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
  • crazyvag

    The current 4th & King is a better location for an intermediate SF station than Mission Bay since it’s much easier to access from SOMA. The station is also a short walk or T ride from Mission Bay, so diverting the line there just doesn’t make sense to me.

    Whatever alignment is picked, there ought to be a stop at 4th & King to connect with N, T, and be convenient to both AT&T and Chase center events.

  • Steven Rappolee

    The Loop could be a start to a transbay that has a station on the rocky part of treasure island

  • jonobate

    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.

    This doesn’t make any sense. Leaving the existing alignment in place for “redundancy” implies leaving the existing 4th & King station in place, as there’s no point in keeping the existing tracks if there’s nowhere for the trains to stop. And there’s also no reason to keep 4th & King in regular service if there’s another alignment that can access Transbay, as no riders are going to want to get kicked off the train at the edge of the city center when they could go right into downtown. (This assumes, of course, that the new alignment also has a station reasonably near to 4th & King for passengers heading to South Beach/Mission Bay.)

    So that means mothballing 4th & King in place, leaving 20+ acres of prime developable land dedicated to industrial uses on the off-chance that the new alignment gets screwed up so badly that it has to be taken out of service. The station shuttered in place, with no active uses on two kilometers of block faces; and a kilometer long barrier between Central Soma and Mission Bay, with no through route for cars, bikes, transit, or pedestrians.

    If we do build the Third Street alignment, we should tear down 4th & King and build skyscrapers of housing on the land, because that’s what we actually need in this city. “Redundancy” is being used here as an excuse to waste valuable land on the off-chance that something might go wrong with train operation. A better approach would be to focus on engineering the new infrastructure to meet the sort of reliability standards expected by the Swiss, Germans, and Japanese.

    All Caltrains and High Speed Trains need to go to Transbay, all Caltrains need to have the option of stopping at a South Beach/Mission Bay station, and no trains should expect to get stuck in the tunnel for any reason short of a genuine catastrophe. Take those as your constraints and plan accordingly; don’t plan for failure.

  • John Wallace

    All future planning that involves track shared by both HSR and Caltrain should assume no fewer than 4 tracks are required, particularly if an additional Caltrain station is to be built in the Mission. It should also be kept in mind that with the DTX being such a critical link in the system, and the tight turns that trains will be making, that that the maximum allowable speed for trains in the tunnel will probably be no more than 25 MPH, but more likely around 15 MPH. This will constitute a considerable time wastage each day. The more gradual curves of the Third street alignment represent another merit to that plan, but I also believe that no further planning or construction should continue without the end goal of a transbay crossing for HST’s extending from the north end of the TTC. Having the crossing begin from the end of a turnaround track as shown in alignment four, is a near perfect solution, because it will reduce dwell time in the station (it is also important to emphasize that while the process of changing operating ends on a train is usually straightforward, delays often occur due to equipment or computer malfunction with either the train itself or it’s authority control system, as I witnessed one day when my Acela departed Boston 30 minutes late), which is absolutely critical for such a busy station that will have so few tracks, and it will add redundancy for accessing the station if a service interruption were to exist in either station approach.

    As for whether redundancy in a mass transit system is important, look no further than BART’s transbay tunnel. Because of the high probability that the system will be compromised at some point, either due to an earthquake, equipment malfunction, or terrorism, flexibility in train operation is much more important than the average taxpayer places on it. Also, look to Miami if one is in doubt about the importance of preserving downtown train stations (or at least their real estate).

  • wave9x

    Keep the original alignment and build the damn thing ASAP. If later on they want to tear down 280 and reroute tracks to the Warrior’s arena, do that as a separate project in the future.

  • Matt Carson

    Yes! DTX _has_ to have (space for) 4 tracks, anything less is just myopic. And yes, it needs to be planned to lead to the next Bay crossing.

    Also, a Third Street alignment would be much more exciting if they’ll also build tunnels for two tracks of the T line at the same time, so there’s a plan to get it underground all the way to the dogpatch….

  • Kieran

    I especially want the bay loop to be built so that it’ll be easier for Caltrain, Amtrak and high speed rail to cross under the Bay. Though I also think that instead of taking the 3rd st alignment I’d rather see it keep its alignment going to 4th/King with a tunnel built shortly after it crosses a modified grade-separated 16th st intersection. Other than that, just build the damn thing! It’s a real shame that this tunnel isn’t even under construction yet..

    I can see a 2nd transbay tube being a 2 level tube…There will be either 4 or 6 tracks in the lower level which would be used by Caltrain/Amtrak/high speed rail. The upper level would have 4 tracks and would be used by Bart. From there you get the Alameda, Jack London Square, 980 alignment for the 2nd tube.

