How Important Is UPRR To California HSR?
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On Tuesday, an article in the Hollister Freelance discussed the HSR project from the perspective of Gilroy and the cities that will be in the catchment area of the planned stop there. The piece is timely, since the High Speed Rail Authority will host a project-level EIR/EIS scoping meeting in Gilroy this week (cp. heads-up at the end of this post):
- Thursday, March 26
- Hilton Garden Inn, Ballroom A, 6070 Monterey Road, Gilroy
Three potential concerns are listed: the notion that HSR would bisect the community (cp. our post Grade Separations Done Right), the potential noise impacts (cp. our posts Thunder Alley and La Vitrine) and, the position of Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR):
- Spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said her employer gets “very skittish” about freight trains running in close proximity to high speed rail, whose equipment is very light, [very] fast and carries [lots of] passengers. A UP train derailed and spilled coal onto an [adjacent] light rail line in [Littleton, Colorado on 11 December of 2007, causing the light rail train to derail as well. None of the 30 passengers on board was injured but] Mz Richmond characterized the incident Richardson as “too close for comfort”, adding that safety is her company’s primary concern.
- She also raised concerns about continued access to the existing customer base and winning new business, because freight trains cannot easily and safely cross high speed rail lines at grade. It would be counterproductive if bullet trains ended up forcing freight onto the state’s and the nation’s roads.
- In the same vein, Joseph Thompson, a transportation lawyer in south Santa Clara county claimed that CHSRA had not yet clarified how it would cross UPRR’s tracks between Santa Clara (where they run west of UPRR’s Alviso line) and Pacheco Pass, well east of Gilroy. He asserted that “Union Pacific’s eminent domain trumps High Speed Rail’s” because it had been delegated by Congress and President Lincoln.
The sections of concern are south SF-Gilroy, south Fresno-Merced, the northern approach to Tehachapi Pass, Mojave-Palmdale in the Antelope Valley and part of the Inland Empire route for the phase II spur to San Diego. The Merced-Sacramento section and the “HST/commuter overlay” that is “under consideration” would also raise concerns. All told, roughly 50% of the entire preferred HSR route requires appropriate agreements with UPRR.
Note that while the PCJPB owns the Caltrain ROW, the terms of the 1991 contract with SP – which UPRR acquired in the context of a merger a few years later – give UPRR limited but perpetual trackage rights and 30-minute windows during which it may run its trains “at commuter speeds”. For more details, please see Clem Tillier’s posts Freight on the Peninsual, Port Pork and Memorandum of Understanding. Legally, CHSRA only needs to deal with the PCJPB, but the latter needs to ensure UPRR’s rights are upheld in the process. That could put Caltrain in the middle of a dispute between CHSRA and UPRR, so it should insist on three-way negotiations for issues related to operational safety.
Now, let’s examine the concerns raised above in reverse order:
Re 3: In the 19th century, Congress declared that privately owned for-profit railroads were performing a public service by moving goods and passengers around the country. To that end, Congress delegated to them strictly limited powers of eminent domain for the purpose of expanding the public service. In practice, that referred to widening rights of ways, acquiring land for new turnoffs, sidings, yards etc. The idea was to protect railroads against speculators and other landowners who could otherwise exact extremely high prices because railroad alignments must meet certain minimum radii, maximum gradients etc.
The delegation of eminent domain was not intended to allow railroads to prevent competition or other public services from being delivered. Since Nov 4 2008, California HSR is arguably a public service in development. It is therefore not immediately clear that UPRR’s powers of eminent domain would trump those of the state of California, let alone those of Congress. However, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will seek eminent domain against UPRR anyhow, even for air or ground rights needed to cross. The objective should be to negotiate in good faith.
Re 2: For now, CHSRA, Caltrain and others are drafting plans that ensure existing freight operations can continue unhindered. In practice, that may mean the monopoly dispatcher for a given corridor may need to instruct one or more bullet trains to slow down or stop to give a freight train the opportunity to cross over to the non-HSR tracks via a diamond. Alternatively, the split of HSR and regular tracks could be defined such that most freight movements are anyhow unaffected. For the remainder, one option would be grade separation between the HSR tracks and freight spurs off the main line. Another, possibly cheaper alternative would be to pay UPRR and its customer to stop using a given spur.
