Eyes Under the Street: A Tour of the Transbay Train Box

Your train is scheduled to arrive in 2026

Skip Sowko, Senior Design & Engineering Manager, showed Streetsblog around the huge 'train box' under the new Transit Center. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless indicated
Skip Sowko, Senior Design & Engineering Manager, showed Streetsblog around the huge 'train box' under the new Transit Center. All photos Streetsblog/Rudick unless indicated

This wraps up the first week of operations for the new Salesforce Transit Center, phase 1. Reviews are in, and most people seem to love the rooftop park and the grand design of the facility. But what about phase 2, the train station below it–and the thing that makes it the future Grand Central Station of the West?

This morning, Streetsblog got a private tour of the two subterranean levels of the Transit Center–the future train station mezzanine and the train platform level below it. Photographs can’t really do justice to the breathtaking scale of the facility, which will some day house both Caltrain and California high-speed rail. But when you walk through the grand hall and other street-level parts of the new transit center, here’s a look at what’s below your feet:

Location of future escalators down to the platforms to catch Caltrain and High-speed rail
Location of future escalators from the mezzanine level down to the platforms to catch Caltrain and high-speed rail

Natural light will get all the way down to the tracks via the ‘oculus’ skylight that stretches through all levels of the facility. There will be more retail on the mezzanine level, and there will be a direct pedestrian connection under Beale Street to BART and Muni at Embarcadero. And as previously reported, the powers that be are nearly finished hashing out details on the train track alignment from 4th and King to the Transit Center.

The first trains are scheduled to arrive no sooner than 2026. More pictures below.

It looks like a nuclear reactor but it's actually the bottom of the oculus--and a skylight all the way from the top to the train box
It looks like a nuclear reactor but it’s actually the bottom of the oculus–the skylight all the way from the park at the top of the center to the lower level of the train box in the basement
The entrances for the six tracks coming in from the DTX
The entrances for the six tracks coming in from the future downtown extension tunnel
Another view of the oculus from the mezzanine level
Another view of the oculus from the mezzanine level
The turn from the platforms to where the DTX will start. This is the slot for one track of six
The giant turn from the platforms to where the downtown extension tunnel will start. This is the slot for one of the six tracks
A view of the mezzanine level of the future Transbay train station.
Another view of where trains will fan out from the downtown extension tunnel to the Transbay platforms
IMG_20180817_102219
It may not look like much, but this spot on the ceiling is where the future escalators will lead up from the train mezzanine to the grand hall
The area of the floor in the grand hall where the breakout box is located for the escalators
The area of the floor in the grand hall where escalators will go down to the train station level–notice no detailed artwork here, since the floor will be cut open in a few years
Entryway for one of the six tracks feeding in from the DTXX
Entryway for one of the six tracks feeding in from the future downtown extension tunnel
The pedestrian causeway joining the mezzanine to Embarcadero BART's mezzanine will go here.
The entrance for the future pedestrian causeway that will join the Transbay train station mezzanine to Embarcadero BART’s mezzanine.
This access door is built to be flush with the future high-level train platform that will go here
This access door is built to be flush with the future high-level train platform
The bottom of the support structure of the Transbay occulus
The bottom of the support structure of the Transbay occulus skylight, which brings natural light all the way down to the track level
Some day. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
What it will all look like some day. Image: Transbay Joint Powers Authority.

And here’s a link to a video rendering of what the train level will look like when it’s done.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    “What it will all look like some day” is 100% bullshit, as if the “link to a video rendering of what the train level will look like”.

    The actual “design” of this “archutecture” features a full-floor (and 100% unnecessary, and actively harmful for transportation and for passenger flow and for passenger convenience) underground mezzanine level. The depiected openness above the platforms is utterly fictitious bait-and-switch. (Mmmmm … this kool-aid is so refreshing!)

    The following are much closer to what you’re going to get if any sucker ever gets taken for the four or five BILLION they want to dig a short tunnel to this hole:

    (the details of the forested pairs — PAIRS! — of once-sloping columns on the central platform changed since I made the rendering from their partial-design-stafe plans, but the essential awfulness and incompetence remains.)

