Passenger Rail Symposium, Day 2: Stations and Sprinters

5_28_10_drew_1.jpgAerial view of San Francisco showing route to new Transbay Terminal. Image coutesy TJPA

Monday, the Passenger Rail Symposium kicked off with
an impressive display
of train technology, most of it being used in
Europe. But the problem of how to effectively implement train stations,
European or otherwise, remains. Fortunately, Tuesday’s speakers had
plenty to say on the matter, both describing successful stations
elsewhere or the prospects for better ones here.

Session 3: Rail’s Role in Connecting and Building Communities

5_28_10_drew_2.jpgBrent Riddle

The session began with Brent Riddle of German Marshall Fund,
an organization devoted to finding how European policy approaches can
be implemented in the United States, and (in a few cases) vice versa.
He began by conceding that "Europe has problems too," pointing to the
2005 Paris Suburb Riots. Apparently, citizens in Le Blanc Mesnil rioted
because trains on the town’s RER line only came every 15 minutes,
making it difficult for them to get to jobs in the Paris center. But
Riddle had a positive example from Europe as well: the Stuttgart 21 project
in southern Germany, which he praised as offering shorter travel times
as well as being environmentally friendly. But the best part is the
improvement in how the station will connect to the city; it will create
new park space, connect more effectively to the city’s transit, and
improve the livability of the area around the station.

Not to be outdone, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority’s Maria
Ayerdi-Kaplan revealed that San Francisco was breaking ground on an
equally awesome train station as well. Her job appears to have been
difficult up to this point, evidenced by the fact that this terminal
has been proposed since 1968. But today her job was easy, all she had
to do was play her eye-popping computer animated informational video
(narrated by Peter Coyote!) and take questions at the end. The project
replaces the current Transbay Bus Terminal at 1st and Mission in
Downtown San Francisco with a combination train station/bus
terminal/shopping center with a park on top. The station would also
connect to the BART via an underground people-mover, and would include
several parks and high-rise buildings in the surrounding area.

5_28_10_drew_3.jpgMaria Ayerdi-Kaplan and Alex Kalamaros

After that, Metro’s Alex Kalamaros
led off his presentaion with a not-entirely-convincing plea that "We’re
doing interesting stuff in LA too". And while metro doesn’t currently
have any train station development programs on the level of SF or
Stuttgart, there is something to be said for the work they’ve done in Transit Oriented Development.
The presentation basically went through each of Metro’s TOD projects
one by one, with little new information other than how difficult it was
for him to deal with Studio City NIMBYs. He reluctantly admitted that
he wasn’t entirely pleased with the way Metro handles parking in TODs,
something Streetsblog has been critical of
in the past, but he seemed to think there was little that could be done
in the near future to change that. When asked whether Metro’s
development department had anything in store for the arrival of high
speed rail, he expressed hope that a project similar in scale to the SF
terminal could be built, but said that it would all depend on the route
chosen for the HSR line south of union station. But he felt that most
development would probably take place east of the station, which would
be beneficial as it would potentially obscure the view of Metro’s
aesthetically challenged "Taj Mahal" building. He also made reference
to the Park 101 project, as well as the LA River redevelopment project – is there a chance that all of this could be built as part of one massive TOD?

Session 4: Regionalism, Passenger Rail’s Emerging Role

5_28_10_drew_4.jpgWalt Stringer and the Sprinter Route

Last up for the conference was a session on regional rail, more specifically Sprinter-style
commuter/light rail which uses self-propelled passenger cars. And who
better to begin this session than someone from Sprinter? Walt Stringer,
the Light Rail Manager from San Diego’s North County Transit District
came to talk a bit about how the Sprinter came to be. He covered many
of the details about station construction, signaling, and the
construction of the line’s rail cars. Perhaps the most interesting
detail was how popular the route had become with students at CSU San
Marcos. And in general, the example of a train line which operates on
freight lines with a service level closer to light rail, especially so
close to home.

Next came a presentation from a new NorCal rail line which is something of a "Sprinter North": the Sonoma-Marin Area Transit District,
with the very highbrow acronym SMART. Lillian Hames, SMART’s general
manager, layed out the details of the upcoming project. It begins at
Larkspur, a ferry terminal ten miles north of San Francisco, and
continues seventy miles north to Cloverdale at the northern edge of
Sonoma County. Self propelled passenger cars, similar to the Sprinter,
will run every 30 minutes on weekdays, and the project also includes
construction of a parallel bike path for most of the line. It will be
interesting to see how this line works out; Metro is currently planning
a commuter rail line to Cerritos and Orange County which may use
Sprinter-style cars instead of locomotives, and a Sprinter approach may
be the best way to bring a light rail level of service to other routes
in Orange County. If the SMART line succeeds, we’ll have another good
reason to pursue that approach here.