Re 1: UPRR has been in business for 146 years, during which time they’ve forgotten more about freight railroad operations than CHSRA can ever hope to learn. In particular, they are fully aware of the risk of derailments, which is very small but non-zero. Since US-style heavy freight trains can be up to a mile long, the engineer in charge of a train may not even notice the derailment of a single truck on a single car at first. Indeed, major derailments involving cars tipping or toppling over and fouling adjacent track are quite rare. Usually, a train can be brought to a full stop long before that happens.
UPRR’s concern relates to the early detection of a derailment event and, to sending early warning to the operator of the service on the adjacent track – preferably via computer-to-computer messaging to avoid delays related to human-to-human interactions. Time is of the essence because a bullet train traveling at 300km/h can take 40 seconds to come to an emergency stop (less if traveling at e.g. 200km/h). During this time, it can cover well over a mile. With CHSRA planning up to 12 trains per hour each way (esp. on the network’s trunk line in the Central Valley), the probability that a bullet train traveling at high speed would be within 60 seconds of the site of a freight rail derailment could be as high as 40% during peak travel periods. That’s if the freight train has already derails, a very low probability event.
The upshot is that even if the bullet train’s automatic/European/positive train control system were notified of a derailment on an adjacent track and applied the emergency brakes immediately, there would still be a high residual risk of a follow-on collision if the derailed freight train were to foul the bullet train tracks. If that were to happen at significant relative speed, the result could be catastrophic loss of life.
It is a fairly pathological scenario but one that is at least theoretically possible. In general, engineers define a hazard as the product of the probability of occurrence and the damage done. Indeed, Burlington North Santa Fe (BNSF) has not raised a red flag on this issue (at least not in public), perhaps because it perceives the hazard as much lower than UPRR does.
In any event, UPRR published a press release on June 4, 2008, giving notice that it had had no discussions with CHSRA on operational safety in two years and no interest in selling any of its ROW. Mehdi Morshed, the authority’s senior engineer, responded with a terse press release of his own, stating that HSR would not share track with UPRR freight trains and citing the excellent safety record of HSR elsewhere in the world (cp. Union Pacific’s HSR Games). Note that the circumstances of the 1998 Eschede disaster in Germany had nothing to do with freight trains and everything to do with the hubris of Deutsche Bahn’s engineers – it is simply not germaine to the issues raised by UPRR.
That does not mean there is no hubris on CHSRA’s part here. US freight railroads are private companies that must pay property taxes on their rights of way, while their competition – the trucking industry – gets a heavily subsidized ride on the nation’s highways. Considering US freight rail operators are for-profit corporations, it is not surprising that they should try to make do without expensive active safety systems and keep maintenance overheads on their infrastructure and rolling stock as low as possible without compromising safety in the existing operational context. UPRR does not want to increase its cost of operations just to accommodate high speed rail.
In other words, if CHSRA wants to have any chance of sticking close to its preferred route, it will need to sit down with UPRR and discuss safety concerns regarding derailments in the California context. Unless and until UPRR’s engineers are satisfied that these concerns are being taken seriously and adequate measures to keep the hazard acceptable are feasible, the business managers will not be willing to offer any part of the ROW. Moreover, they may raise a red flag with FRA even if no land is transacted. Considering a mile-long heavy freight train traveling at 70mph represents a vast amount of kinetic energy, the civil engineering approach (“add more concrete”) may not be sufficient to prevent track fouling in the event of a freight train derailment.
Similar concerns apply to a freight train derailing and hitting a support column for HSR on an aerial structure or, fouling an open trench containing HSR tracks.
FRA has already done some work regarding the aerodynamic interactions between Amtrak Acela Express and freight trains on adjacent tracks. The largest impact was on empty, tall freight cars passed at a relative speed of 110mph. At higher speeds, the response was less pronounced in spite of the greater load pulses at the bow and stern of the passing train because those pulses also lasted less long. The aerodynamic shape of the Acela meant its interactions were less severe at 150mph than those produced by conventional Amfleet trains at 125mph. In any event, the interactions were not considered severe enough to cause a freight train to derail.
The inverse problem, i.e. the serious derailment of an HSR train – mercifully an extremely unlikely event, even in an earthquake (cp. Shake, Rattle and Roll) – could set the scene a follow-on accident with an approaching freight train. However, since there will be far fewer freight trains and they travel at lower speeds, this hazard is a secondary concern. Besides, life is risk, there is no such thing as 100% perfect safety in the transportation sector. The cost of safety measures has to be commensurate with the hazard reductions they achieve.
