Tag Archives: Van Nuys

Sepulveda Pass Transit, Part 3: Mode and Alignment Through the Pass

For an overview of transit between the Westside and the Valley, see Part 1. For a close-up look at LAX, see Part 2.

The most critical part of a north-south transit line between the Westside and the Valley is Sepulveda Pass – the section that roughly parallels the 405 between Wilshire and Ventura Boulevards. Services on the Westside and in the Valley will probably end up having several branches using the pass, in order to maximize the usefulness of the pass segment. Due to the distance (about 7 miles) and engineering challenges, we’re probably only going to get one line through Sepulveda Pass in the foreseeable future. It’s critical that we get this segment right, get the most capacity for our money, and set it up to flexible enough to accommodate many services on both sides.

The two planning questions that must be answered are:

  1. What modes should the project serve? This will determine who can use the project, be it cars, buses, or trains.
  2. What should the project alignment be? This will determine what service patterns can be operated on either side of the pass and how they will relate to each other.

Question 1 comes first, because the mode choice will affect the design criteria for the project alignment, such as curvature, grades, and ventilation.

A Multi-Modal Tunnel?

The concepts that have been floated publicly are all variations on a theme. They propose building a toll auto tunnel that would also provide lanes, perhaps dedicated, for transit. The project is often pitched as a candidate for a public-private partnership.

If the alternative includes a tunnel, I don’t think auto lanes should be part of the plan, for reasons explained here. If HOT lanes are going to be part of the project, they should be converted from existing HOV lanes (or, if you insist on new lanes, new at-grade or elevated lanes, but there’s no spare capacity on the 405, the 10, and the 101 for new lanes to connect to anyway). That leaves bus and rail.

The primary trade-off between bus and rail is implementation timeline versus capacity and operating costs. If the corridor is for buses, it can be used immediately by many bus services connecting all parts of the Valley and the Westside, while a rail link from Wilshire/Westwood to Sherman Oaks would be of limited use in isolation. Choosing rail would delay the usefulness of the project until feeder lines were built on both sides. However, as passenger volumes increase, which we would expect for a useful Sepulveda Pass project, rail offers higher capacity and lower operating costs.

Four options come to mind:

  • A guideway exclusively for buses
  • A guideway exclusively for rail
  • A hybrid guideway running both buses and trains (not as crazy as it sounds; Seattle is running a tunnel like this right now)
  • A larger guideway with four lanes, two for rail and two for bus (or hybrid)

The first two options just seem underwhelming for the context. We’re not talking about the Gold Line from Azusa to Claremont or an improvement to an arterial corridor that’s got parallel arterials to be upgraded a mile away on either side. This is it – the one big project between the Westside and the Valley that we need to facilitate more growth between Sylmar and Long Beach. You don’t want it to end up like the MBTA Green Line, right?

Capacity Counts

Some more serious numbers: in the post on capacity, we estimated about 5,000 pax/hr per direction for bus (standing load, 60 second headways) and 15,000-20,000 pax/hr per direction for LRT (standing load, 2 minute headways, 3 or 4 car trains). For comparison, the five lanes of the 405 (we’re ignoring the climbing lane and auxiliary lanes) have a capacity of about 12,000 veh/hr per direction. Obviously, the passenger capacity depends on how many people are in each car; assuming 1.2 pax/veh (not unreasonable for commuting), that’s 14,400 pax/hr per direction.

That gives you an idea of the magnitudes of how many people can be moved by each mode. You can vary the assumptions as you like (double articulated buses, longer trains, higher occupancy in cars). Bus headways below 60 seconds are probably beyond the point where rail offers higher reliability and lower operating costs. The inclusion of bus would be mainly motivated by the desire to put the facility to use immediately, without waiting for long branch rail lines to be built.

That puts a transit option with one lane in each direction in the same league as the existing 405, so maybe that’s enough. On the other hand, the relentless congestion on the 405 suggests there’s a crap ton of latent demand – in other words, a lot more people would be traveling through Sepulveda Pass if it were easier to do. We want this project to relieve the 405, but also to facilitate economic growth on the Westside and in the Valley. With that in mind, a large diameter tunnel with four tracks may be the way to go.

To see why we might want a tunnel with two lanes or tracks in each direction, consider the effect of branching. Since Sepulveda Pass is a natural bottleneck, we should be serving several parallel north-south transit lines, bringing them together for a trunk through the pass and allowing transfers. In the opening post, we identified up to four corridors on each side to be served. With an operational headway of 2 minutes and one track in each direction, that’s 8 minute headways on the branches. This is short of Metro’s design criteria, which calls for operational headways of 5 minutes on LRT branches. With a large diameter tunnel and two tracks in each direction, operational headways of 4 minutes would be achievable on the branches.

