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High Speed Rail Discussion Continues

City Councilman Michael Brownrigg dissects the great HSR debate.

Not since 1869 when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined on Utah's Promontory Summit has a train project elicited such interest in California. However, the proposed $43 billion High Speed Rail (HSR) is doing it again.  The crescendo here on the Peninsula is building, as a critical Environmental Study, which must be completed by year's end, will determine the California High Speed Rail Authority's (CHSRA) preferred means of construction along the CalTrain corridor through Burlingame and the rest of the Peninsula.  (CHSRA long ago discarded the ideas of building HSR on Highway 101, 280 or the bayside, and San Franciscans are determined to see it run up the Peninsula so they can get to SFO, San Jose and Los Angeles directly without changing trains somewhere.)

The problem is, when the Peninsula train lines were built more than 100 years ago, our cities were mostly green fields.  Now schools, homes, businesses and parks crowd CalTrain corridors.  As Palo Alto Mayor Burt has put it, getting HSR to run on new additional tracks in the CalTrain corridor is like trying to squeeze a size 12 foot into a size 8 shoe.

Moreover, HSR cannot just sit next to CalTrain at grade.  The new tracks must be grade separated, which means running on a different level as automobiles.  CalTrain can get away with it because their trains run slower and less often, but if CalTrain is sped up, or if HSR trains are added, then it is not practical, safe or even legal to have trains and autos on the same grade.

Grade separation is something we in Burlingame have to confront with or without HSR.  CalTrain wants to electrify itself to run more efficiently and more frequently.  What HSR has done is to accelerate this debate locally and, it must be said, also made the solution more complex, because now we have to accommodate 4 grade-separated tracks rather than just two.

The cheapest way to grade separate the line between San Francisco and San Jose is above grade. That means raising the railroad tracks either on a berm, wall or elevated pylons, just like a freeway.  The combined HSR/CalTrain tracks need at least 80 feet of width and must be strong enough to withstand earthquakes while carrying four trains at once, including freight trains.  The width is equal to a six-lane freeway, similar to the new Peninsula Overpass. The scale of construction can only be surmised, but will not be svelte, that's for sure.  Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the Environmental Study still being prepared, CHSRA tipped its hand in its recent application to the Feds for more stimulus money by making it clear they prefer a cheaper raised structure (so they can build more).

Around the world, cities are deconstructing raised freeways, yet here the CHSRA wants to build a new one.  Burlingame has tried to tell anyone who will listen that a raised six-lane freeway or 30-foot wall running through town is not acceptable. We would be prepared to have it run in a covered trench or tunnel.  We are not NIMBYs but rather UMBYs – Under My BackYard.  For those who are wondering, the CHSRA's cost estimates for aerial along the Peninsula is a bit over $5 billion, and to trench the tracks in the cities that want them would add another $1 billion, according to the Bay Area News Group's analysis

For a 20 to 30 percent increase in segment price, we can have HSR on the Peninsula and not wreck our communities too.  Now that would merit a new golden spike.

Terry Nagel September 19, 2010 at 04:20 AM
An excellent summary of the issues surrounding high speed rail! We face a Sophie's Choice: High speed rail could bring benefits like grade separations, more transit choices and (if built underground) open space. It could be a lifesaver for Caltrain, which is nearly broke. But an aerial structure would be a giant step backward, dividing our city. That's why the entire Burlingame City Council is on record as supporting an underground solution for high speed rail.
PW Haggarty January 08, 2011 at 06:04 AM
If the HSR has to go down the SF Peninsula, then it should be in open trenches, which would be the most economical way to build the trackage. Open trenches would allow traffic to cross over the trench on short flat bridges. And using a trench design would allow Caltrain to have an above ground parallel track system that would not be too wide. What would be wiser is to change the route from the SF Peninsula to the East Bay Hills as a route to leave the Bay Area. There is much more open space in the East Bay. Passengers could still get to San Francisco using BART or a speeded up Caltrain route or by building the proposed Southern Crossing from the East Bay to the Peninsula north or south of the Airport. Why should San Francisco be the only option for a terminal point for HSR? PW Haggarty/Oakland

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