Finally, Ross Milloy of the Lone Star Rail District
between Austin and San Antonio came to give a talk about his project.
Milloy began by lamenting that "the last generation built all kinds of
[mostly car related] infrastructure, and this generation doesn’t even
want to pay for the infrastructure we have." New train projects are a
tough sell in the Lone Star State, but Milloy has shrewdly built
support for his new rail line by appealing to the one thing Texans love
most: Texas. He outlined the need for congestion relief in Austin and
San Antonio, which is made more acute by rapidly increasing freight
truck and rail traffic from Mexico to the East Coast. Thus, the project
includes relief for both commuters and freight rail; it would convert a
freight rail line to exclusively commuter rail, and build an entirely
new freight route to the east. Talks with the freight rail companies
have proven difficult; Milloy’s account was that "they made the Mideast
negotiations look like a tupperware party." But progress is
nevertheless being made, Lone Star Rail has managed to leverage some
$500 million at this point, which when spent toward dedicated
infrastructure tends to make rail companies more cooperative.
Ultimately, Lone Star Rail appears to be leaning toward Metrolink-style
locomotive powered trains instead of Sprinters. But the fact that Texas
is moving toward a more robust train system is encouraging news; it has
been one of the last major car-dependent states to change course.

At the end of the conference, the conclusions were somewhat mixed.
Each presenter made reference to the difficulty in bringing rail
projects into existence, many referenced the difficulty they themselves
had in the past, or called for strong national leadership to get
projects done. Also, most presenters demonstrated an implicit
understanding that the nature of rail travel requires train development
to include not just train lines themselves but a nearby environment
which complements the train, whether it be TOD, rooftop parks, or more
effective connections to other transportation. But there was an
unmistakable optimism, perhaps a feeling that decades of hard work in
formerly train-hostile areas like California and Texas is finally
beginning to pay off. Between progress in HSR, gradual improvements in
transit, and a few standout examples like the terminal in San
Francisco, the Passenger Rail Symposium concluded with the unmistakable
feeling of optimism, that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an
oncoming train but actual progress.

  • Thank you, Drew, for this coverage!

  • D Drews

    I have to disagree with the assessment of Stuttgart 21. It’s an extremely expensive (at least 6 billion Euros) real estate project that provides mediocre rail improvements in 10 to 20 years (if everything goes to plan the overall project will be complete by 2035). Even the federal auditors and the federal transport ministry said something to the same effect:
    “Stuttgart 21 is not a project of the federal railway plan but primarily an urban development project. Even an above-ground terminus station can adequately fulfill the functions of the rail node Stuttgart.”

    If anything, Stuttgart 21 is an example of what not to do. The through-running station (with a tricky gradient) that is to be built during the next ten years will only have eight tracks, which will be a reduction compared to current capacity. Ten would be needed to improve capacity. There will be no safety margins for possible disruptions in the tunnels.
    The project itself is not complete without a high-speed line to Ulm, which is not economical and whose funding is threatened. The new configuration will make an integrated “Taktfahrplan” impossible. Almost as much new urban space could be had if the existing station were improved. BTW: the master plan for the new urban space is producing a dead zone.

    Even with four new stations there will be a net reduction of platform capacity. The new underground airport station will be a long walk from the terminal. Thus time to get to the terminal would be the same as with improvements to the existing station & network. The airport area itself will contain a number of bottlenecks, which will inevitably lead to constant delays.

    And the big question: is the Stuttgart node really a pressing problem in the context of that region? A chamber of commerce study in 2009 found that rail traffic around Stuttgart will be within capacity in the foreseeable future. However, the vital Karlsruhe-Basel link, where the extension project is being built since 1987 (!) and is only 40% complete, will be at up to 195% of capacity. That gives an impression of how the truly important projects are getting shortchanged in favor of shiny new construction.

    There is a general lesson here. The patchwork approach of single [prestige] projects does not work and wastes an enormous amount of funding. You have to make a strategic plan and decide what you want your rail network to do and make project decisions from there. A successful example is the Swiss Bahn 2000 plan.

    There is an architectural critique of S21 by the Times.

  • The Transbay Terminal project in San Francisco is an absolutely heart-breaking example of near-infinite, rank, grotesque, levels complete technical and professional incompetence by the staff and consultants involved.

    Because of the ineptness and unoprofessionalism of the “engineers” involved
    in this turkey, the majority of regional rail service — the Caltrain
    line to San Jose, which will always carry more than twice as many
    passengers than the prestige high speed rail — will be forced to terminate
    short of the downtown station.

    It’s an unmitigated and completely avoidable disaster, and amounts
    to a complete waste of $4 billion of your tax dollars. So heart-breaking,
    and so unnecessary. But when you have know-wnothing US “professionals”
    “desiging” your public transportation infrastructure, that is what you get,
    ever time, and without exception.

    Caltrain-HSR blog’s Focus on: SF Transbay Transit Center is just the tip of the iceberg.

    What a mess. What a tragedy. What a fuckup.