  • jonobate

    I agree that getting the loop tracks and/or new Transbay crossing figured out is probably the most important piece of this puzzle. Transbay doesn’t have many platforms, so without a way to continue service through the station and turn trains around at other locations, capacity will be crippled.

    I don’t agree that four tracks are essential for Transbay to function effectively as a station, providing we get the loop track right. The section of BART between West Oakland and Daly City handles 16 trains per hour all day every day on just two tracks, and it’s able to do so because the trains don’t terminate in downtown SF, but at suburban locations where there is space to build as many tracks and platforms as required.

    I’m really not sold on the redundancy argument for duplicating infrastructure costing billions or tens or billions of dollars. The fact that BART has functioned so well for so long on just two tracks between West Oakland and Daly City is testament to this. Out of the three potential issues you mention, earthquakes and terrorist attacks are both catastrophies that are sufficiently rare that the focus in planning for these events should be on life safety rather than continuing train service in the aftermath. For equipment reliability, it’s a lot cheaper to spend the money to improve performance and add a few more 9s after the decimal place in your performance metrics than to spend a ten figure sum on duplicate infrastructure; and it’s a much better experience for your passengers, as well.

  • Bruce

    You mean Yerba Buena Island?

  • It’s hard to think that a “separate project” will occur anytime soon (think the next 30 years) after this current project wraps up. Better to bite the bullet and take a bit longer to build the 3rd Street tunnel now.

    I agree that I want this all done ASAP too, but building something fast that causes headaches and is inefficient is certainly something no one wants.

  • Steven Rappolee

    Yes!

  • Steven Rappolee

    agreed skyscrapers of housing can pay property taxes into mass transit in a special tax district

  • wave9x

    If they ditch the current alignment and start from scratch with a new plan, it will be at least 30 years before Caltrain gets to the Transbay Terminal.

  • Bryan Reed

    I think it a good idea they should have Bart should serve the tansbay tranist center

  • p_chazz

    The BART tube is in the way.

  • Enough with pie in the sky plans. Can we please find the funds and just get the DTX built in the next decade? Enough already.

  • They can. It’s called building a pedestrian tunnel 1 block to either the Montgomery or Embarcadero station. But they’re not.

  • Considering we’re seeing plans for BART 2050 you are most likely accurate with the timeline.

  • Because all those recent skyscrapers going up in SOMA or planned for SOMA are creating money to be invested in mass transit…

  • crazyvag

    The plans do include a tunnel to a BART station that will be built around the time the station and DTX is built. They just aren’t doing that for the “Bus Station” phase.

  • jonobate

    Yes, they are. This was added into the project in the Draft Supplemental EIR issued in Dec 2015.

  • crazyvag

    The 2nd transbay tube for BART will likely hit Alameda and Mission Bay. There’s no need for Caltrain to hit those same places.

    A major problem with a Caltrain/HSR tube is the lack of places where to pop up on the East Side and lack of right of way for service. Let’s say you try to follow Amtrak to Sacramento. Two problems quickly show up:
    1) Amtrak and UP already have high utilization of the tracks between Oakland and Sacramento
    2) The route of Amtrak is circuitous and curvy which results in slow travel times.

    The one routing that does make sense, is to run to Oakland under the bay, and then stay underground until Carquinez Straight…. But 25 miles of tunneling will cost a pretty penny.

  • jonobate

    Actually, yes. The skyscrapers build as part of the Transbay redevelopment program have contributed approximately $430m to construction of the Transbay terminal. See http://sfocii.org/transbay for details.

  • crazyvag

    They are making space for 3 tracks. It’s not that bad considering the plan is for about 6 Caltrains per hour and 4 HSR per hour. That’s 1 train every 6 mins, so easily handled by one outbound track. However, two tracks would be used for incoming trains since after a long run, the variance from schedule after so many stops will rarely guarantee equal spacing, so 2 tracks will allow parallel arrivals of two trains.

  • Kieran

    Depending on how much ridership could possibly increase due to more people moving to the Bay Area is the reason why I included Caltrain in a 2nd transbay tube. I was thinking that for a double level transbay tube, the standard gauge trains and Bart would diverge shortly after passing the station which would be constructed underneath the current 980 at the Grand Ave intersection. Bart obviously would head toward MacArthur Station from there.

    High speed rail, Caltrain and Amtrak could head northwest after serving the Grand Ave station and hook up with the Amtrak/UP right of way. They could stay in a tunnel, head underneath San Pablo ave, trying to keep a straight route as much as possible. It could turn slightly but not greatly after passing 580 to connect with the Amtrak/UP right of way via surfacing, say around the 53rd st area before it hits the Emeryville station.

    You bring up a good point on how that route with its curves would be a slow route for the high speed rail. Though, if high speed rail used the Capital Corridor alignment, at least after it crosses the northern section of the Bay after passing the Concord station, it can go faster from there because it’ll largely be straight towards Sac with small turns.

