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Posts from the "High Speed Rail" Category

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Atherton Joins HSR Opponents to Sue Caltrain; Menlo Park Drops Its Suit

The Town of Atherton alleges that the review of the Caltrain/High Speed Rail Blended System’s environmental impacts cannot be segmented into two separate environmental impact reports. Image: CAHSR

Last week, the Town of Atherton teamed up with opponents of California High-Speed Rail to file a lawsuit against Caltrain [PDF]. The City of Menlo Park, meanwhile, dropped threats to file a similar lawsuit, one week after listing five issues that the city wants Caltrain to resolve.

Caltrain must complete its electrification project before it starts sharing track, in what’s known as the blended system, with high-speed trains, which are scheduled to start running in 2029The lawsuit from Atherton and two groups opposed to CAHSR asserts that Caltrain violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by conducting environmental impact reports of electrification and the blended system separately, rather than a single project.

“If the project is truly a stand-alone project — independent of serving as a precursor to the blended system – it is hard to understand why providing electrical infrastructure compatible with the blended system should be a major project purpose,” states the lawsuit.

The suit argues that the impacts of several changes for the blended track system weren’t disclosed in the electrification EIR: The reconstruction of curved sections of track for 110 mph trains, the cumulative traffic impacts on at-grade crossings when high-speed trains overtake Caltrain trains, and how high-speed trains sharing the tracks could limit the expansion of Caltrain service in the future.

Caltrain officials said that because the electrification and CAHSR each have “independent utility,” the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows them to be analyzed in separate environmental documents.

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Menlo Park and Atherton Threaten Lawsuits Against Caltrain Electrification

Caltrain plans to operate 114 daily trains (up from 92 daily trains today) after converting its diesel trains to electric by 2021. Image: Caltrain

Both the city of Menlo Park and the town of Atherton have threatened to sue Caltrain over its planned conversion from diesel to electric trains, if certain conditions are not met. The municipalities requested a 30-day extension of the Friday deadline to file a lawsuit.

Menlo Park’s demands include increased service to its Caltrain station, “particularly during non-peak hours,” and for Caltrain to pay for “appropriately designed and built grade separation” to avoid delaying motorists at crossings. The city also wants Caltrain to list all of the significant and “heritage” trees that will be removed, and to replace them with three times as many 36-inch box trees.

Similarly, Atherton is demanding better Caltrain service. The town’s station, located at Atherton Avenue, is the next station north of Menlo Park.

While the electrification plan does anticipate more frequent service at all Caltrain stations, agency officials say it’s far too early to commit to specific service levels with electric trains, which won’t be running until 2020 at the earliest. By that time, Caltrain expects daily ridership to grow by over 15,000 trips and for travel patterns to change. In addition, the agency plans to conduct outreach on scheduling preferences closer to the completion of electrification.

“Increasing ridership based on threatened litigation is not how Caltrain should do service planning,” Friends of Caltrain Director Adina Levin wrote in a blog post about the letters last week. “With even less realism, Menlo Park is also demanding that Caltrain fund grade separations.”

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CA High-Speed Rail Breaks Ground in Fresno

Photo by Alex Brideau III

At today’s groundbreaking in Fresno, Governor Jerry Brown celebrates construction of California’s High-Speed Rail. Photo by Alex Brideau III

California signaled its commitment to high-speed rail with a groundbreaking Tuesdayday in Fresno. The ceremony, featuring a speech by Governor Jerry Brown, marks the official beginning of construction on the long-awaited train.

It also puts California on track to be the first state in the nation to build high-speed rail. That depends on how you define it, though; Amtrak’s Acela Express service between Boston and D.C. comes close, getting up to 150 miles per hour on some sections.

The first section of track to be constructed will run 29 miles between Fresno and the town of Madera to the north. It includes two viaducts, a trench in downtown Fresno, and twelve grade separations—most of them lifting existing roads over the at-grade tracks.

HSR_Merced_to_Fresno-cropped

Route of high-speed rail between Madera and Fresno. The first construction phase ends at Avenue 17, just south of Avenue 19 1/2. Image: CAHSR Authority

Tuesday’s groundbreaking was held at the site of the future downtown Fresno high-speed rail station. It was largely ceremonial, as actual construction may not start until April. However, pre-construction activities have been underway, including archaeological and geotechnical preparation work.

In his speech Governor Brown addressed project criticisms, saying it is necessary to be critiqued to build a better project.

“It’s not about money,” he added. “You’ve got to get something in the ground. You’ve got to put the building trades people to work.”

