Blended system

Blended system is a concept of high speed trains and Caltrain sharing a common corridor and a set of tracks. Although similar concept has been advocated by BayRail Alliance (see this and this), the “blended system” phase was coined by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon in April 2011.

Before blended system concept

After the passage of Proposition 1A in November 2008, the High Speed Rail Authority began preparing a project-level environmental document for high speed rail on the Peninsula. It envisioned a completely grade separated, 4-track corridor. It sparked outrage amongst the communities especially in the cities of Burlingame, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto. Many feared that their homes near the tracks would be taken and that aerial structure or embankment would create a visual barrier unacceptable in their communities. Some cities were reacting to the high speed rail plan by demanding HSRA to study much more expensive options of placing tracks underground.

For rail advocates, the original plan also raised questions as to the viability of Caltrain. Some alternatives called for high speed trains use one side of the corridor and Caltrain on the other side. This concept would have no track sharing between the two systems and could result in slower Caltrain service. The full-build proposal also was not clear about the interim phases and had no answer as to whether or when Caltrain electrification can proceed (considering that the Peninsula segment would not be built right away).

Blended system elements

According to Eshoo, Simitian, and Gordon, there are three principles in the blended system:

  • No elevated high-speed rail.
  • High speed rail and Caltrain to remain largely within existing right of way.
  • Abandon its preparation of an EIR for a full-build 4-track project.

After the initial announcement, interpretations were made to clarify that they were not against high speed rail per se, high speed rail would continue to directly serve SF (without a transfer to Caltrain), and elevated structures are permitted if supported by the city.

Initial study by Caltrain concluded that two high speed trains per peak hour can run on a blended corridor (with 6 Caltrains) with no passing tracks and two more HSR trains with passing tracks. Caltrain has not decided where to place the passing tracks. The blended system would not make grade separation mandatory. Cities can continue to plan for grade separation (which many do want despite opposition to the initial HSR plan) at their own pace.

Blended system takes off

In late 2011, HSRA acknowledged the blended system with the release of an updated High Speed Rail business plan. However, with the large jump in cost estimates, Governor Jerry Brown ordered the HSRA to come up with a less costly plan that includes other investments outside of the Central Valley (the initial draft focused on construction of the first segment in Central Valley as stipulated by federal grants).

In March 2012, HSRA, Caltrain, MTC, and other parties agreed on a plan that supports the blended system and includes Caltrain electrification, along with a new signaling system, as part of early investment package. The state legislature approved the funding plan in July 2012. In March 2013, Caltrain and HSRA approved a new MOU to implement the blended system, rather than the full-build project as set in the previous agreement.

The blended system is a key compromise necessary to bring high speed rail on the Peninsula and avoid a bitter fight between HSRA and local communities. It also priorities major improvements for Caltrain which will bring near term benefits to Caltrain riders many years before implementation of high speed rail.