HSR Finishing Designs on Alignment into San Francisco

Last night was one of several outreach meetings to get public feedback on passing tracks and location of Brisbane maintenance facility

A rendering of a high-speed train in the Pacheco Pass. Details are now being worked out on how to get up the Peninsula to San Francisco. Image: CaHSRA
A rendering of a high-speed train in the Pacheco Pass. Details are now being worked out on how to get up the Peninsula to San Francisco. Image: CaHSRA

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Should the maintenance yard be on the east or west side of the mainline in Brisbane and is there a need for additional passing tracks between San Mateo and Redwood City? These are two of the last few remaining details on the Peninsula that need to be sorted as the California High-speed Rail project completes its designs on the route that will one day connect the Central Valley to San Francisco via Caltrain’s Peninsula corridor.

“In 2012, we made a decision to operate in the blended configuration,” explained James Tung, a manager with the High-speed Rail Authority, at a presentation to the public held Monday evening at the Bay Area Metro Center in Rincon Hill about the handful of remaining decisions that have to be made in the designs. “In 2013 we came out with five different options for passing tracks, put together several time tables, and the general conclusion is even without passing tracks we can add six-plus-four service.”

Two of the last questions to iron out with California HSR. Image: CaHSRA
Two of the last questions to iron out with California HSR. Image: CaHSRA

That means without widening the footprint of Caltrain’s right-of-way, which will share trains with high-speed rail, it will still be possible to run six Caltrains an hour plus four high-speed trains an hour, during peak periods, all at 110 mph. Of course, that will depend on Caltrain, the host railroad, completing its $2 billion electrification project and some additional feathering of curves.

So the HSR staff engineers are recommending that they leave well-enough alone and not build additional passing tracks. But not everyone who attended last night’s presentation was convinced that’s the right choice. “I’ve ridden high-speed rail in Japan,” said Farah Soltane, a transit engineer with Acumen who came to the meeting to learn about the project. “I think we’re missing out.”

Soltane thinks the priority should be squeezing as much speed out of the trains as possible. “That’s where you get the passengers; when you’re faster overall.”

James Tung tries to convince Farah Soltane that the trains are fast enough under the current plan. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
James Tung tries to convince Farah Soltane that the trains are fast enough under the current plan. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

But Tung reiterated that the idea of fully grade-separating and expanding the alignment to four tracks was abandoned years ago. That means grade-crossings will remain and speeds will be limited to 110 mph by regulations; meaning additional passing tracks just aren’t that significant given the speed cap.

Nevertheless, it seemed like several people visiting the meeting were disappointed by the politics and compromises. “I want a better future,” said Theodore Randolph, who lives in San Francisco. “I want to be able to go between San Francisco and Los Angeles and have a smaller environmental impact.”

This chart from the HSR Authority shows the relative compromises and costs

The above chart lays out why staff is recommending against additional passing tracks (keep in mind there are already passing segments thanks to Caltrain’s ‘Baby Bullet’ project, completed in 2004). It would cost roughly a billion more to add more tracks, and it would bring another political firestorm from NIMBYs, with little time savings to show for it.

And it’s perhaps worth repeating that European high-speed rail systems were built with “blended” tracks at the bookends, where the HSR trains enter cities by sharing commuter train tracks through the suburbs and more densely populated areas. Once HSR service is established, parallel tracks are added and speeds raised over time. The most obvious example of this process is the ‘Eurostar’ that connects London to Paris and Brussels. In 1994, service began on a dedicated high-speed line in France between the Parisian suburbs and the channel tunnel, but it used a relatively slow track segment between the English channel and central London. For years, Eurostar shared tracks with commuter trains, on a line with grade crossings, not unlike the busy Caltrain corridor–speeds were limited to only 90 mph. To make this happen, a specially designed HSR train had to be built that could also use two types of electrification.