He compared building high-speed rail with other large projects that have met with opposition, like the Central Valley Water Project, the Golden Gate Bridge, and BART. “All those projects were a little bit touch-and-go,” he said.

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Caltrain and High-Speed Rail Pursue Level Boarding, Compatible Platforms

California High-Speed Rail (foreground) and Caltrain (background, right) will have to share Transbay Center platforms. Image: CAHSR Authority

Correction 10/8: Caltrain and the CAHSRA haven’t agreed to create a joint specification for train cars, but will explore options for platform compatibility.

Officials representing Caltrain and the California High-Speed Rail Authority recently announced that they’ll work closely together over the next several months to explore what options are available from train car manufacturers to allow for level boarding, examine the potential benefits of platform compatibility, and the impacts on the operation of each transit system of doing so.

The cars would allow both systems to board trains from high-level, shared platforms at the future SF Transbay Transit Center, Millbrae, and San Jose stations. The announcement was made last Monday at a meeting hosted by transit advocacy group Friends of Caltrain in Mountain View.

“Level boarding,” so called because passengers will be able to walk directly from platforms onto trains without any steps, maximizes passenger capacity by speeding up boarding. It’s crucial that these three stations have platforms that work for both Caltrain and CAHSR, to maximize flexibility and to reduce redundancy.

Still, many transit advocates remain skeptical that the CAHSRA is sincere about pursuing shared level platforms. The agency issued a Request for Expressions of Interest on October 1 specifying single-level train cars with a floor height of 51 inches above the rails, incompatible with most of the available bi-level electric commuter trains that Caltrain is considering. CAHSR officials insist they have not ruled out alternative platform heights, but say that trains operating at speeds of 220 mph work best with a floor height of around 50 inches.

Average weekday ridership on Caltrain has doubled since 2004 to 59,900 passenger trips in June of this year, fueled by robust employment growth in both San Francisco and throughout Silicon Valley. Rush-hour crowds continue to grow, and up to one-third of passengers are unable to find a seat on the most popular trains and instead pack into aisles and vestibules.

“I’ve heard stories of standees crowding three or four into a bathroom because there are not enough seats on these trains to handle the volumes of customers we have,” stated Caltrain Modernization Project Delivery Director Dave Couch.

Development at San Francisco’s Transbay Center will add thousands of Caltrain passengers every day. Image: Transbay Transit Center

About 20 percent more seats will be available on many rush hour trains by mid-2015, after a $15 million project to lengthen trains from five to six cars, using 16 surplus train cars purchased from LA’s Metrolink.

But Caltrain’s ridership growth shows no signs of letting up, as cities located along the rail line increasingly focus commercial and residential development within walking distance of Caltrain stations along El Camino Real.

“We’re anticipating to take on 200,000 new jobs and another 94,000 units of housing by 2040, primarily along the Caltrain corridor and Market Street,” said Gillian Gillett, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director. “People want to live here, and companies want to stay here and grow here.”

Capacity on an electrified Caltrain could eventually double from today’s levels, to over 9,000 passengers per hour, if eight-car trains were run eight times an hour, according to an analysis conducted by Friends of Caltrain. But running such frequent service requires both level boarding and shared platforms, so that Caltrain could use any of the Transbay Center’s six proposed platforms even after CAHSR service starts in 2029.
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Appeals Court Lifts Bond Restrictions on CAHSR, Funding Picture Clears

German and French high-speed trains in Paris. Photo by Ryan Stern

A California Court of Appeals has removed the most significant legal impediment threatening California’s High-Speed Rail project. The unanimous decision of the three-judge panel, rendered on Thursday, reversed Judge Michael Kenny’s Nov. 25, 2013 ruling, which had blocked the state from issuing bonds under Prop. 1A, the High Speed Rail Act of 2008.

California High Speed Rail breaks ground in Fresno.

California High Speed Rail breaks ground in Fresno.

Justice Vance Ray, the presiding justice on the Third District of the California Courts of Appeal, writes that Kenny overstepped by injecting the judiciary into the role of the legislature.

While Proposition 1A authorized the state to issue $9.95 billion worth of bonds, the legislature had to approve them based on an evaluation of the project and its business plan. An extensive debate took place in the California Assembly and Senate and the issuance was approved in 2012. It passed in the State Senate with no votes to spare.

So everything appeared to be moving smoothly until Kenny’s decision last year which seemed to imperil the High-Speed Rail project. Yesterday’s ruling paved the ground for the project to continue planning and construction as enough funds to complete the route are sought.

