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Caltrain Grade Separation Study Inadequate

Original post made by Steve Schmidt, Menlo Park: The Willows, on Oct 5, 2017

A complete analysis of Menlo Park grade separations of the Caltrain right of way should include a study of a viaduct that separates all four of the city’s at-grade crossings. To do less is financially shortsighted. The current $750,000 study paid for from County Funds is insufficient as it eliminates an option that would cost the least, be the safest and serve all businesses and property owners whose access is threatened.

Within days of the February 23, 2015, tragic death of a 35 year-old motorist who found herself facing a commute train on the tracks at Ravenswood, Council Member Keith stated that “It would be a disservice to the residents of Menlo Park to not consider all options” and that the issue of elevating the tracks would be brought to the Council. What has changed since this heart-felt proclamation?

All practical alternatives should be investigated. Menlo Park should not resist a complete planning process for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Why would the City spend tens of millions on a project that will not pass the test of time and will need updating in the future?

Grade separating all four Menlo Park crossings utilizing an open viaduct is a clear value to Menlo Park and to Caltrain.

1. Elimination of Noise - The greatest source of train noise in Menlo Park is the sounding of horns at each at-grade crossing required by federal railroad regulators. This nuisance would be eliminated by grade-separating all four of our existing crossings. Mechanical noise from the rail interacting with the wheels can be buffered with a 18 inch curb along the viaduct edge. The electric propulsion system will be considerably quieter than the diesel engines currently in use.

2. Increased east-west connectivity - A viaduct would offer increased opportunities for auto, pedestrian and bicycle circulation in the vicinity of the Caltrain right-of-way which is now a barrier. An elevated system could utilize the land underneath. Four grade-separated crossings would complete the vision of the Specific Plan and Safe Routes to School. The design of Stanford’s ped/bike under-crossing at 500 El Camino would also be simplified by this approach. With a viaduct design a bike route parallel to El Camino could be included in the project.

3. Increased safety - With increased frequency of Caltrain service, there will be more conflicts with cars, bikes and pedestrians at the three remaining at- grade crossings. Elevated tracks on a viaduct offer less opportunity for those in distress seeking to end their lives or for the inattentive to endanger themselves.

4. Elimination of gates - Warning bells currently associated with at-grade crossings are another source of noise. Back-ups and clogged turning movements of vehicles occur whenever the gates are down and will increase with greater frequency of trains. A viaduct at all four crossings will eliminate this problem in Menlo Park.

5. Protection of property access - The 2003-4 grade separation study concluded that property access impacts are significantly reduced as the Caltrain track elevation is raised: a fully elevated Caltrain viaduct would be of greatest benefit to all adjacent property owners (short of a tunnel).

6. Construction Impacts -The best approach for a project of this magnitude would be to construct all four grade separations in a logical sequential order to reduce the severity of construction impacts that will disrupt the City for years.

The Atherton position that Caltrain remain at grade through their town seems a political one and subject to future negotiation. Menlo Park cannot allow a neighboring town that has rejected Caltrain as a viable transportation system on the Peninsula to make decisions that will prevent our town from choosing the most feasible, affordable and safe option.

Steve Schmidt

Comments (26)

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 5, 2017 at 2:17 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

If you are going to "consider all options" then include a bored tunnel.

Clearly a bored tunnel would have the highest construction cost but it would also have the lowest impact from construction disruption and it would free up a very valuable North-South surface area for housing, pathways and other uses.


10 people like this
Posted by Read my lips
a resident of another community
on Oct 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm

"[Atherton] has rejected Caltrain as a viable transportation system"

That's not accurate. Atherton's issues are with the CalTrain management, not the CalTrain system. You can make a case on the merits/issues on some of their stances, but your perception of their view on railroads is definitely wrong.

"The Atherton position that Caltrain remain at grade through their town seems a political one and subject to future negotiation."

Respectfully, you're missing a very important issue. Caltrain owns a majority of the right-of-way: if Caltrain wanted to put a viaduct there (and in Menlo Park), they could. They don't because they don't have the money, and neither does HSR. And there isn't a snowball's chance in hades that Atherton will pay for a viaduct.

If grade separation at Encinal is that important Menlo Park, then Menlo Park is going to need to do one of the following:

Option 1:
dig an underpass at Encinal (and likely affect the homes adjacent to the underpass; how do they get home?).

Option 2:
build an overpass at Encinal (and likely affect the homes adjacent to the underpass; how do they get home?).