Thirteen years later, a fully high-speed line, enabling trains to travel at 186 mph and faster almost all the way into London was opened, cutting almost 35 minutes off the trip between Paris and London. In addition, in the earlier phase, trains went to London’s Waterloo Station, two miles from the heart of London, just as California HSR will go to 4th and King until the downtown tracks are connected to the Salesforce Transit Center. The British also connected the new tracks, via their own “downtown extension” to the more central St. Pancras station. In Europe, speeds were and continue to be increased–and ridership continues to grow. Representatives from the Authority agreed that California’s system will follow a similar pattern of stepped improvements after the line is operational.

Some __ attended Monday evenings presentation on the last few details of California HSR's route through the Peninsula to San Francisco. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
40 people attended Monday evenings presentation on the last few details of California HSR’s route through the Peninsula to San Francisco. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

For Boris Lipkin, Northern California Regional Director for the project, the outreach meetings are also an opportunity to remind the Bay Area public that high-speed rail construction is already well underway, with massive projects in the Central Valley, and planning getting completed to connect that spine to San Jose and San Francisco with brand new tracks through the Pacheco Pass.

The idea, for now, is to get some kind of stop-gap service going as soon as possible. The feeling is that as with the Eurostar and other services in Europe, once trains are zooming along at 200-plus mph, the question of further improvements will shift from “do we need this” to “when can we get this here?”

“The governor wants us to build everything we can, extending to Merced and Bakersfield,” he said in his presentation. That 119-mile line, which should be operational by 2029, will connect to the Bay Area, in the short term, via Amtrak and ACE’s existing alignment. The Authority has already spent $5 billion on 24 active construction sites, producing some 3,000 construction jobs in the Central Valley. “While we do that, he wants us to maintain a commitment to the bookend projects. That means Caltrain electrification, as well as projects in Southern California.”

The project team has put together a video, showing the construction in the Central Valley and the planning for the bookends and the connection from Merced to San Jose.

But first, of course, the Authority has to vote on the maintenance yard and additional passing tracks. And that means collecting more public comment. The next open house about the last decisions and refinement on the Peninsula designs will be held Thursday, August 15, from 5 p.m.-8 p.m. (Presentations begin at 5:45 p.m.), at the San House City Hall, Council Chambers, 200 E Santa Clara Street, San Jose. For a full list of open houses, check out the Authority’s calendar. You can also comment online.

The California High-speed Rail board will make its final determination on the passing tracks and location of the maintenance facility on September 17.

  • crazyvag

    Let’s defer to Caltrain for passing track design, scheduling and have HSR focus on how to get to Gilroy. I think they “got it”.

  • Ethan

    Would new passing track enable more than 6+4 trains per hour? Kind of important since Caltrain likely needs additional capacity.

  • p_chazz

    I’ll believe it when I see it. Just because billions are being spent is no guarantee that this project will ever be completed, certainly not to the specifications that were promised in the original HSR bond issue that appeared on the ballot. It reminds me of the Chicago-New York Electric Air Line, an ambitious project to build a high-speed railroad that ended up as an interurban line in Gary, Indiana.

    To paraphrase Commander Edwin J. Quinby’s remarks about the ill-fated Chicago-NY Electric Air Line:

    And as time goes on, electric railroad enthusiasts will visit the right-of-way over which the original construction work was done—and some of the more imaginative individuals will hear the deep-throated whistle of a big palatial interurban as its spirit still streaks along this romantic pike, and they will catch a glimpse of the golden inscription SAN FRANCISCO on one end of the car as it flashes by, and LOS ANGELES on the other end—hurrying, hurrying—for 36 years have passed since it started on its swift way and it hasn’t reached either place.


  • Alex

    Does the maintenance plan interfere with the Brisbane bay lands plan?

