Transitions – Part 1: California High Speed Rail Project

The California High Speed Rail Authority is putting its ambitious project from L.A. Union Station to San Diego into hibernation. The Rail Authority budget for the current fiscal year, beginning July 1, has no funding for any design, outreach, or other efforts to build the L.A. to San Diego line, which would potentially go through Alhambra and other cities in the San Gabriel Valley.

Instead, the Rail Authority has decided to focus completely on the first phase of the high speed rail project from San Francisco to Anaheim (Phase I). All funding that originally had been requested for the L.A. to San Diego line has been redirected to Phase I. The Rail Authority expects to break ground next year on a segment in the Central Valley between Fresno and Bakersfield. Phase I service is scheduled to begin between San Francisco and Anaheim in 2020.

What this means for Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley:

Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley have a respite from the high speed rail project. I expect the project to remain in stasis for 5 to 7 years and perhaps longer.

Work on the L.A. to San Diego line will not be restarted until after Phase I is near completion or the state gets a lot of guaranteed money to complete Phase I and begin the L.A. to San Diego line concurrently.[1]

Waiting until 2020 to restart environmental studies for the the L.A. to San Diego line is in the best interests of the Rail Authority. Those environmental studies are necessary to complete the environmental impact report and environmental impact statement (EIR/EIS) required by state and federal environmental laws. The EIR/EIS process is expected to take 2 years to complete based on earlier statements by Rail Authority staff and contractors.

Even though it expects to begin service between San Francisco and Anaheim in 2020, Rail Authority spokespersons told our community that it does not expect to not break ground for the L.A. to San Diego line until about 2025. That means, an EIR/EIS completed in 2017 or even 2020 will be stale and very likely vulnerable to court challenges when the Rail Authority breaks ground in 2025.

Sadly, there is a good chance that Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley get saddled with the high speed rail project like we are with the 710 extension between Alhambra and Pasadena. Delays in the project, cost overruns, and failure to meet ridership estimates may push back additional segments of the high speed rail network into the future. Moreover, if the Rail Authority repeats Caltrans’ mistake with the 710 and tries to use a stale EIR/EIS a court likely will halt all work and require an updated EIR/EIS before work can begin. In which case, our children may be grappling with how to fill a gap in the high speed passenger rail network.

Plan now for the future!

Alhambra and other cities along the I-10 corridor must plan the future of the I-10 corridor now.

The Rail Authority will be back one day. In the meantime, we need to take advantage of the time granted by the budget crunch and have a regional dialogue about what we want the I-10 corridor to look like in 25, 50, and 100 years. That way we can give direction to the Rail Authority when it does restart work on the L.A. to San Diego line instead of the other way around.

I recommend that all practical options for the I-10 corridor be evaluated and debated, even those that sound almost sacrilegious to our car-centric lifestyle. Here are four options that deserve some consideration.

1) No change. The I-10 would continue as it will look in 2013 when Caltrans completes its current construction project. We will be left with a whole host of questions, among them: What volume of traffic can it handle? What is the volume today? What will the volume of traffic be in 25, 50, and 100 years based on current population models? What can be done to handle congestion?

2) Congestion pricing. Multiple lanes would require drivers pay a toll when traffic density increases. Caltrans is planning to test congestion pricing as part of its current construction. During the test period, a single high occcupancy toll (HOT) lane each way would require single-occupant cars to pay a toll to use that  lane. Buses and carpools could use the lane for free but cars with only one passenger (the driver) would pay a toll.

3) Ground level rail expansion. The I-10 corridor would host a ground level double-tracked Metrolink line. Currently, part of the I-10 through Alhambra and its neighboring cities has a single track in a 20 foot right of way. This plan would require about 50 feet for a railway right of way. Meaning, it would take away about 30 feet from the freeway, or the width of 2.5 lanes.[2]

4)  Elevated road or railways. This option is in line with what the Rail Authority has already proposed running through the I-10 corridor. It will look a bit like the 110 freeway does south of Downtown L.A.

Someone will suggest adding a fifth option to expand the footprint of the freeway beyond its current boundaries today.  That should be a non-starter. Small adjustments should be expected for safety or other reasons strongly in the public interest, but no large scale expansions should be made to accommodate additional traffic lanes. If allowed to expand infinitely, when would Caltrans stop expanding the freeway? When it is a mile wide?

An Argument for Ground Level Rail Expansion

It may sound radical today but I personally support the third option, to expand ground level rail.

Under this plan, the Metrolink right of way would be expanded at ground level, a second set of tracks would be laid, and the system electrified and grade separated. Through Alhambra, the plan would take the two HOT lanes that currently do not exist today.