Alignments

In the introductory post, I defaulted to the assumption of a tunnel the whole way from Westwood to Sherman Oaks. Alon Levy rightly called that assumption out in the comments, prompting a look at some elevated and hybrid options.

Elevated

An elevated option is self-evidently going to follow the 405. This is both the best horizontal alignment and the best vertical alignment that does not involve a tunnel.

Sepulveda-405alignment

From a technical standpoint, the critical section of the alignment is the approximately 1.5-mile long 5.5% grade on the north side of the pass. Light rail vehicles (LRVs) can handle short 5%-6% grades without issue; in fact, there are 5%-6% grades in many places on the new Expo Line for grade separations. However, I’m not sure if vehicle braking performance would suffer on such a long downgrade, and it might be difficult to support the required headways.

Let’s assume 2 minute operational headway and 90 second design headway (Metro’s current design criteria for a trunk LRT line is 2.5 minutes operational and 100 seconds design). Safe braking distance, for signal design, must include (a) distance traveled during reaction time, (b) braking distance, and (c) a buffer between vehicles. If you’re using fixed signal blocks, the buffer might be the vehicle overhang; for Communications Based Train Control (CBTC), let’s use an assumed imprecision in the system’s knowledge of where the vehicle is located.

Metro’s current design criteria specifies 9.8 seconds of reaction time. This might seem like a lot, but it has to cover equipment reaction time, operator reaction time, and brake build up. This value isn’t atypical in US practice. For braking, Metro specifies a distance of 0.733*S2/(B+0.2G), where S is speed, B is the braking rate (assumed to be 2.0 mphps), and G is the profile grade. Let’s assume 200’ for vehicle location imprecision (more precisely, 100’ for each train, with the worst possible combination of errors.

For a design speed, let’s assume 60 mph. For safe braking, you need to assume the entry speed when braking starts is higher due to a combination of speedometer error and equipment tolerance. To keep things simple, let’s assume 65 mph. That yields a reaction distance of 934’ and a braking distance of 3441’, for a total of 4575’ (including the 200’ CBTC buffer). Using 0.2G underestimates the effect of gravity a little; if you calculate the braking distance based on a 2.0 mphps braking rate adjusted by the laws of motion, you’ll get 5029’.

Okay, so that’s the separation you need from the rear of one train to the front of the train behind it. If you want the theoretical headway, you need the distance from the front of the train to the front of the train behind it. In other words, you have to add the length of the train. In this case, that’s four 90’ LRVs for 360’. If you have fixed signal blocks, you also need to add the length of one clear block of track, as shown below, but since we’re assuming CBTC, we’ll ignore that distance.

headway

That gives a total distance, based on Metro criteria, of 5389’. At 60 mph, that’s 61 seconds of travel time, essentially a 1 minute theoretical headway. Even if you assumed fixed signal blocks and added a clear signal block distance, it would seem that a 2 minute operational headway is within the realm of possibility.

Note that this is still a simplification; the headway impact of having a station, presumably at Ventura Blvd, at the bottom of the grade would have to be determined by simulation. This analysis also ignores other potential physical constraints, for example the ability of the LRV to continually put out maximum braking force for that long or the impact of wet rails, that wouldn’t be an issue on shorter grades. Premature rail wear, such as rail corrugation, might occur. These issues are well beyond my experience. (Hint, hint, technically inclined commenters.)

From a route planning perspective, the elevated alignment is not ideal at either end. At the south end, you end up at the 405 and Wilshire, west of the proposed Wilshire/Westwood station on the Westside Subway. It wouldn’t be too hard to deviate west to the Veterans Hospital; however, this is bound to be a low demand station. Wilshire/Westwood is a much better location for the transfer, because it will eliminate the need for many people on the north-south transit lines to transfer in the first place. It wouldn’t be too hard to get over to Veteran Av by crossing the cemetery (they’re the abutters least likely to complain). That makes the transfer reasonable, but still puts the stop at the very margin of UCLA and Westwood. From there, the line would probably head back towards Sepulveda, but more on that another time.

Sepulveda-south-elevated

At the north end, the first stop would naturally fall at Sepulveda/Ventura. North of there, the line could hop over to Sepulveda Blvd at the 101 or at Burbank, and follow Sepulveda north through the Valley. Sepulveda is good corridor, and deserves a high quality transit service, but most of the interest in the Valley seems to prioritize Van Nuys over Sepulveda. Getting from Sepulveda to Van Nuys would require a one mile jog to the east, and the resulting zigzag would be bad route planning. However, Sepulveda/Ventura is a decent node in its own right.

