is: There are two major regions in California in very bad shape transportation-wise. Both regions desperately need rapid mass transit that is networked, multi-modal, convenient, attractive (literally), as timely as or better than driving, and takes us all from door to door or very close. The area from Sacramento south and west into the Bay Area is one; The LA Basin and what they call the Inland Empire south of us is the other. The four hundred miles in between are not the problem. Both regions have become traffic disasters. Fuel costs may relieve congestion somewhat, but not enough. And, that's where bond issues such as this should be invested. That's where the Governor's Public/Private Partnerships makes sense. The current high-speed train meets none of those needs unless it was designed to serve local and regional commuter communities -- which it isn't. The current decisions for the routes (which keep changing) are political, and self-serving. We have not been told anything true about this train, not yet, anyway. That's why the Lowenthal Senate committee is now asking some hard questions.

It's time for the rest of us in California to ask some hard questions also.

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Posted by Morris Brown
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jun 13, 2008 at 8:47 am

The Contra Costa Times has an editorial with the headline that says it all

Boondoggle express

Web Link

MediaNews editorial
Article Launched: 06/12/2008 11:01:50 PM PDT

CALIFORNIA FACES A huge budget shortfall, a weakening economy, a home foreclosure mess, a drought and the need to expand its reservoir system. Tax increases loom even as businesses are downsizing and inflation threatens a comeback.

Amid all these challenges, California voters will be asked to approve $10 billion in bonds in November to open the way for the Boondoggle Express. It's a high-speed, high-hopes rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles that is short on planning and long on fantasy.

Of course, $10 billion is only the beginning. Another $23 billion will be sought from a deficit-ridden federal government and private investors wary of a recession. The cost of the high-speed train is estimated at $33 billion for the main line, with an additional $7 billion for spur lines to Sacramento and San Diego.

Does anyone who has followed the saga of the Bay Bridge debacle really believe the high-speed rail system will cost less than $60 billion, $80 billion?

But even at $40 billion, this is a boondoggle that would dwarf the Big Dig in Boston and the Bay Bridge fleecing combined.

The fantasy of duplicating a 200-plus mph rail system like the one in Japan or France through the Central Valley has been around for awhile. But soon voters will be asked to approve real money to fulfil it.

One might think by now that the high-speed rail plans for construction, operation and investment have been worked out in great detail with considerable confidence in their success. Even after spending $58 million over a decade in planning, that is decidedly not the case.

A week ago, a California Senate panel blew what should be a warning whistle for voters. Its report questions the financial assumptions made by the California High-Speed Rail Authority and urges significant changes to its plan to develop a 700-mile bullet train system.

"Neither the authority's 2000 business plan nor any of the agency's subsequent documents discuss the risks that might be associated with the project," charges the 27-page report by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

The report says the rail authority needs to demonstrate greater financial transparency and accountability. In addition, the report urges CHSRA to present an updated business plan prior to the November election so that voters are fully aware of financial risks before they vote on the $10 billion bond measure.

These risks go to the heart of the system, including construction cost increases, less-than expected ridership or revenue, difficulty attracting private financial backers or acquiring land and the possibility that the state might have to subsidize the service.

If the Senate panel that studied the high-speed rail system is uncertain of its costs, investors, federal aid and income, certainly voters should be.

We have long been wary of high-speed rail in California. It would make more sense in a more densely populated area like the Boston-to-Washington, D.C., corridor than in California.

Besides, this state has a poor record of completing huge construction projects anywhere near budget or estimated date of completion.

We also have no confidence in claims that the train could carry passengers at a lower price than the airlines without subsidies, nor nearly as quickly. Then there is the major problem with the route, which serves the 1.3 million people in San Francisco and the Peninsula far better than the 2.5 million residents of the East Bay.

Adding to the uncertainty about the bullet train project is Union Pacific Railroad's unwillingness to sell its right of way for high-speed rail routes. That could delay construction and be a major financial setback.

This report is a loud and clear warning to all California voters not to be too eager to get aboard the Boondoggle Express.

This editorial gives you the true picture of this project.

morris Brown

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Posted by John Wilson
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 13, 2008 at 12:51 pm

I must say that I am astonished at the volume and quality of these comments. I can only add a few that haven't been mentioned.

The great buzzword for infrastructure these days is PPP, the vaunted public-private partnership. Clearly CHSRA will be trying for these; word is that perhaps 50 private capital sources have already expressed interest. Anyone can quickly see that eminent domain is in the cards for this project. With UPRR's reluctance to share right-of-way, and CSHRA needing a minimum 100 feet, there you go. Which side of the tracks will it be, east or west? I can foresee many a lawsuit as this unfolds, and CHSRA attempts to use the power of the state to take what they need. I believe that any private participation in this scheme might be a cause of action under our recently adopted Proposition 99. The point here is not to judge the merits of this at all, but merely to point out that there are accelerating risks to this project that can have completely unpredictable effects on the project cost. Consequently, voters must regard the present CHSRA estimates with extreme caution.

There is one other matter that might as well be raised. If you think about it now, the passenger trains that ply the Peninsula exact a significant toll in time lost to traffic at all the crossings, not to mention the people killed. So, it’s pretty clear that the increased number of trains enabled by electrification of CalTrain, while logical from the point of view of railroad men, will make this worse in terms of the daily interference with street traffic, and who knows what death rate will ensue. The issue with all of this, of course, is grade separation.

No modern urban area can run without mass transportation, no matter how antiquated. The lowest common denominator is the bus, with the train a step up. The public policy confusion over mass transportation arises from trying to warp freight carriers into passenger carriers. The freight railroads are extremely vital, and should be encouraged and left to do their jobs. The movement of people should take advantage of new technology that is proven, safe, and cost competitive. CHSRA is not doing this, in my view. To get back on the track, they need to check their premises, although I don’t expect them to take my advice.

The world is not a static place, and there has been considerable technological progress since the iron horse. You can see it side-by-side, where an electric car manufacturer is snuggled up against CalTrain on El Camino at Partridge. The Bay Area is economically strangulated by poorly thought out transportation approaches that do not incorporate modern technology. It is extremely ironic that a region that prides itself on its technological sophistication cannot find the leadership to employ technology to solve these problems.

There is a technological solution to the CalTrain/CHSRA grade separation conundrum. It’s called maglev. As soon as I write the word, I can hear the screaming – “too expensive”. And I ask: “compared to what? CHSRA, whose dodgy cost I cannot fathom?” By any other measure, maglev is far superior to what has been proposed. My suspicion is that it’s also considerably less expensive.

The business of mass transportation is a cosseted and privileged world of high salaries, and unsatisfactory results. It’s also intensely political, and devoid of leadership. Mr. Engel is right; the regional connections are key, and they’re not being properly addressed.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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