High Speed Rail to Bay Area first – how will this affect the Caltrain corridor?

The High Speed Rail Authority announced last week at its board meeting and in its business plan that it is switching the first segment of the route from Southern California to the Bay Area. These are big changes – how will the new plan affect the Peninsula corridor and Caltrain service?

As was earlier floated in the press, the reasons for the shift included challenges traversing mountain ranges, and political opposition in Southern California. Meanwhile, in Bay Area, following agreement on a blended system whereby Caltrain and High Speed Rail will share tracks and High Speed Rail will contribute to electrification, things seem to be progressing more smoothly.

High Speed Rail service by 2025 – faster than driving, cheaper than flying

According to the business plan, by 2025, residents in the Bay Area would see service to Los Angeles that is faster than driving or transit today. The 2025 scenario calls for a five hour train+bus trip, compared to a 7 hour drive, or a 7.5 hour Megabus today. The ticket price assumption in the business plan is $89, compared to $100 or much more for a plane ride, which takes 3+ hours including airport security and getting to SFO.

Two Bay Area options for 2025 – SF-Bakersfield or San Jose to almost-Bakersfield

With current funding, the High Speed Rail Authority projects being able to connect from San Jose to about 20 miles short of Bakersfield. An additional $2.9 billion that the High Speed Rail Authority will seek from the Federal government would allow service from San Francisco 4th and King into Bakersfield.

The business plan seems to be designed as a prospectus to raise the federal funding for the more attractive San Francisco to Bakersfield scenario, which is estimated to bring in $786 million in net cash flow by 2029, compared to only $251 million in net cash flow for the scenario from San Jose to “north-of-Bakersfield”, a location so obscure that there isn’t a name for the station.

valley to valley

Economizing on the Peninsula Corridor

The capital plan calls for the High Speed Rail Authority to keep its commitment to contribute $600Million toward Caltrain electrification. The proposal also cuts some costs to save money, eliminating of dedicated tracks at Millbrae, and downsizing the approach to Diridon station from aerial to at-grade. The section between Tamien and Gilroy is proposed to travel along a berm, saving $$$.

The capital plan includes some initial investments on the Caltrain corridor, including curve straightening to allow for higher speeds, upgrade of existing tracks and fencing, and 4-quadrant gates at 40 grade crossings for greater safety.  The business plan assumes contribution of $90 million for three grade separations in San Mateo within the Hayward Park to Hillsdale, and a two mile passing track segment there. The capital plan also Includes $50M per station for high platform upgrades to Diridon and Millbrae, and $100M for an interim terminal station at 4th & King

However, the capital plan leaves out or defers a number of key investments on the Peninsula

  • no funding for Caltrain capacity increases (longer platforms and longer trains), which will be needed to keep up with ridership growth in the early 2020s, and which HSR representatives had offered without commitments as compensation for supporting compatible platforms.
  • reduced funding for the Downtown Extension to Transbay. The business plan appendix notes that the allowance toward DTX had been reduced by $1.5 billion, though there is a $550M allowance “for work done by others for Transbay connection”
  • up to $500Million for grade separations on the Peninsula “that may be required as environmental mitigation” – but not until after 2030
  • no funding for a mid-Peninsula station yet, even if a city wants a station

Impacts on Caltrain schedule and cross-town travel?

The timing of passing tracks and grade separations will be critically important for the performance of Caltrain service and crosstown travel.

Earlier studies had shown that the Peninsula corridor could support a blended system with six Caltrain trains per hour and two high speed trains without passing tracks. The passing tracks are important – and it’s not clear when the passing tracks are expected to be implemented or how well San Mateo passing tracks will perform.

If High Speed Rail services is added before passing tracks, or if the passing schedule does not work well, this could severely degrade Caltrain service. Caltrain trains might need to bunch up in smaller segments of time, creating some longer gaps between trains, a confusing schedule for riders, and reducing the potential benefits of electrification to provide a clock-face, regular, more frequent BART-like schedule.

Without passing tracks, the blended system analysis conducted in 2012 by Caltrain and High Speed Rail shows trains arriving in Palo Alto from San Francisco at the following times. There’s a 20 minute gap between the 7:30 and 7:52 train, and the other trains are a few minutes apart. This schedule is much less useful than a service that arrives and departs every 10 minutes.

7:21
7:24
7:30
7:52
7:57
8:01

The inclusion of up to $500Million for grade separations will help, but will likely not be enough, even with local and regional funding, to address performance at some of the more highly-used intersections which degrade significantly with more frequent service. Bunching would make the situation worse, with gates down nearly continuously for 20 minutes at a time (see green and red horizontal lines).

grade crossing window

Commuting from the Central Valley to Silicon Valley?