Option 3:
build a hybrid underpass at Encinal: mostly an underpass but with a slight increase in grade so that it can drop to current grade by the time the tracks get to Watkins, leaving Atherton unaffected (and likely affect the homes adjacent to the underpass; how do they get home?).

Option 4:
Menlo Park offers to pay 100% of the viaduct in the Atherton section of the ROW. You might still hear a "no", but that would at least resolve one of the issues preventing grade separation in that part of the right-of-way.


No way Atherton pays for grade separation. That'll never happen.


6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 5, 2017 at 6:26 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"No way Atherton pays for grade separation. That'll never happen."

I am ashamed to live in a community that takes this attitude towards anything that costs it money regardless of the benefits to the larger community.


4 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 5, 2017 at 7:06 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

"I am ashamed to live in a community that takes this attitude towards anything that costs it money regardless of the benefits to the larger community."

Sadly, this attitude is not uncommon among the wealthy.


15 people like this
Posted by Read my lips
a resident of another community
on Oct 5, 2017 at 8:33 pm

Before I debate Mr. Carpenter's post, I should mention that I meant to correct "grade separation" with "viaduct" in my previous post. That said, the statements in that post still stand. That said, what Mr. Carpenter said needs addressing.



"I am ashamed to live in a community that takes this attitude towards anything that costs it money regardless of the benefits to the larger community."

This is an interesting statement, considering what you know to be true based on prior statements:

ONE: Atherton residents supplement the fire service of all communities within the MPFPD; Atherton residents pay more and the rest of the communities within the Fire district benefit. You have said as much in prior posts.

TWO: Atherton residents property taxes and parcel taxes provide more per-attending-student revenues to MPCSD, Las Lomitas and Redwood City school districts than the taxpayers in the surrounding communities within those districts.

THREE: Atherton taxes supplement the revenues of the Library JPA, which is comprised of the cities of Atherton, Belmont, Brisbane, East Palo Alto, Foster City, Half Moon Bay, Millbrae, Pacifica, Portola Valley, San Carlos, Woodside, and the unincorporated areas of the county. These communities benefit from Atherton's outsized financial contributions. What's particularly interesting about that list is that Menlo Park is not in it.

Menlo Park contributes ZERO to the JPA.

That was just off the top of my head.


The Town of Atherton has the lowest tax revenues of any town/city within the Caltrain ROW. How, precisely, do you think the Town would be able to pay for a viaduct?


4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 5, 2017 at 9:16 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Read- Atherton wants to take revenue from the Fire District and, by your own account, refuses to pay for grade separations.

With high speed rail and no grade separations both Atherton Ave and Watkins will , by law, dead end at the train tracks.


17 people like this
Posted by Thomas Paine IV
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:17 am

I just hosted a visitor who is a professor of urban planning at the Sorbonne. She almost fell over laughing when she heard about the Cal Train plans for Menlo Park and the penninsula. Then she heard about the HSR lunacy and nearly stopped breathing. Seriously. She could not believe that cities would allow the train(s) operators to increase service and speeds without paying for the needed grade separations and infrastructure.


Like this comment
Posted by relentlesscactus
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 10:56 am

Caltrain will help pay for the viaduct. They will not help pay for a trench, more money than all the kings can muster. Caltrain is just waiting for PAMPA to come to their collective senses. This is not speculation.


Like this comment
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Steve: is an open viaduct simply a raised bed on supports, i.e., a bridge like structure with multiple spans? And are you proposing one that runs continuously above all four road crossings? If so, it appears like a very reasonable alternative. Can you share the reasons you believe our city has rejected it? Thanks.


Like this comment
Posted by Read my lips
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 12:57 pm

me: "Atherton residents supplement the fire service of all communities within the MPFPD"
PC: "Atherton wants to take revenue from the Fire District"

Regardless if the town is able to redirect that funding, you...even you...can't change the historical fact that Atherton residents supplement the fire services of the other communities within the MPFPD, which contradicts your statement that the community is against "...anything that costs it money regardless of the benefits to the larger community".


me: "How, precisely, do you think the Town would be able to pay for a viaduct?
PC: "[Atherton] refuses to pay for grade separations"

Again, how, PRECISELY, do you think the Town would be able to pay for a viaduct?