At its most basic, it would be a sister project to Alameda Corridor East (ACE), similar in scope and size. ACE is grade separating the Union Pacific freight railway as it goes through the San Gabriel Valley so as to separate auto and pedestrian traffic from trains. Part of the ACE project will continue the Alhambra trench along Mission Road past the San Gabriel Mission. Unfortunately, like the ACE project, it will be necessary to take some homes and businesses that are along the Metrolink route in other communities depending on the route, otherwise there may not be enough space to double track Metrolink.

The fundamental goal of our transportation system is to get as many people from where they are to where they want to go. With that in mind, the goal of the I-10 freeway corridor is to transport as many people as possible along that corridor. If trains can serve that goal better in the future as our population increases then we need to re-adjust some of our uses of the corridor back to rail. After all, Pacific Electric Railway tracks were torn out to put in the freeway. Of four tracks, the only one remaining is owned by Metro and used by Metrolink.

Expanding ground level rail along the I-10 will provide a number of benefits to the San Gabriel Valley.

First, Metrolink will be safer. Each set of tracks would carry trains in a single direction. Currently, Metrolink tracks are two way, meaning trains traveling both ways use the same tracks. Most of the gnarly Metrolink accidents have been head-on collisions due in part to track sharing by trains going in opposite directions.

Second, Metrolink’s capacity to carry passengers will increase. Today, its capacity is limited to the number of trains it can run along a particular route. Double tracking will allow Metrolink to safely increase the number of trains it can run.

Third, improving both safety and capacity can make Metrolink more convenient for travelers along the route. That in turn would mean fewer cars on the freeway.

One thing to keep in mind is that population will only increase. Few who live along the I-10 corridor want all those people trying to drive, further clogging the freeway and city streets. Our roads are already congested so we need to find other ways to utilize the corridor to get people around.

Fourth, emissions along the I-10 could be decreased. First, Metrolink will be electrified so its emissions will decrease to a negligible amount. Although diesel engines are cleaning up due to EPA regulations they still will have emissions. Second, removing two lanes of traffic will decrease particulate matter pollution. Apparently, a large part of the localized pollution along the freeway is dust from tires. If you live along freeway, you know tire dust as the black soot you can never seem to keep out of your house. It is also the reason areas adjacent to freeways have higher incidences of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Tire dust contains more than just rubber.

Fifth,the Rail Authority would not have any reason to build an elevated structure through the San Gabriel Valley. Metrolink and the Rail Authority could enter into a joint use plan that allows high speed trains to use Metrolink tracks. Moreover, Metrolink could generally serve the local L.A. to San Diego passenger rail market if it is double-tracked, electrified, and grade separated all the way to San Diego.

High speed rail will not travel at high speeds through our area. According to the Rail Authority, its trains will travel between 125 and 150 miles per hour through densely populated areas such as the San Gabriel Valley. If sharing tracks, its trains will be limited to the top speed Metrolink trains travel, which would be about 110 to 125 if grade separated, double tracked, and electrified.

Of course, there are several significant hurdles to such a plan.

1. Despite the fact that no law forbids Caltrans to take away freeway lanes it is not politically practical (not today at least). Freeway users and the business community will be outraged should anyone even mention taking away a freeway lane, let alone for rail.

HOT lanes should be considered operating lanes for sake of discussion because they are already under construction and will open in 2013. The HOT lane experiment will not be converted back to unused median. Caltrans will either continue its congestion pricing model or convert it to a HOV lane. That’s at least what Metro and Caltrans have said.

A Caltrans right of way rep who I spoke to last year told me that Caltrans would consider requests by the local county transit agency (Metro, OCTA, etc) if it directed Caltrans to utilize freeway lanes for rail transit. Caltrans does have a history of permitting joint use of certain freeway rights of way. Examples include Metro’s Gold Line in the center of the 210 freeway and Green Line in the center of the 105 freeway in South L.A. County.

2. Like any major infrastructure project, this project would cost a lot. How much? I’m not sure, but ACE is expected to cost a few billion dollars, the Expo light rail line cost Metro about $108 million per mile, and Caltrans is spending $1.34 billion to widen and install a carpool lane on the 405 in West L.A. from the 105 to the 101 freeways. Costs will depend on a number of factors including route chosen, whether property needs to be acquired, terrain, and costs to mitigate negative affects. This project, like other transit projects have a number of funding resources available to them including gas taxes, sales and other use taxes, and federal and state grants.

Bottom Line

Alhambra and other communities along the I-10 corridor need to take advantage of additional time given by the Rail Authority’s change in priorities. The Rail Authority will be back in the next decade, intent on building a high speed rail line between L.A. Union Station and San Diego. The most likely route will lead the high speed trains along the I-10 corridor.

