Was the West Contra Costa Transportation Study Too Quick to Dismiss Mainline Rail?

Bus, Ferry and a Potential BART Extension Stayed in the Study

A West-County transit study dismisses  big investments in existing mainline rail corridors. Image: WCCTAC
A West-County transit study dismisses big investments in existing mainline rail corridors. Image: WCCTAC

The West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Committee (WCCTAC), a body comprised of consultants and government officials, is finishing up presentations on its West County High-Capacity Transit Study.

From WCCTAC’s web page:

The Study is focused on rapid and direct services that can attract new riders among the 250,000 residents of West County and can be a competitive alternative to driving. It will identify one or more projects to improve high-capacity transit in West County, expand alternatives to driving on congested streets and highways, and improve regional air quality and quality of life.

Interstate 80 is the most congested corridor in the Bay Area, and the Richmond BART line often reaches full capacity during commute hours. Expanded transit options and capacity would provide West County residents, including those located away from major corridors, with more convenient and comfortable access to employment centers in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, as well as the greater Bay Area job market.

The study looks at freeway-based express bus service, Bus rapid transit (BRT), Light rail transit, Commuter rail, a BART extension from Richmond, and ferry options, to provide a “planning and road map for West County jurisdictions to pursue funding for transit improvements.”

The East Bay Times did this overview. And certainly, Streetsblog supports proposed bus improvements and additional ferry services, which can be implemented in the short term as rail options are explored. That said, Streetsblog has to bristle at the use of the term “high-speed bus.” If an express bus qualifies as “high-speed,” then the term is meaningless.

But what caught Streetsblog’s attention was the quick dismissal of the idea of substantially using existing mainline rail assets. From page 43 of the study:

Technical Memorandum #8 examined two commuter rail alternatives, one involving additional passenger service on the Union Pacific (UP) line and the other involving the establishment of new passenger rail service on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line. Both of these alternatives required substantial infrastructure investment to allow for additional capacity or the ability to accommodate passenger rail operations. They also required potentially complex negotiations with railroad owners.

When talking about such long-term planning and hundreds of millions to billions of dollars, it seems odd to toss out mainline/standard rail options so easily. For one, if “substantial infrastructure investment for additional capacity” is the problem, then how can a BART extension, nearly ten miles from Richmond to Pinole and Hercules, be on the table? Consider that the Warm Springs extension, which was half that length, cost $800 million. Caltrain electrification, for comparison, is slated to cost $1.5 billion, and involves replacing all rolling stock and upgrading signals and tracks–but that’s for over 50 miles! Still expensive, but it shows how massive improvements can be made to an existing rail line for far less money than building a new one. Even adding additional tracks to the UP or BSNF is cheaper than building a whole new BART extension.

And, yes, “complex negotiations with railroad owners” is a problem, but how does that compare with NIMBY issues, tunnels and bridges, and the lawsuits that could complicate a BART extension?

John Nemeth, the executive director of the West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Committee, which authored the study, said there were other issues. “In West County the UP and BNSF lines don’t run adjacent to large population centers and, except in Hercules, aren’t near where cities have Planned Development Areas,” wrote Nemeth in an email to Streetsblog. “In the case of the BNSF, the nearby roads and surrounding property don’t lend themselves to serving as stations. For a BART extension, we developed an alignment that serves population centers and key destinations.”

And, that said, they’re not dismissing the existing Capitol Corridor service. The study suggests adding a station at Hercules, for example. It also examines the possibility of a “fare subsidy” to get Amtrak Capitol Corridor fares more in line with BART and other services. Streetsblog certainly supports this and hopes they will also integrate the Clipper Card, so it can be used on Amtrak, at least between Martinez and San Jose.