If CHSRA has not yet done so, it might want to consider hiring a recently retired senior US railroad operations manager with an engineering background, specifically to reach a technical understanding and mutual comfort level with UPRR. Worst case, CHSRA may find UPRR unreceptive even after good faith efforts to address safety concerns. If CHSRA can secure a brand-new ROW that is sufficiently removed from UPRR’s, e.g. in the San Jose-Gilroy section, it might well still be possible to proceed without having to redo that portion of the program EIR/EIS.
Otherwise, the only remaining option would be to select a route that minimized or eliminated statewide interactions between UPRR and the high speed rail system, even if BNSF remains willing to share its own ROW in the Central Valley. The most significant impacts would be on the way out of the Bay Area, on the detour via Palmdale, on the spur up to Sacramento and, on the spur through the Inland Empire – four major aspects of the planned network.
Nevertheless, a solution would be possible, at least for the starter line, see the following map. Please note that the alignment implementation details (at grade vs. below grade) are only valid for the section west of Tracy.
For argument’s sake, I’ve assumed an HSR-capable link across the San Franciso Bay at Dumbarton will prove infeasible because of the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. However, I have assumed an arrangement acceptable to all parties will be found for the entire Caltrain ROW but not for the section down to Gilroy where more freight trains operate. Under that specific set of assumptions, the south bay HSR station would probably have to be moved from SJ Diridon to SantaClara/SJC to secure run-through tracks to the I-880 median. The HSR tracks would cross underneath UPRR’s Alviso line and skirt the vast Newhall yard VTA has reserved for BART to the east. It would make sense to reserve part of that yard for additional HSR platforms and/or a yard, especially since it would lie one level below the BART facilities.
The next problem would be crossing over to Pleasanton/Livermore. The BART extension to Fremont Warm Springs and beyond means that CHSRA’s Altamont variations based on a route through Niles are no longer feasible. Instead, the most likely option would be to tunnel underneath CA-262 and all the way across to Haynes Gulch (Calaveras Road). Six miles long, it would only just be legal to construct this without a third service/escape bore. At least the Calaveras, perhaps even the Hayward fault would need to be crossed underground. Fortunately, approaching Sunol from the south means the new route could bypass both Pleasanton and Livermore by tunneling across to El Charro Rd, one of the alignments being considered for the BART extension to Livermore. The HSR alignment might need to remain underground to cross under both the UPRR Altamont Pass line and Livermore municipal airport. The lakes near El Charro Rd might have to be drained, at least during construction. I’m not sure what they are used for.
HSR would continue east in the I-580 median, deviating only once to keep the alignment sufficiently straight for high speed service. In the interest of keeping express line haul time down, the Tracy station would end up in the I-205 median, well north of downtown. Beyond it, the CA-120 median and sections across farmland would connect the new route to the BNSF alignment just south of Escalon. Modesto would be served at E. Briggsmore, Merced county at Castle Airport with a possible detour around the Merced town.
The BNSF ROW through Fresno is not straight enough for high speeds, even if adequate noise mitigation measures could be found. It might make more sense to construct a western bypass for HSR/BNSF/Amtrak (3-4 tracks) through farmland and, to run a new DMU-based light rail service on the old BNSF ROW through town. This would deliver passengers from downtown to basic “beet field” HSR stations near Gregg and Bowles that would each be served by 50% of the trains originally slated to stop in downtown Fresno.
Unfortunately, even with all these measures, switching to Altamont implies a line haul penalty of 8-10 minutes for SF-LA express trains, relative to Pacheco Pass. To compensate, the detour via Palmdale would have to be sacrificed (cp. Future’s So Bright…) in favor of the technically more challenging but already studied alignment across the Grapevine, past Lake Castaic Wildlife Preserve. For LA county, this sacrifice would presumably not be acceptable unless at least Ontario airport were well served by HSR as early as possible – not an easy proposition if UPRR refuses to co-operate (cp. Quo Vadis: LA- San Diego).
Conclusion: CHSRA had better get into UPRR’s good graces, or the entire project could potentially face massive changes to the route, with the fate of some portions (e.g. Stockton – Sacramento) unresolved. The relevant sections of the program EIR/EIS would then have to be re-done, setting the project back by several years. In particular, simply buying land from someone other than UPRR but very close to its ROW may not be sufficient: UPRR could still raise a red flag with FRA if it feels its concerns regarding integrated operational safety and by extension, liability for accidents and loss of revenue, are not adequately addressed.