Category Archives: California

SMART train needs to avoid runaway costs

Even public transit advocates can be critical of the way government approaches some projects. The New York Times’ startling article, “How excessive staffing, little competition, generous contracts and archaic rules dramatically inflate capital costs for transit in New York,” demonstrates why New York’s partially completed Second Avenue subway costs six times more than Paris’ similarly situated Line 14 extension.

The Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District faces similar out-of-control costs, frustrating those who want the most bang from scarce bucks.

Everywhere the process is dominated by a consultantocracy conditioned to build the perfect over the adequate but affordable.

The proposed $55 million, 3.1-mile extension of SMART’s commuter rail line from Santa Rosa Airport Station to Windsor is an example. In 2008, when North Bay voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax funding SMART, trains going north from Santa Rosa to Cloverdale were promised.

When the quarter-cent levy proved inadequate, the line’s “first phase” instead terminated at Windsor, the next town north of Santa Rosa.

Windsor is a booming community that needs and wants the promised trains.

SMART estimates it will cost $55 million to put the three-mile line into service. With no significant bridges involved, flat topography, existing Federal Railroad Administration Class 2 freight track in district ownership and Windsor’s already-built new depot, $18.3 million a mile seems high.

I ran the numbers by veteran Santa Rosa railroad civil engineer Mike Strider. With one caveat, Strider estimates the job can be done for about $7 million.

One big difference between Strider’s and SMART’s approach relates to maximum speed. SMART built its line to FRA Class 4 standard, allowing speeds up to 80 mph.

The three-mile Windsor segment is so short, given acceleration and de-acceleration times, rail cars can travel at maximum speed for only a mile. To control costs while expediting construction, Strider suggests upgrading the three miles of existing track to FRA Class 3 standards, allowing 60 mph. That change consumes two minutes of extra travel time and save tens of millions.

As an old railroad-hand friend says, “The problems is the tendency of most government agencies to build expensive high-maintenance solutions when simple solutions are at hand because those complex solutions automatically enrich the vendors and justify the employment of those who write the specifications.”

Engineer Strider’s estimate for making the 3.1-mile airport-to-Windsor segment ready for passenger service is in the range of $6.85 million. That’s including installation of Positive Train Control safety technology.

He cut tens of millions from SMART’s best guess by starting with the track. SMART’s plan is to remove and replace the existing three miles of track.

Don’t do it, he says. The current freight-only track is FRA Class 2. Doing a few relatively minor upgrades costing $800,000 a mile — totaling $2.4 million — will bring the three-mile segment up to FRA Class 3 standard which allows passenger train speeds of up to 59 mph.

The balance of his estimate is for two control points, approach signals at Windsor, existing track switch upgrades, improving four grade crossings and a temporary passenger platform at Windsor.

He discards the idea of building a frills-loaded Windsor station platform until service is extended north to Cloverdale. That won’t happen before 2027.

To be conservative, let’s add $3 million for contingencies and soft engineering. Call it $10 million.

Even if Strider’s estimate is low and we triple it to $20 million, it is still a $35 million savings over SMART’s $55 million projection. That’s not chump change.

At a minimum, SMART’s board and General Manager Farhad Mansourian need to summon value engineers and seek alternatives that get the rail cars to Windsor sooner at a lower cost.

Columnist Dick Spotswood of Mill Valley writes on local issues on Wednesdays and Sundays. Email him at


Workers to make 137 rail passenger cars in Central Valley, California

Central Valley BusinessTimes

Jobs for Central Valley workers are being created through a $371 million contract to build railroad passenger cars in Sacramento.
The California Department of Transportation says Sumitomo Corporation of Americas along with Siemens will be fulfilling the multi-state contract for the new railcars, 49 pf which will be used by Caltrans and 88 by the Illinois Department of Transportation.
Building the new passenger coaches will support hundreds of skilled and high-wage manufacturing jobs in California, Caltrans says.
The cars are to be 100 percent “Buy America” from suppliers in California and across the country.
“This contract is moving full-speed ahead and that is good news for Californians, both in terms of job creation and better passenger rail service,” says Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty.
Each car will be built at the Siemens rail manufacturing hub in Sacramento. The plant, which has been in operation for more than 30 years, is also powered in part by renewable energy. The Sacramento facility features full design, engineering, and manufacturing capabilities for not only passenger coaches, but across the rolling stock industry including electric and diesel-electric locomotives, light rail, and streetcars.
Michael Cahill, president of Siemens Rolling Stock, says the new coaches “will use the industry’s latest, proven rail technology to provide passengers with a safe, modern and highly comfortable ride.”
The new railcars will be used on the intercity rail lines throughout California that serve almost 6 million passengers annually on the San Joaquin, Capitol Corridor and Pacific Surfliner Amtrak routes. The new cars will come with interiors that focus on passenger comfort and convenience, such as wi-fi, spacious seats with power outlets, large windows for all passengers, bike racks, overhead luggage storage, work tables, state-of-the-art restrooms with touchless controls and full ADA accessibility throughout the cars.
The first cars are expected to begin production within the year.