    Even worse — inexcusably, catastrophically, two billions of your tax dollars pissed away by cretins worse — is that the depicted escalators and stairs are nothing like what will be built (if anything is ever built) and nothing like ANY professional architect or ANY passenger professional anywhere outside the USA would ever consider. Instead of banked pairs of escalators (or two escalators flanking wide stairs), the structural columns of this disaster — for absolutely no valid structural reason! — are unnecessarily circular and wide, and positioned off-axis in the platforms, blocking the space that escalators
    and stairs need to reach the platforms. The result is that only a *single* escalator or *single* staircase can fit past the columns, which means that getting lots of people to *AND* from the platforms will be a
    disaster as crowds will need to move along congested and cluttered platforms to find an escalator which happens to be moving in the correct direction.

    If you look at ANY modern station ANYWHERE outside the USA — where NY Penn Station is the only idea that any “planner” or “architect” thinks represents best practice — you’ll see wide platforms, uncluttered platforms, wide stairs, *banks* of escalators, structural columns sited and shaped to make space for vertical circulation, airy spaces, easy navigation, and mezzanines only where needed to move actual humans to and from actual trains that move quickly in and out of platforms.

    You don’t even need to venture to scary places like Japan or Germany or Switzerland or Sweden or Korea to see such things: even English-speaking people in usually-guaranteed-to-screw-up Britain don’t do this. (See: JLE, Crossrail, CTRL-2, etc, etc.)

    What has gone down at Transbay is inexcusable, tragic, and grotesquely unprofessional. Worst of all, there was *no reason at all* for this to have happened at a greenfield site. They *CHOSE* to produce a horror show, with nobody holding a gun to their head.

    But hey, nice park way up in the sky!

    Pity about the two unncessary mezzanine levels you’ve just paid an extra billion tax dollars for, and a pity that the train level can never work for passengers, and a pity that configuration of the tracks on the train level results of maximum congestion and lowest trains-per-hour capacity possible

    But hey, these things happen when Parsons Transportation Group is your idea of a professional transportation planning organization, and when lowest commmon denominator lick-and-stick is your idea of architecture.

    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2009/03/focus-on-sf-transbay-transit-center.html
    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2009/06/future-transbay.html
    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2012/12/transbay-update.html

    A total fucking wasteful tragedy of incompetence, ignorance and stupidity.

  • Edward

    I take it you don’t like it…

  • Parque_Hundido

    He probably bid on the project and lost out. I think it looks pretty cool.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Why is there even a mezzanine? What is its purpose?

  • DrunkEngineer

    It has to do with the airline-style boarding policy that will be implemented. To board a train, passengers will first be herded into a holding pen, where tickets are checked and bodies scanned by TSA. Only once the platform is “secure” are they all escorted down to the train.

  • Ethan

    Are you sure there will be TSA scanning? HSR proponents have insisted for a decade there will be no time-consuming scanning. Just get to the station and get on the train. That’s a big part of why it’s supposed to be faster than flying.

  • Edward

    The mezzanine will also have ticket sales and waiting lounges.

    There is a first class lounge on the mezzanine at Frankfurt Airport long distance station (Frankfurt am Main Flughafen Fernbahnhof). But the ticket office is a floor above on the main level.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Perhaps you haven’t seen the recent news (https://usa.streetsblog.org/2018/08/17/transportation-security-administration-brings-body-scanning-to-transit-stations/).

    Note also that some plans of the mezzanine level have indicated airport-style luggage screening. And the government ID requirements that are already in place for intercity travel, just to board Amtrak/Greyhound.

  • Ethan

    You say “also”, which explains the purpose of the floor, but if true still means HSR proponents were wrong that a lack of time consuming screening would differentiate the train from flying.

  • Edward

    I suppose the best answer is we don’t know. I doubt there will be screening (other than the new terahertz scanning now done in the LA Metro) of Caltrain Passengers. Terahertz scanning doesn’t slow down people as they usually don’t even know they are being scanned.

    Caltrain will most probably be using the the station before HSR, but as for that we will just have to wait. All else is speculation… usually to support a position one way or the other.

  • Kieran

    The DTX tunnel should’ve been built at least half a decade ago….It’s sad that it’ll be roughly another decade at the very earliest until Caltrain will come to Transbay Terminal. That’s not even taking into account when high speed rail could finally show up….The completion of the rails/DTX to the new Transbay Terminal should’ve been way more of a priority overall during the last decade especially.

