Published Wednesday, February 10, 2010, by the Peninsula Daily News
Bullet train may take high road
Officials consider running train above and below Caltrain, splitting track at some points on Peninsula
By Will Oremus
Daily News Staff Writer
Bullet trains could take the high road and Caltrain the low road -- or vice versa -- in order to squeeze both sets of tracks through narrow portions of the Peninsula rail corridor, officials said Tuesday.
So far, much of the debate about high-speed rail between San Jose and San Francisco has focused on whether Caltrain and the bullet trains would run underground or on an elevated platform.
But at a meeting of Palo Alto's high-speed rail subcommittee Tuesday, California High-Speed Rail Authority project manager Dominic Spaethling said the answer in some places could be "both."
Running four tracks side-by-side, with high-speed trains flanked by Caltrain, requires a corridor about 100 feet wide, Spaethling said. But in parts of Palo Alto, including the Churchill Avenue area, Caltrain's right-of-way is as narrow as 75 feet or less.
For that and other reasons, the authority is eyeing "split" alignments at several points in Palo Alto, San Mateo and other cities, with high-speed trains running either in a tunnel below or a viaduct above the existing Caltrain line, Spaethling said.
The details came as part of the rail authority's "sneak preview" of an upcoming report on the feasibility of different alignments for the Peninsula portion of the planned $42 billion San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line. The full alternatives analysis will be released March 4, and the public will have 45 days to comment on it before the authority begins preparing its environmental certification. The San Jose-to-San Francisco portion must win environmental approval by fall 2011 to be eligible for a slice of the $2.25 billion in federal stimulus funding for the project.
Elevated, street-level and underground tracks are all still in play in various parts of Palo Alto, officials said Tuesday. The alternatives analysis narrowed down the options in some places, but left several different possibilities for the authority to study further in its environmental report. Few details emerged Tuesday as to potential alignments in other Peninsula cities.
Officials did show the remaining options for the northern half of Palo Alto. One has Caltrain and high-speed rail sharing the current above-ground alignment through downtown, then splitting before Churchill Avenue, with the bullet trains running overhead and Caltrain continuing at street level. Another has Caltrain following its current path while the high-speed trains run underground, whether in a tunnel or trench.
By law, high-speed trains can't intersect with roads, meaning they'll have to go either up or down before they reach Churchill Avenue. Spaethling said that's a likely spot for a split alignment because the right-of-way is so narrow there.
Split alignments will also be considered at points where millions have already been spent to elevate Caltrain, including downtown Palo Alto, Belmont and San Carlos, he said.
Putting both Caltrain and bullet trains underground in some spots is also an option, but it could prove problematic if Union Pacific continues to run freight trains through the corridor. Caltrain can be electrified, but diesel freight trains would need some sort of ventilation system in order to run underground.
While the bullet trains may run above-ground in some places and below-ground elsewhere, the authority will limit the number of shifts to avoid a "porpoising" effect, Spaethling said.
Many members of the public who spoke at Tuesday's meeting made it clear their preferred alternative would be no high-speed rail on the Peninsula at all. The specter of 125-mph trains barreling through local neighborhoods atop a concrete platform has soured many on the plans, while others fear cost overruns will pillage what's left of the state's coffers.
Longtime Palo Alto resident William Landgraf noted that France's TGV runs relatively slowly through urban areas, getting up to speed only as it reaches the countryside. He and others suggested the rail authority study a "hybrid option" that would slow the bullet trains to Caltrain speeds once they reach San Jose, allowing them to share tracks with the existing commuter rail line.
Spaethling said the authority will at least look at the possibility, but he noted the bond measure passed by California voters in November puts stringent time limits on the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco.
E-mail Will Oremus at woremus@...