News

Atherton challenges Caltrain electrification report

Town asks for analysis of designs not compatible with high-speed rail

By Barbara Wood

Special to the Almanac

Less than a mile of train tracks runs through Atherton, but that hasn't stopped the small town from making an outsized effort to fight changes in rail service.

In its latest effort to derail proposed train service modifications, on April 16 Atherton's council unanimously approved a four-page letter pointing out problems in the draft environmental report for Caltrain's plan to electrify its trains.

The letter, signed by Mayor Cary Wiest, but prepared mostly by the town's rail committee, asks Caltrain to change the draft report so it looks at more alternatives to electrification and to "respond to the questions and concerns that we have outlined in this letter."

The letter says the report is incomplete because it does not include analysis of the entire high-speed rail project, even though one of the stated aims of the electrification project is to make the Peninsula tracks compatible with HSR.

It also faults the environmental review for not looking at alternatives that aren't compatible with HSR. "The project objectives: to improve train performance, increase ridership, service and revenue, while reducing environmental impacts, improving regional air quality and reducing green-house gas emissions and noise can be achieved by other means, and a failure to examine and analyze feasible alternatives that might reduce environmental impacts is a fatal deficiency," the letter states.

Atherton has a 10-member rail committee (one seat is currently empty) which meets monthly. The committee has been active in fighting the proposal to bring high-speed rail through the Peninsula.

Paul Jones, committee chair, told the council that two attorneys believe the town will "have grounds for litigation" if the environmental report is approved as written. He disputes claims in the report that electric trains will decrease greenhouse gases, that noise will decrease and that vehicular traffic will not be greatly impeded by additional trains.

Greenhouse gas emissions will increase during construction, Mr. Jones said. Removing trees would exacerbate the problem. Noise from train horns and the rails will still be present. "The actual traffic will have to increase," he said, because more trains means more time with crossing gates down. The committee also fears the amount of electricity the trains will use could mean "additional transmission facilities will be needed."

Committee member Rosemary Maulbetsch urged Atherton residents to write their own letters to Caltrain asking that the report be changed. The current plans would remove 142 Atherton trees, Ms. Maulbetsch said, and 206 more trees could be severely pruned. Those trees reduce noise and air pollution as well as providing a visual screen, she said. "We've got to say…find another way to do this electrification if electrification's got to be done."

Greg Conlon, also a member of the rail committee, said one of the alternatives to be considered should be putting the tracks at below ground level. "We should consider doing some kind of a trench," he said.

Council members praised the committee for its work. "The content of this letter is really powerful," said Councilman Rick DeGolia. "Everybody should read it."

By law, all comments about the draft environmental impact report must be responded to before the agency can approve the final version. The deadline for submitting comments is April 29.

Comments on the report can be emailed to electrification@caltrain.com with the subject line, "Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project"; or mailed to: Caltrain, Attn: Stacy Cocke, Senior Planner, P.O. Box 3006, San Carlos, CA 94070-1306.

Reports

Read the letter and the staff report online.

The draft environmental impact report can be viewed at local libraries or at Caltrain's website.

Comments

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Apr 20, 2014 at 6:42 pm

If only our Menlo Park City Council had the cojones to write such a letter! Atherton has spearheaded a rational approach to Caltrain development for a decade or more. It has opposed High-Speed Rail in any permutation on the Caltrain corridor. It has stood firmly in opposition to Caltrain corridor development and expansion.

Let's be clear here: Menlo Park Administration sees benefits for itself from any capital expenditures on the Caltrain corridor, for whatever reason. Government bureaucracies thrive on the churning of tax dollars regardless of their source. Budgets and head-counts benefit. Resumes are enriched.

Fellow residents and taxpayers, we are being had.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 21, 2014 at 8:30 am

Adina is a registered user.