The study highlights the need to rationalize fares as a way to get more out of existing rail assets. Image: WCCTAC study
The study highlights the need to rationalize fares as a way to get more out of existing rail assets. Image: WCCTAC study

Of course, if Amtrak is cheap, it’s bound to get more crowded–pointing again at the need to invest in more capacity on the existing corridor. Dennis Lytton, a rail transportation expert and advocate based in Albany, CA, thought the study neglected “the breadth of rail alternatives…new innovative rail equipment, such as Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs) that can tilt and take curves around our hills faster, are proliferating. Such systems are being built in Sonoma and Marin Counties (SMART), by BART in Antioch (eBART), in North San Diego (Sprinter), and many other places,” he wrote in an email to Streetsblog.

A Regio Diesel Multiple Unit train, seen here tilting into a curve. Trains such as these could increase speed and capacity on existing lines in West Contra Costa. Photo:
A Regio Diesel Multiple Unit train, seen here tilting into a curve. Trains such as these could increase speed and capacity on existing lines in West Contra Costa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But Nemeth said there were also concerns about the UP alignment’s susceptibility to sea level rise. And even if they increased capacity with faster equipment and extra tracks along the BNSF or the current, UP/Amtrak alignment, there are still constraints to deal with beyond West Contra Costa, such as the slow stretch of tracks that run down the street through Jack London. “To run high frequency train service would require grade separated crossings at least around Jack London Square and portions of Oakland. Expanding the UP corridor to add more rail capacity was viewed as important but generally beyond the ability of West Contra Costa County and more of a regional and state issue,” wrote Nemeth. For more on these issues, check out the 2014 Capitol Corridor Vision Plan.

He also pointed out that the trains wouldn’t fit in the existing BART-gauged Transbay tube. That said, since there’s no more capacity on San Francisco-bound Richmond trains during rush hour, as per WCCTAC’s own study, it’s unclear why that matters in the long term.

Furthermore, as Streetsblog has previously reported, the consensus is that when a second Transbay tube is built, it should be designed for standard trains, not BART’s unique gauge–at least not unless enough money can be found to build four tracks, two for BART, and two for standard rail. That means if West Contra Costa is looking at planning for the distant future, it’s not clear that extending BART, with its irregular tracks, is the way to increase one-seat capacity to San Francisco.

These kinds of long-term considerations are why, as Lytton pointed out, Marin/Sonoma opted for standard-gauge trains and even BART itself opted for standard-gauge rail for its eBART, East Contra Costa extension. That’s why West Contra Costa might want to think some more about how it can do substantial improvements to its existing, standard-gauge/mainline rail assets in the shorter term, in ways that will be useful for long-term connections to a future Transbay tube, high-speed rail and Caltrain.

“It should be understood that the recommendation by the WCCTAC Board to further evaluate the BART alternative with an extension from Richmond was only within the context of the High Capacity Transit Study. Whether that alternative will (or should) be pursued beyond the study is another matter,” said Nemeth. “Any BART extension would be extremely complex.”

True enough. A final proposal, meanwhile, should be ready next month.

  • thielges

    “And, yes, “complex negotiations with railroad owners” is a problem, but
    how does that compare with NIMBY issues, tunnels and bridges, and the
    lawsuits that could complicate a BART extension?”

    The difference is that NIMBYs do not seem to have nearly the legal clout that UP does. I do not know the details, but UP has taken VTA to the cleaners when access to UP’s rights of way were required to create the Fremont-SJ BART extension as well as the Vasona line of VTA LRT. On the latter, VTA not only had to pay dearly to use the ROW but also had to bend over backwards to meet UP’s requirement to keep their freight line serviceable. That freight line is only used by deliveries of gravel at a less than once a week interval. That need could easily and cheaply be replaced by freight trucking.

  • Julia Schnell

    WCCTAC (West Contra Costa Transportation Advisory Committee), not WCCTC.

  • jonobate

    This is an example of the folly of performing major regional transportation planning at a sub-county level.

