Friday, September 22, 2006

Sorry I'm Late for Work, But...

I was busy enjoying the morning!

Nattering with my wife on the way to Menlo Park, where she swims & I catch the train.

Eating a yogurt at the station.

Drawing model railroad trackplans, in PowerPoint, on the train.

To the conductor who announced Palo Alto by singing it (terribly), and Kalifoania Ahvenue in an impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger: thank you!

It was a nice day for a bike ride across Sunnyvale, on the way to the bank.

It was also a nice surprise to find, in the soulless wasteland of office parks we call Silicon Valley, a hole-in-the-wall used book store, that's really cheap!

And biking parallel to the 101 on a frontage road, and easily beating everyone stuck in traffic. Ha! Server you right, you Earth-hating bastards!

Getting on the Stevens Creek Trail, not getting a flat tire, and stopping for a drink of water and a Key Lime Luna Bar (yum, and thanks, Hon!) on the Central Expwy/CalTrain/VTA overpass. Where else can you get such a good view of all the cool eletrical stuff on the roof of those light rail trains?

Picking up Tamales for lunch (to be suitably balanced with salad) at a muy autentico Mexican market in Mountain View.

Don't worry, I'll be w@h later tonight.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hostes Humani Generis

Have you ever played the game Illuminati? It's a card game of comically vast conspiracies, where players construct hierarchies of front organization taking orders from secret overlords, such as the Gnomes of Zurich or the Servants of Cthulhu. But nothing in Illuminati can compare with the web of fronts and mouthpieces that ExxonMobil has created to cast doubt on the reality of global warming. Take a look at's nifty interactive map.

It is clear by now that global warming is real, and that its effects, such as the innundation of lowlying cities, and desertification of farmland, may be catastrophic. Probably millions of lives are in the balance. This network of charlatans has slowed down honest debate about this problem for over a decade. Like pirates or torturers, they are enemies of all mankind, willing to betray their species' future for cash. They need to be called out and publicly shamed.

Years of dry academic writing leave me ill-fit for over-the-top speechifying, but I would tell them something to the effect of this speech from Roger Corman's It Conquered the World:

  This is your land, your world. Your hands are human but your mind is enemy. You're a traitor... The greatest traitor of all time. And you know why? Because you're not betraying part of mankind - you're betraying all of it.

Vote for MSR 798!

(This is the first, and hopefully only time I'm brazenly posting something on both this blog and my NKNCat blog, but dammit, this is important!)

A local (that is, S.F. Bay Area) historical preservation agency is choosing projects to fund by letting people vote for them on the internet.

I'm voting for Market Street Ry. car no 798, and encourage my fellow trolley fans to log in and do so too!

To vote, go to the Partners in Preservation website (you will have to register). 798 is listed as "San Francisco Streetcar 798" in the pulldown list ballot.

For more info on car 798, take a look at the (modern) Market Street Ry.'s website (the new MSR is a streetcar restoration group which works with San Francisco's MUNI to support the F line; they are named after the historical MSR, a former, privately-owned streetcar company, originally a competitor to the MUNI and later merged into it).

As you might guess from the checkered MUNI/MSR logos I'm using as my background on this blog, this is one of my favorite streetcars. If it wins this grant, we might all be able to take a ride on it someday soon!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Railway Safety I: Cheap and Simple Measures

Last wednesday I was home from work sick, but feeling a bit better in the afternoon, decided to go shopping with my family. From the Woodside Road overpass I noticed a few trains backed up in the Redwood Junction yard, and made a mental note that it was a good day to be out sick, since there seemed to be "trouble on the line".

The trouble turned out to be a grade crossing accident, in which an ice-cream vendor rode his tricycle ice-cream/elados cart around lowered crossing arms, and was hit and killed by a train. Typically between one and two dozen people are killed by CalTrain each year. Strictly speaking, railroad crossings are very safe. If you go when you're supposed to, you'll be fine--with considerably more certainty than you can say that about crossing a busy street. With almost no exceptions, people hit by trains either wanted to be, or were being incredibly stupid.

