The city held its first-ever public meeting last week dedicated entirely to the subject of high speed rail, drawing 200 people to the Senior Center on a Thursday evening for a discussion on ways the system will affect Mountain View and its residents.
The high speed rail system, approved by California voters in 2008, will be "one of the largest public works projects in the state for a very long time," said Cathy Lazarus, the city's public works director. Locally, the system would add two additional tracks along the Peninsula's Caltrain corridor for trains reaching speeds of over 100 miles per hour.
The meeting included several presentations followed by a question and answer session. Stealing the show was Bob Doty, rail transportation director for Caltrain, who answered questions about high speed rail issues with often humorous comments. As someone who managed high speed rail projects in Asia and Europe, he said, the U.S. is still seen elsewhere as a "developing country" when it comes to transportation.
Council member Mike Kasperzak talked about Mountain View's official comments in the California High Speed Rail Authority's "scoping" process this year. He said the city's concerns include effects on its historic downtown and the visual effect of a so-called "Berlin Wall" through town -- the type of structure needed if tracks are run above grade on a platform or "retained fill" structure.
The current high speed rail plan includes a station stop somewhere on the Peninsula, and the Mountain View City Council has asked for a feasibility study on a downtown station. Despite this request, and an expressed preference for tracks to run below-grade under Castro Street, no final positions have been taken by the council on either subject.
A possible downtown high speed station is an option which the Rail Authority is "going to seriously evaluate," said Joan Jenkins, Mountain View's transportation and policy manager.
Kasperzak said city officials have joined two groups focused on working with the California High Speed Rail Authority on design issues, and that the council has also formed a subcommittee on high speed rail, partly as a way for Mountain View citizens to be involved in the process.
During a question and answer period, which prioritized Mountain View residents, Doty addressed the popular option of tunneling the train through much of the Peninsula.
"Tunneling is not quite as good as you think it is," Doty said.
Aside from high cost compared to running tracks in a trench, the drawbacks of tunneling include the loud ventilation fans required, Doty said, which operate when maintenance crews are inside the tunnels in the middle of the night.
"We will get people calling on their cell phones, saying, 'listen to this,'" Doty said, relaying an example of what happened when he helped manage the construction of such a tunnel in England. "You cannot imagine what happened."
In response to the common assertion that it would be simpler for the line to terminate in San Jose rather than continue up the Peninsula corridor, Doty said it would create a severe "point load" on San Jose Diridon station. A huge number of northbound travelers would swarm the San Jose station, and the Caltrain system, to continue up the Peninsula. He said it would take 1.5 Caltrain trains to take on the capacity from each high speed rail train -- and the Caltrain system is "already at capacity" at peak hours.
Doty also said that, at a quarter mile long, the peak-hour high speed rail trains would be much longer than Caltrain's trains.
The two new tracks required for high speed rail do not necessarily have to run at the same grade as the Caltrain tracks, Doty said, reflecting a change from earlier statements made by the Rail Authority.
Doty also talked extensively about Caltrain's efforts to upgrade its trains with new European style trains, which regulators now appear ready to allow after extensive crash testing by Caltrain. The tests showed that they were much safer than existing, heavier trains, even when hitting a truck at 70 miles per hour. Doty said every stop on the corridor could be reached in only 70 minutes by the lighter, fully electric trains, which are able to accelerate and stop much faster.
But funding is a problem for obtaining the new trains, Doty said, even though the current trains are due for retirement. Caltrain is funded by three agencies, including VTA and BART, that have their own priorities.
"Everybody loves Caltrain, but we get what's left over," he said.
Doty said the Rail Authority was making a concerted effort to get public opinion on the project early, because the biggest threat to the project is that it could take too much time to build. Local meetings on high speed rail station concepts are scheduled in early 2010, a draft environmental impact report for the Peninsula section is due in early 2011, and a final EIR is due in 2012.