    If you assume that nothing outside of the study area can be altered, it probably makes sense to go for the BART extension as it feeds into a system that already functions well and has direct access to San Francisco. But if you add in potential projects outside the study area such as the Caltrain extension to Transbay, a new standard gauge tube from Transbay to the UP/Amtrak line, grade separation of the UP/Amtrak line through Berkeley/Emeryville/Oakland, and increasing the UP/Amtrak line to four tracks with two dedicated for passenger rail and two for freight, it becomes clear that conventional rail is the best solution to the corridor overall. Such an approach would improve Caltrain operations, allow HSR to access the East Bay, increase Transbay capacity, and allow for massive ridership gains and redevelopment in Emeryville and West Berkeley; but those benefits are not considered as they are outside the study area of the project.

    MTC should be the organization that studies regional transit improvements, determines which technologies are appropriate for the corridor based on a holistic assessment of the entire Bay Area, and then passes on the detailed environmental work to the relevant agency.

  • Mike Jones

    Somewhere in the Bay Area’s future there needs to be a tunnel under the East Bay Hills to Martinez for “heavy rail”, by-passing the current circuitous route alone the shoreline. This is especially true, since CAHSR will now be taking the southern Pacheco Pass route.

  • One proposal after another. Let’s be realistic here…we’re talking decades before anything is built and running. Regardless…
    New transbay tube: yes, it’s necessary. Does it have to be BART? No, but it can be dual–gauge so that BART trains can run on it. This type of technology is nothing new and other cities have employed it for years.
    Inter-urban railway: okay, imagine an inter-urban railway that runs along the current rail corridor in CCC/Alameda serving Richmond, W. Berkeley, Emeryville, Jack London, Alameda Pt., then running under the bay to connect with the TTC where it would split to run south along the Caltrain corridor (local/express) and under Geary to the western parts of SF (and possibly down 19th Ave. to an intermodal station at Daly City). From the Sunset I could take rail from Taraval/19th Ave. to Jack London Square in less than 25 minutes. I could get to Emeryville from San Mateo in about the same time.

  • crazyvag

    This is also why HSR to Sacramento got deferred. With this exercise, you can see that if HSR were to run under the bay to Sacramento, there’s no good place to “pop out” –
    sort to speak. If you pop out in West Oakland, you’re stuck doing the long, windy and slow detour along the bay like Amtrak does today. To bypass it, you’ll need to tunnel under Oakland hills. But at that rate, you’ll need to tunnel all the way from Transbay to around Martinez. So here, you see problem #1:
    * ~20-25 mile tunnel (about half the length of Caltrain corridor). Tunneling costs would be enormous.

    The second problem is where to put the “underground” station in Oakland. Ideally, you’d want the following:
    * Interchange with BART
    * Interchange with Capitol Corridor
    * Close to Downtown
    You quickly see that such a location doesn’t exist. You can either interchange with BART or Amtrak, but unless you diverge to Oakland Coliseum or Richmond, you don’t have location for a station.

    This lack of good interchange between Amtrak and BART is also why Contra Costa county is so poorly served by transit. Yes, you could take Amtrak and transfer to BART in Richmond. However, BART takes nearly 40 mins from Richmond if you factor in transfer time. Only during worst of worst commutes on I-80 + Bay Bridge, does car travel take as long for that 13 mile distance leaving transit very uncompetitive.

  • bobfuss

    Presumably HST to Sacramento would be achieved by heading North from somewhere like Stockton. If you wanted to travel from SF to Sac, you’d take a LA-bound train from SF and change at Stockton. With a timed connection it would work.

    The model would be Lille HSR station in Northern France which allows one-change HST access from London and Brussels to CDG airport, Paris.

  • jonobate

    HSR from SF to Sacramento following the Capitol Corridor route was never seriously considered for the reasons you mention.

    The SF to Sacramento HSR route would have (and should have) been down the peninsula to Redwood City, over Dumbaterton to Fremont, east through Sunol Canyon to Livermore, east over Altamont Pass to Stockton, then north to Sacramento. LA bound trains would have taken the same route but headed south at Stockton.

    Even with the detour, this would have been way faster than Capitol Corridor, and without the construction issues you mention. But, San Jose didn’t like that plan as it would have added 10 minutes to their journey time to LA, so it got nixed in favor of the Pacheco Pass route.

