The Troubling Discord Between Transbay and High Speed Rail Authorities

Transbay_Train_rendering.jpgRendering of the Transbay Terminal with one-level train box and mezzanine

Let’s hope California rail passengers can look back on the drama
playing out
between the Transbay Joint Powers Authority (TJPA) and the
California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) as a small hiccup on the
way to building the nation’s preeminent rail network into one of the
most impressive rail stations in the world. And for our sake, let’s
hope Washington isn’t paying too much attention to the infighting and
will still award California the lion’s share of the $8 billion in
federal stimulus money slated for high speed rail.

clear is the battle between the TJPA and CHRSA is as much about the personalities running the authorities and
their obvious distrust and dislike for each other as it is about the
engineering numbers.  The impasse became
public in January, at an MTC commission meeting, when the CHRSA
projected it would need capacity at the Transbay Terminal for twelve
trains per hour, up from four trains per hour that had been cleared in
environmental review. 

Supervisor Chris Daly, an MTC Commissioner and TJPA Board Member, called the announcement a "complete and total blindside" and "single A baseball."

According to TJPA spokesperson Adam
Alberti, they heard about the new numbers in a private meeting only a
few days prior.  CHRSA Executive Director Mehdi Morshed said they were presented in their business plan as early as November,
2008 (PDF).  Alberti said a business plan is not an operational plan, and didn’t provide a rationale to
substantiate the need to run so many trains.  Morshed said they had
delivered their draft operational plan to TJPA, MTC, and Caltrain
several weeks ago.  Alberti called the CHRSA document a fiscal plan
that has very little in operational data, not sufficient to justify
engineering a second level to the train box.

See where this is going?

There was so little communication between the two authorities they had to create a memorandum of understanding last month that would clarify when and how they would share data.  The parties beseeched Steve Heminger of the MTC to arbitrate a meeting to get everyone on the same page, a meeting that is supposed to happen later this week.

MTC Spokesperson Randy Rentschler acknowledged receiving an 11-page document from CHRSA that he characterized as "a skeletal operating plan," though he was quick to play down the politics:

We’re not concerned about who’s to blame here.  There a lot of different players here who have not worked together closely.  The reason we want to get these guys together is to get beyond that conversation.  If the consequence is we have to open up the EIR, let’s talk about
that.  If the consequence is we have to spend a whole bunch more money
to build this terminal, let’s talk about that.  I think that if you sit in my chair, considering how many transit
operators we have in this region, this is something that we do very often.

Caltrans Director Will Kempton is doing his part to get consensus as well.  He convened a meeting yesterday of all the
agencies and authorities who would collaborate on the state’s
application for federal stimulus funds to try to work out an accord.

Putting personalities aside, and assuming that MTC can broker a compromise regionally and Caltrans at a state level, there are significant deadlines that need to be met and obstacles to be resolved.

12 Trains Per Hour At Transbay

As Transbay project manager Emilio Cruz made clear at the TJPA board meeting on March 12th, their design and engineering deadlines are tight and they need to know definitively how many trains they are expected to accommodate by May to prevent cost overruns (PDF).  The price tag of building a two-level train box with a mezzanine that could accommodate 12 trains per hour is $500-700 million more than their current design and would top $1

There is no disagreement on the ridership numbers for the terminal, in
large part because both the TJPA and CHSRA hired the same consultant,
Cambridge Systematics, to do the numbers (PDF).  Alberti stressed that it’s not their job to tell the CHRSA how to run their system, but they have been working on ridership numbers developed in the EIR and that without the operations plan, they can’t know for sure that the two-level train box is necessary.  He also suggested that making capital changes is far more costly than making operational changes, such as shortened turnaround times, running some trains only as far as San Jose, etc.

"We all want to think 100 years out, but we’re not going to open with 100-year engineering requirements," he said.  "We need a logical progression for 100 year requirements, and 2030 is a good base, as planned in the EIR."  He also stressed that most European systems handle half the number of high speed trains per hour and only Tokyo sees that volume, though their densities are far higher than San Francisco will likely ever have.

An internet search can easily generate comparisons to other high speed train operators and their operating windows, and none but Tokyo’s Shinkansen handles 12 trains an hour, with dwell times of less than ten minutes (PDF).  Eurostar from London to Paris and Brussels is three and two trains per hour, respectively (PDF).  TGV from Paris to Lyon is two trains per hour, up to ten total at peak (PDF).  Transbay blog took the ridership numbers and the 12 trains per hour demand and calculated that trains would be running 12 to 43 percent full out of San Francisco, depending on the time of day.