Sepulveda-north-elevated

Hybrid

A hybrid alignment would follow the same route as the elevated alignment from Wilshire to the 405 just north of the Sepulveda Blvd ramps. This would require about 3.5 miles of tunneling, just a little more than half of what the full tunnel would require.

Sepulveda-hybridalignment-markup

This alternative would save some money over the full tunnel alignment, because elevated construction is usually cheaper than tunneling. It would also allow the northern approach to be constructed at a much gentler grade, around 1.0%, than the 5.5% grade required by the elevated option, and greatly reduce the length of the 3.0% grade on the southern approach.

From a route planning perspective, this alternative is also somewhere in between the elevated option and the full tunnel option. The southern end would suffer the same drawbacks as the elevated option, but the northern end would be in a better location, as described under the full tunnel option.

Tunnel

The tunnel alignment would follow the approximate route of the tunnel that has been proposed publicly, from Wilshire/Westwood to Ventura/Van Nuys. This route would be in tunnel the whole way. It might be possible to build some of the route at-grade through UCLA’s campus, but it’s probably not worth the effort to bring the line to the surface for such a short distance.

This alternative would cost the most, but it would have the best track geometry, with a ruling grade of 1.0%.

Sepulveda-tunnelalignment-markup

From a route planning perspective, it’s also the best option at both ends of the alignment. At the south end, it puts the Wilshire/Westwood stop in the right place for both transfers to the Purple Line and for local destinations at UCLA and Westwood.

Sepulveda-south-tunnel

At the north end, it lines up perfectly with Van Nuys, the highest priority north-south corridor in the Valley, and yields reasonable geometry for additional branches to the west towards Sepulveda, Reseda, and Balboa.

Sepulveda-north-tunnel

Boring Questions

Assuming a tunnel is going to be part of the selected alternative, the cross section of the tunnel is the next question. With the exception of the Blue/Expo Line tunnel on Flower Street, all of the transit tunnels in LA were constructed with the same cross section, consisting of two single-track tunnel bores, connected every so often by emergency cross passages. The stations are center platforms located between the two bores.

For Sepulveda Pass, you’d have a few options:

  • Four single-track bores, built in pairs either simultaneously or sequentially. In this option, you would probably build two tracks at the outset, leaving the next two tracks as a future project.
  • Two two-track bores, again likely leaving the second set of tracks as a future project.
  • One four-track bore.

Alon Levy pitched large diameter tunnel boring machines (TBMs) as money-savers because the station platforms can be located inside the bore; I’m not sure how much they’d save for an LA-type station, relative to the costs of the additional excavation.

However, I think a large diameter TBM might make sense for the Sepulveda Pass project for different reasons. For one thing, when you do two single-track tunnels, you have to make a decision about how many TBMs to buy. Do you buy two TBMs, at considerable up-front capital expense, and allow both bores to proceed simultaneously? Or do you buy one TBM, and bore each tunnel sequentially, paying the price of a longer construction schedule? Using a larger diameter tunnel means buying fewer TBMs and a shorter construction process.

Personally, I like the idea of one four-track bore with two tracks on each level. One level could be used for rail right from the outset, with the other level used for express bus services between the Valley and the Westside. In the future, the bus level could be converted to rail if needed for capacity. The advantages in time and cost are many: construction of launching pits is only needed once, the full capacity is available after completing one bore, working near an active transit line is avoided, and labor costs are reduced by minimizing complexity and shortening the duration of construction. This approach also avoids the tendency of future capacity improvements to remain forever in the future.

Some recent examples of large diameter tunnels include the M30 freeway in Madrid (inner diameter 44.13’), Line 9 in Barcelona (inner diameter 35.8’), and the Alaskan Way tunnel in Seattle (diameter 56’). The TBM in Seattle is, of course, currently broken down, but don’t let their crummy execution sour you on the concept of a TBM that large. Barcelona Line 9 was apparently built to be just large enough for a four-track section, to allow crossovers between stations, but that seems like a really tight section for four tracks. On the other hand, 56’ would probably overdo it and result in high costs for the launching pits and excavation.

A 45’ diameter tunnel would allow four tracks, along with space for breathing room to fit in mechanical and electrical equipment. In particular, with a long tunnel like Sepulveda Pass, it might make more sense to set up the ventilation like a freeway tunnel, with continuous clean air and polluted air levels below and above the travel ways, respectively. In contrast with most transit tunnels, which depend on the piston effect, this design would hopefully allow the ventilation system to meet the requirements of NFPA 130 without restricting the system to one train per direction in the tunnel between stations. Such a restriction would cripple a long tunnel’s capacity to the point that building it would be almost pointless. (The NFPA 130 requirement is actually one train per tunnel vent zone; relying on the piston effect means that each length of tunnel between consecutive stations is operated as one vent zone.)

