Amtrak to S.F. via a New Transbay Tube?

Capitol Corridor and BART are discussing building a second transbay tube to carry trains from both systems

BART and Amtrak at Richmond. A new tunnel to San Francisco could make this transfer unnecessary. Photo: City of Richmond
BART and Amtrak at Richmond. A new tunnel to San Francisco could make this transfer unnecessary. Photo: City of Richmond

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It could take twenty years and more and $15 billion to build the underwater tunnel to make it possible, but one day riders may be able to board an Amtrak train in Sacramento and ride all the way to San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center–and then directly through to the cities of the Peninsula.

BART received bids yesterday from firms vying to begin planning for a second Transbay crossing. “The consultancy team will be comprised of people who will do program management and strategic advising on this effort,” said David Kutrosky, Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which oversees Amtrak’s services on the 170-mile rail corridor between the State Capitol and San Jose.

CCJPA_Route_Map_June_2018

Kutrosky is involved because, for one, BART is the managing agency for the Capitol Corridor. And because the plan is not only to build a tunnel for BART, but also for standard-gauge trains such as Caltrain, high-speed rail, and Amtrak. “There will be two different guideways that will be involved, one for conventional rail, one for BART,” added Kutrosky in a phone interview with Streetsblog.

How many tracks will there be overall in the new tunnels? “We’re looking at all options, as to whether it’s another BART crossing or just a standard gauge or a combination… we need to do due diligence and full analysis and that’s what we’re doing over the next couple of years.”

In addition, BART and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority will be working together to do public outreach and research to figure out exactly where the new crossing will be built.

Bay Area transit advocates, meanwhile, were happy to learn this vital project is moving forward. “Linking Caltrain and the Capitol Corridor line under the Bay via the Transbay Transit Center is a potentially transformative project that can connect dozens of underserved Bay Area communities with high-quality rail service, and link up Northern California,” wrote Tom Radulovich, former head of the BART Board and director of Livable City, in an email to Streetsblog.

Currently, the only way for someone to ride a Capitol Corridor Amtrak train from Sacramento to San Francisco is to transfer to BART at Richmond Station, as pictured in the lead photo, or to take a bus or ferry across the Bay.

transbaytubeortunnel

This, of course, is time-consuming. It’s even worse for someone trying to reach the Peninsula since it means staying on BART all the way to Millbrae and then transferring again to Caltrain. A second tube that can carry standard-gauge trains would make that all a much faster, one-seat ride. “We absolutely should be starting to plan as a state and a region for the second Transbay rail connection,” said Beaudry Kock of Seamless Bay Area, a group that advocates for better-integrated transit services.

But, as mentioned, that connection is still decades off. In the meantime, Kock and others said the Capitol Corridor needs to get integrated in other ways. “Capitol Corridor should absolutely get on board with Clipper,” the Bay Area’s fare-payment card system, he said.

Right now, passengers on a Capitol Corridor train can purchase a pre-loaded Clipper card in the cafe car to use at the BART fare gates or on the ferry, Muni, and on other agencies that connect to it. The one place they can’t use Clipper: on the Capitol Corridor itself.

According to Kutrosky, the Capitol Corridor is working on fare integration with other Bay Area transit services, although the intention is to skip ahead of Clipper’s plastic card and go directly to “a mobile app that can be used by any and all people traveling on the three intercity passenger rail services. It will replace the Amtrak ticketing program.”

Meanwhile,  Capitol Corridor trains have some of the same challenges as Caltrain–both are pulled by diesel locomotives that can’t run into a long tunnel because of the fumes they produce. That’s partly why Caltrain is electrifying (other reasons include better acceleration and cleaner operations) in anticipation of eventually running directly into downtown San Francisco via the downtown extension tunnel to the Transbay Transit Center.