CHRSA’s Morshed insisted that the numbers in their full operational plan would bear out and that they will be picking a lot of passengers up outside of San Francisco that will drive the percentages higher.  Morshed said CHRSA is working with subcontractors who helped build the TGV and that Paris has three stations that run high speed trains.

Politicians Get Involved

The San Francisco block of state legislators are rallying around the Transbay Terminal, urging CHRSA and the State Senate Transportation and Housing Committee Chair Senator Lowenthal not to waver on their commitment, which was clearly outlined in the language of Proposition 1A.  "The Transbay Program is the only component of California’s high-speed rail system that is environmentally cleared under both CEQA and NEPA," they assert in a letter sent yesterday (PDF).

The Committee is holding a hearing today to review CHRSA’s 2009-10 budget request and a State Legislative Analysts Office (LAO) report that is fairly
critical of CHRSA’s business plan, noting that it fails to meet requirements that were part of the authority’s mandate (PDF).  The LAO report also recommends:

  • Requiring the HSRA to adopt project selection criteria.
  • Requiring the HSRA to submit an annual report to the Legislature that would
    include an annual work plan, funding status by project segment, future contract
    obligations, scope, schedule and budget for each segment, assumptions used in
    system planning and financing and changes from prior years, and periodic
    independent financial and performance audits.

In Senator Lowenthal’s opening remarks at today’s hearing, he expressed concern with the CHRSA’s consultant-driven structure and its budget request (full remarks, PDF):

We need to look carefully at the Authority’s request for $123 million. Would the state be better served if some of the requested funds were shifted to employing permanent staff to provide project management services? Should the Authority contract with Caltrans for these services? In the 2008 Business Plan submitted by the Authority, it included a patronage estimate of 55 million at build out, now the Authority is requesting an additional $2 million for a new patronage forecast, the third in ten years. Why is this needed? Finally, the Authority is requesting $2 million for a financial plan yet the Legislative Analyst stated that the business plan recently submitted is inadequate.

Given that US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood still considers California to be in the front seat among high speed rail projects for stimulus funding, there is time to get all the parties to agree on Transbay as the Norther California terminus and move forward within the aggressive timeline Obama has set for stimulus money. 

Despite their disagreements on particulars, both Alberti and Morshed stressed that they believed a compromise could be reached.

"Hopefully, if we can get on the same page and all agencies are marching together, we can present a unified plan to Washington," said Alberti.

  • California’s highways are built to make expansion easier. Medians are wide to begin with, and some interchanges even have partial ramps to nowhere, in case some future project needs them (Ca-92/US-101, and I-380/US-101 are examples). It might cost a bit more at the outset and a lot of the time the ‘future projects’ never get built (e.g. the Mission Freeway in the East Bay), but it makes sense.

    I’m not a civil engineer, but I don’t see why the Transbay Terminal, can’t be made this way. Don’t build the two-level box, but build the one-level box in a way that we could slide a second level underneath one day with minimal fuss, or at least adjacent to it, or even at another station nearby (4th and King?).

    I grew up in Sydney, and a lot of subway stations skip platform numbers for this reason (e.g. it goes from 3 to 5 at Wynyard and 23 to 26 at Central). I’m sure it’s common practice globally. Why should San Francisco be different? Except for the fact that our can-do engineering attitude seems to apply only to road projects, that is?

  • bikerider

    “There is no disagreement on the ridership numbers for the terminal, in large part because both the TJPA and CHSRA hired the same consultant, Cambridge Systematics, to do the numbers…”

    Bollocks. Nobody believes the CHSRA manufactured numbers. The California project will not be carrying 5-10x the passenger load of Europe’s most successful HSR line.

    That being said, there are some severe capacity problems, given the incompetent way SFMTA has planned the terminal. In short:

    1. We wouldn’t be in this mess had the Altamont alternative been selected (i.e. some of the peak-hour trains would be terminating in San Jose).

    2. By completely segregating Caltrain and HSR tracks, it severely limits operational throughput of the terminal.

    Personally, I have little confidence the problems will be resolved in a way that doesn’t screw over taxpayers.

  • Otherwise agree with your article, but it should noted that your TGV information is not accurate:

    Between 6 and 7 am tomorrow morning, for instance, 10 TGVs will depart Paris’ Gare du Lyon, two of those going to Lyon, the rest elsewhere, but all using the Southeast high-speed corridor, which is the direct comparison to CAHSR. So, 12 trains an hour at peak times on CAHSR doesn’t seem that unrealistic.

    It is also true that Paris has three TGV stations – but the other two carry trains on different lines, and they’re equally crowded.

