Thursday, January 31, 2008

Accurate (Maybe) BART Price in the Merc at Last

San Jose's Mayor Reed and Councilman Liccardo have written a column in the Merc in support of BART. They make the usual arguments for BART and only BART as a solution to San Jose's transit problems, and trot out some familiar suspect figures--that the extension will have almost as many daily passengers as BART's transbay tube, and will have 71% farebox recovery.

But at least in discussing the cost of the project, they mention a realistic pricetag--$6 billion, the figure predicted by the FTA--if only to refute claims that it will be even more. Perhaps now the Merc will stop repeating the $4-billion-ish figure it's been cutting and pasting into BART articles for the last seven years, which is proving to be a foolishly lowball estimate.

For more factually-based analysis of BART-to-SJ, I recommend reading some of the articles in the right margin of

Here's a snarky little Missive I fired off to the Merc this morning.

I recently visited Switzerland. The Swiss take great pride in their railways, and indeed, they are fast, convenient, and 100% electric. But the poor Swiss are clearly deluding themselves, because they don't have BART. And as San Jose Mayors, self-appointed civic leaders, and the Mercury News have often told us--no train but a BART train is worth riding!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why is BART Broad Gauge?

BART tracks have the rails 5' 6" apart, as opposed to US standard gauge, which is 4' 8.5"--a historical accident, maybe, but nevertheless a standard, used by our national railway network and all other new transit systems.

This is a major obstacle to physical merger of BART with other regional transit networks such as CalTrain and SF's and SJ's light rail.

What was the reason for this choice? Over the years, I've heard quite a few:

  • A broader gauge allows higher speeds (but note--BART tops out at 80mph, while TGV's and Bullet trains go 3x as fast on standard gauge track).
  • It makes room for larger electrical motors (but BART car trucks are build with frames inside of the wheels--outside framed, standard gauage trucks would probably leave just as much room).
  • MetroRiderLA's Wad mentions a reason I hadn't heard before: a broad gauge would make trains more stable, and able to run across the Golden Gate Bridge. But he notes that Marin had opted out of BART long before the system was built, or even designed.
  • Compatibility with Indian railways (just kidding, but it makes as much sense as anything else).

None of these really add up. My best guess for BART's eschewing of standard gauge is just:

  • Not invented here.

You can find out all you want to know about railway gauges and more in this Wikipedia entry


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Monday, January 28, 2008

Snow on Mt Hamilton

On Saturday we had an errand in Fremont, and optimistically put sleds in the car in hopes that there would still be snow on Mt Diablo. On closer inspection, the sides of the mountain turned out to be green.

Sunday morning I was a tad jealous to see LA bloggers' pictures of snow-capped San Gabriels.

The today, going about Mountain View, from the top of the Shoreline overpass, I saw snow behind San Jose. I quickly called home, and volunteered to pick up patches for the Girl Scout troop at the council store in Santa Clara. I grabbed bike and camera (being a transit blogger means you always have a camera with you) and caught the next southbound train.

Downtown San Jose was lively (having first seen the place in the 80's, I am perpetually surprised to find that the place is no longer a ghost town) and scrubbed clean by the rain.

Nice artsy shots combining snow and light rail were somewhat elusive, but here's a few.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Girl Scouts on the 271

Last week, RWC Girl Scout Troop 16 made a trip to the San Mateo County History Museum.

First, the Girl Scout Promise was recited.

Next, the adventure began. The troop took samTrans route 271 from the school to downtown Redwood City.

Some of the girls had never been on a city bus before. They all seemed to enjoy the ride!

The History Museum is in the former San Mateo County Courthouse building. If you've ever been in downtown RWC, you've probably noticed the dome. This is what it looks like from the inside:

The scouts got a tour, including one of the old courtrooms.

Everyone got to sit in the judge's chair, the witness stand, and the jury box.

