Stop that train!

Why three unlikely enthusiasts from Menlo Park just may be the best hope for opponents of high-speed-rail

Click on pictures to enlarge and view captions.

By Sean Howell

Almanac Staff Writer

Sometimes, when he finds himself stretching and rubbing his eyes after staring for hours on end at his computer monitor, Martin Engel permits himself a vision.

It's pretty pie-in-the-sky, even as visions go: hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people in the streets of Peninsula cities like Menlo Park, Atherton and Palo Alto, blocking the intersections at train crossings, chanting, hoisting signs, pitchforks and torches, rallying against the pending California high-speed-rail project.

But it's an image Mr. Engel returns to more and more these days, as he wrestles with his doubts over whether he and other project opponents are making a difference. He's coming to the conclusion that a full-scale protest movement, with Peninsula residents literally blocking the train's path, may be the last resort for people like him: people who view the train not only as an intrusion on the Peninsula, but as a kind of horseman of California's economic apocalypse.

In his efforts to become a perpetual thorn in the side of the rail project's board, Mr. Engel has two compatriots who live in the same Menlo Park planned development in a short loop off El Camino Real: Morris Brown, a solicitous, twinkle-eyed man, and Mike Brady, more reserved and more regal than either of his friends. They're the Three Musketeers, the Three Amigos, the Stone Pine Lane Gang, and they've been remarkably visible in trying to halt the train. In the run-up to the 2008 election, when California voters approved the project, they often felt like they were the only active opponents in the whole state.

One and a half years after the ballot measure passed, they're still at it: reading books and articles about high-speed rail, bombarding people with e-mails, contemplating lawsuits aimed at what they see as the rail board's most shameless maneuvers. They're spending their golden years, so called, trying to shake people into an awareness of the devastation they believe the project will inflict upon the region, and the state's budget.

As they wait for their rabble-rousing to turn into something more, they are dogged by doubts. Are people awakening to the harm the train's going to do to their communities? Is a movement brewing?

Is anyone listening?

* * *

Mr. Engel wakes up around 8 a.m., makes coffee and reads the paper. He's in the computer room from 9 a.m. to noon, researching and writing about high-speed rail. He breaks for lunch, then he's back at the computer until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., when it's time for dinner. He returns to researching and writing until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., then it's lights out. He does this every day of the week.

This might be the place to interject that Mr. Engel isn't some kind of lifelong train buff, and wasn't even much interested in politics until the rail issue caught his eye in 2003. He served in the Air Force from 1952 to 1954. He earned a master's degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Syracuse, writing his dissertation of Frank Lloyd Wright; taught cultural history and aesthetics at Carnegie Mellon; then worked for 15 years as a senior program officer in the U.S. Department of Education before moving to the Bay Area and taking a job with Apple Computer, Inc. After retiring he took up cooking, working for several years as a prep chef at John Bentley's restaurant in Woodside.

The point is, this isn't a man in search of a hobby, or some kind of local government nut. He'd rather be doing something else, or so he claims: "I didn't choose the train, the train chose me, by intruding into me life. It upsets me, it makes me very unhappy. This is not how I want to spend the last years of my life."

Mr. Brown and Mr. Brady's resumes are similarly impressive. Mr. Brown received a Ph.D. from Stanford and taught organic chemistry at Caltech for five years before and starting a firm that sells aircraft electronics and computer hardware and software, moving to Menlo Park in 1970 (he still goes into the office every day, though he's "80 percent retired"). He spends about 20 hours a week researching high-speed rail issues, writing letters to editors and the High-Speed Rail Authority, and sharing information with Mr. Engel and Mr. Brady.

Mr. Brady attended Harvard Law School and spent 42 years with a Redwood City firm, working in appellate law, before switching gears about a year ago to work in mediation and arbitration for a different company. He's working pro bono on one pending lawsuit against the rail agency, and contemplating others.

All three men, along with the great majority of people who spend any amount of time attending high-speed-rail meetings, or writing letters to editors, or driving up to Sacramento to keep an eye on the rail agency's board, live right next to the tracks. That's the biggest rhetorical weakness of the anti-train movement: You'd want this thing stopped, too, if you thought it meant a man in a suit would show up on your porch any day now, asking in polite legalese for the title to your home.

But when Mr. Brady, Mr. Brown and Mr. Engel imagine high-speed trains gusting through the state like a Sierra breeze, picking people up in Los Angeles and depositing them in San Francisco before breakfast, they don't see the same thing you see. They envision a boondoggle that will cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars but will never actually get built, a project whose purpose is to make politicians more powerful and their moneyed friends richer. Or, as Mr. Engel put it in a recent e-mail: "It's not about the movement of people and goods. It's about politics and money."

