Update on Plans to Get Trains into Transbay

SF Planning Department Presents Options

The lower level of Berlin's main railway station. The Transbay Transit Center could look something like this--if trains ever get there. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The lower level of Berlin's main railway station. The Transbay Transit Center could look something like this--if trains ever get there. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The San Francisco Planning Department will be presenting the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with updated plans for getting trains from the Caltrain corridor into the lower level of the Transbay Transit Center. The department has narrowed the choices down to three different options: maintaining the existing Caltrain alignment to Fourth and King and connecting to the originally planned Downtown Extension (DTX) to get to Transbay, shifting part of the alignment under Pennsylvania Avenue, or tunneling under Third Street out through Mission Bay.

The San Francisco Transit Riders got a chance to chime in on the various options, dubbed the Railyard Alternatives & I-280 Boulevard Feasibility Study (RAB) at a presentation earlier this week given by Susan Gygi, an engineer with the Planning Department.

The various alignment options looked at in the study. Image: SF Planning
The various alignment options looked at in the study. Image: SF Planning

As Streetsblog readers know, the Transbay Transit Center train box, located in the bowels of the building, is designed to one day become the “Grand Central Station of the West,” with high-speed rail and an electrified Caltrain terminating there. However, the $4 billion needed to construct the train tunnel to bring Peninsula rail service from Fourth and King to the new station has not materialized. Some critics have accused City Hall of failing to champion the project. The latest threat to the project was the Trump Administration’s near-cancellation of federal funding for Caltrain electrification, which may have already caused some further delay in plans for the tunnel.

Meanwhile, the SF Planning department has been busy putting together a study of alternate alignments. The DTX, as originally conceived, dipped the trains underground at Fourth and King and then followed a winding path under Townsend, before turning left down Second and then right into the terminal.

According to Gygi the original DTX alignment always presented a problem farther to the south, because of the at-grade portion of the alignment below I-280. With the train frequencies envisioned between HSR and Caltrain, at about a train every three minutes during rush hour, the gates would constantly be going up and down, effectively cutting off UCSF Medical Center. But grade separating it would result in some pretty terrible streetscapes, such as this rendering below:

An RAB study rendering of what it would look like to eliminate grade crossings on the existing alignment. Image: SF Planning
An RAB study rendering of what it would look like to eliminate grade crossings on the existing alignment. Image: SF Planning

That’s why, ostensibly at least, Planning is proposing alignments that would jog the tracks over to Third in a tunnel and then bore a tunnel to Second Street. Gygi said that because of the utility relocation work that was done to clear the way for the T-Third line, there’s a clear shot for tunneling. Some critics, however, have dismissed this new alignment as a needless effort to get another station built to help the development of Mission Bay. Under all scenarios, the city would abandon and redevelop at least some of the footprint currently taken up by Caltrain for train storage. And tearing down part of I-280 could also be part of a whole redevelopment project for the area.

Some of these scenarios have been under discussion for some time, of course. Streetsblog’s perspective is simple: there are merits to both alignments, but even if the third-street alignment prevails, the city should think very, very hard before ripping out the current Caltrain tracks under I-280. Those will become incredibly important for redundancy. And the reason why will become very clear the first time a train gets stuck in a future Third Street tunnel.

Gygi also presented long-term visions for expanding the capacity of the Transbay train station, by either having a turn-around track that loops out into the bay or under Embarcadero, so trains don’t have to use the same tracks to leave the station that they use to get in. That makes sense, since it would increase capacity by up to forty percent–it would certainly be a great asset in conjunction with a new Transbay crossing that would make it possible for trains to continue on to Alameda and Oakland.

These plans, as Gygi explained, are part of a 100-year vision. Fair enough, but let’s just hope it doesn’t take that long before any of it actually gets built.

Meanwhile, the alignment decision is supposed to be voted on by the SF Board of Supervisors by December 2017, according to Gina Simi, Communications Manager for the Planning Department.

What do you think of the various alternatives? Would you rather the city stick with the original DTX alignment? Or do you think the Mission Bay options will be better for the city in the long run? Post below.

Image: SF Planning
Image: SF Planning
The study area. Photo: SF Planning
The study area. Photo: SF Planning
  • neroden

    Because why build a very useful standard gauge Transbay tunnel for Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, Amtrak and HSR, when you can build a BART tunnel for five times the cost and half the usability.

    Everything on BART costs five times what it would if it were a normal standard gauge subway.

  • masterlongevity

    keep with original plan and get it done within 10 years. the streetscape is not that bad in the pic, but even if you think it is, its a small price to pay. in addition, i hope the city is not considering taking down 280. it will cause mass gridlock throughout those neighborhoods it rises above and more car pedestrian interactions

  • Claude

    On the other hand, elevated urban freeways cut the city apart and reduce commercial activity while using up large amounts of valuable real estate in non-productive uses.
    Another possibility is to lower the 280m to surface level and convert it into a boulevard. Then the route would become a commercial destination rather than simply a maintenance expense.
    Without a single obvious through corridor the cars would be more likely to dissipate through the surrounding thoroughfares, limiting any increase in congestion.

    Elimination of urban freeways has been very successful in other cities.

  • No, I’m not wrong about the HSR alignment because I’m focusing on getting the most bang for the buck, plus realizing the need for improved regional rail.
    Tunnel from SSF to downtown SF? Tunnels under Oakland to Martinez? Are you nuts? It’s taking several decades to get 1 mile of tunnel built from 4th/King to downtown SF. Your plan, while ambitious, will never, ever happen.

  • 5 times, you say?

  • crazyvag

    Ideally you’d want both. BART is just more efficient at short stops. Two-track tunnel for HSR/Caltrain/Amtrak has its own utility for longer distance travel.

  • crazyvag

    Peninsula just has faster alignment and better design for passenger service. It also owns the right-of-way that is mostly wide enough for 2-4 tracks. East Bay is a hodge-podge of single track lines owned by UP with BART competing for the right of way, but unable to share it.

    As noreden pointed out, the geography does make Peninsula better (and faster) and politics also make Caltrain corridor also better.

  • crazyvag

    There are tons of ugly streets in SF. It’s ok to tweak plans here and there to beautify streets, but the value just doesn’t pencil out here. The current intersection might look better, but is less safe and prevents electric buses from crossing it. New intersection will look worse, but will get electric buses and safety. Also, perhaps the street doesn’t need to be SIX lanes wide. Make it 2 car lanes, 2 bus lanes, 2 bike lanes and throw plans and landscaping on the rest. Given that this will be below the water table, the landscaping probably doesn’t even need to be watered.

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