Perhaps you are unaware of the difference in revenues between Atherton and the rest of the communities in which the JPB-owned CalTrain ROW exists. Here are just a few examples from recent budgets:

Atherton Revenue: $15.75 million
Menlo Park Revenue: $56.87 million
Redwood City Revenue: $113.94 million
San Jose Revenue: $861.93 million
East Palo Alto Revenue: 35.06 million (added just for comparison)


PC: "Atherton Ave and Watkins will , by law, dead end at the train tracks."

Please cite this alleged "law". I am very certain this is not at all accurate.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 6, 2017 at 2:38 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"In addition, FRA requirements for approved barrier systems where train speeds exceed 
110 mph and the prohibition of at‐grade crossings where train speeds exceed 125 mph 
must be observed as provided in the Track Safety Standards. "

Appendix 5.4.4
FRA Published Highway-Rail Grade
Crossing Guidelines for High-Speed
Passenger Rail


Like this comment
Posted by Read my lips
a resident of another community
on Oct 6, 2017 at 5:04 pm

"FRA requirements for approved barrier systems where train speeds exceed 110 mph"

Precisely. Your quote shows:

ONE: At-or-below 110mph, no changes to at-grade crossings are required;

TWO: Between 111-125mph, 'approved barrier systems' are required at 'highway grade crossings'. One of the common barrier systems is quad gates, which Atherton already purchased and installed years ago at the Fair Oaks crossing. (that supplemental safety measure, by the way, is another example where Atherton paid for benefits to the larger community). FRA document here. See table 6 for clarification on barrier/grade requirements based on train speed: Web Link

THREE: Grade separation is only required for speeds exceeding 125mph.


There are no plans for HSR or Caltrain to go faster than 110, therefore there are no plans that will result in "Atherton Ave and Watkins...dead end[s] at the train tracks.":

"The 51-mile (82 km)[2] bookend from San Francisco to San Jose currently used by Caltrain is scheduled to be electrified by 2020. High-speed trains will run at 110 miles per hour (180 km/h) on shared tracks beginning with the completed Phase 1 system in 2029" Web Link

They're not even evaluating speeds greater than 110mph, let alone 125+mph, on the peninsula. From Caltrain: Web Link


8 people like this
Posted by Misleading!
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 10, 2017 at 4:01 am

Re: "a fully elevated Caltrain viaduct would be of greatest benefit to all adjacent property owners (short of a tunnel)."

What a grossly misleading statement. Was this intentional to make your case?

You reference a conclusion drawn about property owners with driveway access on streets with crossings, NOT ALL adjacent property owners.

Yes, a viaduct would allow property owners with access that would otherwise be lost with a depressed grade separation a better option.

However, would ALL adjacent and near-by property owners prefer to keep trains at grade, or have them towering over their backyards or at eye level on upper floors.

A viaduct would be a terrible outcome for residences and businesses all along the train corridor. Terrible to look at and terrible to live with.

Your argument is simplistic and misleading.


4 people like this
Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 10, 2017 at 10:39 am

The choice of how to separate streets and train tracks is a perfect example of situations where making the best decisions is far more important than making them quickly. The expected long-term impacts on not only convenience and safety but also community aesthetics are huge, and there is plenty of time to carefully evaluate alternatives and build community support. If the alternative of dropping the tracks below street-level is set aside due to its high price tag there appear to be only two viable alternatives, the hybrid approach of lowering streets and raising track beds and a viaduct that would simply raise the tracks. Going forward both deserve equal attention. The biggest drawback of the hybrid alternative is the need for a ten-foot berm that will visually separate the east and west sides of Menlo Park with an unattractive barrier. The biggest drawback of the viaduct is that tracks must be elevated about an additional fifteen feet. However, the viaduct could have a design and building materials that transform it to an attractive architectural element that spans our entire community. It could also provide opportunities to take advantage of the land under it, e.g., a shared bike-pedestrian path between Middle Plaza and Ravenswood, multiple east-west bike-pedestrian crossings. A viaduct might be a binding and beautiful community asset; a berm a physical and psychological "wall".

I encourage the City Council to thoroughly evaluate both of these alternatives and show our entire community what is possible. We expect and deserve a thorough vetting of OUR options BEFORE any reasonable one is eliminated. This will likely be your biggest opportunity to demonstrate vision, innovation and leadership. We are counting on you.


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Posted by Dana Hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 10, 2017 at 10:42 am

In my prior post, the phrase "the alternative of dropping the tracks below street-level" refers to either a trench or tunnel alternative". Sorry about the lack of clarity.