The Stone Pine Lane Gang's No. 1 fear is this: that the rail authority will start digging holes all over the place, building unconnected segments of rail line -- and will then run out of money. The cranes will leave, but the blighted lots and aimless miles of track will remain to be overgrown by weeds, the disused baths and half-built coliseums of our crumbling empire. Taxpayers will have spent billions for tracks that would never feel the weight of a train.

"This is where my stress, my anxiety, a lot of my fear and anger comes from," Mr. Engel said. "They'll have enough money to get started, they'll do a lot of harm and damage, and then they'll quit."

Here's Mr. Brown: "There is no doubt in my mind that this is never going to be built completely."

It may be helpful to imagine the men's opposition to the rail system as a kind of Russian nested doll of dread. Mr. Engel acknowledges that he would still fight the rail system if he thought it were basically a sound idea, if only because he'd lose his home. But it's not a sound idea, he says. The Caltrain corridor is the wrong route; there will never be enough money to complete the entire system, anyway; even if there were, the project is fundamentally ill-conceived, because there aren't any real regional transit systems in California; even if California were suitable for the system, there's still no way the state wouldn't have to subsidize it; etc., etc.

Mr. Engel keeps his own set of analogies close at hand: the high-speed rail project is a solution looking for problems, icing without the cake; a skyscraper built top-first, dangling high above the city. Instead of thinking outside the box, they're covering it over with fancy paper.

The appropriate natural disaster metaphor here might be: Most people see the potential damage of the rail line as a series of lightning strikes, affecting only people who live along its route. Mr. Brown, Mr. Brady, and Mr. Engel think of it as an earthquake that they just happen to be closest to the epicenter of.

"This will destroy one of the most beautiful areas of California," Mr. Brady said. "I'm surprised people haven't awakened to that fact."

And yet, to their great consternation, the men have had just a heck of a time getting anybody to pay attention to the project. Mr. Brown and Mr. Brady ran a Web site called "Derail HSR" in the months before the November 2008 election, and Mr. Engel bombarded people with e-mails, a list that he says is now up to about 500.

Through a connection they made to a Sacramento lobbyist, Mr. Engel wrote a draft of the opposing ballot language. Mr. Brown says he thinks the trio's advocacy efforts had at least something to do with the fact that 30-odd newspapers statewide opposed the ballot measure in editorials, by their count.

But the measure passed, by a greater margin in Menlo Park than in the rest of the state.

"We talked to legislators, we tried to get the project delayed or redone," Mr. Brown said. "But we were virtually alone."

* * *

Why did they fail to get people to pay attention to the project -- even some of the people who will be most affected by it?

Mr. Engel remembers attending the meeting that sparked Palo Alto's resistance to high-speed rail, watching speaker after speaker shake his fist at rail officials, wondering where these people were when he was doing his Paul Revere act prior to the statewide vote.

"I was thinking, I knew about this; why didn't you know about this?" he said. "I'm not any smarter than you. ... I didn't understand it."

Bracketing for a moment the general difficulty of getting people to think much about what their government's doing, plus the heap of distractions and foreshortened attention spans of our age, the simplest explanation might be the one cited above: we don't see what they see. This whole thing is so big and expensive and complex that it's probably easiest to just assume it will get done, one way or another, even if it costs more than we originally thought, even if we have to hold our noses over some of the decisions that get made.

Infrastructure projects especially have an air of inevitability about them: people need to get from one place to another; surely the state's figured out how many people, and surely they have engineers to figure out how to transport them.

Now recall Mr. Engel's claim above, that the project is about politics and money, not trains and people. To the Stone Pine Lane Gang, it isn't complicated at all. In fact, it's maddeningly simple: a handful of longtime state politicians stringing together political support, rather than a rail line. Their studies of high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects have convinced them that the California rail agency low-balled the cost of the system, and vastly inflated the number of people who will ride it. In other words, they lied.

According to Mr. Engel, high-speed-rail systems worldwide tend to be luxury trains, unaffordable to most of the taxpayers who foot the bill. He sees this project as no exception: a line built by politicians for the benefit of land speculators and wealthy businessmen. He and his cohorts viewed a recent spike in projected costs and ticket prices as merely the start of an upward trajectory.