There are interesting exhibits, including a section called "The Journey to Work", about the history of commuting in San Mateo County. There's a stagecoach (I'm cheating a little here and using some pictures from previous visits),

a model of a United Railroads San Mateo interurban line "Big Sub",

and a mocked-up streetcar controller that kids (or adults) can try driving:

Another room has examples of science and technological innovation centered around our region. This "Chemistry set for boys" affronted our Girl Scout sensibilities:

The last stop was Young's Ice Cream, another relatively new downtown RWC attraction.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Betrayed by One of Our Own

More details are emerging on the censored Surface Transportation Commission report.

From self-described "grassroots" site Renew America's columnist Wes Vernon:

Weyrich says he was told by NSTPRSC Executive director Susan J. Binder (who works for Peters) that the deletion was made at the behest of Weyrich's fellow majority commissioner Steve Heminger from the San Francisco bay area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). That regional group's website says MTC is responsible for updating the blueprint "for the development of mass transit, highway, airport, seaport, railroad, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities" in the community. So Heminger is apparently involved in all modes, but his 9-county entity — with a reach extending well beyond rail-centric San Francisco and its closer-in suburbs — is steeped in bus and toll-road issues.

Indeed, according to the MTC's "Key Staff" page, Heminger is a board member of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnkpike (sic!) Association.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

WMDs, Global Warming, and Light Rail

What are, "things the Bush administration has lied to the American people about", Alex!

Thanks to Trains for America for reporting the administration's expungement of a section of a Surface Transportation Commission Report arguing for investment in electric rail transport.

You can read the the censored truth about light rail here.

The passage, incidentally, was penned by noted conservative transit booster Paul Weyrich, who is furious. I guess in this case, even Nixon couldn't go to China (to paraphrase the Vulcan proverb).

Actually, this attention is a bit flattering, and in an upside-down-way, a sign that rail transit is being taken more and more seriously. Why else would the administration feel the need to bury a few paragraphs recommending light rail, except that the need for non-automotive ways of getting around American cities is getting to be so real, and the failure of highway-centric development is becoming so obvious, that they and their oil-besotted cronies are starting to get scared that a paradigm shift in transportation investment might actually happen!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

NorCal/SoCal Musings

Blogger Wad's plug (thanks!) for this site at MetroRiderLA may bring over some visitors (hello!) from the other end of our state, and this prompts me to put down a few musings I've had comparing our regions' transit systems.

Northern and Southern Californians all seem to be in agreement that our public transit is so much better than theirs. We should probably be a little less proud, they should probably be more so. Which is not to say that Bay Area transit doesn't rack up some impressive figures. Muni's daily ridership comes close to the City's total population. BART carries 40% of transbay traffic. Also, we have cable cars and the F line :)

On the other hand, we should give Southern California credit for getting things built. The Metrolink commuter rail system covers 400 route miles, and was started with remarkably little fuss and low public outlay (low hundres of millions, about what we pay for 2-3 new miles of BART). The Metro Rail light rail system continues to add lines, and while it's got a long way to go to be a comprehensive area-wide network, it's off and running. Not to mention, compared to our pokey Muni and VTA light rail trains, the Blue Line just plain hauls ass.

The embarassing truth is that while transit grows and prospers in LA and environs, the Bay Area hasn't built any really wildly successful new transit since the opening of Muni Metro 25 years ago. BART and CalTrain have seen steady growth in ridership in their core service areas, but their extensions to Livermore, SFO, and Pleasanton have generated underwhelming traffic. Meanwhile Muni seems determine to destroy itself, and VTA's light rail is a gift to the Randal O'Toole's of the world.

Paradoxically, one of the greatest advantages Southern California may have in building effective transit is that its obvious need for new ways of getting around is balanced by residents' skepticism. Between a "car-centered culture" on the one hand, and nutty militant bus riders on the other, transit is under far more pressure to prove its worth by carrying passengers and getting them places quickly. It's a healthier environment than our political scene, dominated by well-heeled leftists, who support transit in principle but would much rather show their love of the Earth by driving a Prius.

