Making High Speed Rail and River Restoration Work Together

October 18, 2009 § 13 Comments

Creek Freak appears in today’s L.A. Times aritcle by Ari Bloomerkatz entitled “Plans for trains, river may collide.” It’s on how high-speed rail and river revitalization may or may not be compatible. Here’s an excerpt: (follow the link to read the whole story.)

The situation makes for delicate politics. Many L.A. officials strongly support the bullet train concept and believe that the Union Station hub would fit into the county’s efforts to expand subway and light rail service. But they also believe that revitalizing the river is an important part of making the city core more livable for residents and attractive to visitors.

The proposed rail routes would run near Taylor Yard, a 247-acre freight switching facility in Cypress Park that was closed by 1985. Part of Taylor yard, which is north of Union Station, is still used for rail maintenance and storage, but it also includes Rio de Los Angeles State Park and sites for a planned high school, green space and a mixed-use housing development. The Los Angeles River runs next to it.

Both the online and print editions feature a picture of Los Angeles Creek Freak’s Joe Linton walking along the tracks at Taylor Yard.

I think that the article is well-written and clear, but I do want to expand and clarify my position slightly. I think that there are a number of high-speed rail options that could work well for both river revitalization and for increased mobility for Californians. The cheapest option appears to lay down more tracks and more fences at Taylor Yard… which would end up being a barrier to river access.

California High-Speed Rail website's 3-D simulation of alternative trenches through Taylor Yard. Click to watch the video.

Video capture from California High-Speed Rail website's 3-D simulation of alternative trenches through Taylor Yard. This image shows the trench along San Fernando Road. Click to watch the video.

There are many alternatives for the alignment in this area. Unfortunately the ones currently most focused on by the state’s High-Speed Rail Authority aren’t quite the what I would consider the best ones for the river and the community.  Currently, the high-speed rail website shows a simulation of two alternatives: a trench along the existing rail right-of-way and a trench along San Fernando Road.

One positive aspect of these trenches is that they can be lidded, which could create crossings for pedestrians and bicyclists to access the river. The lidded-trench solution is positive in that it can solve access issues across the existing conventional rail tracks. Trenches have some downsides. They act as a barrier to hydrological connections, so it will become nearly impossible to create streams and wetlands that gradually slope down to the river. Even with various lids (as shown in the video simulation) there’s still quite a bit of trench that creates a barrier to river access for nearby communities. The lids can be planted… but end up somewhat barren as they’re not optimal for growing large trees. If we’re not careful they may be built in a very ugly institutional way – think lots of chain link fences and concrete in the middle of a park.

My favorite option, admittedly somewhat difficult (meaning expensive fiscally and politically) one would be to run the rail on an elevated structure in the middle of the 5 Freeway. This would mean that drivers stuck in traffic could watch rail whizzing by… and hopefully contemplate taking the train next time.

Another alternative would be to elevate the rail (both conventional and high-speed) through Taylor Yard, creating plenty of river access underneath the tracks. This would need to be done in an intelligent and aesthetically pleasing way. I am not asking for a minimal foreboding 15-foot wide tunnel under the tracks… more like a graceful extended span opening up a quarter-mile access park below, gently sloping toward the restored riverbed.  I think it needs to be very open, with plenty of good sight lines.

I haven’t heard or seen as much about the rest of the alignment – from Taylor Yard through downtown to just south of Olympic Boulevard. This includes Los Angeles State Historic Park, Union Station and about 6 miles of very difficult to access river, with plenty of beautiful historic bridges. This area is among the most difficult for revitalization. It’s also the area targeted for the initial Southern California phase of the high-speed rail project – from Los Angles Union Station to the city of Anaheim. It’s important that we not laden this part of the river with additional infrastructure that will make future access even more difficult.

The high-speed rail project is an opportunity to enhance mobility while setting the table for future river revitalization, but it will take some funding, coordination, creativity, smart planning and community input to arrive at the solution that makes the most sense.


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§ 13 Responses to Making High Speed Rail and River Restoration Work Together

  • Ryan says:

    Joe – the latest analysis I have seen from City Planning can be found here:

    It describes the options being looked at by segment.

