"All options are on the table" — NOT

I attended the community meeting at Fremont Elementary School on August 12. During the meeting, the California High Speed Rail Authority representative said that the Authority had not decided whether to put an elevated train through Alhambra along the I-10 freeway if this is the final route chosen for the trains.

She said: “All options are on the table.”

We know the Authority’s representative was wrong for at least two reasons:1 1) the right of way is extremely limited; and 2) an elevated train is the most affordable option.

1) Right of way

Logistically, elevated trains make the most sense along the I-10 freeway between Alhambra and El Monte because there is very little space on which the Authority may build its trains.

Four options

According to the Authority’s own documentation, there are four ways high speed trains can traverse the city: at street level, elevated platform, trench, and tunnel. Each requires a different amount of space dedicated to the high speed rail line, called the right of way. The right of way would be exclusively used for high speed trains although an elevated option may have a four track configuration to also accommodate Metrolink or light rail.

Technical specifications from the Authority identify three minimum sizes for its right of way dependent on its construction method.

  • 50 feet, which is equivalent to 4 or 5 traffic lanes on the I-10.2 This is the minimum size right of way necessary for the trains run at street level, on an elevated platform, or using a cut and cover type tunnel.
  • 70 feet, which is equivalent to 5 to 7 traffic lanes on the I-10. This is the minimum size right of way necessary for trains to run in a trench. This only accommodates two sets of tracks side-by-side.
  • 67 to 120 feet. This is the minimum size right of way necessary for a traditional tunnel, bored underground. The variability in size depends on the number of tracks in each tunnel.

See: Section 2.0 of the Los Angeles to San Diego via Inland Empire Alignment/Station Screening Evaluation Methodology, page 11.

This map provides a comparison between a 50 foot right of way and a 70 foot right of way. The red overlay is 50 feet wide and the green overlay is 70 feet wide. Both are centered on the Metrolink right of way. Click the picture to view a larger size.
50 and 70 foot rights of way - 2

As you can see, a 50 foot right of way would encompass the Metrolink right of way and both carpool lanes. A 70 foot right of way would include the 50 foot right of way and an additional lane on either side.

UPDATE: The Metrolink right of way is 20 feet wide through Alhambra.


An elevated platform is likely the only way to accommodate Metrolink trains if the Authority uses the Metrolink right of way.

Metrolink, regional commuter trains, are much slower than high speed rail so cannot share tracks. The average speed of a Metrolink train on the line between San Bernardino and Union Station is 37 miles per hour. On a number of occasions I have found myself driving alongside a Metrolink train while on the I-10 freeway. The trains usually do not go above 55 miles per hour. In contrast, the high speed trains will travel at 150 miles per hour, just under 3 times the speed of Metrolink at highway speeds. That gross difference in speed requires that Metrolink and high speed trains not share the same tracks.  See: Metrolink Fact Sheet for June 2010 (PDF)

The Authority cannot utilize the Metrolink right of way without somehow accommodating Metrolink trains. The line that travels down the center of the freeway is part of the San Bernardino line, which has the highest ridership of Metrolink’s routes. It carries over 11,000 passengers each day. Failing to accommodate Metrolink trains would result in close to 11,000 more cars on the freeway. Not to mention, it would defeat the sales pitch used to sell the high speed rail project as “green” and stated goal of removing cars from the road.

The Authority can accommodate Metrolink trains on an elevated platform without increasing the right of way required. It can build a third set of tracks on its platform on either side of the high speed rail tracks. It can also accommodate a fourth set of tracks on the platform for additional Metrolink trains, to lease to other agencies or passenger rail companies, or for MTA/Metro to use for light rail. The Authority is using a four track configuration through the San Francisco Bay Area to accommodate Caltrain, the commuter rail system that goes from Gilroy in the south bay to San Francisco. The high speed rail system will utilize the Caltrain right of way to route its trains in the Bay Area.

The Authority cannot accommodate Metrolink with any of the other options unless it were to utilize a larger right of way than would otherwise be required. Building the high speed rail at street level would increase the right of way from 5o feet to 75 feet (25 feet per set of tracks), assuming a three track configuration. Building the high speed rail in a trench would require 105 feet (35 feet per set of tracks), assuming a three track configuration.

[insert image – 75 ft and 105 ft segment]

For those reasons, the Authority cannot use the Metrolink right of way in the center of the I-10 freeway without utilizing an elevated platform on which it would run its trains.

Caltrans and freeway politics

The Authority must limit its taking of traffic lanes on the I-10 freeway. Caltrans and commuters are likely to respond angrily to any plan that takes away freeway lanes.

First, Caltrans will resist any loss of freeway lanes. Taking freeway lanes for high speed rail will require Caltrans to expand the footprint of the freeway to accommodate future growth in highway traffic. Such expansion would come out of the Caltrans budget. Caltrans has carefully planned for future expansion without needing to expand the freeway footprint. That’s why there is a buffer lane between the carpool lane and the next traffic lane to its right.

Second, taking freeway lanes will increase congestion on the freeway and local roadways. This is especially true because the project will have a negligible affect on local commutes. In which case, freeway users will resistant any attempt to decrease the number of lanes available to motorists.

