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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Caltrain grade crossings – changing horses in midstream

Uploaded: May 27, 2019
For months and months, Palo Alto officials have been talking about -- and then finally planning -- what kind of grade separations the city might create at four Caltrain crossings in town: a tunnel, a trench, a berm, or overhead tracks. Each concept is an expensive, complicated venture – the tunnel, the council finally decided was too expensive ($2 to $4 billion range) and just a couple of weeks ago was discarded.

City officials hired consultants (plural) to help them decide, they talked about grade separations at council meetings, held a series of public gatherings to determine resident preferences, et cetera. Last December was the council’s self-imposed deadline for a decision, but they missed that, and now this coming October is the new deadline.

Somewhat suddenly, Caltrain changed those proverbial horses in midstream. It announced last December that it has created a big new plan, and amid its electrification of all its trains and proposed expansion into downtown San Francisco, is Caltrain’s statement it will need four tracks instead of two in the northern part of Santa Clara County – most likely, in Palo Alto, and preferably at the Cal Ave station, or San Antonio, or maybe even the University Avenue station.

Now I have talked to a couple of council members and they don’t seem too upset about this horse change, perhaps because Caltrain officials have finally hinted that maybe they will work on a regional approach and help out a bit financially. Money does talk. But the number hinted at was $5 to $11 billion – for the entire Caltrain line from San Francisco to San Jose.

That’s a small drop in a big bucket; think about that $4 billion tunnel estimate for Palo Alto alone. But the idea of a regional approach is a great idea – and it should have happened years ago. But it didn’t, because Caltrain had declared grade separations were not its job; each city should decide what kind of grade separations it wants, if any, and each city should also pay for the cost.

And Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park have each worked separately, without any coordination so far, as to what happens if one city decides on a tunnel for its town and the next city want tracks high above. Those trains would have an impossible time coping with a rollercoaster railway line.

There are three big wrinkles in Caltrain’s new plan is its need for four tracks somewhere in north county (there are already four tracks at the Lawrence station in Sunnyvale). The first is the reason why four tracks are needed: to let high-speed rail trains quickly pass by Caltrain commuter trains. But will HSR ever come to fruition, particularly on the Peninsula? Voters approved the HSR plan in 2009, and a decade later less than 200 miles have been built, and they are near Bakersfield. HSR doesn’t have any money to build more, the feds want back the money it already gave to Caltrain, and I think its future is bleak, especially since it already has had big cost overruns. If no HSR, no need for four tracks.

The second wrinkle is Caltrain’s boastful claim of increased ridership. Daily ridership could soar from its current 62,000 level to 161,000 and maybe even 207,000 passengers by 2040, Caltrain claimed.

But Caltrain has been losing riders lately, and they are not sure why. They’ve been pointing figures at Uber. Of course, as this area grows, one can assume there will be more riders.

The third wrinkle is the funding – Caltrain doesn’t have the money now to pay cities for any grade separations, and while it’s a good idea and better power push for cities to join together to try to get funding, can the state afford to fund it? Maybe. And the feds? Of course, if the federal government wants to, but the Trump administration doesn’t want to, since the president doesn’t seem to like California very much – because we didn’t vote for him.

Of course Caltrain could ask residents to support a big tax increase to pay part of the cost of grade separations and four tracks, but it would need a two-thirds vote of approval and in early polling, the figures hover around 60 percent.

Eventually these problems will be solved, somehow. But it would seem that Caltrain shouldn’t have changed horses so late in the game, and the cities and Caltrain should have been working together years earlier. But that’s hindsight, isn’t it.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by WilliamR, a resident of another community,
on May 28, 2019 at 8:20 am

Even if long-distance HSR never happens, I assume that electrified Caltrain will operate 'local' and 'express' service, especially at peak hours, similar to the current operation. So an express train could zip past a local train using the four-track 'passing lane' segment; they do it now in a few places.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 28, 2019 at 8:26 am

It seems that we have had an alteration in Caltrain's plans thrown at us.

I think that there must be state or federal transportation funds or grants that have to be available for us. Silicon Valley must be paying so much in state and federal taxes that we are not getting back in improvement in services. We seem to be being left behind when it comes to maintenance and improvement funding.