One of the selling points in the business plan for the switch to a Northern segment is to provide new commute routes, putting Fresno only an hour’s commute from San Jose, and enabling Central Valley towns to serve as bedroom communities for Silicon Valley with more moderately priced housing.  According to economist Steve Levy as quoted on page 46 of the business plan, ”The Bay Area economy is threatened by a shortage of housing and high housing costs that make it difficult for many workers and their families to live in the region where they work… High speed transportation connections between the Bay Area and adjacent areas including Central Valley communities can provide affordable housing and fast car free commuting while at the same time providing support for vibrant downtown areas in these communities.”

However, the pricing structure assumed in the revenue model isn’t designed for commuting, with an $83 fare from Fresno to San Jose.

The Business Plan notes that the the High Speed Rail Authority will bring in a private operating partner, which will take the lead on pricing and marketing. This will be an important set of business questions, regarding how much capacity to provide for medium-distance commute service vs. longer distance travel.

Interestingly, this version of the business model does not assume very much HSRA revenue from super-express Bay Area commute trips between San Francisco and San Jose (less than $10 million, according to table 6.3 here). These are important assumptions to watch, for those interested in commute capacity, and in the business stability of Caltrain service.

Funding plan and legal requirements

One of the key requirements of the ballot measure that provides funding for the High Speed Rail project is that the system not require a taxpayer subsidy. The minimal Silicon Valley to Central valley segment, from San Jose to north-of-Bakersfield, would just barely meet that condition. The business plan forecasts that the line would make a profit by year 3, and a contract with a private operator could be designed so that taxpayers didn’t actually pay a subsidy in the first two years.

In addition to Prop1A bond funding, the business plan proposes using financing (bonds, loans, or other mechanisms) based on an ongoing stream of Cap and Trade funding. The legislature has approved 25% of Cap and Trade funding to go to the High Speed Rail project through 2020. This funding would need to be extended for at least another decade for HSRA to be able to bond or otherwise finance against it.

Once a private operating is making a profit, the HSRA predicts that it will gain access to private capital to fund additional construction to support things like higher capacity on the Caltrain corridor, the Downtown Extension, and continuing service to Los Angeles.

Litigation

Currently, the Prop 1A bond funds are tied up in court. The lawsuit contends that the High Speed Rail project does not meet the requirements of Prop 1A for several reasons:

  • It will not be able to make the financial condition of operating without a subsidy.
  • It will not be able to make the required travel time of 2:40 between San Francisco and Los Angeles
  • It does not yet connect to Transbay Terminal in San Francisco

The Prop1A case was heard on February 11 in Sacramento Superior Court, and a ruling is expected by May. While your blogger is not a lawyer and does not have legal expertise, historically courts tend to give deference to the agency leading a megaproject, with leeway to meet the goals of a longterm project over time, and to modify implementation details if the overall intent of the project is being fulfilled. We’ll see within a few months. Whichever side loses is likely to appeal, so the legal saga will continue til the final appeal. http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/article59950461.html
http://www.sfexaminer.com/timing-cost-of-high-speed-rail-project-face-legal-scrutiny/

HSRA is circulating the business plan for comment, and it will be presented to the legislature on May 1.

Local funding and backup funding

Given this business plan, it is not wise for communities on the corridor from San Francisco through San Jose to depend on the High Speed Rail project to cover needed improvements such as grade separations, Caltrain capacity improvements, and the downtown extension to Transbay. If everything goes smoothly with the High Speed Rail project, it would be in financial shape to start contributing to next-phase improvements closer to 2030. We need regional funding to move forward on Caltrain capacity improvements, grade separations, and DTX sooner than that. And it is prudent for Caltrain to be looking to potential backup plans in case there are challenges with High Speed Rail’s financial support for electrification.

Summary 

The 2016 High Speed Rail business plan makes the case that a northern segment could provide service as soon as 2025, but the depends on federal funding for an attractive scenario. In order High Speed Rail’s plans to move forward, they will need approval by the legislature including extension of cap and trade, and dedicated funding for HSR. The business plan may also affect the outcome of litigation, whether a judge finds the authority’s case credible enough to tap Prop 1A bonds.

For people on Peninsula corridor, we could see better transit service between Silicon Valley, the Central Valley, and Southern California. But important elements for the Peninsula corridor remain unfunded: grade separations, DTX, passing tracks, Caltrain capacity improvements.

Before these investments in grade separations and passing tracks, there is a risk of degrading Caltrain service and cross-town connections. We’ll need to watch the planning process very carefully to demand that the blended system makes local service for the Caltrain corridor better and not worse.