But unlike Caltrain, the Capitol Corridor doesn’t own the tracks it runs on. Unfortunately, “electrification is not acceptable to our host railroad, so we need to figure that out,” said Kutrosky, adding that Union Pacific is concerned about clearances with overhead wire and their double-stack freight trains (although this problem is apparently solvable). Either way, Kutrosky said they might consider using dual-mode locomotives, such as those used by New Jersey Transit, which can run on diesel or overhead electric wire, as a way to bring trains into a future tunnel under the Bay.

New tracks through the East Bay, shared with Caltrain and HSR, could also be in the cards.

In the meantime, the Capitol Corridor is studying traffic demand and looking at acquiring more rolling stock, increasing speeds, and adding services. “Ten years out we assume we’ll have a higher level of frequency,” said Kutrosky. But “is it a train every twenty, thirty, or every fifteen minutes?”

Achieving that will require upgrades and investments in rail infrastructure throughout the Bay Area. “The region’s rail network is antiquated, poorly connected, unresilient, and strained to the breaking point,” said Radulovich. “We deserve better.”

Radulovich added that the Bay Area’s umbrella planning agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, will have to take a lead role in making that better system happen. “I’m hoping that Therese McMillan [its newly appointed head] will shake the MTC of its institutional aversion to planning and strategic thinking, and revive regional rail planning.”

“We should absolutely be upgrading the Capitol Corridor, whether or not we are able to connect directly into San Francisco,” said TransForm’s Stuart Cohen. “There are low-hanging fruit like Clipper integration and bypasses that can make trips simpler and more reliable.”

  • crazyvag

    Ironically, this will make trip from Sacramento to Downtown SF faster than trip from Sacramento to Downtown Oakland. Oakland passengers get to enjoy the 30-35 minute ride that detours via Berkeley.

  • LazyReader

    Add government incompetence into the equation expect the project to be 5-10 years behind schedule and 50% over budget. Construction of America’s first transcontinental railroad took about six years to build. It took only fifteen years after the introduction of commercial jet aircraft in 1952 for some airlines to convert their entire fleets to jets. The idea that it will take more than 15-20 years to introduce a new transportation set up makes it seem impossible. Especially since Amtrak still loses money.

    Amtrak has no goals, no growth strategy and no meaningful success/fail criteria. The solution is not to replace Amtrak but to end federal subsidies to it — or, at the very least, bring Amtrak subsidies per passenger mile into parity with subsidies given to airlines and highways. This means reducing Amtrak subsidies by at least 90 percent. If intercity passenger trains can’t survive without greater subsidies than that, then they shouldn’t exist.
    Rail transit is obsolete outside a few urban regions.

  • Flatlander

    I think you’re super wrong about subsidies for airplanes and cars, but even if you weren’t, there is no reason that passenger rail should stand on its own other than to satisfy some libertarian fantasy. Government should subsidize things that are good for society, like low-emission travel, preventive and public health, education, and healthy food. It’s one of the most important thing that governments should do.

  • crazyvag

    You are conveniently excluding the CO2 emissions per passenger from your analysis which change the equation quite a bit when accounted for.

    You also seemed to have skipped high school. Did you know that when transcontinental railroad was built, there weren’t many towns to build through? No eminent domain, because government subsidized all that work by giving the land away for free? THere’s simply no logic to your argument that I can see. In fact, I bet if land was freely available and no laws in existence, laying track would be significantly faster than today.

  • ben

    Gavin needs to prioritize rail improvements! It also helps to solve affordable housing.

  • The three California intercity rail lines (Capitol Corridor, San Joaquins, Surfliner) are operated by Amtrak under contract, and branded as Amtrak, but are not really part of the national system, and receive no subsidy from Amtrak. They are funded primarily at the state level. So your arguments don’t apply to Capitol Corridor.

  • Flatlander

    Or that it was built on one step above slave labor. Clearly we need to bring that back…

  • I think it would make more sense to run an electrified Caltrain to the east bay, rather than a mixed Capitol Corridor to San Francisco. Or maybe just BART in a new tube that has across-platform connections to Caltrain and Capitol Corridor (both Richmond and Oakland Coliseum are awkward). Since the new crossing alignment is still under discussion, not sure where all the services (Capitol Corridor, Caltrain, BART) should meet, but it can be worked out. By the way, photo caption has a mistake – ‘unnecessary’.