The San Gabriel Valley needs to proactively consider and plan what we want and need of our future transportation infrastructure and freeway corridors.Doing so will give us a stronger leg to stand on and dictate to the Rail Authority how it may traverse our communities. Failure to do so means the Rail Authority will build 50 to 75 foot elevated platforms on which its trains will travel 125-150 miles per hour,  every 7 to 15 minutes, from 5 a.m. to midnight, 365 days a year.

Alhambra123 will continue to follow the high speed rail project and post from time to time when information specifically relevant to Alhambra and the San Gabriel Valley becomes available.

That said, we will also continue to post points of interest relevant to Alhambra. The goal of this web site has always been to discuss and help improve the quality of life of Alhambra residents. Now that the high speed rail project is no longer an imminent threat, we will continue to broaden the web site’s focus to more generally include other related aspects of quality of life.


1. Needless to say, there is very little chance the state will suddenly become flush with cash and able to afford working on Phase I as well as the L.A. to San Diego line at the same time. The state only has a small amount of overall funding for Phase I of the high speed rail project. Phase I is estimated by the Rail Authority at $43 billion. Other estimates peg the costs at closer to $76 billion. Currently, the Rail Authority has about $13 billion.

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.

More detail: Routes to be dropped, 75 foot high viaducts, and budget woes

This follows-up my last post. Alhambra city staff will present an update to the Alhambra City Council and residents during the next city council meeting on Monday at 7pm. Staff will tell us that it recently learned that the Rail Authority will continue to study routes along the I-10 and SR-60 freeways. Rail Authority staff will also recommend that it drop the two routes that use and are adjacent to the Union Pacific right of way. City staff will also inform us that the high speed trains will fly by on elevated structures that average 75 feet or more in the air and at times are over 100 feet above the ground. Representatives from the Rail Authority will not be in attendance. The city has been asked to send a letter of formal support or opposition to present the Rail Authority board at the March 3 meeting.

In addition, I learned today that the Rail Authority likely will put further study of the L.A. to San Diego line on hold until funding becomes available. The state budget does not include funding for further design work, supplemental alternatives analysis, or the EIR/EIS process. In addition, folks in El Monte need to know that an El Monte high speed rail station likely will force the use of eminent domain and destruction of homes near the current El Monte station.

COG Meeting

The Rail Authority met with the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments (COG) High Speed Rail Working Group on January 13, 2011. Below is a memo that summarizes the meeting. It highlights a timeline of events to come and decisions by Rail Authority staff (in reality, contractors) about what they will recommend to its board in the preliminary alternatives analysis report that will be presented on March 3.

Highlights (my notes follow each):

  • Staff/contractors will recommend the Rail Authority continue studying the routes along the I-10 freeway and SR-60 during the EIR/EIS process.
    • The City of Alhambra web site makes it appear as if the SR-60 route will be dropped — it will not be dropped. That said, apparently the Rail Authority only discusses the negative aspects of the SR-60 route when talking to the COG and cities, including the superfund sites, Whittier Narrows Dam, and the San Gabriel River.
    • Separately, I confirmed with the Rail Authority that the SR-60 route will continue to be studied. The route along the Union Pacific right of way will be dropped because the State of California lacks eminent domain over freight railroads (federal jurisdiction). It will also withdraw the route that is adjacent to the Union Pacific right of way because it is too destructive.
  • The Rail Authority is using an elevated platform as its default alignment along the I-10 freeway between the 710 and 605 freeways. It says it will continue studying a trench/tunnel option.
    • Note that a trench and tunnel are both prohibitively expensive. If the Rail Authority will not build a trench/tunnel through the uber-wealthy communities on the San Francisco Peninsula, what makes us think it would spend gobs of money to do so through our communities?
  • Coming from Union Station, the trains would approach the 10 freeway from a tunnel beneath Boyle Heights. The east portal for the tunnel will be located somewhere around Eastern Avenue in the City Terrace area of L.A., near Cal State L.A. See Map #1 below.
  • The minimum height for an elevated platform is 27 feet from ground level (or structure) to the bottom of the platform.
    • That means the tops of the wires would be about 50 feet high. That also means trains may continue to run below the elevated platform along the I-10, since it would only need 16 feet of clearance for cars and buses but 27 feet minimum for trains.
    • The maximum grade change allowed for high speed trains is 2.5%. That means the trains will stay level as the road dips and the platform height will vary based on depth of dips in the road.
    • The high speed train platform will be higher than 27 feet through much of Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Rosemead. As the City of Alhambra web site says, that 27 feet is a minimum height from the road level to the bottom of the platform. The trains will travel above the 10 & 710 freeways interchange. At that point, the platform will be 40 to 50 feet above the interchange (75 feet above street level of the I-10 freeway). The trains will also be about 100 to 110 feet above the street level at the wash (just past the 710).
      • For perspective, view Map #1. It is split into two sections. The top shows an elevation profile that shows the height of the platform relative to the ground. The bottom section shows a birds’ eye view of the map.
      • Map #2 is likewise split into two sections. The elevation profile is the bottom section, although I have not had time to calculate or insert the path of the trains to provide perspective similar to Map #1.
  • The Rail Authority intends to build above the existing pedestrian and auto bridges along the route if it builds an elevated structure
  • A station in El Monte likely will require homes and/or businesses to be torn down, but the Rail Authority cannot say how many yet because it is too early and it has not done enough work to give a reliable answer.
    • A high speed train station will require a space 7,600 feet long by about 100 feet wide. That much space is necessary to accommodate 4 tracks, with platforms 1,600 feet long and 6,000 feet to maneuver/switch trains to the platform tracks. In addition, the Rail Authority will need space for the station itself.

