Four visions of a higher-speed Bay Area rail network

The Bay Area is a sprawling region, no doubt about it. It stretches from Napa Valley to Silicon Valley, Pacific Ocean to Sacramento River Delta, is nearly as large as New Jersey or Cyprus. Yet this size means its various economies are disconnected to such a degree that the Census Bureau has split it into two different metropolitan areas.

Dr. Alasdair Rae recently mapped the commuter flows throughout the Bay Area and found it was a hotbed of long-distance commuters, no surprise given this size. While driving is all well and good for some commuting, the resulting traffic means freeways are ineffective at moving large numbers of people long distances at rush hour. Moderate to high-speed rail is the only solution that can provide a reliable and fast commute to stitch the region into a unified whole.

Adapted from the Asian Development Bank, Changing Course in Urban Transport: An Illustrated Guide. 

The basic map created by Dr. Rae is what he calls a “desire line” diagram: it draws a line between every census district that has 50 people or more commuting between the two. It can be the backbone of a new HSR system.

 Image from Dr. Alasdair Rae. Click for his write-up.

Image from Dr. Alasdair Rae. Click for his write-up.

To my eyes, it's clear there are some major commuter axes. The primary center is doubtless San Francisco. The secondary centers are Oakland, Fremont, Silicon Valley, and San Jose. Tertiary centers are San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Napa, Fairfield, Richmond, Walnut Creek, and Livermore/Pleasanton. The corridors that link these together are prime candidates for higher-speed rail, with a top speed of 125mph and average speeds around 50mph, depending on stop spacing.

Four people – me, @TaupeAvenger, @aSmallTeapot, and @UrbanLifeSigns – took a turn drawing what might be an effective railway system based on the above. Each assumes Caltrain’s new electric trains will be standard throughout the system. BART, with its top speed of 80mph and 33mph average, will stay in place in each scenario.

My own plan focuses on the North Bay and the core:

The Edmondson Plan

This plan serves the North Bay commuter corridors at the expense of the South and East Bay. These corridors were better served by expanded lower-speed rail service, more akin to BART than the fancy moderate-to-high-speed rail service I envisioned. Gray lines here indicate moderate-speed connections between the twin branches.

TaupAvenger's plan:

The Taupe Plan

Taupe, too, focused on northern branches to Santa Rosa, Napa, and Sacramento and left the East Bay for another system, but he added a new rail crossing from Oakland to San Francisco, presumably using the Sacramento line. Particularly quirky is that the Napa line proceeds to San Francisco via San Rafael rather than Vallejo. Presumably, commuters from Napa to the East Bay will either transfer at San Francisco or utilize lower-speed transit.

Teapot's sketch went the extra step of labeling the lines:

The Teapot Plan

Unlike the Edmondson or Taupe plans, the Teapot plan includes a high-speed rail connection through Diablo Valley, though that line begins at Napa rather than Vallejo. Also of interest is that San Francisco lies only on Line 1. Even Marin, whose out-commuters tend to be destined for San Francisco, only get a BRT line to The City. On the upside, central cities are poor places for line termini, so running the line through Transbay Terminal makes a lot of sense.

Finally, Urban Life Signs sketched out this plan, including BART-speed segments (green) and California's statewide HSR (outline):

The Urban Life Signs plan

This system is more or less my own, with a key difference in that it includes San Jose-Diablo Valley service and a moderate-speed connection to Stockton. Placing the end of the Diablo Valley line at Walnut Creek may not make for the most attractive network, but it does serve the commuter flows best (notice the lack of commuting between Solano County and central Contra Costa in Dr. Rae's data).

At average speeds of 60mph, including time stopped at stations, these plans still won't allow a commuter to easily go from, say, Santa Rosa to San Jose in much less than 1:45 but it would be far more reliable than a car journey that same distance at rush hour. And it would be a huge improvement to the current transit system, takes 4:06 for the same journey.

A principal problem with our transit system is that our region lacks the hierarchy of transit service that it has in its road system. We have our local service (buses), arterial service (light rail) and expressway service (BART) but we lack good intercity highway service (high-speed rail). As a result, long-haul commuters must turn to cars and jam our roads.

So while these HSR plans may be rough and fantastical, and would be quite expensive, they do present a future that is worth considering.