  • The first First Transcontinental Railroad is an interesting choice of examples.

    There are a lot of ways the Transcontinental was built quickly which we’d find unacceptable today, like running tracks through occupied land and shooting the residents when they get in the way. Similarly, human beings were treated as disposable and many were killed and injured because of unsafe working conditions.

    Where I do see a parallel is how money can accelerate a project. Even in the midst of the Civil War, Congress twice reauthorized funding to cover escalating construction costs because it was a priority.

    If there were internet comments at the time, I have no doubt they’d be full of outrage about wasting money that could be used for the military on the escalating costs of some fanciful “train to nowhere” which was never going to be completed.The first First Transcontinental Railroad is an interesting choice of examples.

    There are a lot of ways the Transcontinental was built quickly which we’d find unacceptable today, like running tracks through occupied land and shooting the residents when they get in the way. Similarly, human beings were treated as disposable and many were killed and injured because of unsafe working conditions.

    Where I do see a parallel is how money can accelerate a project. Even in the midst of the Civil War, Congress twice reauthorized funding to cover delays and escalating construction costs because it was a high priority for the country.

    The Union did have a very important goal of westward expansion, connecting California to the rest of the nation, and linking the two busiest hubs on the east and west coasts; New York to San Francisco and everything along the way.

    If there were internet comments at the time, I have no doubt they’d be full of outrage about wasting money that could be used for the military on the escalating costs of some fanciful “train to nowhere” which was never going to be completed.

    But the differences aside, the short-term spending to get First Transcontinental Railroad built did create a rail line which supported itself without ongoing subsidies.a

    It seems like a good arguement for Federal spending to greatly improve Amtrak with a goal of making it self-sustaining.

    And it’s long been pointed out there are several corridors on the verge of profitability if Amtrak just had the money for upgrades.

  • Roger R.

    Thanks. Fixed.

  • John French

    I agree, it seems like Caltrain would make more sense – it will be able to run at much higher frequencies than the Capitol Corridor after electrification, plus evacuating the exhaust from diesel locomotives from a tube under the bay would probably not be cheap.

    It ought to be possible to have a timed, cross-platform transfer between Capitol Corridor trains to Sacramento and transbay, San Jose-bound Caltrains in Oakland. (Of course, this would require a degree of inter-transit-agency coordination which the Bay Area has utterly failed to demonstrate thus far…)

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    With HSR, a trip from Fresno to downtown SF will take less time than riding the N Judah from Ocean beach. Transit infrastructure shouldn’t be designed in vacuum, but that’s what happens when we have our transit institutions politically isolated from one another. Designing each transit system independently without any regards to connectivity is what gave us this largely dysfunctional transit mess we have in the Bay Area right now.

    Without major transit institutional reforms, talk of such projects will forever remain a pipe dream, as it should.

  • Alex Ritter

    Caltrain makes much more sense. It’ll already be electrified by then and it can likely get 10-15 minute headways under the Bay (towards Oakland) and then have some of them turn back (with timed transfers to capitol corridor) and others continue on to Sacramento/Reno.

  • John French

    If the crossing is a tunnel/tube, having some trains continue beyond Oakland would require dual-mode trains (as noted in the article – even if UP’s concerns about electrification are mollified it would still be a long time before the entire Capitol Corridor route is electrified).

