High-Speed Rail's Plan B Is A-Okay

by Gabriel Metcalf, Executive Director
August 22, 2011
Image courtesy California High-Speed Rail Authority

More than ten years ago, we did our first major report on high-speed rail in California, advocating for an alignment that went through existing town centers rather than bypassing them for cheaper land. The point was to use rail as a tool for organizing the state’s growth, reinforcing center-oriented development instead of sprawl.

For the most part, the California High-Speed Rail Authority has done the right thing on this basic question of the train alignment. But as we move from idea to implementation, things get messier. It’s difficult and expensive to thread a major infrastructure project like this through existing, long-established communities.

So it is no surprise that here in the Bay Area we’ve run into a lot of trouble with how to get high-speed rail from San Jose to San Francisco. Residents along the Peninsula were understandably concerned about noise impacts and eminent domain being used to take property for the right of way. Last spring the High-Speed Rail Authority actually voted to stop work on this segment until the Bay Area could sort out what it wanted to do.

In April of this year, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian and State Assemblyman Rich Gordon put out a letter stating their terms for how to do high speed rail the “right way.” Essentially, their argument boils down to two points:
1. Keep the project within the existing right of way, fitting in as many tracks as possible.
2. Don’t put the tracks on an elevated structure unless that’s what the community prefers.

Recently, I met with Senator Simitian to talk about the project, and my sense was that these constraints were, for the most part, fine. In fact, given that they could help bring down the cost of the project, accepting these constraints potentially makes the project more likely to happen.

Caltrain has now confirmed my intuition with the preliminary results of its capacity analysis, which studied a "blended system" for Caltrain and high-speed rail along the Peninsula. The initial results show that we can accommodate six Caltrain trains and four high-speed rail trains each hour by using a combination of two tracks in some places and four tracks in others. (And if we can manage to design the system to have level boarding, the throughput capacity will be even greater.)

Plan A for Caltrain and high-speed rail was to have a fully grade separated four-track system. This is the ideal from a transit design point of view. But we are now in the realm of Plan B: a system that is less costly and more politically acceptable. When we leave the realm of dreaming on paper and actually have to fund and build transportation projects, we almost always have to make these kinds of compromises. SPUR’s view is that this solution is going to provide enormous benefits to the region and is the direction we should all focus on.

There may be communities that are willing to embrace more radical design changes. (See, for example, an alternative vision developed by architects and students in Palo Alto for undergrounding train tracks as a way to knit the community back together.) Other communities will want to keep the disruption to a minimum. Fortunately for all of us, high-speed rail is going to work just fine with a combination of many approaches.

Read SPUR’s original 1999 report on high-speed rail >>

Read SPUR’s latest high-speed rail report, “Beyond the Tracks” >>