We should get some cool busses like this, too.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Amtrak Strike may Shut Down CalTrain

This may happen on Jan 30th. This has been threatened before, but never actually happened, so I'm not too worried.

Probably most CalTrain riders don't know that the service is actually operated by Amtrak. The "Peninsula Corridor Join Powers Board" owns the tracks and equipment, but contracts for the actual operation of CalTrain, with contracts running for five years or so. Thus far, Amtrak has always won the deal, but not without competition.

Overall, I think it's a good way to run a transit system, though I may change my mind if I can't get to work on Feb 1st!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

HSR in Argentina

Although my personal opinion is that we're just not ready for high speed rail in California (let's try making regular trains run on time and work together before we try getting fancy!), the growing list of countries that have better trains than us is getting to be embarrassing.

The figures on Argentina's new line seem kind of familiar: Buenos Aires and Cordoba are 450 miles apart (just about like SF and LA). Currently a train trip between them takes 14 hours (just like the Starlight), and HSR will bring it down to 3.

(That's just 150mph, isn't it? Which is not really all that fast for trains these days. I wonder if our CAHSRA isn't making things much more complicated, and expensive, than they need to by aiming for the competitive-with-airplanes SF/LA travel time of 2:20?)

If Argentina can do it, why not us?

Perhaps part of the key is to not let national pride get in the way of hiring competent professionals, wherever they may be from. The Argentine HSR is being built by a consortium of companies with experience in the area, such as Alstom, builders of the TGV trains, who will be providing (I assume more-or-less off-the-shelf) versions of them for this line.

Can you imagine, even for a second, any US passenger rail agency saying "France has good trains, let's just buy some of theirs?"

For more details, there is a press release on Alstom's web site.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Take the MTC's Transportation/Development Planning Poll

It's at

You can vote for personal priorities of the region's problems and possible solutions.

A glaring omission, in my opinion, is that no mention is made at all of encouraging employers to put workplaces near transit. We can vote to raise the gas tax, put future housing by train stations, etc, all we want--but until we start paying attention to making the work end of our commutes transit friendly, it's not going to do much good.

Still, it doesn't take long, so make yourself heard.

At least they give you the option to vote for a few good ideas that are currently "beyond the pale", making planning a regional effort, instead of leaving it in the hands of cities, which generally are controlled by NIBMY jerks.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

CA High Speed Rail--End of the Line? First, Some Facts

California High Speed Rail project has been on my mind lately--first, because my family and I just made another round trip to LA, by both car and plane, and both sucked--and because of the CAHSRA's recently announced decision to route trains over the Pacheco Pass rather than the Altamont.

I've got a lot to say on this, so I'm going to break it up into chunks. First--what is this choice about, and what's all the fuss?

The question is how to route trains from the Bay Area over the Coastal Range to the Central Valley. The choice is between an Altamont Pass route (where the ACE train and 580 go, via Livermore, and skirting Stockton), vs the Pacheco Pass (following the 152 from Gilroy to Los Baños).

There are plusses and minusses to both routes. Both involve engineering challenges, and treading carefully around wilderness areas. From both of these perspectives, I think it's a wash.

The biggest real advantage (I will mention some perceived ones later...) of the Pacheco Pass route is a slight faster overall travel time, especially from San Jose to Southern California. At bullet train speeds, it comes out to 5-10 minutes difference.

The biggest advantage of the Altamont is that this route is that it serves way more people. First of all, there are a lot of people commuting to the Bay Area from Livermore, Stockton, Tracy, etc, who could really use it on a daily basis. It would also serve the East Bay much better--a branch to Oakland seems logical. Second, it's a much more logical way to add a branch to Sacramento. Going to Sac and back via Stockton makes sense. Going all the way around through Los Banños is just stupid--it's such a long way around, that just running moderately fast conventional trains on a more direct route (just speed up Capitol Corridor a bit and get the UP out of the way) would be quicker.

And as a corollary--while an Altamont routing would serve established cities, a Pacheco routing would encourage a brand new swath of sprawl, as people moved to now-dinky Los Baños in search of cheap and now convenient housing (this could admittedly be seen as an upside--I'll return to the question of housing in a later post).