When these things happen, transit riders and railway boosters have a tendency to mutter cynically about Darwin awards, but these lives have value, and anyone who likes trains should be concerned with making them a safe part of the environment, even if that means protecting people from themselves. And there are reasons to pay attention to this problem beyond the purely humanitarian. First of all, let me tell you that as a passenger, these accidents can really mess up your day, both in terms of your schedule and mood. Second, we should have some sympathy for the crews that have to deal with them; consider that: an Engineer is likely to kill someone within their first year on the job, and they say that suicides often make eye contact just before impact (yikes!); conductors, on the other hand, get the job of walking the length of the train to find the victim. Finally: the perceived danger of trains is a major political obsticle to extending rail transit.

Complete grade separation is the ultimate solution to this problem, but on obscenely expensive one. If we make it a requirement for new transit projects, we run the risk of turning worthwhile simple projects into expensive boondoggles, choosing suboptimal routes to avoid expense, or killing them altogether. BART, which must be 100% grade separated because of its third-rail electrification and automatic train control, provides several good examples from recent or proposed extensions:

  • SFO: Although the line was built using an existing railroad grade, the need for grade separation meant that it was tunnelled under this right-of-way the whole difference, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The rather lower-than-predicted ridership makes this heavy investment look like a foolish one. For comparison, Los Angeles' new Orange Line busway was also built recycling an old railway right-of-way, for about a third the cost of BART's SFO extension, has about the same daily ridership, and is considered a resounding success.
  • San Jose: The cost of this line, $6 billion (the VTA and the Merc keep saying 4, but the FTA estimated 6, and I figure when it comes to public works projects, you should take the highest estimate and then add some), has just about killed it. It's not like there are any geographical barriers between Fremont and San Jose; in fact, there are already several railways between them. The expense of this project is purely due to the requirement that the line be elevated or tunnelled the entire distance.
  • Livermore: BART gets to the edge of Livermore, and ends with a station in the 580 median. It would be nice to extend it downtown, where it could connect with ACE and a few people might actually live within walking distance of the station, but locals doesn't want elevated tracks and the idea of building a subway in Livermore is just silly. Likely the line will be extended farther east, in the conveniently grade-separated but inconveniently located freeway median, competing with ACE instead of connecting with it.
I'd rather see grade separation as an incremental, long-term goal. After all, getting trains up and running without it will still improve public safety overall, by getting people away from the carnage of freeway traffic. But in the meantime, there are a lot of steps transit agencies can take to improve safety, some of which are novel ideas, and some of which are already being implemented, though in my opinion not nearly fast enough:

  • Fence right-of-ways wherever possible: As a bare minimum, people should kept away from tracks in places where there is no legitimate reason to be on them.
  • Elimenate little-used cross-streets: People can drive a few extra blocks to the next street that goes through. If it's too far to walk, build a pedestrian bridge.
  • Red-light-cameras at all crossings: Snap a picture of anyone who drives around crossing gates, and send them a hefty ticket. Repeat offenders, or anyone stupid enough to do it in a truck, should be instantly and permanently stripped of their license.
  • Near-side-stopping: Arrange platforms so that trains stop to pick up passengers before crossing a street, not after. That way they'll naturally be moving more slowly, and under better control, as they cross, to the extent that less obnoxious warning devices than the usual bells and horns might be used.
  • Use less scary vehicles: I'm not kidding. People don't seem to kill themselves by jumping in front of light rail trains, probably because they don't look as lethal. And being less threatening, they'd likely be more welcome in the community.

Near-Side Stopping

These are cheap measures that could save a few lives. Of course, as trains increase in speed and number, there comes a time where the cost of grade separation becomes necessary. Even then, there are several approaches to choose from, with different tradeoffs of cost and effect on the environment. I'll look at some of these in a future post.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Subtle Joys of Riding Transit

Yesterday I rode CalTrain to Mountain View and back with my daughter (yeah, I know, I do it 5 days a week already, but at least this time I had company we went to a park instead of my office). On the ride home, the back of the seat in front of us was thoroughly graffiti'ed, including this chestnut:

  I ♥ poop

As I've mentioned, my daughter is 6, and I think this may have been the highpoint of the trip for her.

Unfortunately other bits of the graffiti were gross in less child-appropriate ways, so we found another place to sit.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Raising them Right

"Trains Rule, cars drool!"

    - my daughter, 6