    Yea it would be interesting and make the high speed rail faster IF somehow a multi-billion $ 25 mile tunnel to the Carquinez Strait were built. Though barring that from happening, I could see the slowest point of the high speed rail’s journey to Sacramento being just past RIchmond to when it starts approaching Concord. After it gets past that, then it’ll be able to go at a better speed because of less turns.

    Now, regarding Amtrak and UP’s high usage of that right of way, since Amtrak needs to be upgraded to electric trains in the same way Caltrain does, say Amtrak actually DOES get that electrification upgrade. Along with that, maybe the runs can be timed out so that Amtrak, high speed rail and UP freight runs can coexist.

    Though I’ll also float an option that once the high speed rail crosses the Bay going toward Benicia, maybe a couple of passing siding tracks could be constructed so that if need be, high speed rail trains or Amtrak trains could use those sidings(along with the UP freight runs if that need ever arises).

  • crazyvag

    We know where UP stands on electrification by the agreement that was signed between Caltrain and UP which stated that Caltrain will NOT seek further electrification south of Tamien.

    Personally, I think that Oakland needs solve its “standard gauge” train routing before tying in with HSR/Caltrain/Transbay. It would be a 3 phase plan:

    Phase 1)
    Create an underground line for Capitol Corridor that dives underground north of Coliseum, under the estuary connecting Lake Merritt, to a new underground train station under Oakland’s City Center 12th street BART with an underground connection to BART. The line continues north and surfaces just south of Emeryville Amtrak. The current Jack London Square station is no longer used since the new station provides better connectivity via BART than with Embarcadero. Additional benefits are safety from removing street running, increased speed through straighter track, and a more central location for a main train station.

    Phase 2) Connect Transbay to Downtown Oakland
    The line would start from Northeast end of transbay, cross under the bay, and then merge with the existing tunnel from Phase 1 just south of Downtown Oakland station.

    Phase 3) Connect Downtown Oakland with a tunnel under Oakland Hills. This tunnel would branch north of new Oakland Downtown station and run north about 18 miles to surface north of Carquinez straight – or just south onto a high level bridge. The tunnel could be used HSR, some Amtrak Capitol Corridors that express to Oakland and San Joaquins to provide faster service from Central Valley.

  • Short sightedness is exactly why we ended up where we are now. Capital projects need to be part of a long term plan that reflects what we ultimately want our transportation system to become. Building DTX with huge bottlenecks that can’t even handle the existing passenger load of what 4th/Townsend station handles each day is not only short sighted, it’s stupid! Of course there needs to be a turnaround at the Transbay terminal, because it’s the only way to meet existing passenger demand. Without a turnaround, there’s no point of building DTX because it would faster for passengers to walk that extra miie than to cope with the inevitable delays of trying to trying to squeeze too many trains down a tunnel that can’t handle them.

  • Bus station.

  • p_chazz

    In the Train Riders Association of California (TRAC) publication, I saw a design for Amtrak to use the BNSF tracks from Richmond to a point west of Martinez, then veer north into a tunnel that would cross under the Carquinez Strait.

  • Flatlander

    As someone who is annoyed every time BART makes that ridiculous sharp turn between West Oakland and 12th Street, build the straightest alignment (3rd Street). This is a 100-year decision. It’s worth the time to get it right the first time.

  • But when will it get built? With the DTX? It should be operational the same time the bus station opens.

  • jonobate

    Buses are mass transit, are they not?

  • Ethan

    It doesn’t matter. It needs to be built. Not discussed studied and everything else.

  • voltairesmistress

    Second Street runs north-south, so there is no way the train could turn west into Second Street. This may seem a picayune point, but the chief writer for a local transportation blog should know basic information about the local street grid. Please correct this.

  • Roger R.

    Technically 2nd runs northwest/southeast, doesn’t it? But the planning map is tilted the opposite direction, so it was just really hard to figure out how to communicate the street directions… I started with left/right, and then switched to east/west to make it easier to follow the map in the story. Anyway, I switched it back to right-left, which may be even more confusing to some.

  • voltairesmistress

    I understand your reasoning now. As a former commercial driver and bicycle delivery person, however, my workmates and I always kept it simple: Howard, Folsom etc ran east west from bay to ocean, and 2nd, 3rd etc ran north south. I don’t know anybody who knows the city well who describes the streets differently. But maybe I should get out more! 😜

  • DG

    I just read “BART, The Dramatic Story”, by Michael C. Healy, Whom shares the tale how the original BART plan called for removal of this hardware store but the Mayor of Oakland used his influence to keep the Hardware store, ( right after BART opened that hardware store went out of business), but now we to live with a situation caused by inept “so called governance, by our elected representatives”.