  • j1998

    so even if all tgisis constructed, what would make the Transbay Terminal the “Grand Central of the West?” As far as The West is concerned, LA Union Station already serves commuter rail lines, all Amtrak lines, long distance buses, local buses, and 3 lines of metro rail/subway service. plus HSR when that’s done. That station also has the history and architecture. so which one will be more like Grand Central?

  • Roger R.

    LA Union Station is quite beautiful, but the surrounding real estate, and the overall transit planning around Union Station suck. Union Station is cut off by the 101 from downtown and the most significant structures nearby are a jail, a strip-mall Denny’s, a helicopter maintenance facility, a drop forge, and lots of big parking structures. LA doesn’t even use the grand ticketing hall except for parties, which is a scandal, IMHO. Now compare GTC, in the heart of Manhattan, where everything is used and wonderful to roam around, or Transbay, in the heart of downtown SF, also directly adjacent to a ton of stuff, including the tallest building west of the Mississippi. I lived in LA for a very long time and I loved Union Station and used it all the time, but I also found it a frustrating place because of the shit land use. I also grew up in NYC, and spent lots of time in GTC too. Transbay is far more similar–or at least it will be, when and if they get the trains going. But, truth be told, neither really compares to the beauty of GTC, which still takes my breath away whenever I go back to visit.

  • Roger R.

    Hi Jeffrey. I don’t think DrunkEngineer is right about the TSA (citation?). To get to the high-level platforms, they’re going to need a pedestrian bridge over the tracks. Given the track constraints, those trains are going to have to be turned around very quickly, so if you go with bridges you’ll need several so you can distribute your passengers over the length of the platform for efficient boarding. And then you need a place for passengers to wait, and it can’t be on the platform level… so at that point you may as well have a mezzanine with stairs up and down the length of the platforms. As it was explained to me, the mezzanine is all about efficient boarding. Personally, I don’t like the mezzanine–I’d rather a vaulted ceiling like at more classic railway stations in Europe or GTC in NYC, but given the space constraints of Transbay, I see why the mezzanine makes sense.

  • Roger R.

    That link is broken. Which story are you trying to connect to? The body scanner piece?

  • Bruce

    Really interesting article, Roger. This gives the reader a great impression of what things will (hopefully) look like in 10 years.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Interesting, thanks. I assumed the street level could have served this purpose, but perhaps the depth to the platforms was fixed by other constraints.

  • LazyReader

    “What it will look like some day…….” Which I doubt.
    90% of megaprojects go over budget and most end up under performing. Megaprojects are inherently risky due to complexity and long time horizons. Namely since they’re planned over decades….no one can anticipate what technological improvements will happen in that timeframe. I’m no guarantee Elon Musks Hyperloop will be some wiz bang savior, but companies other than his are experimenting with models of their own.

    Truthfully, the only thing you really need to know about megaprojects, and that is: Don’t do them. This is especially true for government agencies. The transbay project has doubled in cost since 2008. It’s present financing is sketchy, high speed trains in CA are so behind schedule the likelihood they’ll start operation at the present time table is negligible. This boondoggle should not be put on the backs of SF residents. HSR is already a decade late, way overbudget and broken promises about speeds despite what the proposition guaranteed when they voted for it and people still think it’s a good idea. With cost projections as high as 6 Billion dollars, with only 1 billion so far secured; the project wont be completed til 2029. Just in time for driverless cars to steal most of their passengers.

  • david vartanoff

    Brings to mind pix of the abandoned Pacific Electric Subway Terminal in LA and the never completed South Fourth Street subway station in Brooklyn. Not connecting the bus station to BART now says something about how serious SF is about transit first.

  • Replyingreplyingkinison

    My prediction: In 2048, politicians will still be discussing their plans to “finally” bring rail (or maglev, hyperloop, teleportation, or whatever the next big thing is at that time) to the Transbay Terminal, with a “soft” completion date twenty more years into the future, not accounting of course for delays caused by multiple environmental impact studies, lawsuits, cost overruns & funding shortfalls, and sundry other inevitable bumps in the road.