Additional Rail Authority Statements

I also asked questions of the Rail Authority that are related but not addressed in the COG memo. Here’s what I found out:

  1. After the March 3 Board meeting, the Rail Authority likely will place further work on the L.A. to San Diego line on hold. The state budget currently does not fund the supplemental alternatives analysis or the EIS/EIR for L.A. to San Diego.
  2. The Rail Authority will post the alternatives analysis report to its web site the week before the March 3 Rail Authority Board meeting.
  3. The Rail Authority has completed about 2% of its design and engineering work. It must complete a minimum of 15% before it can begin the EIR/EIS process. In addition, it will need to have formal scoping meetings before it can begin the EIR/EIS.
  4. There are no plans for Metrolink trains to run down the center of the freeway as they do right now. Instead, there are discussions about sharing the elevated platform with Metrolink trains. The Rail Authority also thinks it is possible that Metrolink trains use Union Pacific’s Alhambra Line. That line runs in a trench down Mission Blvd through Alhambra and through San Gabriel and El Monte.
    1. I am skeptical that Union Pacific will ever allow Metrolink long-term access to its tracks if it is openly hostile to the idea of sharing a right of way with the high speed rail project.
    2. Union Pacific and Metrolink currently have an informal quid pro quo that allows either to use tracks that belong to the other when necessary. That usually boils down to times when construction needs to be completed, a train has broken down on the tracks, or some other closure necessitates temporarily re-routing trains.

COG Memo

This memo was prepared by the COG to summarize what occurred at its working group meeting.

Map #1

This map was prepared by the City of Alhambra staff based on diagrams shown during the COG working group meeting. It has two sections. The first is an elevation profile that shows the height of the high speed rail platform relative to ground elevation and structures such as the 10/710 freeways interchange. The second section is a bird’s eye view of the area. Scroll to see the rest of the map.

Map #2

This map shows the path of the trains through the rest of Alhambra into San Gabriel and Rosemead. It includes an elevation profile; however, it does not include information about the height of the trains. Scroll to see the rest of the map.

Bottom line:

  • Attend the City Council meeting — Monday January 24 @7pm in City Hall. Now is when you voice your concerns and opinion to the City Council so it may incorporate your feedback into how it pursues this matter. If you are not in Alhambra, then you need to contact your City Council and demand it respond to the Rail Authority’s plans. This is part of the democratic process.
  • The SR-60 freeway route will still be studied. Only the two routes that use and are adjacent to the Union Pacific right of way will be withdrawn from consideration.
  • The Rail Authority likely will put further study on hold until funding becomes available. The state budget does not include funding for further design work, supplemental alternatives analysis, or the EIR/EIS process.
  • An El Monte high speed rail station likely will force the use of eminent domain and destruction of homes near the current El Monte station. Get the word out.
  • The high speed trains will fly by on elevated structures that at times are 75 feet or more in the air.

Meeting Announcement (MONDAY): Alhambra City Council meeting

This is short notice, but an update regarding the high speed rail will be given at the regular Alhambra City Council meeting — on MONDAY.

According to the city web site, the Rail Authority staff will only recommend one route to its board — the I-10 freeway. We already knew it would drop the routes using and adjacent to the Union Pacific right of way, but now it appears the SR-60 route will not receive further consideration either. In addition, the trains will run on an elevated platform that averages 74 feet above street level through Alhambra (I’m not sure about the other cities). I called and emailed the Rail Authority’s outreach contacts as well as the City Manager’s office for clarification.

