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Street capable rail vehicles on Dumbarton Rail Corridor

written by andy on

The Dumbarton Rail project, now a public-private partnership effort sponsored by Facebook, is going through a more detailed study to further define the project and elevate the project into construction ready status, building upon a earlier effort (with a $1 million grant from Facebook) to study the corridor, which proposed a bus and rail element.

In this study, the partnership is focusing on rail exclusively (basically abandoned the concept of busway on rail corridor and let other agencies to study and implement highway elements). The planners are considering three modes (regional rail, light rail, and “other mass transit” – not specifically defined, but may include automated people mover).

There are concerns from the rail advocacy community why should transit mode be a consideration when they thought it had been long settled. Studies as far back as in the 1990s concluded running a few commuter trains during the peak hours from Union City BART station along the UP line to the Dumbarton Corridor, then onward to San Francisco or San Jose when the corridor meets Caltrain on the other side of the Bay. The Dumbarton trains would connect with Amtrak and ACE in Fremont.

This original vision of regional rail has a few issues:

  • Low score received from regional planning agency MTC and low TOD opportunities due limited nature of the service.
  • UP ownership of the right of way between Newark Junction and Union City BART.
  • Communities on the west side of the Bay want more local stops and a commuter rail service would likely to “pass through” their communities.

I believe that in order to receive higher points from MTC and make the project more favorable from the TOD perspective, the planners are pursuing a plan that can provide all day rail service with more local stops. However, because SamTrans only owns the right of way up to the Newark Junction, they either have to end all day service at Newark or pursue other options beyond Newark.

While the UP owned right of way seems to be a natural choice when connecting between Union City BART and the Newark Junction, I think running all day service (particularly with alternative-FRA compliant vehicle) would be an expensive if not a feasible alternative on UP owned lines.

What we’ve seen from UP and other fright rail companies in recent years:

  • In other cities, such as Denver and Salt Lake City, all-day commuter rail lines have separate tracks adjacent to the freight rail corridors, with wide separation in case of derailment.
  • The blue line light rail in Sacramento, which ran along side with UP, has closer spacing with UP tracks north of Meadowview Station because it was built earlier. The line south of Meadowview has wider spacing due to liability concerns with freight derailment.
  • On the Caltrain line between Santa Clara and San Jose, UP insisted that one of the tracks it owns would not have electrified wires above, as it would on adjacent Caltrain owned tracks.

If all day Dumbarton service were to run on the UP line, it likely would require dedicated tracks and wider spacing from the existing freight tracks, which may require acquiring adjacent properties to widen the right of way. I doubt that UP would accept a scenario where all day lighter passenger trains would share tracks with freight trains. They may be fine with just a few diesel locomotive haul trains, as it is today with ACE and Amtrak, but such operational restraint is what’s keeping the rail project from going forward.

The planners said that they’re considering on-street rail options to get from Newark to Union City. I think such option in the minimum would give planners some leverage over UP and still be able to provide all day service with high TOD potential. There are plenty of arterial streets in Newark, Fremont, and Union City with excess right of way/auto lanes that could be used for rail. It would have the benefit of added transit access to BART and an improvement over existing local bus service.

As this light rail option addresses the downsides of the original commuter rail alternative, it does raise questions whether it would be compatible with the regional rail network. A benefit of the original commuter rail vision is the ability to run direct service across different properties and provide a one seat side from the Central Valley to Palo Alto or Millbrae, even if it is just a couple of trains a day.

In recent years, while there’s more demand for separation between passenger trains and freight trains from freight railroads, the technical differences between commuter rail and light rail are getting fewer. In the past, the law required heavier equipment to operate on passenger or freight railroad tracks, or require strict time separation. The recent development of “alternative compliance,” crash energy management, and requirement for positive train control open up the possibility of using street capable light rail style vehicles and traditional locomotive haul commuter trains on the same tracks at the same time.

Multiple unit TexRail trains share tracks and stations with locomotive haul TRE and Amtrak trains in Fort Worth, Texas.
New Jersey River Line trains are street capable and operate on a freight line outside of Camden.

In this scenario, frequent service (every 15-30 minutes) on the Dumbarton Corridor would be provided with light multiple unit vehicles between Union City BART and Redwood City, with on-street alignment between Union City BART and the Newark Junction. During the peak hours, some ACE trains from the Stockton would jump from the UP line over to the Dumbarton Line, and continue south on Caltrain at Redwood City, to provide that one-seat ride to cities like Palo Alto and Mountain View. Since the Dumbarton Rail corridor is publicly owned, the law gives the public agency the ability to set the rules and share the corridor between different passenger rail services, without having to ask for expensive favors or accept unfavorable operational constraints from freight railroads.

The concept of street rail vehicle sharing tracks with mainline trains is not foreign in Europe.

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