  • joechoj

    BART’s unique track gauge is a headache; and yet BART trains are some of the most efficient due to their aluminum body’s low weight.

    Is there any operational reason similarly light cars can’t be made on standard-gauge wheels? Or does the light frame itself somehow necessitates wide-gauge tracks?

  • Rick Laubscher

    According to Mike Healy’s new, definitive history of BART, the wide gauge was chosen by BART designers precisely because they feared the very light trains they were designing might not be stable enough in the winds common along some of the aerial structures.

  • joechoj

    There it is. Many thanks.

  • crazyvag

    I’m not necessarily convinced that Altamont Pass is better than Pacheco. It has some advantages for reasons you describe, but Capitol Corridor will always be the shorter route. Perhaps it’s better to focus investments in that corridor and not fork trains between SJ and SF. With HSR platforms being shorter, the option to split HSR trains between SF and SJ is more challenging.

    Capitol Corridor certainly could benefit from upgrades beyond the project to save 10 mins by running trains faster around curves.

  • crazyvag

    To add to that, that fear was biggest during consideration of running trains on a new lower deck of Golden Gate Bridge where winds can really get strong.

  • eean

    And BART has already laid standard gauge track for the diesel train line they are running. That’s always a possibility.

  • @jdbig

    Thanks for reporting! Though I can’t say I’m convinced of an alleged consensus that the next transbay tube should be for standard gauge trains, especially if that excludes existing BART-gauge trains. Either multi-modal (accommodating standard and BART) or multiple bores may make sense, but discounting the value of BART’s existing network seems short-sighted.

  • jonobate

    BART’s existing network is great, but it’s hard to see how it could be improved by adding a second tube. There’s an obvious corridor for BART to serve on the SF side of the tube (Geary) but no obvious corridor on the East Bay side.

    But if you look at standard gauge rail, there are obvious corridors on both the SF side (the Caltrain line) and the East Bay side (Capitol Corridor from Emeryville north) that are already built out with standard gague tracks. You could tie both corridors together via the Transbay Terminal, which would help alleviate the capacity issues at that station by making it a through station rather than a terminus.

    You could have local trains running from Hercules to Redwood City via SF, providing BART-style frequent all stop service to the SF metro area; express trains running from Sacramento to San Jose via SF for regional service; and HSR running from LA to Oakland via SF, with trains heading south after crossing the bay to a station in Jack London Square, or perhaps to a downtown-adjacent station in the area vacated by I-980.

  • crazyvag

    One idea I had doesn’t exactly help Contra Costa county, but what if we did this…

    Imagine running a standard gauge tunnel from south of Emeryville Amtrak station towards downtown Oakland and surfacing north of Coliseum station. The Jack London Square stop would close and be replaced with one underground near 12 & Broadway under BART.

    Tracks would avoid the loop west of I-880, so travel time would be faster. It would also give Oakland a proper “standard gauge” station again since the 16th Street station was detached from rail after ’89 earthquake.

    So here are benefits:
    * Station is closer to many jobs in downtown Oakland
    * Capital Corridor runtime saves around 5-10 minutes by not slowing down for the slow street running along embarcadero
    * Travelers from Sacramento have a better BART connection in downtown oakland since they can almost go to any branch without transferring unlike the connection in Richmond
    * Better BART connection + Closer to more Oakland jobs would make Capitol Corridor a more valuable service to Contra Costa county
    * Cheaper than digging tunnel from transbay to Martinez

    In the long term, I can see stub tracks south of station created to allow a future connection to Transbay and another stub tracks north of station for a longer tunnel to Martinez.

  • @jdbig

    Certainly I can be faulted for not thinking big, but at the rate of heavy rail expansion, it seems reasonable to focus on redundancy for an existing, well utilized system’s choke point instead of hoping to cultivate commuter culture along the capitol corridor. Average daily ridership from APTA for CC is 5,100 but BART has ~450k. I question the value of true commuter rail service (Capitol Corridor) from the peninsula to Sacramento, especially without a better Oakland station location.

