Caltrain announces environmental review schedule, reveals impact of blended system with High Speed Rail

On Wednesday and Thursday before Christmas, at the Caltrain Citizens’ Advisory Committee and  Local Policy Maker Group , Caltrain took feedback on the new agreement it is crafting with High Speed Rail; published the schedule for the Environmental Impact Report for Caltrain electrification; and disclosed preliminary findings of the traffic study regarding the traffic impact of the blended system with High Speed Rail tracks.

Environmental Schedule released – get ready to weigh in

Caltrain released the schedule for the Environmental Review of electrification. This is the chance for the public to review and provide feedback on Caltrain’s plans for electrification, and the environmental impacts of the changes to come.   The study will look at environmental impacts (positive and negative) including noise, traffic, visual esthetics, land use compatibility, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.

First indications are that community feedback is going to be needed. 2013 is going to be a important year for decisions that will shape train service on the corridor for decades to come.

Based on earlier community feedback, Caltrain is going to begin at the beginning, at the “scoping” phase, to solicit public feedback on what they should study, rather than relying on the scoping work done for the 2009 environmental impact report.

The upcoming Public Scoping phase will take place in January and February, 2013. The draft Environmental  Impact Report is scheduled to be published in Fall/Winter 2013, the final document incorporating comments is planned for Spring/Summer 2014, and project approval is planned for Summer/Fall 2014.  This schedule is 6-9 months later than the rough estimates that Caltrain shared when the funding for electrification was approved this past summer.

Caltrain’s first pass at the scope of the EIR appears to need some improvement

How well will DTX be covered? This EIR will look in detail at the impacts of getting Caltrain electrified to 4th and King, and will look in less detail about the long term, cumulative impact of the blended system, including up to 2 and 4 High Speed trains.

But – if I heard the presentations at the meetings correctly – Caltrain will offer the least detail about the impact of the Downtown Extension to Transbay terminal.  Getting to downtown, with 3 times the number of jobs within a ¾ mile radius, could nearly double ridership.  And depending on how the High Speed Rail project proceeds, it is possible that DTX will be done and Caltrain trains will take riders to Transbay before the first High Speed Rail trains get to San Jose.   That scenario should be covered, so the region can start to plan for that possibility.

What about level boarding? In his first public meeting on behalf of Caltrain at the Local Policy Maker Group, the new consultant from ICF hired for the Environmental Review process said that level boarding wouldn’t be considered in the Environmental Review plan.  Level boarding can save 30-60 seconds or more at each station stop, and would result in notable improvements in reliability, speed, and ridership.  Caltrain needs to get the train car design and purchase right the first time!  Level boarding needs to be considered.

Where will trains be stored? One of the items listed as “To Be Determined” in Caltrain’s presentation is the location to store high speed trains, proposed earlier by the High Speed Rail authority for a location in Brisbane opposed by the city.    If storage for high speed trains is being studied, will it also make sense to study the location to store Caltrain trains? Currently, Caltrain trains are stored in San Francisco in a railyard at the 4th and King station.  Located between thriving SOMA and rapidly-filling Mission Bay, this is a valuable piece of real estate the City of San Francisco sees part of a large-scale vision to reconnect city neighborhoods and transportation, and develop underused land. It would make sense to study options for Caltrain storage along with HSR train storage.

What is the role of longer trains?  In simulations so far, Caltrain has taken community suggestions to look at the potential of trains with more cars.  But the simulations look at the use of longer trains instead of more frequent service.  Given the capacity limits of the blended system, calling for up to 6 Caltrain trains per hour, would it make sense to provide longer trains in addition to more frequent service – especially on crowded baby bullet trains at the higher volume stations?

At the Wednesday CAC meeting, operations executives Chuck Harvey and Michelle Bouchard talked briefly about plans to investigate more ways to increase capacity prior to electrification, and suggested that longer trains was one of the options they would investigate.  Whether or not longer trains are used in the near term,  electric trains will be easier to mix and match than the diesels.

Electrification doesn’t break crosstown connectivity – but passing tracks likely will

Caltrain also revealed the first public information about the traffic impact of the blended system. (A link to the slides will be included when Caltrain posts them). Caltrain hasn’t yet published a lot of detail on the traffic study. But at first glance, it appears that Caltrain electrification is good for many communities.

Out of the 40 remaining at-grade crossings out of 104 on the corridor, electrification is expected to reduce gate downtime at 28 of the crossings – up to 6 minutes per hour at some intersections.  Gate downtime is predicted to increase at 12 crossings by up to 90 seconds per hour in the morning peak.   Gate downtime is reduced in many crossings even though the number of trains at peak is expected to increase from 5 to 6, because the automated signal system will remove the “double gate down” pattern, where gates go down before a train enters the station, go up when the train stops, and go back down when the train leaves.  With the new train control system, the gates won’t go down if the train isn’t going through.

Which intersections will get worse? We don’t know yet. Caltrain will disclose this information at upcoming public meetings including Friends of Caltrain.  That information will be critical to local and regional planning for grade separations.

But the blended system with High Speed Rail is likely to break the cross-town traffic patterns in many communities, unless there are more grade separations. When 2 high speed trains are added to the mix, 10 of the 40 at-grade intersections will see reduced gate downtime, and 30 of the intersections will see increased downtime, up to 4.5 minutes per hour at morning peak.

The scenario for 4 High Speed Trains per hour looks even worse (although Caltrain’s presentation has a logical flaw).  5 intersections are still predicted to see better performance, while 35 intersections will see worse performance.   But 4 trains per hour are expected to require passing tracks, and passing tracks are expected to require grade separations.  So there’s no way that 35 at-grade crossings will negatively impacted, since some of them will be already separated with the passing tracks.

The lesson is clear. When and if High Speed Rail arrives, Caltrain, the High Speed Rail Authority, and all of the communities on the corridor will need to work together to find the funding to build enough grade separations so the train service doesn’t break the crosstown road connections.

High Speed Rail Memorandum of Understanding – Caltrain should be the lead agency

Caltrain board member Jerry Deal, who is on the Local Policy Maker group as Burlingame Council member, said that constituents have been coming up to him on the street urging him to have Caltrain be the lead agency.  Policy Makers on the corridor want Caltrain to be the lead agency for for additional development on the corridor between San Jose and San Francisco, most notably passing tracks and their associated grade separations.

Now we know that passing tracks are likely to break crosstown connectivity in many communities, it is even more important for the agency doing environmental clearance to have a strong relationship with the community.  Caltrain’s modernization team has this. The High Speed Rail Authority doesn’t yet.  If the relationship improves in the coming decade, the decision can be revisited.

Caltrain changed the schedule for the Memorandum of Understanding with High Speed Rail to give the Local Policy Maker group a chance to review a draft at its upcoming meeting in late January. The Caltrain board will review the MOU for approval until the board meeting in February.

There are many important decisions coming up – 2013 will be an important year for the future of transit on the Caltrain corridor.  Stay tuned for more updates and more chances to participate.