This is looking more and more like rock soup

By Tom Rubin

I’m sure everyone knows the fable about the hungry beggar who begins making rock soup, boiling a pot of water with nothing in it but rocks. When someone asks him what he is doing, she says he is making “rock soup” – and uses a spoon to sample the taste. “Yes, it is coming along nicely – but could use a bit of flavor – like some peas.” So, she brings him some peas, he adds them, and tastes again. “Very nice – but some beans would add quite a bit” – and another on-looker helps out. After several such events, he has a very tasty soup.

Rock soup.

What the transportation powers-that-be are doing is proposing a very complex system of running both high-speed rail and commuter rail on the same set of two rail tracks with a large number of grade crossings, many stations, and not a lot in the way of storage, passing, and cross-over tracks. One of the major problems will be that HSR is proposed to operate with only one stop between San Francisco and San Jose Diridon Station and no stops between Diridon and Gilroy. In order for HSR to be HSR, it must severely minimize the number of stations. But, in order for commuter rail (aka regional rail) like Caltrain to be successful, it must make multiple stops – in fact, between Gilroy and San Francisco, where HSR will have only two stations, Caltrain has 27 stations (not counting three that are only used on weekends and for football games).

When trains are using the same pair of tracks going in the same direction, for a faster train to pass a slower one is not simple and requires careful planning and properly designed track. The original proposal was for four tracks, two for HSR and two for Caltrain and other non-HSR use. There were to be great efforts – and expense – to minimize the number of at-grade crossings. (The Final Caltrain/HSR Blended Grade Crossing and Traffic Analysis identifies 40 at-grade crossings between SF and Sunnyvale Avenue.)

But, the residents along the rail corridor, mainly on the Peninsula, rose up in protest and the plan for four-track operation has been killed, at least for the time being. The improvement of the at-grade crossings is preceding, but these are very costly, can be very difficult to do for many reasons, and will, best case, take many years – and it may not be possible to convert all of them. San Mateo County is currently studying/implementing improvements of the 35 in its territory.

According to the Traffic Analysis, there are six storage/passing tracks in each direction, including two in each direction to be added, between SF and SJ.

The report discusses the modeling of “6/0,” “6/2,” and “6/4” operations – as in six Caltrain and zero, two, or four HSR trains per hour – and, without getting into great detail, operating even ten trains an hour will require a lot of work and will – based on very preliminary analysis subject to much change – for the 6/4 scenario, result in three to five crossings experiencing declines in gate down time (rubber tire traffic delays going down) and the rest will experience more gate down time.

The Traffic Analysis does not go beyond the ten train operating scenario, but, as simple logic would tend to indicate, furthered by the trend that in the Analysis that ten trains create more issues than eight and eight more than six, it is not difficult to include that, without major reductions in the number of grade crossings – AND THESE MUST BE THE “RIGHT” GRADE CROSSINGS – sixteen trains would likely create significantly more rubber tire delays than ten.

Even if all the grade crossings were to be eliminated, it would still be quite challenging to be able to operate sixteen trains per hour without significantly slowing HSR – very possibly to the point where it becomes impossible for HSR to been the Constitutional requirement for two hour and forty minute operation between SF and LA – that is, assuming that this would be possible even if HSR was the only use of this track.

The projection of Caltrain ridership increase – from the current 60,000 daily riders to 161-207,000 – is also questionable, as is the projection for the 40% increase in population within two miles of Caltrain stations by 2040 (and how many of these would have the slightest interest in using Caltrain is another important question).

So, for this to make sense, there has to be a massive increase in population, with a high percentage of the population increase interested in using Caltrain and having a way to use it (as in, how are they going to get to and from the Caltrain stations at both ends of their trips), plus the capacity for access, parking, and station platform capacity at the stations along the line, plus sufficient capacity for passing movements to allow the express HSR, and the limited-stop Caltrain Baby Bullet trains, to pass the every-stop Caltrain trains, and for the HSR trains to pass the Baby Bullet trains, and then for more capacity at the proposed Salesforce Tower terminal, and the money to pay for all this, and to subsidize the HSR service once it begins operation (which is prohibited by the State Constitution), and for the HSR service to be able to meet the 2:40 time requirement, and for the general populace to not object to any and all of this sufficiently to make this politically impossible.

All in all, rock soup.

… except that this recipe does not appear to be very mouth-watering.

Tom Rubin

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