  • crazyvag

    Well, Brisbane has been making plans as if they are oblivious to HSR existence. What will likely happen is this:
    1) Brisbane will sell and approve the land for say $1 million to a developer.
    2) HSR will approve its plan for same land.
    3) HSR will need to use eminent domain to purchase land.
    4) HSR will pay for $10 million for same land – worth more now after Brisbane’s approval.
    5) Developer pockets $9 million profit
    6) Tax payers are fleeced to tune of $9 million

  • crazyvag

    Here’s how a developer fleeced the Transbay project of $60 million buy purchasing land needed for tunnels. https://transbaydiaries.wordpress.com/2005/09/30/80-natoma-tower-issue-finally-settled/

  • toddinde

    The comparison to the New York Chicago Airline is kind of ridiculous. High speed trains are in operation all over the world. This is not some futuristic, pie in the sky, pipe dream like the hyperloop. This is exactly the way high speed rail has developed all over the world. It’s practical and sensible. It has to happen because the alternative is far more expensive and congestion is unsustainable. A single freeway interchange can easily cost over a billion dollars. New, major airports? Forget about it. Do you want to see NIMBYs? Try building a new, major airport. Some people seem to feel that highways and airports are free because they’re free to drive on. It’s disordered thinking.

  • p_chazz

    Practical and sensible? Really? CHSR is over-budget and behind schedule. California voters approved a $33 billion railroad that was to be completed by 2020. Now the price has ballooned to $77 billion and the completion date has been pushed out to 2033. I’m not convinced that it will ever be completed, which doesn’t mean there won’t be something to show for the money. At most, Caltrain will be electrified and extended to the Transbay Terminal and there will be some track improvements for the San Joaquin and Metrolink. But as for what was promised in 2008? Ain’t gonna happen.

  • Michael Escobar

    It’s infuriating that we can be told decisions taken “long ago” (can’t fully grade-separate a “high speed rail” line, have to build a long expensive tunnel to go through Pacheco) dictate our options now, leading to dramatically sub-optimal outcomes. the Pacheco tunnel may be the reason the entire HSR project is fatally compromised. and what happens when a motorist accidentally drives onto the railroad, or attempts to beat the train by going around a crossing gate arm, at a crossing in Mountain View or Belmont? it’s bad enough when this happens to a light rail agency or a commuter railroad; it’ll be worse when it’s high-speed.

  • toddinde

    There will be high speed rail from SF to LA by 2035. It will look like European high speed rail looks, with shared trackage in and out of cities. It will have significant stretches of 185 mph running and single seat service from the Bay to LA. Shared portions will be slower. It has to be that way. Again, you don’t have an answer to the even more expensive highway and aviation programs that would be needed if it’s not built. The real estate piece is another component that will be unleashed once the final plan comes together. Just repeating “ain’t gonna happen” is not an argument. It shows weakness.

  • Ziv Bnd

    I have to say that the “improvement” to the Eurostar route has a serious flaw in my book. Having the train from Paris to London arriving at Waterloo Station was a good way to let the Frogs remember their place in history. Moving to another station kind of defeats the purpose, does it not?


  • p_chazz

    There is a case to be made for rail. I voted for it, and I think HSR between SF and LA could be made to work. But I’m no fanboy. The CHSR has been mismanaged from the start. So what if it has “significant stretches of 185 mph running.” We were promised “a clean, efficient 220 MPH transportation system” in the 2008 ballot statement. Along with “[t]ravel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in about 2½ hours for about $50 a person.” Like that’s ever going to happen. But suckers that we were, we fell for it, hook line and sinker.

  • p_chazz

    Or the HSR will fail and the development plans will proceed. Either way, it’s a win-win for the developer.

  • crazyvag

    I think you have de-couple project management from the project itself. If we followed your logic, the new eastern Bay Bridge span would’ve been abandoned and we’d still have the old span because the replacement is too expensive.

    It makes sense to break up the project into useable pieces of independent utility, it’s just that even those pieces are very large.