    Did I mention that all of Paris’ terminals have more than 10 tracks available for TGVs?

  • What else do you expect but passive aggressive behavior when it comes to independent libertarian curmudgeon Quentin Kopp at the CHSRA fighting decades old battles against the progeny of his nemesis, Willie Brown, who is fighting back in proxy in the persons of Emilio “fix Muni in 100 days” Cruz, son-in-law of John Burton, and Maria Ayerdi?

    Does anyone think that these people on “our side” are in their positions purely based on merit? Like Treasure Island, Brown had his people strategically planted at every nexus where a few hundred million dollars might flow. And contrary to everyone’s expectations, it looks like manna is going to rain down from heaven and this politicized monstrosity might get built in real time.

    One reason why at Western SoMa I did not try to push an acceptance plan for Townsend that would chart a path towards bringing Townsend up to code was that I learned of this shitstorm and have no patience for it given the provincialism of the Planning Department and MTA planning that presents enough obstacles.


  • While CAHSR operations may not require all two levels of the terminal exclusively, there may be other regional trains that eventually terminate at the terminal. For instance, Amtrak California has been exploring the possibility of “Coast Daylight” service from San Francisco to Los Angeles via the coast. These trains would terminate and depart from San Francisco, and the Transbay terminal would be a great location for this service. In addition, Monterrey is interested in revived rail service from the Bay Area, and the Transbay Terminal would be a perfect terminus. This is not to mention Caltrain will increase service to BART-like frequencies.

    Thinking way out, a second level within the station box could accommodate a new BART extension from the East Bay. If this new transbay tube is constructed, it would likely have tracks for conventional rail. This possibility expands operational opportunities from the East Bay and could bring Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains into the city.

    Although the projections don’t exist for CAHSR exclusively, the Transbay Terminal has the potential to become a well connected terminus for other regional rail service. With all of this potential, the station designers should be thinking beyond just Caltrain and High Speed Rail

  • GRR

    This whole thing is absolutely silly. Somebody should remind Quentin Kopp that there are 3x more people in Paris then SF. They need to put an adult in charge, before people wake up and realize we’re about to have the world’s most fantastic bus station and re-vote to spend the money on prisons or in closing some budget gap like sane Californians.

    This seems like a pretty clear play by CAHSRA to not pay for the last mile. It also makes me think the whole thing will likely be a memory by 2011. If we could move the cash into local transit infrastructure I’d do it in a heartbeat. buses included.

    The biggest danger here is that CA screws up the process so significantly that we sour the overall Federal Funding climate for rail for another 50 years. If that prospect becomes a real possibility (increasingly likely) than CA HSR needs to go away for the greater good.

  • There simply is no capacity problem for HSR at the Transbay Terminal as designed today. It’s a canard. With appropriate non-standard procedures for managing pedestrian flow, 12tph would be (just) feasible without any changes to the architecture. The objective of turning trains around in 30 minutes is entirely achievable given the availability of four platform and two tail tracks.

    In practice, operators will switch to full-length bi-level trains long before they reach this high level of traffic. For reference, such trains offer 1100-1600 seats each, the equivalent of 3-4 jumbo jets. If and when HSR becomes that popular, terminating some northbound trains in San Jose or else in Millbrae/SFO would be another option for keeping the Transbay Terminal from becoming a bottleneck. The choice would depend on where CHSRA will secure a yard – Santa Clara or Brisbane. On top of that, there may be a spur up to West Oakland/Mandela Pkwy long before capacity at the Transbay Terminal becomes an issue for HSR. The concept of having all trains stop in both SF and San Jose is only needed to build ridership. Once it’s high enough, operators will have other options.

    Bottom line: the current design of the Transbay Terminal could support 12tph if it had to, but it won’t ever come to that. CHSRA is blowing smoke on this one because the bill they are being presented with is far larger than they bargained for.

    Frankly, I’d be more concerned about Caltrain. With only two platform tracks at the Transbay Terminal, they’d need to turn train around in just 12 minutes or else terminate some at 4th & King to support the 10tph they are predicting for rush hour traffic in 2025 – double the current frequency. They are also (optimistically?) predicting three times the current ridership, which implies longer trains, e.g. 300m (~1000ft) like th Long Island Railroad. With bi-level cars, those would support ~750 passengers each.

    Also, traffic to and from all six platform tracks will have to share the DTX tunnel, currently planned as a three-track structure. Most railroads shy away from running headways of less than 3 minutes, i.e. 20tph, per track. It’s not immediately clear what the third track would be used for, perhaps emergencies.

  • Also, left unsaid, is the fact that the project requires a real estate market with a pulse to even begin.