  • Angelo Logan says:

    There has been an unpleasant buzz in the city of Commerce as well, not just because of the impact to the river from the High Speed Rail project but because it would also cut through the diced up area. Residents have been making the point that, at this moment, this community 5 miles southeast of downtown LA has two major rail lines and two major freeways cutting through it. As if that were not bad enough, there are the following proposals on the table: 710 Expansion (to 14 lanes), I-5 Expansion (to 12 lanes), High Speed Rail (elevated along a 3 mile stretch – within 1,500 feet of homes) and a possible Gold Line extension- literally cutting up the area in every direction. Even through most people support the rail projects in concept, it seems like this type of planning could be more holistic and take livability into account.

    Now, take the I-5 expansion. As proposed, it could expand by 2 lanes in each direction (to 12 lanes) and consume hundreds of homes and businesses in Commerce and East LA. Why build more lanes? To encourage more single car commuters? It is common knowledge the expanding freeways does not relieve congestion. So, how about Rail along the center of the 5, High Speed Rail with a Gold Line extension stop along the way? That would eliminate the threat along the river and address the issues along this area. I agree this could be an opportunity for some smart planning! The scoping meeting is Wednesday the 21st in Monterey park.

    • Joe Linton says:

      Thanks Angelo, my friend. There’s definitely a cumulative impact. Could you post a link to info about the Wednesday meeting – address, time?

      I personally think that freeways and freeway expansion are a greater threat to river revitalization than rail will ever be. We need to block those wrongheaded freeway widening projects. Agree that we need the community to get activated and to demand the projects are planned in ways that minimize negative impacts.

  • Rail corridors and recreation can peacefully co-exist and are provide great multi-modal corridors for bikers and walkers.

    The Virginia Bicycling Federation is heading a national effort to insure that as rail corridors are upgraded and expanded – using citizen’s tax dollars -bike and pedestrian trails, “rails with trails” are included as part of the projects.

    Several major rail corridors pass through Virginia and the VBF wants to see these as well as other interstate rail corridors upgraded with bikeways during construction. With billions of tax dollars ear-marked to expand freight and passenger rail over the next dedade, we could create thousands of miles of trails connecting communities across the country.

    For details visit:

  • Rafael says:

    @ Joe Linton –

    don’t forget that full grade separation is what will make the river accessible *at all*. The notion that a trench with wide lid sections in any way, shape or form inhibits pedestrian access is patent nonsense.

    Would it be nice to have longer lids? Perhaps, but in addition to cost you need to consider fire safety in the resulting tunnel plus the air quality for the passengers of legacy diesel-power trains – even after the locomotives are eventually retrofitted with EPA Tier 3/Tier 4 engines.

    Would it be nice to have large trees directly above the tracks? Perhaps, but other types of vegetation are nice, too. It’s a state park, after all, not an old-growth forest. Besides, the lids are less than 100 feet wide and easily strong enough to support planter beds with soil several feet deep. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the massively improved! The LA river revitalization project is important but so is high speed rail. 52% of California voters explicitly endorsed $9.95 billion in fresh state bonds for exactly that purpose in spite of the recession.

    Arguing that the tracks should be in the median of the extremely busy I-5 freeway ignores the massive difficulties of actually constructing anything at all there. Also, aerial structures radiate noise further than at-grade alignments do – especially the really tall ones that would be required to let trains fly *over* existing freeway overpasses. You’d merely be trading off one type of environmental degradation for another.

    • Joe Linton says:

      R – Thanks for commenting. I agree that grade separation is needed for river access. I agree that both river and rail are important. I do think we can come up with solutions that are both good for community, the river and the rail.

      You cite a figure of “less than 100 feet wide” trenches. Could you clarify – is that just the HS Rail? or does that also include the conventional tracks that run alongside it?

      If, as it appears in the video simulation, there are lids that are say around 1000 feel apart, and if I am walking to the park, then that means I need to walk 1000 feet further. Compared to continuous access, those 1000 feet serve as a barrier to access. Is it a barrier that we can minimize by smart planning and good design? I think so.

      One idea on the lids is that they may be good for things like playing fields, where trees aren’t appropriate.

