Transbay board members urge Caltrain/HSR compatibility

At this morning’s Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board meeting, board members spoke up strongly in support of compatible platforms for Caltrain and High Speed Rail, in order to provide the best capacity and reliability for the blended system. Board Member Ed Reiskin, Director of Transportation for SFMTA, underscored the importance of the decision. “We’re making an investment for the next five to six generations – we will limit utility of Transbay without compatibility.” Board Chair Supervisor Jane Kim agreed: “We have constrained space at Transbay – we need the capacity – we have to come up with a compatibility solution for cost-benefit for entire system.”

Chair Kim, asked Caltrain and High Speed Rail to come back at the next monthly board meeting in November, to give a progress report on their efforts to find a solution, to study the capital and operating benefits and costs of compatibility, and asked Transbay staff to prepare a resolution with a policy in support of compatibility. Supervisor Kim will also put the topic on the agenda of the Land Use Committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Board members expressed concern whether a system with incompatible platforms would allow Caltrain to send all of its regularly planned service into Transbay (where there are 3x the jobs compared to the rest of the system combined) instead of turning some trains around at 4th and King short of downtown. Caltrain’s electrification project lead Dave Couch acknowledged Caltrain has not yet studied whether they will be able to send all regular service to Transbay.

In presentations to the Transbay board, both Caltrain and High Speed Rail declared an interest in platform compatibility, but also explained the reasons why each preferred a different solution. Caltrain prefers platforms at 25″, since there are more sources of double-decker trains for high-capacity local systems. High Speed Rail prefers platforms at 51″, since higher platforms are more common for high speed long distance trains. Dave Couch Caltrain explained that it would be difficult to migrate all the way to 51″, since it is planning to run current, low-platform diesel trains for the forseeable future, due to lack of funding to upgrade all its trains. Ben Tripousis of the HSRA noted that Cap and Trade funds could provide support to replace all the diesels sooner, making migration easier.

Ben Tripousis of the High Speed Rail Authority clarified that the Request for Information issued by the High Speed Rail Authority, soliciting information about 51″ trains, did not yet start the formal procurement process. Caltrain and High Speed Rail are both seeking to issue solicitations for trains by the end of the year; Transbay board members prodded both Caltrain and High Speed Rail to verify that there was some flexibility in the schedule to work out compatibility solutions.

Lee Saage of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority – which funds San Francisco transit projects said that from the SFCTA’s perspective, compatibility should be an imperative – incompatibility would forever limit capacity and impose unnecessary costs. Compatibility analysis should consider whole system instead of favoring one operator or another.

In response to the assertions of Caltrain and High Speed Rail that compatibility is less important because the services will interact at only three stations (Transbay, Millbrae, and San Jose Diridon), Saage pointed out that the three stations where platforms are shared will likely represent a third of the ridership or more. Saage also raised an issue that has been raised by the Caltrain-High Speed Rail Compatibility blog and other local critics – that lack of platform compatibility results in extra costs for the stations at Millbrae and Diridon. Said Saage, “absent compatibility, High Speed Rail would need to build a new underground station at Millbrae, and a completely separate station at Diridon.”

Caltrain’s Marian Lee, who serves on the Transbay board, put the current challenge into perspective. Earlier in the evolution of the High Speed Rail project, it had proposed a system with separate tracks and platforms, which was costly and was rejected politically by corridor communities. The blended system, where Caltrain and High Speed Rail will share tracks, is a compromise that constrains system capacity. Lee explained that solutions will require compromise. “Everything is on the table. There will be tradeoffs, with upsides and downsides. If everyone would win on every aspect, we would have a solution by now. We’re hopeful for a good outcome that will last for 40, 80, 100 years.”