The appeals court agreed with the California Attorney General’s argument that Judge Kenny’s decision last year “…jeopardizes the financing of public infrastructure throughout the state by interfering with the Legislature’s exercise of its appropriation authority, invents judicial remedies where none are provided by law, and subverts the very purpose of the validation statutes.”

“Moreover,” adds the court, “such an intrusive standard would offend the fundamental separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government.”

A former deputy Attorney General and expert on state legal proceedings who spoke to Streetsblog on anonymity said that the appellate decision is intentionally detailed and long. “They want to put an end to this nonsense,” he said, referring to the court’s desire to stop future legal proceedings from delaying the project.

Of course, there are plenty of High-Speed Rail opponents who were unhappy with the ruling.

“Justices lowered the bar for agencies to provide evidence of need for funding,” said Aaron Fukuda, a party in the case and co-chairman of Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, a Kings County-based group. “Essentially the Authority could have written on a post-it ‘give me money’ and that is good enough.”

Citizens for High-Speed Rail Accountability claimed in their suit that changes in the project, both in cost and estimated speed of the finished rail line, invalidated the voters decision to partially fund the project in 2008.

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Deal Reached on CA’s Cap-and-Trade Spending Plan

Earlier this evening, the bicameral Budget Conference Committee  approved a compromise between state legislators and Governor Brown on how to spend $850 million in revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade system for the next fiscal year.

The new plan largely stuck to the Governor’s original proposal for the first year of the expenditure plan, but it adds set-asides for transit and affordable housing, two important parts of the Senate’s proposal. The compromise also incorporates an allocation method for funding in future years.

Despite Republican opposition, California High Speed Rail will still receive one-quarter of the funds generated by the state’s Cap and Trade Program.

The compromise proposal sets aside $250 million for high-speed rail, which is what the Governor proposed, but future year allocations for the bullet train would be 25 percent rather than the 33 percent he requested. The Senate’s proposal called for 15 percent allocated to high speed rail.

The agreement would split the $50 million Brown proposed for intercity rail, giving half to transit capital and construction costs and dividing the other half between transit operations and intercity rail. Future revenue streams would give 5 percent to each of the three categories, giving transit a solid, predictable source of funding for at least the next five years.

Brown’s original proposal had no set aside for local transit, but the Senate, under the leadership of Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), had countered the governor’s plan by calling for $200 million for transit operating and capital expenses.

Steinberg’s plan called for 20 percent of cap-and-trade funds to be spent on affordable housing near transit and sustainable communities planning. This would have amounted to about $170 million the first year. The current agreement would give this category of projects — which could include bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure and planning — about $130 million in the first year, with future allocations at 20 percent.

“This plan is good for California,” said committee co-chair Mark Leno (D- San Francisco). “With this proposal we will continue to not only lead the state but also the nation on this important issue of greenhouse gas emission reduction, when time is running out.”

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CA High-Speed Rail Authority Certifies EIR for Fresno-to-Bakersfield Segment

Click on the image to go to a higher resolution pdf. Image via California High Speed Rail

Click on the image to go to a higher resolution pdf. Image via California High Speed Rail

The California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSRA) Board voted unanimously today to certify the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the project segment between Fresno and Bakersfield in the Central Valley. This section of CAHSR can now move to the “final design” stage that precedes construction.

This is the second segment of the project to have its individual FEIR approved; the segment between Modesto and Fresno was certified in May of 2012.

The two-day board hearing in Fresno featured some contentious and emotional comments from the public, both in support and in opposition to the project.

Local farmers who would be directly affected by construction or operations of the system worried that they would not be fairly compensated for loss of their land. Several board members expressed sympathy for those individuals, but then went on to talk about the “greater good” presented by high-speed rail.

Board member Tom Richards pointed out that the project would mean the loss of “less than 1/10 of 1 percent” of agricultural land in the valley. In contrast, said Chair Dan Richard, the state estimates that “over 33,000 acres will be lost to future development within the counties of King and Tulare.”

High-speed rail “will be a tremendous boon for the Valley,” said Richard, “and the benefits tremendously outweigh the costs.”

Several Fresno State University students spoke in support of high-speed rail through the valley, including one student who said her original plan had been to earn a degree and move away. Now, “because of high-speed rail, I plan to stay,” she said. Her testimony and that of another student who called high-speed rail the “next logical progression for transportation in California” were highlighted by board members in their closing remarks.

Some speakers raised concerns about valley fever, a sometimes serious illness contracted by inhaling spores that normally live in the soil in the Central Valley, but can become airborne when construction or farming activities disturb the soil. Richards proposed an amendment to the EIR that would incorporate several construction design safety features to protect workers.