So attend the meeting to hear an update and give comments. And tell your neighbors, family, friends, and anyone else you think will be interested.

Monday, January 24, 2010

Regular City Council Meeting

7 p.m., City Council Chambers

“The train will utilize a tunnel from Union Station in Los Angeles to a portal in East Los Angeles around Eastern Avenue in Los Angeles. The train will climb to approximately 475 feet above sea level. The I-10/710 interchange will be easily cleared, in that it stands about 415 feet above sea level at its highest point. The train will maintain a level course of travel through the City of Alhambra at approximately 474 feet above sea level, which is about 74 feet above grade.”

The top part of the diagram shows a cross section showing elevations, while the bottom part shows a bird eye view of the route. You might need to scroll to see either portion of the diagram.

Stay tuned for more info, and I will see you on Monday.

Why the I-10 corridor is a possible route

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (a.k.a. Metro, and formerly known as M.T.A.) and Union Pacific are two major reasons why the Rail Authority is seriously looking at putting its high speed trains down the I-10 corridor through Alhambra and our neighboring cities.

Metro is the lead agency in the county for transportation planning and has a lot of sway with the Rail Authority. Metro believes that the 60 freeway is the only viable option of the three original routes considered. At the same time, Metro is planning to use that same route along the median of the 60 freeway for its Gold Line extension, which is currently in the environmental study phase. What’s more, Metro owns the railway right of way currently used by Metrolink in the center of the I-10 freeway, and has offered it to the Ratil Authority.

Union Pacific is the largest railroad in California. It owns the right of way for one of four alternative routes proposed by the Rail Authority for its high speed trains. Union Pacific’s customers likely own the property for the adjacent route. Union Pacific has consistently told the Rail Authority it will fight tooth and nail to resist any plans to put high speed trains near its rights of way. Very conveniently for Union Pacific, federal law is currently on its side.

Proposed Routes

The Rail Authority has decided that its trains will travel from Los Angeles Union Station to the Inland Empire and then south to San Diego.To that end, it has proposed four possible routes for its trains through the area west of the 605 freeway:

  1. On the the Union Pacific right of way, south of the 60 freeway through the cities of Commerce and Industry where relatively few people live. It is the purple line in this map.
  2. Adjacent to the Union Pacific right of way.
  3. On the median, within the right of way, for the 60 freeway.
  4. On or along the I-10 freeway

LA to Inland Empire

Right of Way

A right of way is the strip of land on which a company or government agency has the right to run its transportation infrastructure such as roads or railroad tracks. Caltrans owns the right of way on which it built the I-10 freeway. Similarly, Metro owns the right of way down the center of the I-10 freeway on which Metrolink operates its commuter railway. And in the case of Union Pacific, the right of way is the land that Union Pacific owns or has the right to use to lay its train tracks and operate its railroad business. Union Pacific owns many rights of way through Southern California. One such right of way runs along Mission Road where it has been put in a trench through Alhambra.

Utilities also have rights of way in which they run their wires and pipes. For example, Edison has an easement over the back portions of most lots in my neighborhood. An easement gives the holder a property right to use that piece of property. Edison uses its easement to locate its poles, transformers, and electrical lines.

Union Pacific

Initially, the Rail Authority expected it could run its high speed trains in existing rail corridors. After all, Union Pacific rights of way are often wider than the space Union Pacific actually uses to run its tracks or operate its railway.[1] However, Union Pacific has said no. It has consistently told the Rail Authority it will fight any plans to put high speed rail near its rights of way to protect its property and contract rights. It wants nothing to do with high speed trains, will refuse to sell any of its rights of way to the Rail Authority, will deny permission to share its rights of way with the Rail Authority, will not allow the Rail Authority to cross its rights of way, and will even fight plans to put the high speed trains near its right of way.[2]

A commentary on the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) web site says: “It will be a mistake to assume cooperation from the [Union Pacific] on future rail passenger service. What might [Union Pacific] want that could change their mind? Money is part of the answer…. [It] would like fewer headaches dealing with government bodies….” Liability. “The potential for lawsuits when passengers are involved is much greater than when a container of television sets is destroyed…. [F]or now [high speed rail] will be a harder sell than a telemarketer interrupting your dinner to sell timeshare vacations on the Gulf of Mexico.”

Union Pacific’s letters

Union Pacific has written a series of letters to the Rail Authority with regard to every proposed alignment of the high speed rail line. All letters strongly state that “it is not in Union Pacific’s best interests to permit any proposed high-speed rail alignment on our rights of way.” [3]

It makes similar arguments in each letter, telling the Rail Authority that situating the high speed rail line on or along the Union Pacific rights of way will interfere with its ability to move freight, that Union Pacific serves a vital service to the economy, and that California lacks the power of eminent domain to seize the right of way.