Highway 101 had a wonderful new pavement surface a few years back and within months of the repaving project we had to suffer problems with the creek widening project. The work is now over, and the pavement surface is all scraped and lines from previous striping are evident all over. When using our ramps to get on or off the highway, or even to cross at Oregon and Embarcadero, the pot holes are dreadful and whether it is the City or the County that needs to repair them, they are ignored. East Palo Alto can build and put in a brand new pedestrian/bike bridge, Palo Alto can't do that.

The only thing Palo Alto seems to be able to do is reduce the number of lanes, put in obstacles on streets and increase fees for city services.

It is time we started getting something back for the taxes we pay. We need some better infrastructure. If grade separation so that we don't get held up by even more trains on an even busier Caltrain service isn't called infrastructure, it will be just another step backwards in how dreadful our infrastructure is and how maintenance and improvements are being ignored.

Posted by Diana Diamond, a Almanac Online blogger,
on May 28, 2019 at 12:02 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Resident -- You are so right about infrastructure and street repairs around town -- it seems lit takes a looongg time to get anything fixed (except, as you noted, bike lanes and lane reductions). And it has taken years to build a bike bridge across 101 -- 10 years??? -- when EPA did one in less than two years.We're great at talking about the problems we have, but certainly don't do well on fixing our problems. How long have our city officials talked about parking garages downtown and on Cal Ave, and now, finally, one is being built on Cal Ave. How long have we been discussing what to do with the Cubberley site? How long have we talked about traffic congestion at Embarcadero Road and El Camino near Town & Country? Why do you all think it takes this city so long to solve some problems?

Posted by Judy, a resident of Menlo Park,
on May 28, 2019 at 5:57 pm

It's my understanding (I could be wrong) that one of the reasons High Speed Rail was such a contentious issue on the Peninsula was because of the four tracks it would require: one set of tracks for high speed rail and the other set for the freight trains and CalTrain. High Speed rail won't work if it shares the tracks with the freights and CalTrain. Now CalTrain is demanding four tracks for their trains? This is a new development. I wonder if HSR is behind it.

The big problem on the Peninsula, where there's no open space around the tracks, is what will have to be removed to accommodate another set of tracks. Houses? Alma Street? Parking areas near the train stations? Business along the tracks? That's a much bigger can of worms than removing some housing near train crossings to grade separate. CalTrain's four track proposal is a new wrench thrown into the existing situation. I see no going forward now...

Seems there needs to be an important discussion about the extra set of tracks before anything else. What a mess.

Posted by Rick, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 29, 2019 at 9:58 am

We need HSR and if we don't leave space for it while we can, the pain of future implementation will be great. Brightline/Virgin Trains in Florida and SoCal/Nevada have taken the lead from us, but once their worth is shown HST at lease from the Bay to Tracy/Bakersfield will e much more attractive. I predict we will have trail going over both the Altamont and Pacheco alignments.

Second point: It is illustrative of the Council's dysfunction that allowed a small group of enthusiastic bicycle advocates to corral a disproportionate of scarce resources and implement those obstacles to traffic despite their clearly not being in the best interests of the majority of people who live here.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 1, 2019 at 12:46 pm

"High Speed rail won't work if it shares the tracks with the freights and CalTrain. Now CalTrain is demanding four tracks for their trains?"

That looks like six tracks to me. Palo Alto's gonna resemble a railroad switching yard.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 1, 2019 at 2:49 pm

Having multiple tracks in key sections is critical to getting the most out of the Right-of-Way (ROW), permitting simultaneous rush-hour local and express lines to fully utilize tracks. Here are some ridership numbers for the top commuter and rail systems in the US, from this source: Web Link

Looking at these numbers, Caltrain should be able to increase its ridership 1.5-2.0X through modest rush-hour service increases. Ultimately, it is easy to see Caltrain delivering passengers similarly to LIRR which would be 6X or so, but, to do that, multi-track solutions will be required (LIRR has multi-track trunks and multiple feeder lines). Fortunately, Caltrain has much of the necessary ROW already. Let's not foreclose the use of it.