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Longer Trains May Be No Match for Growing Caltrain Crowds

Caltrain’s rush hour trains have never been more crowded, which isn’t just uncomfortable for riders — it also discourages potential commuters who instead drive along Peninsula highways, and makes rides more difficult for elderly passengers and riders with disabilities. Commuters could see some relief in 2015, when Caltrain plans to extend the length of some of its trains, but the crunch won’t end any time soon if ridership trends continue.

During a typical weekday on Caltrain, the number of trains with more passengers than seats (with passengers left standing) has increased from just two during summer 2010 to over ten trains in summer 2013. The agency estimates that standees account for 10 to 20 percent of passengers on the busiest winter trains, and 30 to 40 percent during the summer.

Caltrain lacks dedicated areas for standing and has no rails or handles to hold on to, so standing on Caltrain is more difficult than on other rail transit systems such as BART. Caltrain’s cars are designed to maximize seats, with about 650 on each train, making it easy for commuters to read or work on laptops.

With Caltrain attracting about 4,300 new weekday riders every year since 2010, ridership will reach almost 60,000 on weekdays this summer, and could surpass 75,000 by 2018.

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Why CA High-Speed Rail Isn’t as Doomed as Media Reports Say It Is

TGV High Speed Rail in France. Photo: TGV

TGV High Speed Rail in France. Photo: TGV

Last week, the media reported, once again, that the California High-Speed Rail project is in its death throes.

The latest batch of articles are based on a Nov. 25 decision by Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny, in which he ordered the CAHSR Authority to revise a 2011 funding plan before it issues state bonds under Prop. 1A, the 2008 measure that got California’s HSR project going. The ruling also green-lighted work on the Central Valley portion of the project.

So what does the ruling mean? Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and Chair Emeritus of the CAHSRA Board, says it’s unlikely to delay the project, since the authority should be able to rely on federal funds for some time before state funds become necessary.

“All you have to do is front-load the federal money. Spend the $3.4 billion from the Feds,” explained Diridon, referring to stimulus spending that’s available from Washington. “Then you spend the state part later.”

The lawsuits against CAHSR keep coming from plaintiffs like John Tos and Aaron Fukuda, who own land in the Central Valley where the tracks are planned. When the CAHSRA tried an omnibus lawsuit, in which it basically sued itself as a defense against the many different legal actions that could be lined up to stop the bonds, Judge Kenny didn’t go for it. “All the judge said is the Authority can’t have blanket validation of the bonds,” said Diridon.

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Will Technology Save Us From Another Train Crash Like Spain’s?

Stills from a video. Image: Time

The Spanish train crash in Santiago de Compostela that killed 79 people last week has sparked questions about whether high-speed rail is safe. In fact, it’s among the safest ways to travel, and technology that already exists can make the type of human error that led to tragedy in Spain nearly a non-issue. Future high-speed rail in California will be equipped with that technology.

The driver of the Spanish high-speed rail train that crashed, 52-year-old Francisco José Garzón Amo, took a turn at more than twice the legal speed — 190 kilometers an hour (118 mph) instead of 80 (50 mph). He should have applied the brakes two-and-a-half miles before the curve but, he says, he experienced a “lapse of concentration” and thought it was a different curve. The train derailed and slammed into a concrete retaining wall.

Now that the train’s black box has been uncovered, we know more about why his concentration was compromised. Garzón was on the phone with RENFE, the train company, getting instructions for the train’s final stop in Ferrol, a small city in the northwestern corner of Spain. It appears from the black box tape that he may have also been rustling maps “or some other similar paper document.”

Train conductors in Spain are allowed to use the phone while on the job and are in fact equipped with a work phone, though a Renfe spokeswoman said Wednesday a driver shouldn’t answer the phone unless it’s safe to do so.

Garzón was “provisionally” charged Sunday night with “79 counts of manslaughter and numerous offences of bodily harm, all of them committed through professional recklessness.” Sixty-six people remain in the hospital, with 15 of them listed in “critical condition,” according to a EuroWeeklyNews story from this morning. The already horrific death toll could easily rise.

The train was traveling the Madrid-Ferrol line, which combines high-speed and conventional track. According to journalist Lisa Abend, writing in Time, “railways officials took pains to point out both that the crash was a result of human error and that it occurred” on the conventional track, not the special AVE high-speed rail track. Those parts of the track are monitored constantly for speed and a traffic management system can override the driver if it detects a problem, similar to the positive train control technology that Congress has mandated on all U.S. tracks and trains by the end of 2015.

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