After more than a dozen public comments, the Atherton City Council decided on Wednesday, Jan. 15, to accept a proposal from Caltrain to permanently close the town's train station. The town will now work with the rail service agency to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with specifics for closing the station in the next few months.
Caltrain spurred this process last week, when it sent a letter to the town – which had most recently indicated it wants to expand service to weekdays – asking it to provide official support for the proposal before closing the station, which currently operates only on weekends.
At a Jan. 15 City Council meeting, Mayor Rick DeGolia expressed sadness that a historic part of Atherton, and California's rail system, would close, but said that sadness often accompanies progress.
"At the end of the day, we will benefit from the closure," he said. "The station was heavily used in the past, but not today. … There's a significant capital cost to keep the station."
Town staff noted it would cost about $30 million to upgrade the station to bring back full weekday service.
Atherton and Caltrain officials met several times over the last six to eight months as the rail agency prepares for electrification of its train service from San Francisco to San Jose, according to DeGolia.
Several speakers at the meeting noted that they would gladly travel to the nearby Menlo Park or Redwood City stations to take the train.
They also advocated for some sort of path extending south of Watkins Avenue that would safely connect Atherton to the Menlo Park station. With such a path, which Caltrain mentions in its letter, people would not have to walk along busy El Camino Real to go from Atherton to Menlo Park.
Caltrain also mentions that the town may expand its quiet zone as a result of the station closure and safety improvements at Watkins Avenue, which would "significantly expand the area in which horns are not sounded." Residents at the meeting said they would be pleased if they no longer hear train horns.
"I'm willing to give up our cute little train station," Mc Cormick Lane resident Barrett Anderson said at the meeting. "I welcome a much faster express station in Menlo Park. It's a remarkable opportunity."
The majority of public comments were in support of closing the station, but DeGolia noted that there is more of a balance of Atherton residents on each side of the issue.
Malcolm Dudley, former Atherton mayor and town Rail Committee member, spoke in support of the side not represented as strongly at the meeting. Dudley said that traffic congestion in the area poses a major threat to the safety, health and quality of life of Peninsula residents.
"Restore weekday service and get back to providing the service we need as a community," he said.
Caltrain had previously indicated that it might eliminate a stop in either Redwood City or Menlo Park to accommodate an Atherton stop. It has the final say on the schedule.
"Neighboring jurisdictions have asked, 'why are you (Atherton) clogging up the system,'" said council member Cary Wiest. “We do lose the convenience, but a lot of riders already go to stations north or south of us. It's the slow boat to China if you get on (the train) in Atherton."
Council member Mike Lempres said that as Caltrain service expands, it would be better for the environment and for ridership to funnel riders to nearby stations.
The station, which is more than 100 years old, is a designated "hold out station" because it has a center boarding platform only, meaning passengers can cross the tracks in multiple places to reach the platform. To change this, Caltrain would have to build separate platforms for northbound and southbound trains, and a fence separating the tracks.
Caltrain suspended weekday stops in the town in 2005 due to low ridership.
If the town and Caltrain can come to an agreement, the rail agency will begin a process of about five to six months to identify potential impacts, obtain environmental clearance and develop a station closure resolution, according to the letter.
To close the station, Caltrain said it would seek funding, between $7 million and $9 million, to construct a right-of-way fence separating the current station from the town's civic center, remove the existing station platform and track crossings, remove ticket vending machines and bike lockers, and implement grade crossing safety improvements at Watkins Avenue.
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis said it's important that details are firm in the MOU since there are "many vague promises" in the letter from Caltrain. For example, Caltrain offers to lease some of the station land to the town, but doesn't say how much it would charge it, she said.
"I think this is the beginning of a negotiation with them," she said. "We need to make sure it's clearly spelled out. The letter doesn’t promise us a whole lot."