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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.
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The end of a modern light rail line

written by andy on

Over the weekend, VTA’s PR team has been promoting the agency’s new bus network that is redesigned around the new BART stations that have yet to open due to numerous construction related delays. Part of the redesign also involved elimination or service reductions of unproductive routes. One of those routes eliminated is the Almaden light rail branch.

The light rail branch was constructed with the southern portion of the Guadalupe main line in the early 1990s. That right of way is part of a former rail spur coming off of what currently is the Caltrain mainline on Monterey Highway. That spur line went all the way down the Almaden Valley. There was another spur line coming off what is currently the Vasona light rail line, following down the path of what is currently Camden Avenue. Those spur lines were built to serve the mercury mines in the valley, as well as the Almaden Winery.

Highlighted is the original rail spur, as recorded on the USGS maps from 1889 (above) and 1916 (below)

The southern portion of the line (south of Almaden station) was closed around 1930s due to closure of the mines, but rail traffic continued on the rest of the spur up to and through the 1970s and it was formally abandoned in 1981.

1950s USGS maps

After the closure the rail spur has been included in the planning for transit on the Gaudalupe corridor (Highway 87). In a 1981 study, planners proposed a light rail alternative, along with other alternatives such as bus lanes on expressway or freeway. The light rail alternative was chosen and built along with a new freeway. The initial light rail alignment on North 1st Street was opened in 1987. The rest of the light rail in downtown San Jose and South San Jose was opened in the latter years until completion in 1991. At the same time, Caltrain service was extended from San Jose Cahill Street to Tamien to connect with the light rail.

The present State Route 85 and 87 rights-of-way that comprise much of the Guadalupe Corridor have been designated for proposed freeways since the 1950s and 1960s. The state and county purchased a large amount of property within the designated rights-of-way. Pursuant to the freeway designation, title to all property purchased by the county was transferred to CALTRANS ownership in July, 1970. By 1972, right-of-way purchasing was suspended due to lack of funding and the implementation of new environmental legislation…

Planning for mass transportation in Santa Clara County began in earnest in 1974 with the “Rapid Transit Development Project”. The County Transit District contracted a study to investigate alternative transit system technologies, delineate high ridership demand corridors, and identify the financial costs and environmental, social and economic impacts of large scale rapid transit systems capable of attracting 30 percent of all daily person trips made in the County.

Guadalupe Corridor Transportation Project, Santa Clara County: Environmental Impact Statement

The idea of the corridor was to bring commuters from the bedroom suburbs in South San Jose to the suburban office parks of early Silicon Valley up north, and turn Downtown San Jose into a shopping and entertainment destination. The downtown’s Fairmont Hotel and Convention Center were all built with the support of the city’s redevelopment agency in the late 1980s. The city tried hard to put a shopping mall in downtown, but that “Pavilion” mall didn’t last very long.

The Almaden branch had always been operated as a shuttle route from Ohlone/Chynoweth with a single light rail car. While the service provided was efficient and frequent (every 10 minutes back in the day), ridership had always been poor for many reasons. In numerous times VTA proposed to end the Alamden service, first in 2003 (when it proposed a 21% service cut) and 2009. Both times the line was saved but not this time.

To check out the situation, I spent a half-hour riding the shuttle one recent afternoon. It was mostly empty, though we had a brief moment of excitement when eight people — two couples, three teens and an old man — got on at Oakridge station.

Scott Herhold – June 2009, A little rail line in jeopardy

In 2009, VTA thought about integrating the Almaden branch into mainline service, which could help boost ridership. However lack of funding, and lack of a staging/turnback facility (pocket track) in downtown basically put the idea off the table. VTA did implement express LRT (as extra trips from Santa Teresa to Baypointe) in 2010 but discontinued in 2018.

This time VTA decided to kill this route after a more methodological approach was taken to redraw the network, which helped brought politicians to come to terms of whether to keep or kill the service, and also without express intention to massively reduce overall service, but rather to reallocate service hours where there’s more ridership potential. Transit service will still be available along this route, but it would be with a bus (as part of a longer route from Downtown) at a 30 minute headway.

On one hand, while there’s no dispute that this line had terrible ridership, cutting this line is no way progress, because we remember back in the day when streetcar lines were discontinued in San Jose and across the country and buses were promoted as a superior substitute when they were not.

On the other hand, there are no easy solutions to save this line. Being in the suburbs, riders can easily access Ohlone/Chynoweth and board the main line there directly. Plenty of parking is available at that stop. Ohlone/Chynoweth is also within a short biking (and scootering as I did on the final night) distance away from other stops. The increasing wealth and access to automobiles in the community also negatively impact ridership. The line lacks captive destinations (like airports, universities, or stadia) where parking is expensive and people have a financial incentive to take transit. Suburban malls like Oakridge have free parking and that mall is not anywhere unique enough for people from outside of South San Jose to take light rail and shop there.

Another factor not well mentioned is that, VTA, like many transit agencies throughout the Bay Area and beyond, has an operator shortage. In the last day of the Almaden line, VTA had cancelled a trip on the blue line during peak hours, turning a 15 minute wait into a 30 minute wait.