Is Elon Musk’s plan for a road network beneath LA more than a pipe dream?

Cities attract wild ideas, from Qinhuangdao’s straddling bus to London’s bike lanes in the sky. As Musk’s Boring Company starts tunnelling, could his plans for underground roads and Hyperloop trains prove the doubters wrong?

In early August, the city council of Hawthorne, California, held a special meeting. It had set aside this time to discuss a major construction project proposed by a high profile company based there in the sprawling Los Angeles basin.

The company was Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, the rocket-building offshoot of the electric car company Tesla, run by the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk. SpaceX had recently spun off another entity, this one aimed at disrupting the tunnel boring business, cheekily named the Boring Company – and it needed the City of Hawthorne’s cooperation.

“We want to prove our technology,” Brett Horton, senior director of facilities and construction at SpaceX, told the city council. The company had recently purchased a used tunnel boring machine from another California city and had begun testing its capabilities below its parking lot. But SpaceX wants to go further, tunnelling a roughly two-mile path beyond its property line and under the streets of Hawthorne. It’s a fairly quotidian infrastructural endeavour, but one tied to a grand vision.

Musk wants to build a vast network of tunnels below cities like Los Angeles in which cars and people will be whisked across town on electrically driven platforms at speeds of 125mph. Like the swooping and merging lanes of an interstate highway, the tunnels would criss-cross the metropolis, far below ground level. Elevators would bring cars, cargo and other vehicles down into tunnels and into the system of tubes on what the Boring Company calls an “electric skate”, then back up another elevator at the desired destination – apparently bypassing all traffic above ground.

“Traffic is driving me nuts,” Musk tweeted in December. “Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging …”

The digging has begun. The company has bored about 160 feet under its own property, with no reported complications. The proposed two-mile extension is being presented as a laboratory for increasing the speed and reducing the cost of tunnelling. It’s a new frontier for a parent organisation that has already developed transformative automobile and rocket technologies.

“The next step is to use what we learn to make stronger, faster tunnel boring machines, to make a safe transportation system, and then to figure out where we want to go next,” Horton told the city council. “If you’ve had the opportunity to look at the videos online, it’s not a secret. We want these tunnels to be everywhere. We want to duplicate the road network in LA underground.

“We want to prove that we can solve traffic once and for all,” he said.
From the aspirational to the absurd

Usually these types of proposed projects don’t get built. Sometimes they’re mere marketing or self-promotion, other times they’re earnest suggestions for a better world – either way, they’re almost always able to generate a conversation.

“Visionary proposals are an essential way to come together in discussion about the city,” says Nicholas de Monchaux, an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California, Berkeley. Big ideas for the future city are nothing new, and although these schemes can sometimes seem preposterous in their ambitions, de Monchaux says they have a power to inspire.

One of the earliest and most enduring visions of an ideal society is presented in the book Utopia, published in 1516 by the lawyer and philosopher Thomas More. “Utopia literally described an island of cities that didn’t exist and couldn’t exist,” says de Monchaux. “But utopias help us think about the world as it actually is and ways we might want to change it – or not.”

Perhaps because of its role in modern life and its impact on urban form, transportation has long been the starting point for these thought experiments. And as technology evolves, these ideas have taken on a variety of new forms, ranging from the aspirational to the absurd.

Near the far end of that spectrum, a company in China gathered global attention in 2016 with plans to build a lane-straddling bus – a novel contraption designed to carry hundreds of passengers over two lanes of traffic, theoretically bypassing congestion. The prototype of a sort of double-wide subway car on stilts, was completed a few months later and given a test run, with regular passenger vehicles driving underneath. But within days the project was stalled, and was abandoned less than a year later after it was accused of being little more than an investment scam. The founder of the company behind the project and 31 employees were recently arrested on suspicion of illegal fundraising.


Tesla Technology Put To Use In L.A. Tunnel Project

Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) is known for its electric cars, batteries, and solar panel innovations, but its drivetrain technology is also being put to use in an unexpected place: underground.