    Either that, or they’ll be discussing why this terminal is outdated, and why we need to invest trillions into an entirely new facility which, like this one, won’t offer half of what it was sold as when it is completed.

  • david vartanoff

    Amtrak rarely challenges for ID when lifting tix. OTOH, when in DC some years back I was asked for ‘gubmint id” when buying a commuter ticket equivalent to riding Caltrain to Millbrae. The body scanning stuff in LA may work on ‘tiny’ usage subways; the backup to enter major Manhattan subway stations would be insane. Every impediment to convenience of public transit is another gift to the auto/petro industries.

  • david vartanoff

    Transbay will resemble Port Authority Bus Terminal or Penn, not GCT.

  • Roger R.

    Street level would have required closing streets to make a continuous concourse (which to me shouldn’t have ruled it out). But as I understand it, they wanted it sufficiently deep to keep going and eventually connect to a second Transbay tube. So they’re thinking a few steps ahead.

  • Roger R.

    I hope you’re wrong, but I can’t really argue with you. It’s really not on par with GCT, Washington’s Union Station, the old Penn Station, or any of the grand stations of Europe. And it could have been. That said, I don’t think it’ll be as bad as the Port Authority or the current Penn however. Speaking of Penn, man has this been long in coming: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/17/nyregion/manhattans-farley-post-office-will-soon-be-a-grand-train-hall.html

  • david vartanoff

    Farley-Moynihan will be a small step in the right direction. The real answer is to bulldoze the entire MSG/office monstrosity and open the LD train mezzanine to light. There has been a published plan for that. FWIW, I lived through the desecration of the 60s. Well matched by the conditions on the trains.

  • crazytrainmatt

    Penn Station with the cost and timeline of East Side Access…

  • robo94117

    Why aren’t we making plans to take high-speed rail under the bay to the Capitol Corridor line to Sacramento? The current tracks will be underwater soon so need re-building anyway. A Sac-SF-SJ HSR would be great for regional commuters too – it would bring in all the Solano sprawl housing into the SF/South Bay commute shed, and be much faster than driving or driving to BART. It would be the best transit spending that could happen, ease congestion on I-80, BART, and run on electricity. Why isn’t MTC suggesting this option? Because they’re mostly worthless, can’t create plans that meet climate goals, but hire good graphic designers? Correct.

  • crazyvag

    You need electric line on Oakland side, but I’m sure Union Pacific will make that upgrade hard.

    Then you also need a station on Oakland side… an Oakland Transbay equivalent in downtown with BART connection.

    Having neither is a problem to connecting Oakland.

  • Jaime

    riding the Eurostar (Chunnel) between London and Paris is just like flying… platforms are the equivalent of Gate Areas and Jetways, with ticket-taking, security, metal detectors as manned gateways in front of them… (in their case, also Customs and Immigration, EU/Brexit notwithstanding)

  • zoom314

    The Capitol Corridor is private property as the railroads own it lock stock and barrel, CA HSR is coming to the bay area via Pacheco Pass, not Altamont.

  • zoom314

    Scanning Tech has advanced quite a bit, now one can be scanned while one walks, so less time, and escorts? Is Ford bring them back? /s

  • crazyvag

    There are two reasons for security on Eurostar.

    The first – and lesser known – is that UK is NOT part of the Shengen Agreement like the rest of EU. This means that passport checks are required at all ports of entry. You get your passport checked on ferry to UK too.

    Second is just smart precaution. Damage to train tracks on land can take days, weeks or months to fix. Damage to tunnel could take years. That’s just a smart precaution.

  • Roger R.

    “I lived through the desecration of the 60s” Had I been alive, I’d have handcuffed myself to a column in the old Penn Station. Greatest single act of civic vandalism in history. 🙁

  • Kirk

    These buses are coming across the Bay Bridge. There will be very few BART connections. If you plan to connect to BART to get to the East Bay, then you are very very lost. If you plan to connect to BART to get to SFO/Millbrae, you almost certainly would have boarded BART in the East Bay. It would save you a bunch of time.

    Once the train station opens, you are correct, we will need a BART connection (and that’s why it’s in the plans). But for now, it would be very lightly used.

  • Thanks Roger. I’ve had the need for a mezzanine explained to me in legal code and requirements that didn’t make as your explanation here.

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