3 people like this
Posted by now you're thinking
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 10, 2017 at 1:35 pm

The viaduct concept has been the solution in New York then they built the high line rail. The viaduct concept has been the solution right here in the Bay Area with BART. The only down side is the visual impact of elevated rail bed. Why would the visual impact be offensive when we are willing to accept elevated power and phone lines?


2 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 10, 2017 at 1:57 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

now your thinking, you're right. Also, there is a continuous screen of tall trees between the tracks and Alma in the residential area south of Burgess Park so neither the trains nor the viaduct would be visible from that side. Also, new trains will be quieter, the viaduct could be equipped with sound dampeners at track level, and the trees also reduce noise.


1 person likes this
Posted by Hank Lawrence
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Oct 10, 2017 at 2:15 pm

I agree 100% with Steve Schmidt. It is aesthetically pleasing to the eye, keeps the area open and is the best value proposition. Steve hit the trifecta.


2 people like this
Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 10, 2017 at 2:25 pm

All nice sentiments but I think there's a lot missing that keeps this vision as a pipe dream. Going South to North, the 2% maximum grade does not get you up high enough from the Palo Alto border/creek. It's fine from the North end as Atherton has no need for their train station and further north is a very long run to come back down into Redwood City. But all this requires the three communities North and South of us to play ball- to create a benefit entirely for Menlo Park- not likely!

Then the structure itself- this is not some delicate structure akin to the monorail at Epcot Center- this is a big brute that carries heavy freight as well. I don't think that's the vision being propagated.

An trees don't block sound.


3 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 10, 2017 at 2:45 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

really, thanks for introducing the grade issue. If a 2% grade were required 1100 feet of horizontal distance would be needed to raise the tracks 22 feet above the existing streets. But if the streets were lowered 5 feet only 850 feet of horizontal would be needed. And has the city confirmed that a 2% grade the maximum Caltrain would build? My central point is that this option with creative variations should be evaluated BEFORE a viaduct alternative is eliminated.


Like this comment
Posted by Hank Lawrence
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Oct 10, 2017 at 3:41 pm

From the Creek to Ravenswood it is at least half a mile. For a freight train you should use 1.5% grade maximum. For 2640 Feet at a 1.5% grade you would get 39' 7" of vertical clearance. If you reduce the grade to 1 % you would get 26.4'vertical clearance at the Ravenswood Intersection.


2 people like this
Posted by conscience
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 10, 2017 at 3:56 pm

Didn't High Speed Rail propose a viaduct and din't the peninsula, including Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Atherton go ballistic? Just wondering????


4 people like this
Posted by Misleading!
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 10, 2017 at 4:45 pm

Attention all experts:

Please provide links to real world examples of beautiful viaducts with high speed trains and catenary wires above them running adjacent to desirable neighborhoods? Please share surveys demonstrating how much neighboring residents, offices and businesses love them. Please provide analyses of their positive impact on property values.

The onus is on you to provide compelling proof.

If you can't, I call your claims disingenuous and misleading.


5 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 10, 2017 at 5:28 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

Misleading... the "onus" is not on Menlo Park residents to design desirable street-rail separations for Menlo Park. That's why the city hires consultants with essential knowledge and expertise. Also, at one time you could have made the same attack on every innovation, e.g., the first automobile, microwave, iPhone, etc. No one has a ever done it, so why bother trying. Perhaps the "onus" should be on you is to prove an elevated viaduct cannot be done. Or, you can simply see what a thorough study shows is possible. You clearly dislike the idea but the guiding principle is our entire community should get to decide not you or I.


1 person likes this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Oct 10, 2017 at 5:34 pm

I am not weighing in on the grade separation issue, but I was curious to know what a viaduct would look like in an urban setting. "Attractive" does not mean that I assume neighbors would enjoy having this built next to their homes. Example 1: I consider this attractive Web Link Example 2: Attractive Web Link Example 3: Attractive: Web Link Example 4: Scary Web Link


2 people like this
Posted by dana hendrickson
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 10, 2017 at 5:44 pm

dana hendrickson is a registered user.

Hi neighbor: Your viaduct example expresses well the possibilities of innovative design - certainly not something our community is known for, e.g., the temporary Curtis Street pocket park - and coincidently I include your example on my website at Web Link I will be closely tracking this study and posting update. And thanks, for constructively contributing to this discussion.


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