To me, the choice is clear--the Altamont Route is a more useful overall system, and the tradeoff in speed is worth it.

Despite the Altamont's clear advantage, or perhaps because of it, the CAHSRA has consistently waged a devious campaign to subvert it, and boos the Pacheco route. First, they simply refused to study it--it was in early drafts of the plan, but conveniently omitted from the initial EIR. That was a bit too heavy-handed to get away with, and they've become more subtle, for example in skewing ridership estimates.

If you follow this debate, you will hear a lot of reasons (excuses?) why the Altamont route is impractical. None of them really stand up. Here's a few I've heard, and rebuttals.

  • Environmental impact to South Bay wetlands. First, trains already run there. Second, as I (and the Sierra club) have pointed out--the environmental impacts of the Pacheco route are probably worse.
  • It will require a long, high, and expensive bridge across the south Bay. Does anything bigger than a yacht ever go farther south than the Dumbarton bridge? Maybe a rehab of the existing Dumbarton Rail bridge, with a drawbridge opened a few times a day, is all that's needed. Anyway, the Pacheco route requires more tunnels than the Altamont, so it probably balances out.
  • Livermore and Fremont residents don't want bullet trains running through town. Try to build anything anywhere, and somebody will complain. I betcha a lot of people who live in these cities are sick of driving to San Jose, though--maybe you should talk to them instead of listening to pissy NIMBY's, and concluding that the only place to build a railroad is where nobody lives (to either complain about noise, or ride it, either!).

So what is so great about the Pacheco pass route? I really don't think it's about saving a couple of minutes. I'll save that for next time.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Bernal Heights, Neighborhood Nostalgia, Urban Taxidermy

For Christmas my parents gave me a new Arcadia Publishing book about my old SF neighborhood, where they still live.

It is interesting to see the area develop from farmland into a working class neighborhood, and then slowly into a kind of bohemian area. Finally, though you can't really tell it from the pictures, it's evolved further, as housing prices have turned it into essentially a wealthy suburb (I have colleagues who live there for the atmosphere--even more over on Portrero--and reverse commute to our office in Mountain View) with an urban vibe.

I have mixed feelings about the neighborhood's, and the city's evolution--and lack of it. I'm glad that the top of the hill was kept undeveloped, and I enjoy the Victorian/Edwardian/typically-San-Franciscan houses, and I'm sad to see how the Eastern side of the hill, once downright backwoods-y and bucolic, was bulldozed for the 101. On the other hand, is an obsessive conservatism for the physical form of a city really right?--Especially when the result is an artificial shortage of housing, and an affordability crisis that makes it out of reach to many who'd like to live there? If a few blocks of painted ladies were torn down for four-or-five story apartments or condos, it would be an aesthetic loss, but a boon to the city's health. What do we say about a city that has preserved Victorians but exiled the working class, and is quickly shoving the middle out the door?

I am writing this on a visit to southern California. Today, in Torrance, in the middle of a suburban wasteland, I saw a new development--of rowhouses! If Densification can occur in the suburbs (and despite the screams of NIMBY's it is creeping into the Bay Area in such unlikely places as Sunnyvale and Dublin), maybe even San Francisco can escape the paralyzing notion that its neighborhoods achieved a state of physical perfection a half century ago which must be inviolate forever.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

CalTrain on Twitter: Get/Report Train Status via SMS

I am trying out a new rider-maintained CalTrain service status update system run on Twitter. Here is a homepage for it, and here is where you can see updates.

You can also create a Twitter account, link it to your phone, and get an SMS whenever someone reports that trains are late.

To subscribe for updates, make an account, link it to your phone, and then on the Twitter main page, look for a box marked "people", on the Twitter Caltrain page, click the "follow" button underneath the "user" name.

I'm just doing this now, and will see how well it works next time something goes wrong. I could have used it this morning.

And if this thing works, I'll work on figuring out how to make updates myself.