This train business

I left the Planning Commission study session last night around 10. After walking three blocks to my car at the corner of 14th and Webster, I decided to drive by Victory Court. As I drove down Oak Street, I heard some bells ringing and was forced to stop for this:

Some Victory Court supporters, in an effort to minimize the impact of trains, are saying things like, “Trains only run 15 mph along the Embarcadero” or “Seattle built a stadium next to train tracks” without really going into why or how these situations came about. Frankly, it shows a reckless kind of ignorance that, thankfully, the California Public Utilities Commission and rail operators Union Pacific and Amtrak cannot abide by. Let’s go into the statements.

  • “Trains only run 15 mph along the Embarcadero” – You bet they do. And for good reason. If a freight train were running 55 mph along the Embarcadero, it would take over a mile to stop, or the distance from the Jack London Aquatic Center to Howard Terminal. If you’re going to mix trains at grade with multiple vehicular and and pedestrian cross, those trains need to go slow. Even then, it’s dangerous, as a freight train going 15 mph would take over 1,000 feet to stop, which happens to be the length of the passenger platform and the Amtrak JLS station. Note: You may remember back to the summer, when during my midwest ballpark trip, an Amtrak train on which I was traveling from St. Louis to Chicago hit a car, delaying the train for well over an hour and putting the driver of the car close to death.
  • “They have those trains that run by AT&T Park” – Electrified light rail trains, like the ones in SF and the South Bay, are far lighter and easier to start and stop than their diesel cousins. Often, they travel very slowly along shared streets just to be safer and more cautious. They’re built to operate in an urban environment. Diesel freight (UPRR) and commuter/intercity (Amtrak) trains absolutely are not. The fact that trains run through JLS at grade, sharing the road with cars and people, is an anomaly that should not be duplicated. The only other local example of such a train is the Roaring Camp/Big Trees Railroad, a tourist excursion train that runs between the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and Felton. Coming in and out of the boardwalk, the train runs at a crawl.
  • “Seattle built a stadium next to train tracks” – Actually, they built two, Safeco Field and Qwest Field. But if you walk around the back of Safeco where the roof is stored, you’ll notice that you’re overlooking the tracks. All but one of the pedestrian and vehicular rail crossings around both stadia are overpasses with full grade separation, and the one exception was obviated this year when a new overpass was completed. If trains and cars don’t share space, you can’t have accidents. Grade separation isn’t really possible at JLS as the construction would be extremely expensive and disruptive, so other measures have to be taken to ensure safety. To that end, it’s possible that one or more pedestrian bridges will be required. Already there are three such bridges in place, connecting the waterfront to the JLS parking garage and Amtrak station, plus the ferry terminal’s connection to Yoshi’s. Through the EIR’s circulation analysis, it may be found that these bridges, with some modification, will be adequate for whatever the new pedestrian load is. Then again, maybe not. Even if a new overpass is needed, it will probably be cheaper than a lawsuit emanating from the negligence associated with not addressing the issue.

Still not convinced? Consider this: let’s say the ballpark pulls in 2.5 million fans a year. It’s reasonable to think that 20% of them (500,000) will be going to JLS to eat, drink, or shop before and after games. The popularity of the ballpark will create a snowball effect, making it more likely that even more retail establishments and restaurants call JLS home, further driving up traffic – which is what Oaklanders want. It’s possible that 1 million new visitors will come to JLS annually. To try to cut corners on safety (occasional police presence as the main mitigation, for instance) just so that the project is more affordable or “feasible” is downright foolish.

As for cars, there isn’t much that can be done. I suppose a vehicular/pedestrian overpass from Oak Street to First Street is possible, but the limited amount of car traffic may not warrant the cost.

After the Draft EIR and its findings are made public, the PUC, Amtrak, and UPRR will have a chance to formally comment on the project. They may already have submitted comments based on the project as it stands now. In the PUC’s case, it has the power to dictate how the EIR progresses. It’s incumbent upon the project applicants – in this case, the City of Oakland – to do their level best to make sure the EIR is complete and mitigation measures are properly in place. If not, it’s only going to delay groundbreaking and construction. Given MLB’s 2015 deadline, that’s not something on which Oakland or Keep-the-A’s-in-Oakland types should be gambling.

10 thoughts on “This train business

  1. What about PETCO Park down in San Diego? They’ve been playing next to a rail line for 6 years now with no ill effect beyond the occasional delay in getting from the Convention Center garage to the ballpark.

    • The tracks are completely cordoned off from the ballpark. A pedestrian bridge to link to the convention center should have been completed a few weeks ago after two years of construction (!). I was right by PETCO a few days ago, I should’ve checked it out.

  2. That’s quite a waterfront…

  3. ML, that bridge has been under construction forever, it still is under construction. It’s one of those perpetual make work projects no one realistically ever expects will be finished like Logan Airport in Boston.

  4. @NamTurk–much more water nearby than landlocked San Jose, which is more in a “valley” than the “bay” area. BTW, where the hell are the “Shark’s” in San Jose? The Guadalupe River?

  5. Jk,
    There are many a fine ballpark in this country NOT LOCATED BY A BODY OF WATER! Who cares if Diridon isn’t located on the “bay.”. Will make for some great baseball weather!
    OT: another great article by Mark Purdy in todays Merc. The truth is pure gospel!

  6. Hi ML,

    I pointed out on ABO that trains go through JLS at 15 mph when someone mistakenly suggested they go through at 60 mph. You kinda make it sound like Victory Court supporters don’t realize the train presents some problems. I think many of us are aware that it does. It is a very busy line especially with all the Amtrak trains. Thankfully the Amtrak trains are very short. It’s the longer freight trains that present the biggest problem.

    • @Roscoe – Sorry, wasn’t referring to you. Was referring to people like Jorge Leon, who too easily dismissed the train issue. That’s why I wrote “Some Victory Court supporters…”

  7. Jim’s looking really desperate now.

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