CEO Elon Musk’s pet project, The Boring Company, is using Tesla technology to help dig test tunnels in Los Angeles:

After several announcements of upcoming large scale projects, like a network of tunnels under Los Angeles and an underground hyperloop between New York and Washington DC, the company is now presenting its R&D tunnel project underneath Hawthorne.

They plan to test boring techniques in the tunnel as well as Tesla’s autonomous driving and powertrain technologies on electric platforms to move vehicles.

In April, Musk’s new startup took delivery of their first boring machine and started digging in the parking lot of SpaceX’s headquarters.

Musk has described The Boring Company’s purpose as solving “the problem of soul-destroying traffic.” What began as a small project with a handful of engineers and interns has clearly evolved into something bigger. Large-scale tunnels will be necessary for Musk’s Hyperloop project to even get off the ground (or under the ground, to be more precise), and it looks like they’re making some solid progress.

And using Tesla’s electric drivetrains to power the tunnel boring machines is a near development.

High-Speed Pod Could Get You From LA To San Francisco In A Half Hour

LOS ANGELES ( — We’re getting our first look at a test for a transportation system that could take people from Southern California to the Bay Area in just half an hour.

Hyperloop is building the pods that would move at 700 mph, or near-supersonic speed.

The first private test took place in the Nevada desert.

The company says it now has one full-scale hyperloop but hopes to have three in service in four years.

The founders say this reminds them of another time transportation took a huge step forward. The company says it now needs to get the state and federal governments on board, because getting the right-of-way for land will be crucial to building the system.

BART Is Sounding Like West-Coast NY City MTA

All from California Rail News

First Item: The oldest equipment for the Blue Line dates back to 1990 which is being replaced while major maintenance is also underway for both the Blue and Green Lines. San Diego recently overhauled its oldest Trolley Lines: the Blue and Orange Lines and replaced its original cars from 1982. Meanwhile BART is still using most of its original cars placed in service in 1972 and its original computerize signalling system from the 1970’s which is incompatible with modern computer systems today.


Second Item: You know the feeling: You step into a BART car and are immediately hit with a wave of stagnant, desert-hot air. Trapped in the Transbay Tube, you start counting the minutes until you’re at the next station where, despite the hot temperatures outside, the opening doors will still give you a second to gasp in some fresh air.
Why are some BART cars so darn hot? And what should you do if you’re trapped in a sauna pod?

The reason why cars can reach Saharan temperatures should come as no surprise — the system was not built to be used by the number of commuters who utilize it today. The trains were originally built with vents near the windows to cool seated passengers, which is why when you’re standing elbow-to-elbow, the air feels like it’s never getting to you.
Add in the obvious (packed trains, hot outdoor temperatures, body heat, etc.) and you’re in for an unpleasant ride.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing your train driver can do to fix the problem. Unlike your vehicle, BART cars’ air conditioning is not controlled by the driver. If you’re suffering, the best thing to do is to note the car number (you can find this above the doors or near the intercom) call the driver on the intercom and let them know the problem. They can pass this information along to maintenance so the car can be inspected on its next maintenance cycle.


Third Item

Only a few hours after BART recovered from major delays caused by an equipment problem that snarled trains on the Richmond line, another equipment malfunction next day began causing 30-minute delays at the Union City station, officials said.
BART first reported an equipment problem in the Union City area about 10:47 a.m., advising that the problem was causing a ten minute delay along the Fremont line in the Warm Springs, Fremont, Richmond and Daly City directions.
At 12:30 p.m., BART was reporting that the problem was causing 20 to 30 minute delays at the Union City station.


BART directors will consider a policy that seeks to protect people from immigration raids while riding the transit system or while trying to get a job with it. But the proposal doesn’t use the word “sanctuary” or advocate ignoring federal law.

The Director had better watch his step. Look at what happened to the NYC MTA Director who delayed trains to help two cats out.

Google’s Idea for a New Silicon Valley

NY Times via California Rail News

Google and other technology companies have been criticized for contributing to the sharp increases in housing costs in the San Francisco Bay Area — and not doing much to address the fallout for the hundreds of thousands of lower- and middle-income workers who can no longer afford to live there. The Diridon station plan does not immediately address this problem: It calls for office space for 15,000 to 20,000 workers and only 2,500 units of housing, according to the mayor.

But through a web of public transportation it could connect Silicon Valley to more affordable areas.

By 2025, Diridon station would host Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains and, if fierce opposition by the state’s Republican Congressional delegation is overcome, a high-speed rail line already under construction in the central valley, which would allow someone to live in Fresno and get to San Jose in less than an hour.