  • crazyvag

    Well, current tracks will fit 6 trains. When train passes a green signal, signal cycles to red –> yellow –> flashing yellow –> green. With signals being about a mile apart, you could sneak a train about 4-5 mins behind that pokes along at same speed as one in front. Of course, you don’t want trains pacing that close regularly since they’ll sometimes catch up and stop until next train goes ahead.

    So yes, you could squeeze 6+4, but then all trains would poke along like rush hour traffic. You can do the following to speed them up:
    * Replace signals to be every 1/2 mile, so trains can follow closer when safe
    * Have separate rules for electric trains and freight. Distances are set on braking distance and freight needs more buffer
    * Raise speed limit to 110mph – EMUs support 110mph, track is mostly straight, so supports that speed, but need signals to be configured and tested
    * Add more 4-track segments that span 2-3 stations. Today, any train passed at Lawrence or Bayshore is stopped for an extra 5 mins. We don’t want to slow down our baby bullets.

  • theqin

    Should be quite something to stand at a station and get passed by a train going 110 mph several feet away. Even the current 70 mph is exhilarating.

  • toddinde

    I completely agree. The cost of building infrastructure in this country in general is absurd. You’re right, it isn’t going to be as promised, and that causes the project to lose credibility. I guess we agree. You’ll have something, but it won’t be what was promised. It will be like most things these days; better than nothing.

  • crazyvag

    European cities at least have “bookends” completed. It just so happens that Caltrain was doing its own upgrades, so HSR could just sprinkle money at the problem.

    LA really needs to get its act together. The tracks that HSR would use are down to single-track mere 15 miles away from downtown LA at Burbank.

    It just means that all upgrades will need to be BIG projects rather than small incremental ones that bring more immediate improvements.

  • Roger R.

    LOL!!!! Maybe they should put a statue of Lord Nelson or the Duke of Wellington in St. Pancras?

  • Roger R.

    Who’s talking about 185 in the Central Valley? The goal is still 220 mph. And I think it may end up being 250 mph, given the current status of the “state of the art” technology.

  • Ethan

    From the article according to James Tung: “In 2013 we came out with five different options for passing tracks, put
    together several time tables, and the general conclusion is even
    without passing tracks we can add six-plus-four service.” I doubt he means they’ll poke along like rush hour traffic.

    I also know Caltrain is considering different growth scenarios and needed levels of service. For medium and high growth Caltrain wants more than 6 tph. My question which are article doesn’t answer is whether the passing track HSR is considering is enough passing track in the right places to enable more than 6+4 tph?

  • Richard

    The NEC is like that in Maryland and NJ. People waiting for commuter trains can get passed by at 125mph, as there are no grade crossings. It’s a rush.

  • MJoffe

    Up to 10 trains per hour going through grade crossings in the densely populated peninsula at speeds of up to 110mph? This sounds both unsafe and very disruptive to affected communities. Why not grade separate everything first?

  • Ziv Bnd

    I have to admit that I don’t make the connection between St. Pancras and either Nelson or Wellesley/Wellington. I didn’t think my joke about French visitors arriving at Waterloo Station was that abstract, but you never know…

  • agvs

    Did you read the article? They explained why, and they gave examples of other high-speed rail lines around the world that have followed this exact same game plan, which eventually does lead to grade-separated service.

  • p_chazz

    What could possibly go wrong!

  • MJoffe

    I did read the article, but don’t find the example from Europe convincing. Note that the max speed in England was 90mph rather than 110mph as proposed for the peninsula. Also, how many fatalities occurred as a result of this service? France has about 30 deaths per years from grade crossing accidents as you can see here: https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=fr&tl=en&u=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.prevention-ferroviaire.fr%2Fpage%2Faccidentologie-aux-passages-niveau. And here are some stats from several European countries as of 2008: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/mar/10/level-cross-accident-statistics. Why not just prioritize replacement of grade level crossings rather than continuing with an existing plan that is trying – in vain – to conform to the flawed language of Measure 1A?

