Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Cal Ave Improvements

If your commute takes you through Cal Ave station on CalTrain, you've probably noticed some work going on.

The basic objective of the project is to provide a true northbound platform, so that NB passengers won't have to walk over the southbound tracks to get on a train.

This is both for safety (someone might step out to catch a NB train and not notice an approaching SB one) and for scheduling convenience. A SB train can't pass through while an NB train is in the station (or really, for the reason of the safety concern I just mentioned--any time an NB train is in sight). This is called the "hold out rule". The NB platform will be accessed via a pedestrian tunnel, currently being dug at the south end of the platform.

Anyway, a lot of this you can probably guess from just looking at the site, but some details are not obvious. What will things look like when it's all done? Will the new NB platform connect with the existing pedestrian tunnel that crosses under both the tracks and Central Expressway/Alma? It would be a pain for anyone living in the neighborhood over there, who wanted to catch a northbound train, to have to use two tunnels.

CalTrain's publicly available factsheet is pretty bare-bones, so I asked for more information via their web site's contact form, and got a helpful response from a CalTrain staff member.

Turns out there's a more detailed factsheet about this project, which isn't linked to from the main site. And it's got pictures!

I can't tell from the project description or drawings whether it'll be possible to get to the NB platform from the existing tunnel under Alma. But it does look like gate-protected crossing of the tracks will still be allowed. I had been expecting the redesign to eliminate direct crossing of the tracks entirely, in the name of safety, and am glad to see that CalTrain is wiling to strike a reasonable balance between safety and convenience. (Besides, even in the suburbs, tunnels are creepy at night).

All in all, it seems like a fairly well planned project. I still have one one question, though--if all this work is costing $13 million, why is the (apparently) much simpler rehab of the Burlingame station taking $20 million?


Richard Mlynarik (my name is not all lower case) said...

Sadly the Cal Ave program is a real screwup as well.

And worst of all, nobody seems to know just why it ended up being so to be or just how it happened.

They're spending tens of millions of dollars to create what should be a prototype for other stations remodels along the line and they're ending up making accessibility worse for absolutely no reason other than stupidity or indifference.

The root problem is that the pedestrian underpass (which all stations ought to have) is being put at completely the wrong end of the station (ie towards the south), not where all of the economic, pedestrian, bus and shuttle activity is, namely at the northern tip of the platforms, at California Avenue.

It's unclear if this wretched misdesign and missed opportunity was due entirely to clueless individuals within the City of Palo Alto or to what extent "engineers" from Caltrain and its consultants are responsible, but you can tell that no architect or anybody with any knowledge of or concern for the functioning of public transportation as a human, urban element was involved.

What should have happened: the tunnel should have been at the north end of the station. Stairs would lead directly down from the most important access point, bypassing the circuitous ramp indirection for the 99% of riders who can use stairs, down under the tracks.

An underpass at this correct location could have been extended through to the east side of the tracks under the expressway, either connected to or replacing the existing, substandard tunnel.

But what we'll have instead is a setup with, for all practical purposes, zero accessibility from the eastern side of the tracks/expressway, maximizing walking time to and from the northbound (easterly) platform, maximizing transfer time to and from the bus drop-off point on Cal Ave, and generally doing little good for anybody given the expense involved.

I don't know how on earth this mess happened, and everybody I've asked at Caltrain has just said, while conceding that, yes, the design is wrong, and needlessly wrong for no good reason, more or less, "shit happens".

Just pathetic.

What's worse of all is that there appears to have been absolutely input of any type into the "design" other from the designers. As far as I know, the only time anybody in the public could have found out about it was when Caltrain put the finished engineering drawings up on its contractor bidding website, at which time the whole mess was set in stone. (A worse thing happened years ago with Bayshore, where a half-way decent design featuring two island platforms and a pedestrian undercrossing was mysteriously replaced by the "engineers" by the urrent outside platform, stairs-and-elevators abortion, and nobody knew anything about it until the bids were in. And we thought things were going to be better at the "new" Caltrain!)

Anyway, I wasted a LOT of time at that point sketching up the way to have done things correctly, all for the same cost and the same level of effort, but it was all "too late". I seem to have misplaced my corrected model, but I did dig a half-completed Google Sketchup model of what will be built I made using the RFP drawings.
(Yes, I know the station building isn't correct! I ran out of enthusiasm.)

Even with the best of intentions, it seems we're doomed because there simply don't seem to be any people in the local/national agencies/industries who have even the faintest inkling of a clue about how to make public infrastructure work for actual human beings.

Sad, sad, sad.

PS Caltrain, unaccountably, has two good stations: Belmont (island platform which should be the standard, with any express tracks going on the outside) and Lawrence. The latter is especially surprising and remarkably non-fucked-up given that it came out of VTA. Check it out sometime!

295bus said...

It's worse then I thought, then.

At least, according to the description of the design, people will still be allowed to cross the tracks directly.

Which means that the tunnel will just be a big waste of money for something that nobody uses.

On the other hand, I can easily see the gated crossing feature being removed later, in the interest of "safety".

What's really sad about this is that they could have simply connected the NB platform with the existing tunnel, and ended up with a much more convenient station for much less money!

Hey, my browser doesn't know what a ".skp" file is. Could you maybe convert to a .jpg and post a new link?