San Clemente approves plan to turn historic Miramar movie theater and bowling alley into events center

Orange County Register via California Rail News

A plan to renovate San Clemente’s historic Miramar Theater property – shuttered since 1992 – has won the approval of the city’s planning commission.

Commissioners voted 6-0 Wednesday, June 7 to approve permits so the owners can incorporate the former movie theater, built in 1938, with an adjacent former bowling alley built in 1946 as a single project – an events center with restaurants.

Both buildings occupy the 1700 block of North El Camino Real. The city designates them as historic landmarks in the city’s North Beach area.

The plan is to turn the former 7,836-square-foot cinema into a 435-seat performance and events center and convert the former 5,200-square-foot bowling alley into five specialty-cuisine restaurants with shared seating.

There would be 50 restaurant seats indoors and up to 150 seats in a landscaped outdoor dining area facing El Camino Real. The restaurants could cater for the events center.

The difference between the NEC and other regional corridor services.

M.E. Singer opinion from California Rail News

The premise of regionalization of passenger rail should be incorporated to ensure the viability of any national infrastructure program in the US. Although the California JPAs have created from scratch a spectacular inter-connecting regional program; the Northeast Corridor merely picked-up from where the Pennsylvania, New Haven, and New York Central left off, their remains a void of far too many unserved potential regional corridors.

However, unlike California and the NEC, their is little linkage between other regional states, despite their past history of being well served by a network of passenger rail operated by the private railroads. The issue today is how to incentivize the Class 1s, Amtrak, commuter, and the individual states to work together, as the markets are there, unserved by rail; forced to accept clogged interstates and expensive, infrequent air service–all inhibiting economic growth and tourism, due to a lack of mobility. The answer is not by operating but a daily long distance train, but frequently scheduled, convenient regional trains, capable of quick turnarounds, rather than languishing in yards all day.

Such markets just in the Midwest include: Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison; Chicago-Milwaukee-Green Bay; Summer seasonal services Chicago Wisconsin and Michigan; Chicago-Milwaukee via UP North Line thru Evanston-Waukegan-Racine; Chicago-Champaign-Springfield-Peoria; Chicago-Cleveland-Youngstown-Pittsburgh; Cincinatti-Columbus-Cleveland; Chicago-Quad Cities-Iowa City-Des Moines. Even The Milwaukee Road utilized its new bi-level commuter cars in the 1960s to operate weekends Chicago-Wisconsin Dells. Also, in conjunction with commuter lines, what about Special Trains for the vast number of football events throughout the Midwest? With two run-thru tracks at Chicago Union Station, the stub-end terminal concept should not prevent enhancing schedule convenience and true regional inter-connectivity by run thru services. (In 1972, even Amtrak operated two run thru schedules between Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis.)

The successful California JPA model appears to be the best formula to follow, given how the JPAs control marketing (routes, services, frequencies, fares, advertising), with Amtrak providing T&E crews, staffed depots, and maintenance. LOSSAN JPA has wisely extended schedules from San Diego to run thru LAUPT to serve San Luis Obispo; it is a matter of time before reaching San Jose. San Joaquin JPA acknowledges market potential to schedule day trips between Fresno-Sacramento. Capitol Corridor JPA provides true regional connecting service running from Sacramento thru Emeryville (Oakland) to San Jose, with plans for further route expansion.
What stops the continued growth of these JPAs is the acute shortage of equipment and the Amtrak cost methodology for state services. Given the near breakeven of LOSSAN, even under the current higher cost formulas, perhaps it is appropriate to consider full takeover of all passenger services; to serve as a Beta site for the other JPAs; eventually other regional/state consortiums?

Union Station’s Fred Harvey Room is officially restored

LA Curbed via California Rail News

Just off of Union Station’s South Patio, an elegant sign hangs from a gorgeous wall of brass-paneled windows, stating simply “restaurant.”

That restaurant—a Harvey House that, during World War II, became a popular waystation for soldiers shipping out of the railway station to their posts—shuttered more than five decades ago.

Today, stepping through the glass doors and into the airy Art Deco space, known as the Fred Harvey Room, feels like traveling back in time.

It’s a feeling that’s all the more pronounced now that its neglected mezzanine has been meticulously restored

One of the last restaurants operating in a chain once ubiquitous at railway stations, Union Station’s Harvey House closed in 1967, but continued to host the occasional private event or film shoot, including a music video for Fiona Apple’s 2009 song “Paper Bag.”