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Study: High Speed Rail Could Run on Caltrain Tracks

A “blended system” could produce large savings for the High Speed Rail Authority and reduce the impact on communities.

Connecting high-speed rail to the existing Caltrain tracks could not only minimize the disruption to communities, but it could produce huge savings, according to a Caltrain study released Wednesday.

Preliminary analysis by LTK Engineering Services shows that the Peninsula’s rail system can accommodate an integrated high-speed rail on the existing infrastructure in most areas, according to Samtrans spokesperson Seamus Murphy.

“It’s just logical,” said Mayor Jeff Ira. “This is spectacular.”

Ira has been to connect the two transit lines and avoid another train racing through the neighborhood. Redwood City was considered a potential stop along high-speed rail, a design that

“It would avoid chopping up all the cities up and down the Peninsula,” Ira said. “It would eliminate all the fighting about high-speed rail here, especially .”

Menlo Park, Atherton, Palo Alto and advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in October 2010 claiming that the environmental impact report for the San Francisco to Central Valley segment failed to adequately address impacts and that ridership and revenue forecasts are fundamentally flawed.

LTK created a computer simulation that looked at Caltrain's acceleration and deceleration rates, its speeds and the curvature of the tracks amongst other factors to determine if high-speed rail could run on the existing tracks. It determined that electrification and a train signaling system could provide sufficient track capacity to operate six electric Caltrain trains and two high-speed trains per hour, according to Caltrain.

This option could also include adding seven to eight miles of track near the middle of the corridor that would allow trains to pass each other, boosting capacity to accommodate another two high-speed trains per hour, according to Caltrain.

All the proposed designs to date have called for grade-separated, four-track options running the length of the Peninsula.

This could result in a substantial reduction in project costs, Murphy said. The alternative would cost $1 billion: $745 million for the electrification and $250 million for a signaling system. The current estimated price tag for the entire high-speed rail system is $42 billion.

However, high-speed rail would still need stations along the Caltrain corridor, a trans-bay terminal and an extension into downtown. These costs have not been calculated yet, Murphy said.

Roelof van Ark, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said in a statement that he saw the benefit of looking at different approaches for the San Francisco to San Jose section of the system.

“We have the shared goal of creating a ‘win win’ on this corridor: to plan and design the Caltrain corridor in such a way that allows us to provide a reduced but adequate initial level of high-speed service in the near term, while improving and enhancing the existing Caltrain commuter rail system where possible,” said van Ark.

The LTK analysis supports by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, Assemblyman Richard Gordon and state Sen. Joe Simitian, who said he was pleased with the findings.

"My colleagues and I have been making the case that High Speed Rail ‘done right’ means a ‘blended system’ along the San Jose to San Francisco corridor—a system that integrates High Speed Rail with a 21st century Caltrain,” said Simitian in a statement.

“I hope the High Speed Rail Authority takes it to heart,” he said, adding that he hopes for a response to the Eshoo/Simitian/Gordon proposal “sometime this fall.” 

Simitian cautioned, however, that even if a response this fall is favorable, “that’s just the beginning of a new, more productive conversation. The High Speed Rail Authority still has a very tough row to hoe.”

“We’re encouraged," said Caltrain Executive Director Mike Scanlon. “More analysis is needed, but this operational concept could help deliver a state-of-the-art rail system in a way that is cost effective and minimizes community impacts.”

Palo Alto Councilmember Pat Burt said the findings may appear positive, but lack the details necessary to be considered conclusive or comprehensive.

“There are a number of very important factors and variables that they did not get studied,” said Burt.

For one, LTK looked at only a limited number of grade crossings and their impact, he said.

“They took a preliminary review of what they call the ‘ten top grade crossings’, but they did not share what was the basis for determining whether a crossing was in the top ten,” he said.

Furthermore, said Burt, the study’s findings assume that Caltrain’s service would be reduced to 13 stops, a proposal that would seemingly contradict the Caltrain board’s stated goal of improving, not reducing, service.

“It was a surprise to some of us because what they studied was inconsistent with the board policy,” said Burt.

Caltrain acknowledged in its statement that despite the study's findings, other considerations remain unresolved, including “a precise definition of the project’s infrastructure needs, including the location and design of the potential four-track section and a better understanding of the project’s total cost.”

The rail agency also noted that the proposal would still need to be adopted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is presently looking at the analysis.

When Californians voted for the construction of high-speed rail back in 2008, they voted for one ride that could take them from San Francisco to Los Angeles in two and a half hours.

But Mayor Jeff Ira said transferring at the San Jose station would not be difficult, and he had full faith in commuters’ ability.

“I think this could really change the perception of California’s public transportation,” Ira said. “Everyone looks forward to using public transportation in Boston, New York and D.C. Now they may be able to look forward to California’s.”

Carol August 18, 2011 at 05:41 PM
The blended systems sounds like a better approach than the massive and costly other options, but with Caltrain in financial trouble now - how can we afford this whole project?
David Vallerga August 18, 2011 at 06:07 PM
Gosh gang. Governmental agencies and politicians getting together to do something that makes sense. What a concept!
Reality Check August 18, 2011 at 09:46 PM
Caltrain is only "in trouble" to the extent that the 3 local member agencies that make up the Joint Power Board (Caltrain JPB) and are responsible for Caltrain's operating shortfall (subsidy) are all wrestling with competing priorities and tough budgets. Caltrain for each of the member agencies (SCCo. VTA, SamTrans and SF Muni) is not their primary mission, and so they're each under pressure to look after their own in-house operations and pet projects before feeding the orphan child that Caltrain is. Unlike the BART District, Caltrain JPB has no dedicated and/or reliable source of funds (e.g. sales or property tax, bridge tolls, etc.) to cover the annual operating shortfall. The JPB, not being a district, also doesn't have the authority to create and impose any sort of such tax or assessment. Apart from that (not insignificant) drama for Caltrain, its farebox recovery ratio is very good (on BART's is better in the Bay Area), and despite an ongoing series of fare hikes, revenue and ridership continue to climb (nearly up 12%, according to a recent story in the SJ Mercury). So by almost any measure, Caltrain is (relatively speaking) a transit success story. This is not to say there are many things it could be doing better, but it's only trouble is a direct result/reflection of economic tough times and state government transit funding cutbacks/takebacks/raids that have befallen transit operators across the board.

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