  • A bus station is still a bus station. We were sold a multi-modal transit station. The DTX should have been Phase 1 and built with money from nearby development. That’s what we were promised. Not a bus station. We got shafted mainly because the powers that be don’t view the DTX as anything truly important. The fact that they are still playing around with even more expensive alignment options proves that the DTX is decades away from seeing its first shovel. Develop 4th/King all you want. None of that money will be used towards the DTX.

  • crazyvag

    I’ve heard this story too, but never figured out which store, where it was located and which of the many turns is the result of that.

    i’ve wondered if in addition to second tube, we should spend a billion or two for straightening out the Oakland Wye. All trains pass the wye and all trains creep at 5 mph through it. Compare it to the high speed junction at Millbrae, and you can imagine a time savings of 5 mins in each direction with some straightening.

  • crazyvag

    It’s not just there. BART keeps on creeping slowly on the elevated portion on either side of West Oakland despite a relatively straight track.

  • Don’t forget this is the Grand Central of the West. Sadly, none of these planners has probably ever been to Grand Central or any other real transit hub.

  • So, let me understand this logic…we spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build the surface-level T line through MB and the idea is to rip it all out to build a tunnel instead, disrupting service on the surface line, and basically rendering the central subway useless in order to extend the tunnel.
    Off hand, anyone know where the crossover tracks will be in the central subway, other than before/after the Chinatown station?

  • david vartanoff

    Four tracks are the minimum necessary for smooth operation into/out of the new station. As to retaining 4th street, not every rider needs or wants to go to the FiDi, plus having a nearby place to store extra trains both for daily rush hour and AT&T events makes more flexible/demand responsive service possible. Every sharp curve slows trains, increases potential derailments, and in the scope of the project is a penny saved to waste $$ forever. We have been promised this “extension” since the early 90s; it is long past time to get the job moving.

  • Kieran

    I could see Phase 1 doing pretty well, actually…Phase 2 to connect it with Transbay Terminal would be a given..Now,, Phase 3 with that 18 mile long tunnel toward just north of Carquinez Strait would be useful for both Amtrak and high speed rail if there were 4 tracks, possibly. I dunno how the run times would be juggled between the Capital Corridor trains, San Joaquin trains and the high speed rail trains, but if trains traveling on 3 separate routes share that tunnel, then 4 tracks would be ideal.

    That high level bridge(which makes for a nice picture) as decrepit as it is would take a lot of extra $ to fix up. So if anything, if your 18 mile tunnel did get built, it’d make the most sense to have it surface north of Carquinez Strait instead of taking the old high level bridge across the water.

  • 4th/King station should definitely be kept.
    There are so many “what ifs” and “should haves” but poor planning rests on the inability of the transit agencies to talk to each other and work towards providing a seamless regional transit network.
    First, HSR should have followed an East Bay alignment. Connect SJ, OAK and then a tunnel to the TTC in SF. In turn, this tunnel could also run regional rail from SF points east, not to mention direct Amtrak connection from SF to Sacto. But, no. Politics and pandering got the peninsula alignment, even though the peninsula doesn’t want it. Meanwhile, traffic on 80 continues to crawl. Second, the DTX could join up with the new tunnel under 2nd St.

  • neroden

    Second Transbay Tube was ALWAYS the correct thing to do with the new Caltrain / HSR station. It was sandbagged so many years ago I can’t remember… sometime in the late 1990s. It’s no surprise that the OBVIOUSLY CORRECT thing to do keeps coming back.

    You want a “100 year solution”? Run Caltrain and HSR under the Bay. Anything else will be a mere stopgap until a standard-gauge tunnel under the Bay happens.

  • neroden

    Actually, you’re wrong about the best HSR alignment. The best alignment follows Pacheco Pass, then Caltrain, then dives under San Francisco (underground station), under the Bay (second Transbay tunnel), under Oakland (underground station), and under the mountains east of Oakland, and pops out at Martinez to join the Capitol Corridor to Sacramento.

    This has always been the correct route. The original studies SAID it was the best route by EVERY measure and then claimed that people would have sticker shock if it were proposed, so they sandbagged it. Well, guess what, the other, worse routes are turning out to cost just as much. 🙁

  • neroden

    Getting it right would mean running straight under Howard Street. For some reason nobody is willing to.

  • neroden

    The plan for a Transbay crossing for standard gauge trains heading north from San Francisco was proposed long ago, and has been repeatedly sandbagged by both politicians and planners. Every time it is included in a study it scores as the best option, and every time they find some bogus excuse to not do it.

  • neroden

    Amtrak’s route is straight and fast from Martinez to Sacramento. Gotta go underground from Martinez to Oakland and to the Bay.

    The thing is, one long deep electrified tunnel is a lot easier than a lot of little tunnels… there are economies of scale…