    But hey, everybody loves the Powerpoint. Narrated by Peter Coyote! Woo hoo!

  • The Transbay Terminal project in San Francisco is an absolutely heart-breaking example of near-infinite, rank, grotesque, levels complete technical and professional incompetence by the staff and consultants involved.

    Because of the ineptness and unoprofessionalism of the “engineers” involved
    in this turkey, the majority of regional rail service — the Caltrain
    line to San Jose, which will always carry more than twice as many
    passengers than the prestige high speed rail — will be forced to terminate
    short of the downtown station.

    It’s an unmitigated and completely avoidable disaster, and amounts
    to a complete waste of $4 billion of your tax dollars. So heart-breaking,
    and so unnecessary. But when you have know-wnothing US “professionals”
    “designing” your public transportation infrastructure, that is what you
    get, every time, without exception.

    Caltrain-HSR blog’s Focus on: SF Transbay Transit Center is just the tip of the iceberg.

    What a mess. What a tragedy. What a ripoff. What a betrayal of the public interest.

    But hey, everybody: look, Powerpoint! Narrated by Peter Coyote! Woo hoo!

  • D Drews

    Good to read you again, Richard.
    It seems that this kind of folly is universal. Politicians get fixed ideas into their heads, there is the real estate and construction interest, and it all looks so modern and could solve so many problems at once…
    Penn station, Transbay (BTW: the first picture shows two 90 degree turns?!?), Stuttgart 21. The disasters keep coming and give rail projects a bad reputation. Well, at least the citizens of Stuttgart have been critical of the concept since it was first circulated in the nineties. Every Monday evening thousands of people demonstrate in front of the current station to stop S21 and upgrade the existing station (bet that didn’t turn up in Brent Riddle’s presentation). Though preliminary construction work has been started there is every hope that factors like the little European debt crisis and other political or technical dislocations will finally kill the project. As a transport consultant told the S21 opponents: “You have to make it to the next mayoral elections [2012].” Planning is already a year behind. The high-speed line to Ulm is being reevaluated. There will be a state election in 300 days – hopefully that will send another strong signal.

    Check out the resistance (German). Google translation.

  • TransitPlanner

    L.A. already has connections between Amtrak, Metrolink and Metro Rail (Red/Purple and Gold) Lines right at Union Station. HSR may serve the station in the future. S.F. is spending $4 billion to create a “Taj Majal” version of what we already have !

  • Ken Ruben

    Hi Everyone:

    I attended both Days 1 and 2.

    I mentioned favorably on the comments for Day 1 about the Amtrak report by James McCommons; I should have added that Mr. McCommons also covered the passenger train scene BEFORE Amtrak as part of his very good presentation.

    I must have been sitting near Drew Reed as I saw someone taking photos, etc.

    IMHO, he has done an excellent photo and written report on both days and I want to thank him for all of his efforts.

    I enjoyed most of the presentations and I was interested in the rebuidling of Transbay Terminal presentation.

    I am far from an expert on construction so we will have to wait and see what happens on this project.

    Again, thanks to Drew Reed for all of his contributions in covering the Symposium.

    —“Ken” Ruben—

  • Brent Riddle

    The initial write up did not adequately cover my presentation, which covered Le Blanc Mesnil, Stuttgart 21, and the Magistrale Line. The theme of the panel was “rail as a tool to build community.” I gave examples of how that concept is being employed in Europe. My aim was first to describe, not to praise or criticize. Really, whether one agrees with all aspects of the various projects or not was not the point of the panel. The point was that these projects represent how rail initiatives can build community. And I did try to describe the strengths and weaknesses of each of these examples.

    For example, in my presentation I noted that the problems associated with Le Blanc Mesnil and the Paris riots will not be ameliorated simply by increasing headways on the RER. However, that was one issue (of many) identified by the mayor that contributed to the rioters feeling of isolation and needs to be addressed. I also made the point that the existing rail lines and yards bifurcate the entire community separating half the population from the only nearby major employment center near Le Bourget airport. Still, fixing the headways into Paris or creating better access to nearby jobs by themselves will not solve the problems that led to the riots. The integration of the immigrant communities in the Paris suburbs is infinitely more complex than that, but rail can play a role – good or bad.

    With regard to Stuttgart 21, I did discuss the controversy surrounding the project and noted that the project has become increasingly unpopular in Stuttgart – for all the reasons that are mentioned here. In fact, I said that I am hearing that there will likely be a political price to be paid in the next local elections. Still, it is a remarkable attempt to knit the city together by repurposing the existing tracks and rail yard. I liken the project to Boston’s Big Dig, which had similar aims.

    Lastly, the concept of the Magistrale Line was not covered in the initial report. Again, this is a remarkable attempt to connect communities (and countries) and enhance Europe’s economic competitiveness. Whether it makes sense to do this in the current economic climate or whether the phasing of the project is optimal is not the point. The point is that rail is being utilized as a tool to help create a European wide community.

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