Sepulveda-xsection

The space to the sides of the tracks would accommodate electrical and mechanical systems, emergency egress, and ventilation as needed.

For an overview of large diameter tunnel costs, see this post on long freeway tunnels.

Conclusion

There are several feasible alignments and mode alternatives through Sepulveda Pass. While an elevated facility following the 405 is theoretically cheaper, it may be less so in this case because it would have to be constructed over and around an active freeway. The hybrid and full tunnel options offer better routes, and might be worth the trouble, especially if a high capacity tunnel can be built in one bore (and we can reign in US tunneling costs a little). An option that has provisions for both bus and rail will allow higher utilization of the tunnel from the beginning, without needing to wait for all the branch rail lines to be finished.

Sepulveda Pass and LAX Transit

Since both of these topics have been in the news a lot lately, it’s about time for a look at north-south transit on the Westside.

Sepulveda Pass in Context

Before we start laying out transit lines, we need to understand the urban context of the area in question. This is especially important for rail transit and other high capital cost projects, because bad decisions will haunt us for a really long time. So…

First, in terms of network design, Sepulveda Pass is a world-class bottleneck, right up there with San Francisco Bay and the Hudson & East Rivers. Your reaction to that, might be, “well, duh”, but we need to realize the implications for network design. Jarrett Walker goes into more detail in Chapter 4 of Human Transit but the chief points here are that (a) more deviation from straight routes is acceptable at bottlenecks and (b) bottlenecks are natural locations for transfers between parallel transit lines.

Second, in terms of engineering and cost, Sepulveda Pass is a very challenging and expensive area. We’re looking at a 7-mile tunnel from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, hundreds of feet deep in the middle. Vertical access between the tunnel ends is difficult at best for ventilation, and impossible for a station or emergency exit. This suggests that within the current planning time frame, we’re only going to get one shot at transit through Sepulveda Pass, so we’d better do it right and get a ton of capacity out of it. In 106 years, New York has managed to build only seven crossings of the Hudson, to connect all of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, & Queens with all of New Jersey.

Therefore, any tunnel through Sepulveda Pass should serve multiple transit lines on both sides, and provide as much capacity as possible. The stations at each end will be natural transfer points between the lines. It doesn’t make sense to go to the expense of building a tunnel that long if all it’s going to serve in the Valley is one LRT line on Van Nuys. The tunnel should serve at least two lines on both sides, and probably more. We don’t have to actually build all of the lines right away; the important thing is that the piece from Westwood to Sherman Oaks is built properly at the outset. This is probably a great location for one of Alon Levy’s large diameter TBM tunnels, with four tracks running from Westwood to Sherman Oaks, since there won’t be any stops in between.

This also means that the tunnel should serve rail traffic exclusively and have no auto lanes. In addition to having a lower capacity, auto lanes have much heavier requirements for ventilation. There’s also the question of what facilities auto lanes would connect to at each end, since it’s not like there’s a ton of spare capacity kicking around on the 405, the 10, and the 101. (Note: you could argue for a bus tunnel, using dual-mode buses, with exclusive lanes on arterials for the rest of the lines. I’m not going to get into a bus vs. rail analysis here, since the quality of the ROW is more important than the technology.)

Transit Lines Through Sepulveda

Now that we’ve established what the facility through Sepulveda Pass should look like, we can lay out some transit lines to go through it. In my mind, the logical candidates for north-south transit in the Valley are Reseda, Sepulveda (Valley section), Van Nuys, and maybe Balboa. (Anything east of Van Nuys, at least IMHO, is a future north-south line to connect to La Cienega.) There’s also the potential for east-west lines on Venutra, west to Warner Center and east to Burbank. On the Westside, the north-south candidates are Lincoln, Bundy/Centinela, Sawtelle, Sepulveda (Westside section), Westwood/Overland, and maybe, as a stretch, Avenue of the Stars/Jefferson.

Personally, I’d leave Ventura alone as a separate east-west project. Sawtelle is too close to Sepulveda (Westside), so it doesn’t make the cut. The appeal of the Avenue of the Stars/Jefferson route is that it would serve Century City directly from the Valley, but the resulting line has such poor overall geometry that it wouldn’t be very useful for anyone not going to Century City, so I think it’s out as well.

The other intriguing option, which has been suggested by Henry Fung elsewhere, is having the Westside Subway Extension turn north in Westwood and go to the Valley. Assuming the other lines would be LRT, extending the Purple Line would create some technical challenges (including differing vehicle width). I’ll leave that for a future post focusing on that alternative. This option would take care of Century City.

