Menlo Park contemplates high-speed rail along Caltrain corridor
The sound of approaching high-speed rail just got louder in Menlo Park, after three Bay Area legislators announced their support for running the trains along the Caltrain corridor.
After Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, issued a joint statement on April 18, the project's advocates and detractors mulled over what it all meant.
Mr. Gordon said that this vision of high-speed rail wouldn't be much different from Caltrain's baby bullet trains.
"You do need to electrify the line; electrification is the future of Caltrain anyway," he noted, explaining that this would require overhead wires. "If you have an electrified third rail, you have to completely separate the tracks — you can't have cars going over the tracks, can't have people going over the tracks. So you'd have to install the overhead wires."
He also thought that adding a third track at a few locations, to allow the trains to pass their slower counterparts, would help.
Mr. Gordon disagreed that all crossings would need grade separations, an expensive proposition. "Obviously for safety, the more the better, but in many ways, those are community by community decisions. San Bruno, just recently embarked on a project to do a major grade separation. The city really wanted that to happen, it was part of their long-range plan. But there are other communities where people would not want that to happen."
Electrification would also lead to quieter trains, although federal law still requires sounding a horn at any at-grade crossings, he said.
Transportation commissioner and anti-high-speed-rail advocate Martin Engel called the April 18 announcement "balderdash." He said that Caltrain electrification is code for high-speed rail, even though there's no funding yet to build the project along the Caltrain corridor.
"To a significant degree, that's what they are doing in the Central Valley with available funding; marking their territory. What they intend to build won't be high-speed rail usable. They excuse that by saying that it's merely the first step," Mr. Engel said.
"What is planned currently for the Central Valley is the construction of a rail corridor, presumably two tracks, although even that's not entirely clear," Mr. Engel continued. "What they won't build is the entire high-speed rail capacity, which includes electrification, signaling, and positive train control. What does this mean? They prefer to use all the available dollars on laying as much track as possible. Never mind if it's not high-speed-rail usable. That, they say, will come later."
The trio of legislators sent out a second statement later in the week to address the misconception that they were suggesting high-speed rail should stop in San Jose, then force riders to transfer to Caltrain. "There would be no transfers. The idea is to upgrade the Caltrain corridor so that high-speed trains can run on the same tracks," the statement said. "High-speed trains would run northbound and southbound all the way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, as required by Prop 1A."
But at least one transportation commissioner thinks that should be a fallback position. Ray Mueller, who compared a high-speed rail train to a "horizontal rocket," said he's also concerned about the feasibility of running the trains through residential areas, and the volume of trains necessary in an integrated system. "History tells us accidents will happen in any transportation system. We need to remain cognizant of that fact in planning," he said. "I am not saying it can't be done, but we should remain cautious about not trying to force square pegs through round holes."
Mr. Mueller, along with Menlo Park Mayor Rich Cline, expressed happiness that the legislators took a stand against elevated tracks on the Peninsula.
Friends in high places
Since the legislators firmly rejected any high-speed rail design that included elevated tracks along the Peninsula, how much will that count with the California High Speed Rail Authority?
According to Mr. Gordon, although they can't tell the authority what to do, of the three legislators that made the announcement, Ms. Eshoo is well placed in Congress, while Mr. Simitian and himself chair the budget committees that oversee the budget of high-speed rail.
"That probably gives us some capacity to be listened to," he said. "I certainly hope that the authority is listening to the public and to the elected officials. Continuing to think about and pursue elevated rails in communities that don't want them really is a fool's errand."
Rail authority CEO Roelof van Ark was unavailable for comment, as was Caltrain's CEO, Michael Scanlon.