  • Edward

    One also has to put up with all the NIMBYs on the peninsula. The most practical way to grade separate in most places is to put the tracks on a berm of ten or twelve feet in height and then dip roadways a bit to get under. This allows pedestrian and bicycle paths to be flat and minimizes cost. But this is *most* unpopular. Lots of locals want it to be in a tunnel (no matter the practicality) and want someone else to pay for it.

    The proposed (temporary) solution is a way to get something done.

  • Edward

    The medium growth scenario will require the passing tracks, just not now. The high growth scenario will require four tracking most or all of the route. None of these need be done until a majority of the present day NIMBYs have gone to their reward. It is the politics of the possible.

  • crazyvag

    The trains have been there longer than people who live there, so it’s not more disruptive than it’s always been.

    At least electric trains are quieter, so less nosie.

  • crazyvag

    I’d defer to Caltrain to identify locations of passing tracks, as they are more in touch with the service. You can find much better information in the Caltrain Business Plan on slide 49:


    There are also more specific mentions around slide 37.

  • quisqas2378

    I definitely prefer Alternative B because I want to see the additional passing tracks for faster more efficient train service. It’s a bummer that the segment won’t be entirely grade separated and where HSR trains would have and could have had its own tracks which would have guaranteed genuine high speed rail for the San Francisco-San Jose Segment.

  • Roger R.
  • thielges

    Thanks. It is surprising that bus travel is 4X safer than train.

  • Ming

    I think they *are* planning to mostly separate everything first. At least in Santa Clara, the affected cities have been working on grade separation plans for years. They mostly haven’t built anything yet because they’ve been hoping that Caltrain electrification will fail or that billions of dollars will magically appear to build a tunnel.

  • MJoffe

    I agree that we should get something done, but I think that something should be a Caltrain upgrade including full grade separation. Then incorporate intercity service. Running ten trains an hour through places like Mountain View without grade separation seems like a recipe for trouble: https://www.mv-voice.com/news/2018/12/06/study-approved-to-fix-rengstorff-train-crossing

  • MJoffe

    The conclusion I reach from this is at we should invest in commuter rail to reduce relatively hazardous local car trips RATHER than invest in intercity rail which largely replaces plane travel – the safest mode of all.

  • artnouveau

    Presumably when train speeds max out at 110 mph, all crossings will have four-quadrant gates and raised medians or strategically-placed bollards extending to the crossing limit lines to prevent exactly what you are referring to.

    As for the Pacheco tunneling, maybe yes, maybe no. If the funds cannot be raised to extend the higher-speed rail portion beyond the San Joaquin Valley into the Bay Area via the Pacheco Pass, with the Altamont Corridor Express to extend to Merced, a physical connection could be had to enable an interchange between high-speed rail at Merced with ACE. A cross-platform transfer from ACE to higher-speed rail and vice versa could allow for a train ride between San Jose and Bakersfield – something that currently does not exist, at least not one that I’m aware of.

  • neroden

    We all knew cars were super dangerous, but WTF is wrong with ferries?!? That surprises me.

    The main issue with trains is the awful archaic state of the signalling on the old-school intercity Amtrak trains, but that is scheduled to be fixed by the end of 2020 by the “positive train control” mandate.

    The bus numbers don’t separate city buses (very safe) from intercity buses (which are actually quite unsafe, but there aren’t that many of them)

  • neroden

    “bus” is mixing city buses (very safe, mostly because they’re very slow) with intercity buses (less safe than trains, but there frankly aren’t that many of them so they don’t affect the average much)

  • neroden

    It does get irritating when decisions made long ago were wrong and they’re stuck with.

    The correct move was always to build a Second Transbay Tube for high-speed rail, then tunnel and bridge from SF to Sacramento, before turning south to the HSR line. But that is of course the most expensive route, and it was rejected for sticker shock reasons.

    Yet now we’re talking about a Second Transbay Tube anyway. Sigh.