A “blended” rail system in which Caltrain shares the same tracks as high-speed trains up and down the Peninsula could lead to large savings for the statewide project, according to Caltrain.
An preliminary analysis conducted by LTK Engineering Services for Caltrain suggests that modernizing and sharing the corridor’s existing tracks in most areas would “minimize community impacts and considerably reduce the project’s cost by remaining substantially within the existing Caltrain right-of-way,” according to a statement released Wednesday by Seamus Murphy, government affairs manager for Caltrain.
“We’re encouraged”, said Caltrain Executive Director Mike Scanlon. “More analysis is needed, but this operational concept could help deliver a state-of-the-art rail system in a way that is cost effective and minimizes community impacts.”
The conclusion supports a vision being promoted by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto), Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) and state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who said he was “pleased” with the findings.
“My colleagues and I have been making the case that high-speed rail ‘done right’ means a ‘blended system’ along the San Jose to San Francisco corridor—a system that integrates high-speed rail with a 21st century Caltrain,” Simitian said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
LTK’s analysis used a computer model that simulated rail operations and found that electrification of the corridor and installing an advanced train signaling system “could provide sufficient track capacity to feasibly operate six electric Caltrain trains and two high-speed trains per hour,” according to Caltrain.
This scenario could also include adding seven or eight miles of track near the middle of the corridor that would allow trains to pass each other, boosting capacity to accommodate another two high-speed trains per hour, according to Caltrain.
All the proposed designs to date have called for grade-separated, four-track options running the length of the Peninsula.
Palo Alto Councilman Pat Burt said the findings may appear positive but lack the details necessary to be considered conclusive or comprehensive.
“There are a number of very important factors and variables that they did not get studied,” said Burt.
For one, Burt said, LTK looked at only a limited number of grade crossings and their impact.
“They took a preliminary review of what they call the '10 top grade crossings,’ but they did not share what was the basis for determining whether a crossing was in the top 10,” he said.
Furthermore, said Burt, the study’s findings assume that Caltrain’s service would be reduced to 13 stops, a proposal that would seemingly contradict the Caltrain board’s stated goal of improving, not reducing, service.
“It was a surprise to some of us, because what they studied was inconsistent with the board policy,” he said.
Caltrain did acknowledge in Wednesday’s statement that, despite the findings, other considerations remain unresolved, including “a precise definition of the project’s infrastructure needs, including the location and design of the potential four-track section and a better understanding of the project’s total cost.”
The rail agency also noted that the approach would still need to be adopted by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, which is looking at the analysis.
Sen. Simitian, eager to move the high-speed rail yard stick forward, called the announcement “heartening news.”
“I hope the High-Speed Rail Authority takes it to heart,” he said, adding that he hopes for a response to the Eshoo/Simitian/Gordon proposal “sometime this fall.”
Simitian cautioned, however, that even if a response this fall is favorable, “That’s just the beginning of a new, more productive conversation. The High Speed Rail Authority still has a very tough row to hoe.”
Caltrain said it now will turn its attention toward communicating with the public by soliciting feedback on the results of the study.
“It’s important to share the preliminary findings with the public now,” said Marian Lee, Caltrain Modernization Program acting director. “Early dialogue is essential to obtaining meaningful input that will help inform project development. This is just the beginning of a process we hope will lead to a positive outcome for both Caltrain and high-speed rail.”
San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier also welcomed the results. “If we’re going to realize all of the benefits of modernizing the Caltrain corridor, we’re going to need to explore creative solutions,”said Tissier, who also chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and serves on the Caltrain Board of Directors. “These findings are extremely encouraging, because they demonstrate that there is a path forward and an approach that could finally help build some regional consensus.”