== 2017 ==

(NY MTA LIRR) 103,630.4 2,996,872.2 154,603.0
(NJ TRANSIT) 88,578.3 2,090,913.2 102,048.7
(NY MTA-MNCR) 86,362.5 2,522,415.7 106,884.3
(CHI Metra) 70,592.2 1,577,342.9 58,539.0
(BOS MBTA) 33,949.6 697,665.0 48,743.2
(PHI SEPTA) 33,209.5 426,163.6 54,611.9
Caltrain 18,648.9 406,014.9 121,332.8
(LA Metrolink) 14,396.2 419,663.4 21,198.9
(Bal MTA) 9,215.1 272,481.9 19,564.9
Denver RTD 6,950.3 93,501.8 123,670.0

I wonder how many lanes would be required to replace 400M-500M rush-hour passenger miles per year over roughly 20 mile average trips, with single-occupancy vehicles on a freeway.

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 1, 2019 at 3:34 pm

Oops, sorry about that. Doesn't format well. I guess read the referenced report...

Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Jun 3, 2019 at 9:25 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Caltrain is going through both residential and commercial areas of the cities. Palo Alto is residential. Menlo Park next door has torn out all of the land and is now planning construction on their section. Since they are already under construction we should work with them to put the 4 tracks in their section. We don't have the financing to tear out homes and already built fields at the north end of the city.
what politics is in play here to destruct the residential section of the city? This city is a target for manipulation of a financial nature of extreme degree. Can we please get names, rank, and serial numbers?

Posted by Marie, a resident of Midtown,
on Jun 3, 2019 at 11:07 am

Marie is a registered user.

As an owner of a duplex on Alma St., I am very against running four tracks which will require taking half of Alma St. If Caltrain wants to buy property west of the tracks to expand, that would be fine, but don't sacrifice one major transportation corridor for another. Has anyone even looked at how many people travel on Alma St? What we should be looking at is ways of increasing the number of people who can use Alma Street through car pools and buses and cars. It is a major artery for Waymo, Uber and Lyft, as well as everyone else.

While it is true that some of the Right of Way (ROW) next to Alma Street is 100 feet wide, some of it isn't especially around the intersections with W. Meadow and Charleston. If any of Alma is acquired for four tracks, then that narrowing will be all along Alma. You can't narrow part of Alma and not the rest of it without massive road blocks. Look what happens when Alma narrows to 3 lanes when it passes near Embarcadero. We should be looking at redoing that grade crossing to expand Alma Street.

We need to start thinking in more innovative ways to cope with the traffic that will inevitably increase with increased housing in Palo Alto. Even if the percentage of people using mass transit increases, the actual number of people still driving will still increase. This is what Stanford is facing if they drastically increase housing on campus, which they should. But there is no way that the number of people driving both during and after commute hours will not increase. The real issue is how to increase the number of people riding buses and Caltrain and on the roads - because that is what is needed when you are looking at increasing population density. Roads must increase their carrying capacity too - instead of reducing it with poorly designed "road diets."

Posted by German N, a resident of another community,
on Aug 13, 2019 at 3:19 pm

Hello Neighbours,

The entire Bay Area currently is experiencing multiple problems such as housing and traffic congestion. When we talk about CalTrain, we talk about commuters from other places who use CalTrain as part of their commuting so, looking at a bigger scope, I would suggest:

1. Underground tunneling it should be more economical overall since we definitely
need four tracks. Releasing above ground land/private properties would take
years and it's very difficult and expensive in the Bay Area. The tunneling
should go all the way up to San Francisco.

2. For economical (easier maintenance) and practical reasons, we need to have BART
to replace CalTrain along the Peninsula. We need to connect the three major
airports together, we need to connect the major employment centers (San Jose,
San Francisco, Oakland, Walnut Creek and Dublin/Pleasanton) using one system,
BART. We need to have BART running every two minutes during commute hours.
CalTrain should service the loose end, e.g. San Jose - Gilroy.

3. We should let BART to develop its above/adjacent land to self support its
system (common in some Asian Countries).

4. By looping BART around the water, we don't need to build another set of
underwater tube.

5. By looping BART in Contra Costa and Alameda counties (with several transfer
stations in East Bay side), people could live further east and BART can put
more cars on the tracks.

Thank you.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Aug 17, 2019 at 12:03 pm

Another train hits car last night at Charleston. Web Link

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