Third, cities and residents along the route will resist any suggestion or attempt by Caltrans to further encroach on the residential neighborhoods and businesses critical to the city’s tax base.

Lastly, for all those reasons, it would be politically untenable for the Authority to use more than the absolute bare necessary to build its railway.

Prior assessments

Furthermore, many of the early assessments of the route by the Authority noted the route between Alhambra and El Monte would need to be almost exclusively elevated because of the limited right of way available.

I- 10 Freeway Alignment: This alignment extends from LA Union Station, following east along I-10 to I-215 and proceeds south to March ARB. This alignment would have several positive attributes including high ridership, low impact to existing rail freight operations, good intermodal connections, and access to Ontario Airport with station at the north side. It also allows for a connection to San Bernardino County with a potential station at Colton. It would have the negative attributes of a “stub end” or difficult curved track configuration connection to Los Angeles Union Station. This freeway alignment, would have the added constraint of limited right-of- way on the freeway, which would require the exclusive use of aerial construction, with many sections of multilevel structures required to pass over existing overpasses and connector ramps – resulting in higher costs than rail corridor alternatives. This freeway alignment would also require relocating and maintaining freeway access and capacity during construction. It is particularly difficult to find available space along the freeway alignments since available right of-way is planned for use for needed expansion projects such as additional lanes, high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes and additional interchange improvements. In general, the rail corridors have existing uses that are typically abutting less sensitive industrial and commercial uses that are more compatible with the high-speed trains than are freeway corridors. The I 10 Freeway corridor had a higher incidence of land use conflicts such as local and regional parks, schools, courthouses, hospitals, universities, and cemeteries

See: Section 2.0 of the Los Angeles to San Diego via Inland Empire Alignment/Station Screening Evaluation Methodology, page 11 (PDF) (Google Docs)

Prior statements by Authority staff/contractor

A representative from the Authority’s engineering contracting firm, Jose Martinez, gave a presentation to the community at the August 9, 2010 Alhambra City Council meeting. During the meeting he told us that the only option would be to build an elevated train. His statement is in line with the screening report quoted above.

Update: The presentation given at that meeting has now been posted by the Authority. The map on screen 15 shows only elevated trains through Alhambra ( referred to as “aerial structure”). This directly contradicts in writing the Authority representative at the Fremont Elementary School. See my subsequent post:  Authority Presentation to Alhambra City Council now available online

2) Cost.

The only cost effective options are to build elevated platforms or run the trains at street level. Cost concerns will eliminate options related to running the trains in a trench or in tunnels.

To build the high speed train through Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Rosemead, it will cost $236 million for an elevated train with two tracks, $260 million for an elevated train with four tracks so it can also accommodate Metrolink, $530 million for a trench, $669 million to build a trench and cover it, and $1.1 billion for a tunnel. Trains sold separately.3

The following chart shows the relative difference in price between the options. Click for access to a larger picture.

Cost comparison[4]

The Authority only has so much money to work with, whether its project is funded by the state or private venture capital funders. At the end of the day, we are not special enough to merit spending more than the bare minimum to run the train through our cities.[5] The eight mile route through Alhambra, San Gabriel and Rosemead is only a small portion of the 160 mile high speed railway between Union Station and San Diego.

In addition, a trench would cost much more than the figure provided. All streets that cross the freeway in Alhambra, except Almansor, go under the freeway. Thus, to build a trench, the Authority would need to pay to dig those streets even deeper or build bridges for those roads to cross above the freeway. Similarly, San Gabriel and Rosemead mostly have freeway underpasses.

Source: Final Bay Area Bay Area to Central Valley High-Speed Train Program Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS), Appendix 4-A | Capital Cost: Unit Cost Table (May 2008).

Bottom line: After taking into consideration right of way as well as cost, the only real and practical option available is to build an elevated platform. Just because the Authority has not made an official decision with regard to the options does not mean they are all on the table.

That said, although untenable, routing the trains at street level along Ramona Road is likely cost effective so there is an off-chance that the Authority attempts to build such configuration (I will have a follow-up post covering those chances).


  1. I am conservative in my statements. I provide sources for my assertions and qualify them where necessary.
  2. “[T]ravel lanes depending upon the type of highway can vary from 10 [feet] to 15 [feet].” A 50 foot right of way will take 5 ten foot lanes, while it will take 3 and a 1/3 fifteen foot lanes.  Caltrans: How wide are freeway lanes.
  3. Each option will likely cost more. These numbers are very rough and do not include all the fixings required of building the high speed train. For the most part, these costs are related only to structural components.
  4. These are rough estimates based on the available information. I have some outstanding questions that can help clarify the cost structure. In addition, these are for S. F. Bay Area segments. Although I expect the costs to be similar, there is a chance they will be different. I do expect to post a part 2 of this post with updated costs if they occur (and I will update the costs here with notations).
  5. Even the very, very wealthy Bay Area enclaves of Atherton and Menlo Park are not special enough to convince the Authority to put the trains in a trench through their communities.
the only option the Authority has is to build an elevated train.
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