    Instead, we should expand BART as a true metro. Yes, the Geary corridor is ripe, and I am intrigued by the http://www.connectoakland.org/ vision to connect through Alameda, Jack London Square, a new 14th street station, and then rejoining the existing system before MacArthur. In addition to the obvious (more SF Fidi, Geary, and JLS in Oak) development patterns for Treasure Island could warrant a stop and create a truly transit focused community (okay, maybe thinking too big now…).

  • Those are excellent points about the BNSF route: there’s nothing out there.

    But what does not make sense is the lack of examination of rail to Vallejo and points north. The origin/destination analysis shows a significant amount of through-traffic from points north and west to points south of Contra Costa. Both Solano and Napa have been studying light rail from St. Helena to Vallejo, too. If this were DMU-led rail instead with a bridge and connection to the UP corridor (or EMUs, with electrification down through San Jose, which would be even better), that would likely take significant strain off I-80.

    Further, extending SMART from Larkspur to Oakland via Richmond BART would take even more strain off, though that would be… unlikely.

  • jonobate

    I’m actually in favor of both the Connect Oakland BART proposal (i.e. branching off the existing line south of MacArthur, using the I-980 to head south to Alameda, crossing the bay to SoMa, then up Third St and out on Geary) and the conventional rail proposal I described. Eventually, we should do both, but I’m in favor of doing conventional rail first as it will be much cheaper and would benefit Caltrain and HSR, systems that are/will be crippled by the lack of through capacity at Transbay.

    Aside from building the currently planned DTX and Caltrain electrification, you’d really just be building track from Transbay to the existing Capitol Corridor line at West Oakland, and electrifying the Capitol Corridor line up to the initial terminal, which would probably be Hercules. In rough numbers, the cost of that conventional rail line would probably be half of the cost of the BART line, as it would require less than half the mileage of new track.

    Citing existing Capitol Corridor ridership numbers doesn’t make sense as such a new system would be completely different to the existing system, which is infrequent and does not does not connect to SF. There’s huge potential to create dense urban areas around the Emeryville and Berkeley stations, and to capture commuters north of Richmond who currently have no rail service to SF.

  • @jdbig

    We may have to agree to disagree on this one. Yes, standard gauge rail service to SF would serve more commuters from far flung suburbs/exurbs than the current Capitol Corridor but that doesn’t mean it would compare to BART for ridership. One day CAHSRA and regional SF standard gauge commuter service beyond Caltrain will be nice for the Bay Area, but I don’t know what it would take to convince me that true metro service in the urban core deserves second priority.

  • They also required potentially complex negotiations with railroad owners.

    What are those “potentially complex negotiations”? Then sensible thing to do is increase Capitol Corridor trains. Since CC is run by Amtrak, they have special rights to demand access which the freight railroads are obligated to provide as long as Amtrak mitigates the impacts on freight service. That’s a far easier negotiation than any other agencies can make.

  • Patrick Jackson

    Or you could just not serve SJ with HSR.

  • crazyvag

    In an interesting turn of events, $400 million was allocated to upgrade ACE. This opens up the possibility for more and faster service from Stockton into bay area.

    It might not connect all the way across Dumbarton Bridge, but it does make the case for upgrading Dumbarton corridor more enticing given the improved connections on the east end.

  • The sad truth is that the existing Capital Corridor right of way is too twisty and too speed limited. While this is not a significant problem for freight trains, for commuter trains it is.

    “Streetsblog has to bristle at the use of the term “high-speed bus.” If an express bus qualifies as “high-speed,” then the term is meaningless.” Well, tough, Streetsblog, because commuter buses *are* much faster than the Capitol Corridor in that area, and will be unless Capital Corridor can somehow acquire a new right of way.

    Filling in the shallow Bayfront and then making a straighter Capitol Corridor route would be one way to do that, but since that is environmentally verboten, we are where we are.


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