Throughout the 2000s VTA used these lcons to represent light rail lines. The icon of orange grapes represented the Almaden line, which was supposed to pay homage to the old Almaden Winery. I guess this is time to get some boxed Almaden wine to celebrate the end of a decade now. Cheers.

Image result for almaden boxed wine

Ubers and Lyfts belong in parking garages

written by andy on

SFO recently implemented a policy to relocate TNC pick ups from the curb right outside the terminals to the top floor of parking garages.

The reason for the relocation is that the curbside pickup has slowed down traffic for everyone, and at times traffic has backed up onto the freeway.

While overall the relocation has worked well, there have been times where sudden increases in demand for TNC pickups have caused significant delays.

The major flaw with the Uber/Lyft business model, which is a major cause for the congestion, is the need to match the exact passenger with the exact car. Rather than operating on a first come first serve basis, the passengers have to look out for a specific car to get on.

While exact match may work fine in the suburbs where density is low and where prior arrangement is needed for any type of pick up anyway, this exact match method is inefficient and unsafe in places with limited curb space and high demand, which besides the airports include after concerts and sporting events.

Passengers on the streets have to split attention between the phone screen and the street for cars. Drivers also have to split attention between the screen and the road. Drivers often get distracted by cancellations and phone calls/text from impatient passengers.

Because of the inefficiencies and congestion, these cars are directed to the parking garages. At the end these companies need to change their booking/matching method to eliminate these inefficiencies.

Some people will always complain for not having curbside pick up, but if you choose a particular method because of price, shouldn’t convenience be part of that trade off. For example, people who want to save on parking can park at off-site parking lots and take a shuttle bus.

When the volume of TNC pick ups is clogging the driveway, and when price of the TNC service is what drives the volume, relocating the pick up to where it has less impact is reasonable, and still very accommodating. Taxis, which have existed for decades and operates on a very efficient first come first served basis, are still accessible curbside. Licensed limos can also pick up curbside. They are no different than premium/valet parking available within walking distance from the terminal.


Blast from the past… one of my ideas

written by andy on

If VTA actually considered, then we might have a rail connection for quite sometime now rather than still waiting for BART and VTA to settle their issues.

I used to have a separate web site for these ideas, but the advent of social media platforms and content management systems, along with changes with my hosting provider, resulted in these contents no longer appearing online.



By Andy Chow

Vehicles: Electric trains consist of up to six low floor light rail vehicles, providing more than 400 seats and can accomodate about 1000 passengers standing and sitting comfortably at maximum length, significantly higher than typical light rail trains.
Route: Connecting to BART at either Union City, Fremont, or Milpitas via a subway under Santa Clara Street and surface alignment on the Union Pacific rail line. The downtown subway will be shared with VTA East-West light rail line. West of the downtown subway, which is near the Guadalupe Freeway, mBART will make use of the Vasona LRT line into the expanded Diridon station
Right of Way: Purchase railroad right of way from Union Pacific.
Stations: Three subway stations under Santa Clara Street. Two surface stations west of the subway on the Vasona LRT line. The line terminates at San Jose Diridon Station. Subway and surface stations west of the subway will be shared with VTA East-West light rail line. Stations north of the subway will be 1-2 miles apart for rapid service. Each station will be constructed or upgraded to accomodate 6-car trains.
Service Frequency: 6-7 minutes peak, 15-20 minutes off-peak, timed to meet BART trains.
Land Use Integration: Transit friendly residential and employment opportunities around stations at least as great if not greater than other rail modes.
Operating Model: Owned and operated by VTA with fare and schedule coordination with BART.
Fare: Barrier-free Proof-of-Payment system, with Translink readers for seamless connection to BART and other systems.

Compatible with light rail: mBART uses standard gauge track and overhead electrification, permitting mBART to share tracks and stations with VTA light rail.
Lower cost: Lower cost light rail like rolling stock and infastructure providing speed, frequency, and capacity comparable to higher cost heavy rail.
– The capital cost for the subway will also be lower because mBART equipment will be able to make tighter turns than BART vehicles and thus reduce the need to buy or obtain easement of private properties for the rail right of way.
– mBART requires less tunneling than BART because mBART can make use of certain portions of the surface and underground LRT right of way.
– The capital cost for the stations, especially for those on surface, will be less because of the simpler fare collection method and the fesibility of installing at-grade crossings.
– Resulting in additional savings by eliminating the need to provide separate surface tracks for VTA light rail.
Greater ridership: Removing VTA East-Valley light rail from surface mix-traffic tracks into subway significantly improves travel time and realiability. High ridership on the underground VTA East-Valley light rail, combining with East Bay mBART riders, help justify the high cost of the subway construction.
Providing balanced benefits across different communities: Unlike a BART-only subway, the subway will be shared with VTA East-Valley light rail. Lower-income commuters traveling from East San Jose will be able to take advantage of the traffic-free, high-speed subway service that otherwise only higher-income commuters from East Bay will enjoy.
Smart investment: For a BART only subway to justify the ridership, downtown San Jose will have to grow to unrealistic high level, so that a small portion of all workers and residents will be able to use BART to the East Bay, leaving all others from elsewhere competing for space on surface streets. On the other hand, mBART/VTA light rail subway only require realistic and modest growth in downtown to justify investment, and leave fewer people using surface streets. Even if downtown San Jose were to grow to the unrealistic level, mBART/VTA light rail subway will still have enough capacity to accomodate the additional riders.
Providing East-West rail backbone for future LRT expansion: Without a grade separated LRT alignment through downtown, the prospect for establishing county wide LRT network will be greatly constrained, due to the limited capacity on surface tracks. mBART/VTA LRT subway allows trains to operate as close as 1.5 minutes without impacting surface traffic, and offers capacity for future extension of LRT system on corridors such as Stevens Creek.
Medium Rail – Heavier than light rail, lighter than heavy rail: Assuming the unrealistic high level development, in simple calculations, which supposed that all passengers travel the whole distance and split evenly to all trains, 4 car trains are enough to carry the ridership, and mBART is more than ready to provide such capacity. Obviously, since not all passengers travel the whole way and most travel during the peak period, the actual demand for capacity may be lower, especially the during the off-peak period. mBART can operate as short as one car trains to save maintenance and electricity cost during low demand period. On the other hand, BART requires a train to have at least three cars.