Here’s a rough plot of these options with reasonable stop spacing:

SepulvedaLAX-alllines

Don’t worry too much about the stop spacing for now; we’ll take a closer look at that in future posts. Remember, the important thing at the outset is to serve the right area and choose logical overall route alignments. You also might guess from this graphic that I’ve got some changes in mind for Metrolink in the Valley. Yet another topic for yet another future post.

In terms of sequencing, the consensus is that Van Nuys is the top priority in the Valley. On the Westside, Sepulveda (Westside) and Westwood/Overland are only ½ to ¾ of a mile apart, so whichever of the two is built first, the other should be built last. I’d do Sepulveda (Westside) first, if only because it’s more centrally located and spreads the wealth. It’d be useful to some future users of the Bundy/Centinela and Westwood/Overland lines, whereas those two lines wouldn’t help each other’s riders much. The argument for Westwood/Overland first is that it’s closer to Palms and Culver City, which are denser than Mar Vista, and it’s a good enough argument that you could probably talk me into it.

I’d sequence the lines as follows:

  • Van Nuys and Sepulveda (Westside)
  • Reseda and Lincoln
  • Sepulveda (Valley) and Bundy/Centinela
  • Balboa and Westwood/Overland (no Westwood/Overland if Purple Line is extended)

The benefits start immediately with the first line completed, and are amplified as additional lines are finished. To the south, future phases could extend the lines out Florence, Manchester, Century, Hawthorne, Sepulveda/PCH… more than enough possibilities to leave for a future post.

LAX Transit

Note that all these lines naturally converge near Sepulveda & Century, right at LAX’s front door, and would serve far more people than any LAX rail transit proposal on the board now. So in addition to serving LAX, basically at the future Terminal 0, this project would directly serve a couple million other people who might or might not be going to LAX. In other words, this plan would follow one of Jarrett Walker’s main principles: be on the way!

You might have noticed in the first graphic that I didn’t show any connection from the new lines to the Green Line & Crenshaw Line. Clearly, you’d want to provide that link somehow.

Here’s one option for an initial build with two lines. In this scenario, the Crenshaw Line would take over the Green Line’s route south of Aviation/Imperial, and the Green Line would be extended a mile west to meet up with the new Reseda-Lincoln Line. This gives the combined Reseda-Lincoln-Green Line and the Van Nuys-Sepulveda (Westside) Line front door access to LAX, with decent geometry and without making any through passengers go out of their way.

SepulvedaLAX-2line

I’ve violated my own rules on stop spacing in El Segundo, going to half a mile to provide a Green Line stop at Maple and a Sepulveda Line stop at Mariposa. With this level of transit service, easy access to LAX, the 105, and the 405, there’s no reason El Segundo’s business district couldn’t become LA’s third downtown.

Here’s an option for full build with four lines.

SepulvedaLAX-4line

In this case, I’ve routed Balboa and Bundy/Centinela together, and the line could be extended out Florence towards South LA, HP, Bell, Cudahy, Bell Gardens, and Downey – all dense cities that should get good transit use. I’ve also shown the Purple Line being extended to the Valley and up Sepulveda.

Again, don’t worry too much about the specific stations and routings – we’ll go into more detail on each option in the future.

To Bore or Not to Bore

The decision to tunnel is one of the biggest ones that must be made. Tunneling results in faster speeds and more reliable operations, but the higher cost can push project completion further into the future. Obviously, we’re tunneling through Sepulveda Pass, but on either side, it would be possible to do full tunnels, surface running with selected grade separations (like Expo Line and Crenshaw Line), or full surface running.

Any surface running segments are dependent on the ROW of the arterial roads. Contrary to popular conceptions of LA, the north-south arterials on the Westside are somewhat underpowered. Lincoln and Sepulveda (Westside) are two lanes each way with a center turn lane. Bundy/Centinela and Westwood/Overland are cobbled together, with pieces where the second travel lane is only provided during peak periods by sacrificing on-street parking (always a sign of desperation).

The situation is much the same on Reseda and Balboa, which have the same basic configuration as Sepulveda (Westside), but with more generous proportions. On Balboa, there are three lanes each way with no parking. Sepulveda (Valley) and Van Nuys are wider, at least three lanes each way with a center turn lane plus parking. In many places they’re even wider (presumably where there used to be transit ROW in the middle).

I was going to go into detail and compare grade separation options for each branch, but that would make this post much too long. Now that we’ve got the basic framework set up, we can come back and give each branch the attention it deserves in future posts.