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Caltrain and High Speed Rail announce plans to work together on level boarding, platform compatiblity
Last night, at a Friends of Caltrain forum in Mountain View City Hall, Caltrain and High Speed Rail said publicly that were working together to explore solutions for level boarding with common platform height. Level boarding will not only deliver faster, more accessible Caltrain service, but would allow Caltrain to run a smoother service pattern that can carry more riders with the same number of trains. A common platform height has the potential to help Caltrain and High Speed Rail get the most capacity from the “blended system”, where the two rail services will be sharing tracks – especially in the constrained space of the Transbay Terminal.
Ben Tripousis, Northern California Regional Director of High Speed Rail also said that to foster a compatible solution, the High Speed Rail Authority would consider including including compatibility expenses as part of the package of next phase investments. These expenses include changing platforms to a new platform height, and replacing the remaining Caltrain diesel trains (Caltrain’s current plan for electrification calls for replacing only 75% of the diesel trains). Tripousis mentioned that a High Speed Rail package for Northern California might also include funding for grade separations, which prevent traveling at faster speeds, and increase community acceptance of more frequent train service.
Dave Couch, who is leading project management for the Caltrain electrification project, said that Caltrain would refrain from sending out the request for proposals for rail car procurement in order to work with high speed rail on a compatibility solution.
In a panel discussion, Lou Thompson, chair of the High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, talked about the groups recommendation that High Speed Rail and Caltrain study compatibility options with a strong goal to achieve compatibility. Based on research of blended systems in the United States and elsewhere in the world, Thompson explained that there are multiple ways to solve the problem technically. While there will be no equipment that can be bought exactly “off the shelf”, and the solution might not be ideal for either, a workable solution is very likely feasible, which would deliver better service and reliability.
Brian Dykes of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority talked about how providing compatible platforms would allow more trains to serve Transbay, which could otherwise be a bottleneck for the capacity of the entire system. Gillian Gillett, Transportation Policy Director from the San Francisco Mayor’s office, talked about the city’s growth goals, which will focus new jobs and housing even more strongly around the Caltrain corridor; capacity to serve San Francisco, already Caltrain’s largest market, is essential.
Adina Levin of Friends of Caltrain (your blogger) presented background information about Caltrain’s capacity challenges and ridership growth. Ridership has doubled over the last decade – if longterm demographic and land use trends continue, Caltrain will need to serve more riders than predicted in the agency’s forecast, and it will be critical to get the most capacity from the tracks shared with High Speed Rail.
Notable in the presentations and panel discussion was the absence of explanations of why compatibility would be very difficult and/or not necessary. In the past, Caltrain and High Speed Rail have provided explanations regarding the difficulty of finding suitable equipment, the fact that Caltrain and High Speed Rail will share only a few stations, and that Transbay would not present a capacity constraint on the system.
In answer from an audience member question, Gillett talked about the city’s assertive response to the efforts of developers to renege on a deal to contribute funding for the Downtown Extension of the Caltrain tracks to Transbay. The developers are now threatening to sue the city. “The first buildings are being built, and they need an occupancy permit from the city. Other buildings haven’t started construction yet, and need building permits. They can sue, but we have their permits. It would be mutually assured destruction.”
Dave Couch also talked about the regulatory hurdle required for level boarding – the PUC would need to change an obsolete rule, and Union Pacific – a tough negotiator – would need to agree.
Caltrain and High Speed Rail did not make any commitments regarding compatible platforms, but they did talk publicly and optimistically about their efforts to work together on a shared solution.
Developers who are building big buildings near the Transbay transit center, who had promised to contribute funding to the infrastructure including the Downtown Extension of Caltrain to Transby, backed out of a compromise funding deal. The San Francisco Supervisors approved the original deal for the, and the developers are expected to sue.
Caltrain is about to make decisions about the design of electric rail cars that will affect the service for many decades to come. On Monday, September 29 at Mountain View City Hall, Friends of Caltrain is hosting a forum - click to RSVP and read on for more on the upcoming decisions.
The good news is that Caltrain is thinking seriously about migrating to level boarding. Level boarding is expected to provide 50% again as much speed improvement as electrification itself, above and beyond to improving accessibility for disabled and elderly people. It will take funding and community support to get the level boarding improvements done.
However, Caltrain and High Speed Rail are leaning toward platform incompatibility, which could impact capacity for the blended system for the long term. There are other important decisions that will affect service for riders for many years to come, including: standing room, space to allocate for bicycles, and bathrooms.
Rail car decisions impacts on Caltrain’s growth needs
How do the short-term decisions about car design and platform height affect Caltrain’s capacity and ability to keep up with expected growth in years to come?
