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Posts from the "High Speed Rail" Category

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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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Mayor’s Transpo Chief: “Let’s Be San Francisco and Take Down the Freeway”

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The 280 freeway looking from Potrero Hill, where it divides the neighborhood from Mission Bay. Photo: Michael Patrick/Flickr

The idea of removing the northern section of Highway 280 near Mission Bay is gaining more traction as planners look for ideal ways to usher in high-speed rail and transit-oriented development in downtown San Francisco.

At a SPUR forum yesterday, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director, Gillian Gillett, sketched out a proposal to follow in the footsteps of the removals of the Embarcadero Freeway and a section of the Central Freeway, which revitalized the neighborhoods the roads used to divide. As Adina Levin at Green Caltrain reported, Gillett argued that replacing the elevated portion of I-280 with a street-level boulevard, from its current terminus at 4th and King Streets south to 16th Street, would improve the livability of the area, open up land to develop new neighborhoods, provide funding through real estate revenue, and open up engineering solutions to facilitate the extension of Caltrain and CA High-Speed Rail to the planned Transbay Transit Center.

If the freeway is left to stand, its pillars would present an engineering obstacle to running the train tracks undergound, meaning the only other feasible way to allow rail tracks to safely and expediently cross 16th Street would be to dip 16th underneath the tracks. And that would make the intersection — a gateway to Mission Bay — even more hostile for people walking and biking than it already is.

As past cases have shown, creating a surface street where that part of I-280 now stands and integrating it into the neighborhood would actually reduce overall car traffic. In a moment that would make the city’s mid-20th Century freeway protesters proud, Gillett told the crowd, “Let’s be San Francisco and take down the freeway.”

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe called the proposal “an exciting opportunity to re-orient our city around sustainable public transportation and create a more walkable city.”

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A Victory for CA High-Speed Rail, But Still a Long Fight Ahead

This map shows the phases of California High Speed Rail project, which would be the first such system in the US. Photo: California High Speed Rail Authority

As you probably know, California High Speed Rail won a major victory last Friday when state lawmakers approved the first round of spending. Construction in California’s Central Valley could start as soon as early next year.

But the $68 billion project — which California voters have backed with $9 billion in bonds — is a long way from a done deal, says Yonah Freemark at the Transport Politic. There will likely be many more battles in what has already been a dramatic push to build the United States’ first true high-speed rail system:

Even if the initial construction segment is put under construction as planned — that may be difficult considering the regulatory approvals and barrage of lawsuits standing in its way — there are enormous obstacles to actually implementing the planned connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the most significant example of which is the lack of adequate fiscal resources. The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s 2012 business plan expects that it will cost $31 billion to connect Bakersfield to the San Fernando Valley, meaning that about $18 billion in funding is still necessary even for this first step, taking into account the roughly $8 billion released last week and the additional $5 billion for fast trains included in the 2008 referendum. For a one-seat ride between San Francisco and L.A., $51 billion will be necessary; for 2h40 service between the cities, $68 billion is required (this is in year-of-expenditure dollars; this is equivalent to $53 billion in today’s money).

While that figure might be acceptable from the perspective of overall public investment in infrastructure, where will that money be found? The U.S. transportation reauthorization bill passed last week provides no additional funding for high-speed rail. Republicans have demonstrated against intercity rail and rejected several projects despite federal support. In his campaign platform, Mitt Romney cites “privatizing Amtrak” as a top way to save the government money. The outcome of the 2012 elections will determine whether California will be able to move ahead as expected, or whether it will have to put off plans by two years or more.

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Battle Lines Drawn in High-Speed Rail Vote

Later this week, the plan to build a High Speed Rail line connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco faces a crucial vote in the California legislature.  Governor Jerry Brown asked lawmakers to release $2.7 billion of the $6 billion in bonds passed by California voters in 2008 for High Speed Rail.  Combined with $3.3 billion in federal funds, the allocation would build 130 miles of High Speed Rail in the Central Valley.

Currently there are three competing visions for High Speed Rail in the Golden State.  For simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to the three as: The Governor’s Plan, Plan B, and No Rail.  The Governor’s Plan refers only to his request to spend $6 billion in the Central Valley, not the entire route.  To help you keep track of who is saying what over the next several days, Streetsblog presents your High Speed Rail scorecard.

Image via High Speed Rail Authority

The Governor’s Plan:

The Plan: The Governor’s Plan would create a high speed rail network connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco.  The plan would also pay for the electrification of existing Caltrain and Metrolink rail so these tracks could be used for high speed rail, but would also speed up local service for thousands of commuters.  The new long-term plan would spend $68 billion, create over 500 miles of High Speed Rail and 100,000 “job years.”  The first leg of the plan, or the Governor’s Plan as we’re calling it, begins with 130 miles in the Central Valley.

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