    Thinking outside the “Caltrain” vs “BART” vs “Amtrak California” silos we have today – I could imagine a new “BART” encompassing the existing BART lines plus a line from Oakland to San Jose via a new tube to San Francisco plus what we today call “[electrified] Caltrain”; and then the “Northern California Unified Service” (a term that shows up in the plans for HSR to describe a new coordinated service created by combining the Capitol Corridor, ACE, and San Joaquin trains), with new services running Sacramento-Oakland-SF-San Jose-Gilroy using dual-mode locomotives and sharing tracks with BART [Caltrain] between Oakland and San Jose…

  • crazyvag

    BART still has much capacity left:
    1) Currently runs 20-22 trains/hour. State of art can run 36 tph and BART plans to upgrade control system and extra power stations to get to 30 tph.
    2) New trains have more room for standing passengers, so we could expect maybe 10% more passengers per train from that.
    3) Those 3-door trains can load/unload passengers much faster – which really is a requirement to enable #1.

    The one problem I see with making it a BART tube is what where you’ll build additional lines to feed it? Just double the number of trains on each line, fork it in Oakland, and call it a day?

  • keenplanner

    In my opinion as a planner, Connecting Caltrain to the Capitol Corridor via a trans-bay tunnel should be the top priority of all transportation projects in Northern California.
    Electrifying the whole system and converting it to high-sped rail would allow commuters from the outlying towns to get to their jobs in SF and the south bay much faster than driving.
    Commuters from the Fairfield-Vacaville area who now drive to one of the outlying BART stations can now enjoy local transit connections. This would take a substantial number of riders off BART and alleviate the need to add another super-expensive BART tunnel.
    We need to put an end to BART expansion after they reach San Jose. We pay stupidly-high cost-per mile for BART’s 1970 technology. The rolling stock is much more expensive than standard HSR. It’s a waste of taxpayer money to keep throwing it at BART.
    let’s get the maximum amount of standard-gauge HSR is place for commuters as well as long-distance travelers. We have the chance to bring transportation in CA into the 21st, er maybe the 20th century at least. Let’s do what works in Europe and Asia and stop mucking around with BART.

  • keenplanner

    Driving has worked so well for us.

  • keenplanner

    One entity needs to run all of our regional transportation systems in order to make it all work well together. The notion of connecting Capitol Corridor to Caltrain, as it stands now, would require a transfer at the Transbay Terminal, b/c each system is it’s own little empire, and blending them will be met with resistance from the Joint Powers board and others who fear ceding control to an efficient agency. Caltrain and BART can’t even coordinate arrivals and departures at Millbrae. How idiotic is that?

  • I disagree that one agency needs to RUN the system, but agree that one agency needs to coordinate the system. Though MTC does not have a great track record, they are probably the best agency, so this effort to cooperate between MTC and Capitol Corridor is a good sign.

  • LazyReader

    Sure has…If over 95% of people do it.
    It’s been almost 20 years ago since that legendary commentary poll from the the Onion reported
    that “98% of commuters favor public transit for others” so that THEY can drive on un-congested roads. That mindset hasn’t changed, as in 2016 Los Angeles overwhelming voted for measure M, which will spend $120 billion California doesn’t have on transit improvements few people are gonna use. In the span of two years ridership there has dropped from 600 million trips in 2016 to 550 million annual trips in 2018.

  • Yes and no. In many cases when rail is introduced the land values r

  • Or, as I like to tell HSR advocates, it will take me longer to get from the Richmond to the Salesforce Transit Center than it will take me to get to SJ. I’m not opposing HSR or a new tube or combined agencies, but systems need to be integrated. Even if it’s at the local level (SF or Oakland or whatever) the impact is regional. For example, we’re still waiting for the T to connect to Caltrain at Bayshore…12 years after the T opened.