  1. “Major rail shippers are located along [the Union Pacific rights of way in Southern Calfornia]. In many instances, these shippers have constructed large unloading and storage facilities, including facilities for lumber, manufactured goods, automobiles, feed, and a multitude of other goods crucial to the Los Angeles area. Any [high speed rail] alignment on or adjacent to these [rights of way] would terminate Union Pacific’s ability to serve these shippers, and future shippers needing rail service, leading to serious economic loss to shippers, consumers, the state and the railroad.” [3]
  2. “Union Pacific will deem any attempt by [the Rail Authority] to interfere with Union Pacific’s operations over these subdivisions, including service to shippers, or to appropriate any part of its right of way by eminent domain, as an attempt to force a de facto abandonment of freight service in violation of federal law.” [3]

Eminent Domain is not Available to California
The last point regarding eminent domain is likely a serious obstacle to using the Union Pacific right of way.

As Union Pacific points out in a number of its letters, federal law requires that railroad operators obtain approval from the Surface Transportation Board in the U.S. Department of Transportation before it may abandon a rail line. In one such letter, it states: “As a common carrier railroad, Union Pacific is subject to the requirements of federal law governing abandonment or discontinuance of freight operations. Specifically, the Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act (49 USC Section 10501 et seq.) prohibits a railroad from abandoning or discontinuing freight services over main or branch lines of railroad without authority from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB).”

Federal railroad laws and regulations apply to Union Pacific and control in situations when federal and California laws conflict, despite the fact that the Union Pacific right of way is located in California. This is because the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government power to regulate interstate commerce. Union Pacific’s rail operations in Southern California are tied to interstate commerce as it transports cargo from the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to other states.[4] For that reason, the Surface Transportation Board has jurisdiction and has the power to grant an eminent domain request by California.

The Surface Transportation Board is unlikely to grant California’s request to use eminent domain to take any portion of the Union Pacific right of way. The Union Pacific right of way is actively used as part of a main rail line between Los Angeles and points east. In contrast, the Surface Transportation Board denied the City of Lincoln, Nebraska permission to use eminent domain to take a 20 foot portion of a little used, dead end spur.[5] The Surface Transportation Board “held that taking a five-block long, twenty-foot wide swath of a railroad’s right of way would unduly interfere with railroad transportation.”[6] If it would not allow the condemnation of a portion of a lesser used spur, the Surface Transportation Board will almost certainly not allow the condemnation of any portion of a main line in one of the nation’s busiest rail corridors.[7] As the appellate court that decided City of Lincoln said “[c]ondemnation is a permanent action, and it can never be stated with certainty at what time any particular part of a right of way may become necessary for railroad uses.” [8]

In all likelihood, it would take an act of Congress before California could utilize eminent domain to take a small sliver of the Union Pacific right of way. It would be an uphill battle against the business lobby who want a cheap, scalable way to transport goods, the environmental lobby who want diesel trucks off the roads, and a variety of other interests who would not want their states inconvenienced so California could be so California.

For those reasons, eminent domain likely will not be available to California to gain access to the Union Pacific right of way.

UPDATE: The fact that California does not have the power of eminent domain over Union Pacific is not lost on the Rail Authority. Genoveva Arellano, public relations contact for the L.A. to San Diego segment of the high speed train project told the Pasadena Star News that “it’s “well known” that Union Pacific has not allowed the use of its tracks for the project, and that “it is likely that [the Union Pacific right of way] will be moved off the map.”


Metro is responsible for regional transportation planning for Los Angeles County, setting transportation priorities, funding many of the transportation projects in the county, and, of course, operating the large bus and light rail fleet.

As a result, Metro is highly involved in the I-1o freeway corridor through the county, including Alhambra. It helps Caltrans set priorities and pay for modifications and improvements to the freeway. For example, Metro is is partially funding the current I-10 construction through Alhambra and the rest of the San Gabriel Valley. Also, Metro runs its buses on the carpool lanes, called the busway, and will operate what it calls the high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes Caltrans is building.

Metrolink Right of Way

What’s more, Metro is the sole owner of the railway right of way in the center of the freeway, currently used by Metrolink. The Southern Pacific did not retain an easement or other property right to the right of way when it sold the right of way to Metro in the early 1990’s.  Also, there are no contracts with freight or other operators to use the right of way. According to Alex Clifford, Metro’s Executive Officer for High Speed Rail, the freight trains that do run down the center of the 10 freeway do so as a courtesy, usually in response to tracks closed for construction, stalled trains, and accidents, or to alleviate congestion. Apparently, it is also used for special occasions or party trains.

