The Loma Prietan - July/August 2009

What's the Problem with High Speed Rail?

by John Carpenter

No good deed goes unpunished, and no major infrastructure project, even one with the enormous potential environmental benefits of High Speed Rail (HSR), can be built and operated without inconveniencing someone. Here's a rundown of the potential "inconveniences" associated with HSR.

Let's start with noise. Railroad trains cannot be silenced. And the more often the trains run, the more often the neighbors are disturbed. However, it isn't accurate to assume that HSR will be akin to a buffed-up BART or the Caltrain commuter line on steroids:

• For HSR to operate at target speeds of 125 mph, the roadbed must be stable and must not settle. This will require a special matting material, which happens to eliminate rumble, a major component of railroad noise. The same applies to the support pillars if HSR is built on a viaduct.

• HSR cannot accommodate grade crossings. Therefore, the accompanying noise of Caltrain whistles and bells will be gone.

• The walls that keep people off the tracks when they are at or above grade also function as acoustical dams; reducing railroad noise requires only that these dams be four to six feet high, to just below the passenger car windows. Where BART and Caltrain have these (which isn't in many places), the noise is significantly reduced.

Tunneling has been suggested as a way to eliminate noise. However, in addition to being vastly more expensive than other options (the city of Berkeley paid the difference between a viaduct and a tunnel for BART) and hated by riders, railroad tunnels require extensive ventilation. The potentially noisy blowers running 24 hours a day may more than offset the reduction in train noise.

Keeping Communities Together — and Beautiful

Tunneling or elevated viaducts are the best options for maintaining community continuity across the right of way. With both HSR and Caltrain underground or overhead on pillars, many roadway underpasses and overpasses could be removed, and the land given over to the Caltrain right of way could be put to other use. One example of land use under a viaduct is the Ohlone Trail, built along the BART line between El Cerrito and North Berkeley. Another is the East Bay Greenway under the elevated portion of BART to be built between north of the Fruitvale Station and Hayward; Urban Ecology ( has been studying and designing this.

By contrast, building at grade level or on an embankment would require that land be devoted to the rail line, and the tracks would be a barrier to cross-town travel except at designated overpasses or underpasses. It's not known whether HSR would require land to be condemned for these construction options and if so, how much. Especially if HSR is built at grade level, land might be needed for new underpasses and overpasses.

The appearance of the HSR line is another concern. If the line is at grade level, there would need to be a wall to keep the right of way clear. Viaducts and embankments are eminently visible. These could be designed to be reasonably handsome; but, of course, one person's "handsome" is another person's eyesore. Preserving, replanting, and extending as much landscaping as possible, could improve the aesthetics while helping to further reduce noise and provide privacy to homes near the right of way.

Engineers working on the Draft Project EIR will be wrestling with these and other problems. The compromises they propose will be revealed in 2011, when the Draft Project EIR is released.

John Carpenter is a member of the Chapter's Sustainable Land Use and Transportation Committees