Level boarding will make the system faster – up to 50% additional speed increase over basic electrification. It will also make the system more reliable, able to make closer connections to BART and other services – and also to have better timed transfers between express and local trains. Caltrain has a capacity crunch today -and riders are bunched up in the fastest trains. By making more trains fast, and better connections between express and local, Caltrain will get more riders for a given number of trains.
Compatible platforms with High Speed Rail would maximize capacity and schedule options. The “blended system” with High Speed Rail, where Caltrain and HSR share tracks, allows HSR to be built at lower cost, but imposes capacity constraints on the system. Enabling Caltrain and HSR to “mix-and-match” platforms can maximize capacity and schedule flexibility without baking the schedule literally into concrete.
Growing ridership and longterm capacity needs
Caltrain notes that the current proposal for non-compatible platforms does not reduce capacity compared to Caltrain’s current forecasts.
BUT Caltrain’s current forecasts are based on ridership growth slowing down, even as the region concentrates growth in major transit centers including downtown San Francisco and San Jose.
In the draft Environmental Impact Report for Electrification, Caltrain forecasts a total ridership of 69,000 in 2020 and 110,000 in 2040. Caltrain average weekday ridership was already 60,000 as of last month, and has more than doubled over the last decade.
So, Caltrain is assuming that ridership growth will decline to a compound annual growth rate of 2.5%. Caltrain is forecasting much slower growth than the cities depending on Caltrain, including San Francisco (which expects ridership to SF to triple by 2040), and San Jose (which expects ridership to nearly triple by 2040).
The service plan modeled in the Environmental Impact Report assumes that in the 2040 forecast year, only two of Caltrain’s 6 trains per direction per hour will start and end at Transbay, even though the area around Transbay has more jobs than the rest of the line combined, and will have massively greater transit connections than 4th and King.
Caltrain’s forecast represents a significant slowdown from growth trends over the last decade, and is at odds with the region’s land use plans to concentrate development around transit, and consumer transportation preferences to drive less. It would be prudent to prepare for growth with similar assumptions as the cities, and valuable to plan for a future in which the state achieves goals for vehicle trip and carbon emissions reductions.
Concerns about platform height compatibility
Currently, Caltrain and High Speed Rail are leaning against compatible platform height, since local trains more commonly have lower platforms (Caltrain is planning on 25″), and high-speed trains historically have had higher platforms (High Speed Rail was planning on 50″ – but could change now that they’re not planning to jointly buy trains with Amtrak).
In presentations to date, Caltrain has provided several explanations of why compatibility with High Speed Rail may be less important. Here’s why we’re still concerned.
Explanation: The system will deliver as much capacity as is forecast in Caltrain’s projections.
Explanation. The only stations that will be affected are stations where High Speed Rail will stop: Transbay, Millbrae, Diridon, only 3 out of 29 stations
Explanation. Transbay will not be a bottleneck because most Caltrain trains will not terminate at Transbay
Concern: Given ridership drivers, all Caltrain trains should logically start/end at Transbay except for a few ballpark specials. There are more jobs near Transbay than the rest of the Caltrain line combined.
On Monday September 29, Friends of Caltrain is hosting a forum with Caltrain, High Speed Rail, and experts who will share global examples of how to create level boarding and effective blended systems; discuss the pros and cons of various approaches, and how you can support getting the best system. We’ll also talk about bikes, standing room, bathrooms, and space on the train - click here to RSVP. Mountain View City Hall at 7pm.
VTA has updated the schedule for when they will start to share information about the “Phase 2″ of the BART-Silicon Valley project which will connect BART to Caltrain at Diridon. VTA expects to start the environmental review process in January, and are considering holding community meetings 1-2 months earlier (November/December).
So, if you are interested in seeing a tight connection between Caltrain and BART at Diridon, watch for opportunities this fall – we’ll keep you posted.
This afternoon at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a deal was announced between the city and the Transbay district developers to fully pay their obligation to the Downtown Extension and other infrastructure. But the bill will be paid more slowly, over 34 years instead of 30. The final agreement was deferred for two weeks to complete the legal changes, with the understanding that the Supervisors will approve the original deal if there is a breakdown.
Transit and active transportation advocates around the city and the region including San Francisco Transit Riders Union , Friends of Caltrain and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition spoke up strongly in favor of the developers keeping their side of the bargain to pay to support the infrastructure that will make their properties much more valuable.
Scott Boule of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority commented that delay in the infrastructure financing district would put the federal loans at risk that the Downtown Extension project depends on. Though the developers had threatened a lawsuit, Supervisors Scott Wiener and Jane Kim strongly proposed moving ahead, before the closed session in which the deal was struck. Said Wiener, ““It’s not optional to build these buildings and leave it to later to find funding for the trains. The two go together.”