The fact that Metro is the only owner of the right of way makes the Rail Authority’s job easier. It only needs to appeal to Metro, rather than a host of other parties like it does in other areas. For example, the Southern Pacific railroad retained an easement to run freight trains on the right of way it sold to Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area. An easement gives the holder a property right to use that piece of property. Union Pacific assumed the freight easement on the Caltrain tracks when it purchased Southern Pacific.[9] Union Pacific has told the Rail Authority it must accommodate Union Pacific freight trains and that it has no intentions to abandon the line or allow an eminent domain proceeding to succeed, similar to its assertions with regard to the proposed high speed rail line through Commerce and Industry (discussed above). [9] Incidentally, the Rail Authority’s current plans to build an elevated railway along the Caltrain right of way may allow Union Pacific to increase freight traffic along the line; it is currently limited to operating when Caltrain does not, 12am to 5am.[10]

Metro’s Role

In addition, Metro is a partner agency in the high speed rail project through the county. Together, Metro’s role as a stakeholder in the project and involvement in the I-10 corridor leads it to have a lot of sway with regard to where the high speed trains will run through the county.

According to Mr. Clifford, Metro will allow the Rail Authority to utilize the Metrolink right of way if it can accommodate Metrolink trains, not disrupt the bus/carpool lanes, and not force Caltrans or Metro to expand the size of the freeway footprint. Meeting those criteria is a big challenge because the freeway has a number of curves and the right of way is small (20 feet wide). He said that Rail Authority engineers were told to be creative and figure out a way to make it work during the alternatives analysis process.

Mr. Clifford also repeated what the Rail Authority has been telling us, that all options are on the table. That is, except for running the trains at street level. He agreed that street level is impossible because the Metrolink right of way is 20 feet and not wide enough to accommodate two tracks. He told me that “the right project might cost a little bit more.” In that way, the Rail Authority engineers are looking at a number of options including: 1) cut and cover tunnel; 2) cantilevered trench, where some vehicle traffic runs above trains while the center of the trench is open to the sky; 3) elevated platform above vehicle traffic; and 4) elevated platform above trains.[11]

I am still skeptical. Costs will lead and control the design chosen. I stand by what I said in a previous post: “All options are on the table” — NOT. I find it hard to believe that such a grand, expensive project will be allowed to spend to get the project right. In addition, the roads through Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Rosemead mostly go under the freeway. A trench or tunnel option will either require the Rail Authority to re-route the roads above the freeway ($ ca-ching $) or go below those roads ($ ca-ching $ ca-ching $). Moreover, when it comes down to either accepting a less desirable outcome or letting the high speed rail extension to San Diego die due to costs, The Metro board will listen to the business, environmental, and union lobbyists and vote for the cheaper, elevated trains.

Metro’s role and power to sway the Rail Authority cannot be underestimated. Our focus, as a community, must be on Metro, its board, leadership, and transit planners, if we have any hope to kill plans to put the high speed trains through our community.

Bottom lines:

  • Contact Metro’s board members and let them know how you feel about high speed trains coming through Alhambra and our neighboring cities. Metro will be largely responsible for routing high speed trains down the I-10 freeway, if the Rail Authority picks this route. Not only does it have a lot of sway as the regional transit planning agency, but it owns the right of way and has already offered it to the Rail Authority, albeit with strings attached. [12]
  • Contact your members of the House of Representatives and Senate and let them know how you feel about high speed trains coming through Alhambra and our neighboring cities. Demand that they pass legislation that makes it easier for states to use under-utilized railway rights of way. The Department of Transportation should allow the use of eminent domain to build high speed passenger trains when the existing railroad uses less than one half its right of way. For Alhambra, contact Adam Schiff, Diane Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer.
  • Remain constructive in your criticism of the Rail Authority’s plans to route its high speed trains through Alhambra. Although it may seem pre-ordained the trains will come through Alhambra, that does not mean they will. And if they do come through, by remaining constructive, we may actually improve our situation. I would personally like to see less dirty diesel and may be personally persuaded should Caltrans eliminate more big trucks from the highway or at least charge a hefty toll to discourage their using the highway (then again, that’s another agency or two that needs to make such a rule).[13]


[1] You need only look at a satellite map of railroads to see how much right of way is actually used. I drew a box around an area of the right of way in the following map to show an approximate slice of the right of way. If anything, it is larger than what I show and goes up to the fences or buildings in the picture.