So: If you looked at the project and saw the Teapot Dome scandal, wouldn't you start paying attention? If you looked at the project's board and saw Tammany Hall, wouldn't you feel obliged to speak up?

That doesn't mean they don't wonder whether they're wasting their time. Mr. Engel in particular has gotten the attention of the two rail board members from the Bay Area, Ron Diridon and Judge Quentin Kopp, who probably had him pretty firmly in mind when they spoke of "(people spreading) misinformation ... like a sore that festers, or the rotten apple in the barrel" (Diridon), or "the wailing of a siren song wafting through the public discourse on this historic project like an alluring spring breeze" (Kopp). But beyond the board itself, it's tough to tell how many people are paying attention.

"I'm surprised they haven't sued me for libel or slander," Mr. Engel said. "I guess I'm not effective enough." He has continued to send out e-mails since the ballot proposition passed, but says he feels like a man casting message-bearing bottles into the sea.

"How many people read them? How many people care? And to what degree? I have no idea," he said. "I think of myself as preaching to the choir these days."

Mr. Brown was so upset after the ballot measure passed, he stopped following new rail developments; he and Mr. Brady shut down their Web site. But information eventually filtered down to him, such as the fact that the rail agency wasn't immediately revising its business plan (as the state Legislature had ordered), or that cities that want a train station would have to pay for it. "I started to get mad, and I started to write things again," he said.

He's disappointed state legislators haven't put a stop to the plans already, or at least dissolved the board and put rail experts in charge.

"Why is it taking us to mount lawsuits?" Mr. Engel asked. "Why doesn't the Legislature do anything about this?"

"What's the answer?" Mr. Brown replied. Mr. Engel blinked, surprised at the question. "Come on, you know the answer. It's not about the trains. ..."

"It's about the money!" Mr. Engel said with delight, completing his own favorite phrase.

The line, however, hasn't quite turned into slogan. And the grassroots, storm-the-tracks movement Mr. Engel envisions still seems just as far-fetched as it did at the beginning of the year, when he first started advocating for a more radical resistance. The handful of local groups critiquing the project are made up of experts, people who take the rail agency on its own terms, he says. They're not agitators.

"What we have are a bunch of small groups that are very elitist, and very exclusive," Mr. Engel said. "I get more criticism from people on my side of the fence than from the other side: 'You're too negative, you're taking away peoples' hope and optimism.' That's not what I'm trying to do; I just get so excited about it! This project isn't inexorable, but we won't be able to stop it unless we make a massive effort.

"We have to reach a new level of magnitude, we have to file dozens of lawsuits. Right now, Diridon can say, 'It's just a bunch of cranks in Palo Alto and Menlo Park who oppose the project.' But if 10,000 people turned out, if we had marches, rallies. ..." It'd get them on the evening news, at least, he said with a grin.

If a movement's brewing, maybe these are the people to spark it: three self-described curmudgeons with nothing to lose, energetic hobbyists willing to poke fun at themselves, and eager speak truth to power (or shout it -- their version of it, anyway). Men who don't hesitate to stick out their tongues when the situation calls for it (at least, Mr. Engel doesn't).

Can you get there from here? Can a movement begin with three men sitting at their computers, howling into a digital maelstrom?

Mr. Engel says he doesn't know, and Mr. Brown and Mr. Brady don't share his pitchforks-and-torches vision. But every new development in Sacramento provides another opportunity to get riled up all over again, to plot and plan, to hope that, somehow, the project will be shelved, or delayed, or scaled back, or strangled.

And life is good for these men. They've all found a way to channel their talents and energies in a new direction as work slows down. Mr. Brown just returned from vacation in Hawaii; on the day of the interview, he and Mr. Brady were anxious to get to the latter's office for a meeting.

Though he spends most of his waking hours reading and writing about high-speed rail, Mr. Engel swears that whistling locomotives don't pierce the envelope of his dreams; he doesn't gnash his teeth at night over the latest remark from Quentin Kopp or Ron Diridon. He's 80, though you wouldn't know it from the way he leans forward in his chair, listening eagerly, staring out at the world with alert eyes from behind boxy computer-scientist glasses, his hair a nest of electric curls.

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!" Mr. Engel shouted with manic glee as we walked to the Caltrain tracks for a photo shoot, shaking his fists in mock-anger at an approaching train.

"Ugh," Mr. Brady said, turning away, smiling from what is clearly quite a deep reserve of patience. "He's such a prima donna."

"This isn't about me," Mr. Engel insists, over and over. "I'm not promoting myself -- to the contrary. I just want the damn train off the tracks. Period."

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