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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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Caltrain's Real Problem

Uploaded: Nov 1, 2013
I hear all sorts of complaints about Caltrain. Principally: the trains are crowded and noisy. And there aren't enough of them.

Which reminds me of an old joke. Nursing home residents are discussing the food. "It's awful," one says, "and the portions are so small."

My advice: be patient with Caltrain. The commuter rail line has reached an awkward stage, but the future is worth the wait.

By the end of this decade Caltrain will be electrified. Riding the line will be faster, quieter and more frequent. With any luck Caltrain will tunnel to its ultimate destination, San Francisco's Transbay Center in the heart of a city.

For now, the line's railcars are aging and rattling -- yet they need to remain in service for a few more years. This comes as ridership has reached unprecedented levels. Caltrain is rumored to be looking for used equipment to meet short-term needs. Still, as the line modernizes there will be growing pains.

There's a more systemic pain: money. Caltrain has no direct funding. Relying on annual contributions from three counties, its infrastructure keeps improving while its financial structure remains weak.

Want a permanent fix to Caltrain's problems? Demand a revenue source as reliable as, say, BART's.

Caltrain is essential to our future. The local economy is doing well, people flocking to the region...which puts Peninsula commuters in a squeeze. Our freeways can't grow – but Caltrain can.
Local Journalism.
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Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Nov 1, 2013 at 10:14 pm

Electrifying Caltrain may make the locomotives a little bit less noisy, but will not lessen ordinary railroad noises -- from squealing brakes, rattling couplers, and those terrible-sounding horns. And Caltrain will not be any faster than it is now, with a federally-allowed maximum speed of only 79 mph, unless some form of Automatic Train Control is put into effect (which Caltrain does not now have). This has been law since 1947.

(FYI: to put Caltrain\'s 79 mph maximum into perspective: some steam locomotives regularly ran at 100 mph or better. High speeds were praised back then for crack passenger trains.)

Caltrain\\\\\\\'s regular runs from San Francisco to San Jose are a bit less than 50 miles, and if they sped trains up a lot, they would get up to an impressive speed, only to have to begin braking. Plus the maintenance required to allow safe running at, say, 100 mph is a lot more precise and thus much more costly than that which is required to run at 79 mph max.

More frequent trains? I really do not know how Caltrain could do that. if they still intend to keep running express trains. If they decided to quit running express trains, and run like BART, with 5-minute headways during M-F peak hours, they could run more trains, but I am pretty sure most riders would not like to lose those "Baby Bullets" (just a fancy new name for express trains).

I just do not think electrifying Caltrain is the panacea that many think it will be. The only benefit might be from faster acceleration. And PG&E is going to love it when Caltrain electrifies. (History note: the electric substation on Glenwood, here in Menlo Park, was put there some time around the 1920s, when the former Southern Pacific RR was going to electrify the San Francisco -San Jose line. Sad to say, that never happened.)

Caltrain could run much longer trains in order to handle more passengers -- up to 10 cars each, but some stations now have platforms that are too short for longer trains. Fixing that would be no problem -- just another construction project, but would require money for yet another capital project. (For some reason, the current federal rules allow monies to be easily raised for capital projects (stations and equipment) but not for operations.)

Yes, Caltrain needs, and very much deserves, a good, dedicated, reliable source of funds. Having to go hat in hand to the 3 counties it runs through is not a practical way to run this busy railroad.

I enjoy your blogs, and agree with the gist of this blog. Thank you for supporting Caltrain!

Posted by resident, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Nov 2, 2013 at 10:23 am

The mistake is that people keep comparing Caltrain with BART, like public transit is the ugly stepchild of our entire transportation system. We should be comparing Caltrain with Hwy 101, which seems to have an unlimited source of taxpayer funding. Those new merging lanes on Hwy 101 in Menlo Park and Palo Alto cost a cool $100 million for just a couple of miles of work, and that money came out of your sales taxes, not car registration fees. $100 million could fund Caltrain for years and Caltrain serves a vastly larger area than the new merging lanes. Why are we spending so much tax dollars on private cars instead of on public transit?

Posted by Cal-train DBag, a resident of another community,
on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:50 pm

What\'s going to happen to the 4th/Townsend current station once the new Transbay Downtown SF Terminal opens? I assume it will just be another station stop since it is near AT*T Park whose throngs of fans use the train daily?!

Posted by chimera, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School,
on Nov 6, 2013 at 9:17 am

(This is a copy of the comment posted under 'The Other Big Project ...')

Train & Grade Separation ---

It may be time for Menlo Park to consider the need for some type of grade separation and make that part of any development that occurs near the tracks. There is an ideal opportunity to plan a grade separation while all the former auto dealerships are vacant instead of letting development to occur right up to the railroad tracks which would then make it impossible to do anything reasonable in the future.
(Palo Alto is commissioning a study on what to do with their tracks -- see the Palo Alto online article (Nov. 5 - "Caltrain trenching study wins green light")

Why wouldn't it make sense for the developers to pay for the section of track that abuts their development?

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