  • LazyReader

    The California-supported Capitol Corridor goes from San Jose to Sacramento, just 133 miles (and most riders probably just take it the 90 miles between Oakland and Sacramento). Amtrak has snuck the cost maintenance out of its operating costs and into capital costs. Although maintenance is really an operating cost, this allows it to claim that many of its routes make an operating profit

    when really they don’t. Why do the feds need to subsidize these trains, most of which don’t cross interstate lines? Amtrak has defined away a lot of operating costs by calling them
    capital costs. It’s also difficult to tell how much Amtrak is reducing
    costs by deferring maintenance on its infrastructure and rolling stock.
    The truth is that not much is different from 2015. Amtrak still
    requires well over a billion dollars in federal subsidies per year. That
    makes Amtrak a world-class money loser, just like most European
    state-owned railroads. Despite the implicit promise of “declining
    operating losses,” that’s not going to change anytime soon

  • Daniel Carroll

    One of the main reasons to have another BART tube is to allow 24 hour operation of the system. One tube (two tracks) could be shut down at night for maintenance while the other continued to operate.

    There have been various proposed routes. For example: down Geary, cross Market, cross the bay via the north end of Alameda with a stop, Jack London Square stop and then split. The southern branch rejoins the Fremont line before Fruitvale. The northern branch stops in Emeryville and rejoins the Richmond line north of North Berkeley station. There are many other possibilities and that is why we have this study.

  • Daniel Carroll

    Yes and it works. The Germans call it a Verkehrsverbund.

  • Ben Phelps

    You can point out to this guy that the federal highway administration and the federal aviation administration are also world-class money losers until you’re blue in the face, or that “making money” is actually not the point of government transportation agencies, or actually any government agency, but arguing with him is the definition of pointless. He spends his days haunting streetsblog from the Baltimore suburbs to tell Californians that they can’t have rail.

  • LazyReader

    Which is why I support limit both highway and transit funding to expected revenues. By doing that it may actually make transit or carpooling more applicable. Transportation infrastructure should be funded out of user fees, not general tax dollars. To clarify the difference between taxes and user fees again. If a user pays a fee or tax and the money goes to whatever it is that the user is paying for, then it is a user fee no matter what you call it. But when a fee that is dedicated to a transit center is paid for by siphoning motel or hotel users who aren’t going to the transit center ever, that is a tax. Funnelling gas taxes to pay for rail transit is the pinnacle of hypocrisy, the only way to get more revenue is to get people to drive more or drive less efficient vehicles.

    The chief demographic transit was originally meant for, the Poor, the Handicapped, the elderly and children. Paratransit services have largely outmoded collectivist transit approaches of taking care of the elderly and handicapped by offering essentially door to door service. Vans can
    carry children to their afterschool destinations and back. And programs aimed at helping poor people buy a car or get around using automotive means are statistically shown to better alleviate poverty, because once you have an [access] automobile you’re no longer locally geographically bound to a career and are free to pursue work or even a new residence
    elsewhere….which is what municipalities fear most; people fleeing. Thus allowing people to leave the geographic constraints and their tight political control for better places.

    Attracting high income earners to take transit is equally meaningless, for one even if more of them rode transit there aren’t enough of them to patron the system in a financially sound manner and they cant discriminate the fares be higher just because that person just so
    happens to be a wealthier person. Second, Attracting high income people means building transit infrastructure out in high income areas where population density tends to be smaller, patronage size is spread over a vaster geographic area and cost of consolidating such a huge area is far
    too much for what patrons they obtain….ALL OF WHICH again overlooks the individuals mentioned above. Which only alienates the people further, makes the transit agency look more incompetent, devises political regimes to formulate even greater ways to milk the taxpayer for expanding the program that they said would be a positive thing. Case example of the Law of Unintended consequences. Where as the consequences to auto driving via user fees and technological improvements that can mitigate the consequences of driving.

    But the reality is that transit ridership is declining, and not just in the United States. It’s declining partly because the low-income people have found better/cheaper/more efficient means of getting around. If transit agencies need to give away their services just to attract
    riders, that’s a signal their services aren’t worth anything. If it is low-income travelers who are of concern, then it would be better to give them transportation vouchers that they can use on any form of travel than to spend more billions on a dying industry whom chooses transportation technology that’s so prone to cost overruns, significant maintenance and reliability concerns.

  • You didn’t get the joke.

    What made it funny is if more people used transit it would reduce congestion, but the pervasive attitude that transit is for other people is why traffic is so congested.