      I think we need to be really careful about single-purpose thinking. There are folks who think that the river is the only critically important thing. There are others who think that the rail is the only critically important thing. These sorts of orthodoxies remind me of the 1930’s when, after some very serious floods, there was indeed a great deal of public support, votes and bond funding to “improve” the Los Angeles River. At the time, the only critically important thing was flood control… and the solution implemented gave us one benefit, but lots of problems in the longer run. I think we need to carefully and intelligently consider multiple important issues as we move forward with both rail and restoration.

      • Rafael says:

        @ Joe Linton –

        (a) 100 feet is plenty wide for 4 tracks. About a year ago, NC3D produced an animation of the Rio de Los Angeles state park alternatives then under consideration. Both were trenches, one following the Metrolink alignment, the other a new one running immediately next to San Fernando Road. Both options would fully grade separate both the HSR and the Metrolink/UPRR tracks. From west to east, the track order shown is M/U SB, M/U NB, HSR SB, HSR NB. This permits an easy split in Burbank. The wide gap between the M/U and the HSR tracks was put in at the request of Metrolink and UPRR, a low concrete barrier to minimize the risk of a follow-on accident in the event of M/U trains derailing or spilling cargo is under consideration.

        The Metrolink yard as such is outside the scope of the HSR project, but the disused section between the state park and the river would become available for revitalization. Development of residential, commercial and educational real estate in the area is also beyond the scope of the HSR project as such. Private vs. public land use in the area is a purely local knife fight, it has nothing to do with HSR.

        (b) The project-level EIS/EIR is ongoing, no decision has been made yet but it’s important to get involved NOW if you live in the area and want to make your voice heard. Drawings of the lateral and vertical alignments being considered are published under the “Los Angeles to Palmdale” link in the left hand column here.

        Note in particular that the Metrolink tracks would be relocated between LAUS and I-110, freeing up the right bank of the river there for revitalization – all rail traffic would be on the left bank side. Also note that the deep trench section runs from the Metrolink yard to well past the proposed high school next to RdLA state park, with gentle ramps to either side. Freight traffic limits the feasible gradient to 1.25%.

        (c) The recommended minimum vertical clearance for cut-and-cover tunnels that need to support both AAR plate H (double-stacked container freight cars) and 25kV AC overhead catenaries (for HSR) is 24’3″ above the top of the rail. That means flat lids are only possible where the tracks run deep enough. The video shows two short lid sections, but those could perhaps be merged into a single long one. Elsewhere, arched ped/bike overpasses to improve access to the river are definitely possible, these would be fully enclosed with fences for safety reasons. Underpasses would also be possible, but they tend to attract graffiti/dogs/homeless people and present a greater crime hazard at night.

        (d) if deep trenches are not desired, tracks could also run elevated on an aerial, a retained fill embankment, a sloped berm or in a shallow trench with short berms to either side (cut-and-fill). Finally, there’s at least the theoretical option of keeping the Metrolink/UPRR tracks at grade and constructing an aerial for the HSR trains only immediately above them. This would halve the lateral footprint needed for rail but also retain grade crossings for M/U. However, for safe access to the river, the state park and the new high school, I would strongly urge full grade separation of all four tracks.

  • […] …Including Contributor Joe Linton.  More on His Thoughts (Creak Freak) […]

  • Jessica Hall says:

    I too support the concept of high speed rail, but was dismayed to see some routes written into the bond measure – specifically a route that would cut through a state park with wetlands instead of follow the 5 freeway where there were potential community stops into the Bay Area. I was also concerned about more infrastructure along the LAR, although I thought there were still some options there.

    Put ’em on the freeways! To push it further, here’s a chance to partner with Caltrans to move the 5 out of the river – and Griffith Park – too. And if anyone has bright ideas how to get the 110 out of the Arroyo Seco, and the 710 out of Arroyo Rosa Castilla, I’m all ears.

  • Karin says:

    I’m trying to figure out how to create a positive high speed rail project in California that meets the needs of our communities and protects our natural resources. Let’s all put our heads together so we can have both. To plug into some people’s goals to the south of LA, visit

  • […] many creekfreaks already know, the proposed high speed rail (HSR) line has made some LA River advocates nervous. Fortunately, the HSR folks, Army Corps, and City of […]

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