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By Paul Bendix

About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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Do We Need Rail?

Uploaded: Oct 12, 2013
Perception does count in transportation planning. So I'm curious about reaction to a couple of recent posts.

One resident, Felton, pointed out that we lead in highway engineering, so why not leverage that knowledge base? He describes trains as a 150-year-old technology and suggests we would better apply dollars in developing buses, smart roads and so on.

I do recall a speech by California's Director of Transportation, circa 2000. He said that the state's rising population, coupled with its rising property values, meant that highways were no longer cost-efficient. We'd invest in improvements – but building new freeways was not prudent.

I'd like to hear thoughts on roads and their role in our transportation future.

I'm glad that Margaret, another Menlo Park local, supports Caltrain. I do wonder if she has taken the rush-hour baby bullets or expresses. The latter can reach San Francisco in about 35 minutes. As for the old rattling cars, I'm afraid they'll be with us until Caltrain electrifies in a few years. It's worthwhile looking at the line's plans for electrification.
Local Journalism.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Oct 13, 2013 at 9:56 am

Passenger rail is essential. It carries many, many more people than highways ever can. Rail is also much better for the environment than cars are. Few people reading this site know that the EPA has had rather high standards for emissions from diesel locomotives for siome time now: Tier 0-Tier 4.

Web Link

Diesel-electric locomotives, which are used everywhere in the US outside the NorthEast Corridor, have to meet hose rather tough standards.

Rail vs. highways/roads? Personally, I'd much rather ride a train than have to drive my own car. (I was a CalTrain commuter for a number of years.) As I tell people, when I ride a passenger train, someone is paid to drive it, maintain it, repair it, and clean it. None of that is true of my own car, where I have to bear all the expenses. And the engineers who operate passenger (and freight) trains are chosen carefully and trained (pun intended!) much more than are auto drivers. I trust the average locomotive engineer MUCH more than I trust the average auto driver!

As most of you know, our communities heren on the Peninsula grew up around the former Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. They are still very important, and carry an average of more than 42,000 passengers every weekday, according to CalTrain's own figures, which are derived from actual counts.

Highways and roads are necessary, but simply cannot carry that many people.

BART, which I also used in my daily commute, carries more than 400,000 people per day. We can see from what happened during the recent BART strike what happens when people do not have this absolutely essential passenger-rail system available: highway gridlock!

Yes, we DO need passenger rail. We need MORE of it -- and much more frequent trains, where that is possible. BART and CalTrain are operating at or beyond capacity capacity at many times, but our other rail systems here in the greater Bay Area could run many more trains. The money is there -- it is just either being spent on the wrong things (like war and sports stadiums) or being invested in the wrong things and hoarded by the 1%.

Posted by Paul Bendix, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Oct 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Thanks, Louise. I had never seen the EPA diesel requirements ? and you propound a strong argument here.

Another Menlo Park resident was pointing out that executive coaches ? such as the Google buses ? provide a very attractive rush-hour transit alternative.

I wonder if anyone else has thoughts on this topic.

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community,
on Oct 14, 2013 at 12:21 pm

It may be 150 year old technology, yet it still is the most efficient in terms of capacity vs. cost.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Some of the reason that the US doesn't have good passenger service is that the track is often owned by private freight companies. The Capitol Corridor line from San Jose to Sacramento runs on Union Pacific track at least between San Jose and Oakland - and passenger trains have second priority relative to freight.

But what people *don't* realize is the US rail system is the best in the world - for freight. It's extremely efficient, both in terms of fuel used and costs. Comparing costs using a purchasing power parity approach, it's cheaper to ship things by rail in the US than in China or India. Here's a provocative article from the Economist magazine a few years saying we could lose that efficiency edge if we rededicate lines to passenger rail: Web Link

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