  • crazyvag

    At this point, perhaps we should fork T and run it via Bayview and Hunter’s Point to Bayshore in prep for all the upcoming development.

  • crazyvag

    24 hour service doesn’t require a second tube. BART actually announced a schedule where trains go through the tube every 24 mins rather than every 20 mins to allow single tracking through the transbay. I think most people would accept 24 hour service with trains every 24 mins rather than wait decades for a second tube. You can read about it here:
    https://www.bart.gov/news/articles/2019/news20190115

  • crazyvag

    Totally agree. Capitol Corridor already stops many trains in Oakland, so no reason to not run those down the peninsula via SF.

    Plus, the I-80 corridor is largely un-served by BART since it only reaches about 8 miles north of the bridge with very slow service due to the detour via Berkeley and Oakland.

    Capitol Corridor has the right stops, and RoW is wide enough to support a 3rd track, so there’s opportunity there to start with something like ACE which has about 6000 riders on just 4 round trip trains. Getting 4 bi-mode tilting trains would be a great starter service.

  • p_chazz

    It would be very tricky to build a BART tunnel under the the Central Subway and Market Street subway.

  • p_chazz

    HSR to from the Bay Area to Sacramento is coming…via Merced, in Phase 2 of CHSR. From the CHSR website:

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION:
    As the high-speed Rail system grows to include the entire Phase 1 service, opportunities will exist to extend the benefits of Phase 1 service into Phase 2 corridors such as Merced to Sacramento. This project section is approximately 115 miles long and includes four proposed station locations including Merced, Modesto, Stockton and Sacramento.

    Corridor planning is helping to prioritize the timing and type of investments necessary to extend the Phase 1 system. The outcome of these planning efforts will ensure that the most effective investment is pursued that supports the service needs of local communities as well as statewide mobility. Near term service improvements that leverage local, state and federal funding sources will be pursued through continued expansion of integrated Amtrak San Joaquin and Altamont Corridor Express services, while also defining how such service improvements lay the groundwork for full Phase 2 high-speed rail service in the future.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Exactly. Organization before concrete. In the Bay Area we tend to put money into huge transit projects without any organization on how they fit into the larger system.

    Here’s a great article on why the Germans do it better:

    https://mobilitylab.org/2018/09/10/germany-standardizes-signage-and-wayfinding/

  • Sadly, it’s not just in the Bay Area that this is happening. However, several cities are putting a lot of thought into their transit development and making sure local and regional systems work in unison not in competition. The DTX should have been a priority in Phase One, but local officials and agencies involved clearly didn’t think so. Therefore, we have to wait several decades for rail to reach downtown SF.

  • Not quite. One of the main reasons for another BART tube is to connect more neighborhoods and commercial areas while moving more people. Period. While it’s great to have a 24 hour operation ridership between 1am-4am this isn’t the main reason to invest a ton of money into a new tube.

  • Daniel Carroll

    I said, and you said, “one of the main reasons…” Both statements imply that there are more than one, probably many more, reasons. Our statements are not contradictory.

    My original comment also said that “There have been various proposed routes.” This was objected to when I gave one example – not mine.

    All I have said in my comment is that their are various reasons and various possibilities. Nobody was attacked. Gentlemen… have a beer. Relax. The weekend is here.

  • thielges

    Thanks for the link to that article. A relevant quote: “With limited resources — and resources are always limited — transit
    agencies should exhaust all of the cheapest fixes before heading toward
    the more expensive “concrete” options like digging new tunnels and
    laying more track.”

    Building out our transportation infrastructure will help, but first we need to figure out how someone from Redwood City can travel to Oakland on one ticket instead of four. That can be accomplished without pouring any concrete.

  • keenplanner

    And SF MUNI is still wondering whether extending the M-Ocean View line to Daly City BART, a few thousand feet, is a good idea!?!?
    MUNI seems terrified of crossing county lines, even if it would greatly benefit riders.

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