Menlo Park has the 10th most popular Caltrain station. SRI employees drive 50% less than typical office park employees. Electrification will provide more capacity and help even more cars get off the highways. Caltrain ridership has doubled over the last decade and many rush hour trains are standing room only. Menlo Park will benefit substantially from Caltrain electrification.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Chuck
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2014 at 10:10 am

The Uber-wealthy of Atherton that barely use CalTrain services as it is need to accept the fact that the rest of us that commute up and down the peninsula without a chauffeur need real options for efficient mass transportation. If the residents of Atherton want to have the electrified line run through a trench in their back yards, then they can pony up the money to do it. Electrified train around the world run faster, cheaper, cleaner and safer than the filthy, noisy and slow antiquated diesel locomotives currently in operation.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Stanford Tree
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Apr 21, 2014 at 10:28 am

"Atherton opposes change and progress? I'm totally shocked," said no one ever.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bobster1985
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2014 at 11:05 am

Wow, talk about NIMBYism! This small wealthy suburb with less than a mile of Caltrain tracks wants to torpedo an electrification project that will benefit hundreds of thousands of people throughout the Bay Area. Rich people always seem to feel their rights are more important than everybody else's.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Reality Check
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2014 at 12:45 pm

[Post removed. Please focus your comments on the issue, and not personal comments about Atherton residents.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by peninsula resident
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Apr 21, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Barbara Wood said:
> Less than a mile of train tracks runs through
> Atherton, but that hasn't stopped the small
> town from making an outsized effort to
> fight changes in rail service.

This article contradicts this lead paragraph. For example:

"...one of the alternatives to be considered should be putting the tracks at below ground level. "We should consider doing some kind of a trench...".

Uh, trenching the tracks would be making "changes in rail service."

It is entirely possible for someone to be a proponent of spending money to improve public transit, but also believe that the approach Caltrain is proposing is less effective both short-term and long-term than other approaches.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by peninsula resident
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Apr 21, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Adina wrote:
> Electrification will provide more capacity and help even more cars get off the highways.

No. Wrong.

More trains can provide more capacity. More trains can get more automobiles off the road.

More passenger railroad cars can provide more capacity. More passenger railroad cars can get more automobiles off the road.

Modern railroad cars and modern diesel trains can provide more capacity and help even more cars get off the highways.




 +   Like this comment
Posted by PatrickD
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2014 at 8:26 am

@peninsula resident: Electric trains have lower mass because they're not hauling generators and diesel fuel with them, so can accelerate and brake faster. This means lower head-ways and more trains can be run on the same tracks.

This does of course mean more congestion close to the tracks if the train isn't grade separated, however it should mean fewer automobiles on the highways if there is more ridership on the train.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by resident
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2014 at 11:13 am

When I read the Travel Section of the newspaper it shows a beautiful new AMTRAK locomotive - state of the art - fuel efficient. Note that the newer CALTRAIN locomotives generate their own electricity much as the newer cars do.
After watching this discussion on the Palo Alto CC Meeting it became clear that there is no added benefit for electrification for the users. It only benefits the contractors. I think the current technology in locomotives has surpassed whatever electric locomotive they will come up with. All of the overhead wires? Taking out trees? Intrusion of added equipment in residential areas? Preparation for HSR which will never happen on the peninsula? It will be a MAG-LEV - not a HSR version.
More power to you if you can turn the tide on this project. A waste of taxpayer dollars.
What did anyone get here - 6 trips per hour vs 5 at peak times. WOW - just add more cars.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by peninsula resident
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Apr 23, 2014 at 8:27 am

PatrickD wrote:
> Electric trains have lower mass

While this is usually the case, my point is that there are other ways to accomplish faster travel times, that include using modern, lighter railroad cars and clean diesel trains. Edina's post makes it sound like electrification is the only way to improve travel times and increase capacity, which is just not the case.

Caltrain is being very, very shortsighted and in the long run is wasting money in their approach to managing long-term growth. Here are just a couple of the issues with their approach:

1) they are depending on HSR funding to electrify the right-of-way. HSR is looking less and less likely to happen (certainly not with Prop1A money, and using cap-and-trade would be illegal). As the Atherton response points out, Caltrain has not objectively looked into alternatives to electrification, which is a huge disservice to commuters, as they've put all their capacity-planning "eggs" in the HSR basket; when that falls through, Caltrain will have to scramble to come up with a plan B. In the mean time, trains get more and more crowded, forcing more cars onto the roads.

2) Their lack of planning is going to result in INCREASES in congestion, and more trains (diesel or electric) will result in more gate downtime, resulting in longer and longer traffic jams at rail crossings. Caltrain needs to trench, and trenching is the right approach; among other reasons its the most seismically safe, and will allow the trains to go faster.


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