1) Union City BART connection, no BART extension – Given that most commuters from the East Bay reside in the Fremont, Union City, Newark area, this option gives direct service to most East Bay riders. Also, track connection can be provided in Milpitas between mBART and Tasman LRT for through no-transfer service between Union City and Mountain View during peak period, covering many employment centers in the Golden Triangle area.
2) Shinn BART connection, no BART extension – This option has most of the advantages with the Union City connection, but also has a direct connection with ACE and future Dumbarton Rail. A new BART transfer station must be constructed at Shinn.
3) Fremont BART connection, no BART extension – This option has many of the advantages with the Union City and Shinn connection, but it will require slower operation on street median since the Fremont BART station is not close to any existing railroad right of way.
4) Warm Springs BART connection, BART extended to Warm Springs – This option require most commuters to transfer since mBART and BART connection is not close to any major origin or destination.
5) Milpitas BART connection, BART extended to Milpitas – This option provide riders connection between BART and Tasman LRT. Most East Bay commuters have destinations in the Golden Triangle area, not downtown San Jose. mBART provides a more cost-effective solution for the segment with lower demand.

Detailed map of mBART alignment in downtown San Jose:

Detailed map of mBART alignment in Milpitas:

Detailed map of mBART alignment in Fremont:


End of an era in Seattle

written by andy on

Today is the last day where buses would operate in the Downtown Transit Tunnel in Seattle. Starting tomorrow the tunnel would be rail only with Sound Transit Link service to SeaTac and UW, but will eventually expand as multiple extension projects complete to Northgate/Lynnwood, Bellevue/Redmond, and Federal Way.

I had a chance to visit that tunnel in 2015, about a few months before the Link expanded to UW. I found this unique sharing arrangement between buses and transit to be very cool.

Most of us grow up with very distinct experiences between riding the bus and rail. With buses, you board the bus on the street, you pay as you board, and you ride along with car traffic stopping at every red light. With rail, we go to a dedicated station, buy tickets and go through fare gates, walk up or down to reach the platform and ride the train away from traffic. With this system, you may board a bus normally on the street on one end, but you would arrive in a downtown subway traffic free as if you’re riding on a subway train, but without the hassle of transferring systems like you would almost anywhere else, even the most transit oriented cities around the world.

Many transit systems have rail vehicles operate like buses on the surface (streetcar/tram), but running buses underground like a subway, especially where the tunnel is shared with rail, is truly one of a kind.

Some suggested that the tunnel should be built for rail to begin with, but I think that almost 30 years of bus use in the tunnel, with nearly 20 years of exclusive bus use, proved its worthiness as a bus facility. Under this arrangement, Seattle was able to build its rail system in an incremental basis, to build one of the most expensive and essential infrastructure early on, and to put it to daily use without having the rest of the rail system done. That 30 years of bus use meant two generations of bus fleets. The first generation was a fleet of diesel dual mode vehicles: operate with diesel engine on the surface and off trolley wires underground. The second generation is a fleet of hybrid buses. The trolley wires for the bus had to be removed because it would conflict with overhead lines for rail. Newer hybrid technology for the 2nd generation of bus fleet reduced bus emissions so they could operate safely underground.

Given that many transit systems are pursuing bus rapid transit (to operate buses more like rail with dedicated right of way and/or stations), not operating buses in tunnel is a set back to some degree. To accommodate the extra bus traffic on downtown streets, the city recently designated bus lanes on certain streets and the transit agency will be instituting all door boarding. However those on street traffic treatments are far from unique with varying degrees of success. Also picking up buses curbside on downtown streets will not be anything close to boarding buses inside a subway station.

I wished that Seattle somehow finds a way to continue tunnel bus operations, but we all know that it will come to an end as the region commits to more rail expansions.