    The state parcels have yet to be transferred and sold to developers, and the project requires the sale of a mix of high rise housing and office space for funding.

    The talk is about $150m in stimulus dollars right now, but the real estate hole in the project comes in just short of $1b.

    That said, if you’re going to build out a piece of infrastructure, whether its HSR or the Central Subway, either build it to last well into the future or at least build it so that it is easily extensible.

    Again, with Emilio Cruz on the job, didn’t he bounce from Muni to URS (Richard Blum as in Feinstein’s husband’s engineering operation) before coming back to the City family at the Transbay?

    This is the sound of dollars not even identified being funneled back to their politically proper place.

    Are there examples of HSR that run heavier, less aerodynamic 2 level cars?


  • lyqwyd

    Assuming that there really is a need for a second train level, and considering that they are already planning for 2 underground levels, why don’t they just extend the above ground portion up 1 story, and use both underground levels as the train-box? It seems this should cost significantly less than going down another floor.
    Perhaps they’d need to go a few feet deeper than originally planned for appropriate vertical space, but much better than going a full level lower.

  • J Bridgman

    Double level of platforms just seems ridiculous for anywhere…
    also expensive to build (especially tunnelling two level approach tracks).

    I doubt we’ll ever reach the ridership necessary to have trains leaving every 5 minutes, however if capacity becomes an issue there are a few options:
    – Bi-level HSR carriages (currently in use in Japan and France)
    – Longer trains (if the platforms are long enough)
    – Combine trains to multiple destinations, then split them later on where the route diverges… this practice is used extensively in the northern Japan HSR system.
    – Shorter turn around times must be possible.
    – Don’t use the platform as train idle space… unload and get out.

    Again, I don’t know the exact situation of HSR in California, but this is one of the first projects of the such in America. And for everyone’s sake, this NEEDS to work. No room for bickering, we need unity!

  • John

    At some point, the TJPA was studying the construction of loop tail tracks, but the study seems to have faded away. The tracks would continue from the Transbay Terminal, south on Main, south on the Embarcadero and back to 4th/King. This way trains could unload at Transbay, and continue to the yard for service/cleaning. This alignment would also keep available the option of a new transbay tube at Pier 30/32, for HSR to Oakland/Sacramento.

    What happened to this idea? I assume the construction of the tail tracks would be cheaper/easier than a double-deck train box.

    In conjunction, they should develop the air rights of the Caltrain yard, as in the SPUR proposal.

  • SPUR reminds me of the Republicans but instead of tax cuts, SPUR is fixated on raising heights to serve the developers who fund it.

    There is more to building a complete, dense City than just upzoning and hoping for the best and actively subverting community based planning processes.


  • I watched the video of the hearing, and when I see as much red herring tossed out to pile up as I saw from the TBT guy, I expect its to cover something up.

    Rafeal points out that 12tph with 30 minutes at station … or, it should be added, 8tph with 40 minutes at station as the CAHSRA request … can be done by using one island as the arrival platform, one island as the departure island, and a stop at the tail tracks for cleaning and restocking in between.

    Except that this is not possible with the TBT design, because the platforms long enough for the HSR are not all connected to the tail tracks. The Caltrain island is the inner island, fully connected to the tail, and the HSR is the middle island, fully connected to the tail, and the outer island, which is not full connected.

    Fix that, and the design could be made workable.

    Also, the cheaper double deck train box option is likely to be an island and two side platforms on each level, since there would be only one row of main support column running through the box … the outer two rows of support columns would be at the edges of that box. For that, a trail track at the first level and a tail track at the second level would be required. When it comes time to start filling the box, put in the bottom level platforms, and the tracks on ground level, and then when it comes time to expand capacity, put in the upper level of platforms … it being cheaper and less trouble to build up then to dig down.

    That also eases the tightest turns on the approach.

    It would cost more than the six track box, but if headways could be brought down to 2 1/2 minutes (as in some East Coast tunnels), 8tph access to four HSR platforms, 12 tph access to four platforms for Caltrain and other regional rail services likely to be developed when gas prices hit their next two or three oil price shocks, and 4 open slots per hour for contingencies, seems like it could be a liveable compromise.

  • “There is no disagreement on the ridership numbers for the terminal, in large part because both the TJPA and CHSRA hired the same consultant, Cambridge Systematics, to do the numbers.”

    Note that this is not precisely true, at least as reported at the hearing last week. CHSRA did not have the money to do a ridership model, and when TJPA hired Cambridge Systematics, they agreed to do both.

    So CHRSA is using the Cambridge Systematics ridership model for lack of an alternative.


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