Atherton is starting off the new year with a discussion on Caltrain's electrification project plans for the near future. Among questions town officials and residents will be considering is one posed by Mayor Bill Widmer: "Has Atherton outgrown the need for a rail stop?"
On Wednesday, Jan. 9, town staff will present to the City Council and the town's Rail Committee a report on the Caltrain Business Plan and the future of the Atherton's train station. Caltrain's business plan forecasts its future service up until 2040, and assesses the benefits, impacts and costs of different service options. It coincides with Caltrain's plan to electrify the corridor from around San Francisco to San Jose. The project, scheduled to be operational in 2022, will replace diesel-run trains with electric trains.
Issues discussed at the meeting include:
• Potential impacts of Caltrain's long-term service vision for the town.
• Desired levels of service -- from no service to full service. (Caltrain suspended weekday service in Atherton in 2005 after finding ridership was fewer than 150 daily. The train now stops at the Atherton station on the weekends.)
• "Quiet zone" and grade crossing expectations, and the impact of possible state legislation on land uses along transportation corridors. The town imposed a quiet zone in 2016, which prohibits Caltrain engineers under most situations from sounding their train horns within a quarter-mile of the Fair Oaks Lane railroad crossing.
The council and committee members will also discuss Rail Committee recommendations for "successful implementation of the town's rail corridor priorities," according to a staff report. The 10-member rail committee meets every other month and examines the impacts of rail service on Atherton.
The council will vote on these recommendations at its Jan. 16 meeting:
• Caltrain must restore full weekday service.
• Caltrain must complete a capital project to remove the "hold out station" designation in town. Atherton's station has this designation because it has a center boarding platform only, meaning passengers can cross the tracks in multiple places to reach the center boarding platform. If a train is already in the station, an approaching train coming in the opposite direction must stop outside the station and wait for the other train to leave before entering. To change this, Caltrain would have to build separate platforms for northbound and southbound passengers and a fence separating the tracks.
• Ensure that any long-term rail corridor plan limits the number of tracks to two through Atherton.
• Modernization of the rail system must minimize and fully mitigate any environmental impact to the town.
• Advocate adding on the Watkins Avenue crossing a "quiet zone" with the addition of quad gates at the crossing.
Electrification and service
Electrification is expected to lead to more frequent and/or faster train service, and to reduce noise, improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Caltrain Business Plan projects a demand of up to 240,000 riders per day in 2040, including peak passenger ridership of 8,000 to 10,000 heading north in the morning and the same number going south during the evening commute. To meet this demand, Caltrain forecasts it would need to operate eight 10-car trains or 12 eight-car trains per hour, per direction.
Caltrain has committed to restoring weekday service - systemwide - once electrified train service is operational in 2022, wrote Dan Lieberman, Caltrain public affairs specialist, in an email. Caltrain has the final say on how many trains will stop in Atherton.
"This commitment was reflected and analyzed in the service assumptions used in the Caltrain electrification EIR (environmental impact report)," he wrote. "The specific future schedules and service levels for any stations with electrified service have not yet been determined."
The Caltrain Business Plan lists Atherton service levels as "to be determined" by further analysis. Caltrain has indicated that rather than adding an additional stop in the overall train schedule (adding time), it might eliminate a stop in either Redwood City or Menlo Park to accommodate an Atherton stop, according to the staff report. The Caltrain plan should be finalized by the end of 2019, Lieberman said.
"We as a community need to figure out what service level we want," Public Works Director Robert Ovadia told The Almanac.
Widmer, in an interview, said that Caltrain has suggested minimal restoration of weekday service at the Atherton station after electrification. The town "didn't think that was appropriate," he said.
But he's not convinced weekday service is even desirable. "We've lived without the train service for a period of time," he said. "We need to decide if we need stops (in Atherton) at all."
If the train doesn't stop in Atherton, the town could better enforce a quiet zone, he noted.
If Caltrain offered multiple stops each weekday in Atherton on express trains, the service might be attractive to Lloyden Park and Fair Oaks neighborhood residents, he said. But with low ridership, Atherton might not have express stops, and longer train rides would not be attractive to people commuting to San Francisco for work, he said.
The town has been at odds with Caltrain about the electrification project. In 2016, the town lost a lawsuit against the agency to stop progress on the electrification project by claiming the project's environmental report was flawed. The town also initially opposed Caltrain's installation of tall poles in town as part of the project, but ultimately backed away from the challenge.
Upcoming construction activities along the Caltrain line in town include infrastructure installation. Pole installation began in December and will last two to three months, said Lieberman. Wire installation will begin this spring and is expected to take about two to three months, he said.
The Jan. 9 meeting takes place at 4 p.m. at Jennings Pavilion in Holbrook-Palmer Park, 150 Watkins Ave. in Atherton.