View Right of Way in a larger map

[2] See the letters sent from Union Pacific to the Rail Authority (Google Docs). One example of its strong wording is: “Union Pacific will not voluntarily make these rights of way available to the corridor project under any circumstances.” Letter from Jerry Wilmoth, General Manager Network Infrastructure for Union Pacific to Dan Leavitt, Deputy Director of California High Speed Rail Authority, Re: Union Pacific Railroad Scoping Comments For San Jose to Merced Joint EIR/EIS, page 15 of 40 (April 8, 2009)

[3] Letter from Jerry Wilmoth, General Manager of Network Infrastructure for Union Pacific, to Dan Leavitt, Deputy Director of the California High Speed Rail Authority, Re: Union Pacific Railroad Scoping Comments for Los Angeles to San Diego via Inland Empire EIR/EIS (November 23, 2009). (Google Docs). Also, see the various letters relating to the San Francisco Bay Area to Central Valley section of the high speed rail system. (Google Docs). See also: David Goll, Union Pacific opposes Calif. high-speed rail plan, Silicon Valley / San Jose Business Journal, May 11, 2010; Dennis Lytton, Latest Union Pacific Extortion Letter to California Shows That FRA and Possibly Congressional Legislative Guidance Are Needed, Unofficial California High Speed Rail Blog, May 14th, 2010; Robert Cruickshank, More Vegas Rail Options Emerge – And So Does Union Pacific Opposition, Unofficial California High Speed Rail Blog, May 23rd, 2010; Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) (discussing Union Pacific letter)

[4] “Congress and the courts long have recognized a need to regulate railroad operations at the federal level. Congress’ authority under the Commerce Clause to regulate the railroads is well established …” “[T]he plain language of two sections of the ICCTA explicitly grant the STB exclusive authority over railway projects…. [T]he board … [has] exclusive jurisdiction over “the construction, acquisition, operation, abandonment, or discontinuance of spur, industrial, team, switching, or side tracks, or facilities, even if the tracks are located, or intended to be located, entirely in one State.” 49 U.S.C. § 10501(b)(2) (1997).” City of Auburn v. US Government, 154 F. 3d 1025, 1029-1031 (9th Circuit, 1998) (concluding that any state law that prevents a railroad from constructing or operating a line constitutes an impermissible regulation); Wisconsin Central v. City of Marshfield, 160 F. Supp. 2d 1009, 1013-14 (Western District of Wisconsin, 2000) (finding that city’s attempt to condemn railroad property constituted a regulation and was therefore expressly preempted).

[5]City of Lincoln v. Surface Transportation Board, 414 F.3d 858 (8th Cir., 2005)

[6] The Surface Transportation Board and courts are likely to look at the uses, traffic capacity, and importance of the corridor. In one recent case, Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), a municipal rail authority tried to use eminent domain to convert a lease it had with Union Pacific into an easement. In its analysis, the district court noted that “traffic on the property that CTA seeks is “among the most intense on Union Pacific’s interstate railroad…. And far from being a routine, non-conflicting use…. CTA runs more than 60 commuter trains on the Right of Way and [Union Pacific] operates more than 30 freight trains on the right of way.” Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Chicago Transit Authority, Case No. 07-cv-229, (Northern District of Illinois, 2009).

[7] City of Lincoln v. Surface Transp. Bd., 414 F.3d 858, 862 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Midland Valley R.R. Co. v. Jarvis, 29 F.2d 539, 541 (8th Cir. 1928)).

[8] City of Lincoln v. Surface Transp. Bd., 414 F.3d 858, 862 (8th Cir. 2005);

[9] Letter from Jerry Wilmoth, General Manager Network Infrastructure for Union Pacific to California High-Speed Rail Authority, Re: Union Pacific Railroad Scoping Comments for Joint EIR/EIS, page 7 of 40 (February 23, 2009) (Google Docs). See also: Robert Cruickshank, Union Pacific Speaks, Unofficial CHSR Blog (March 28, 2009).

[10] Caltrain time table

[11] Jose Martinez, Project Director for the L.A. to San Diego line for the Rail Authority, described a cantilevered trench at the downtown L.A. open house on. [insert picture]

[12] The board includes all five members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, Mayor of Los Angeles, three people appointed by the mayor of L.A., one person appointed by the governor, and four members appointed from elected representatives of cities in L.A. County. California Public Utilities Code, Section 130051.

[13] This is not a concession. A flyer I have from the Air Quality Management District says that “70-percent of airborne cancer risks in Southern California is directly attributed to diesel engines in the South Coast Basin” (includes Alhambra). The high speed trains are not intended to impact, nor will they impact, local commute patterns or traffic, but if we can somehow use the project to decrease diesel use (or clean it up) in Southern California we would be better off.

"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.