11 January 2015

Second Thoughts in Palo Alto

The Caltrain board of directors recently certified the Final Environmental Impact Report for the electrification project, the last environmental clearance necessary to move ahead with construction.  As part of this certification, a list of unavoidable impacts (which cannot be reasonably mitigated) is issued along with a statement of "overriding considerations," basically a justification for why no mitigation is feasible.

This doesn't sit well for the Palo Alto Weekly, which already wrote about the lack of mitigation for the expected worsening of local traffic around several already-jammed intersections in the city.  The Weekly ran an editorial ("Caltrain's electrification project is pushed forward with impunity", a title later toned down to "Caltrain's Bad Judgment") that calls out Caltrain for a number of supposed failures.  Read in the context of the long-running debate over high-speed rail, however, this editorial is off the mark.

Most glaringly, the editorial blames Caltrain for a failure to study grade separations together with the electrification project: "it's long past time for Caltrain to include planning and engineering costs for the least expensive method of eliminating grade crossings: raised berms and lowered roadway undercrossings."  This demand is more than a bit disingenuous, since just five years ago Palo Alto residents were vehemently opposed to raised berms (see Palo Alto Weekly article from April 2009), which were then described by the more alarmist members of the community as a "Berlin Wall".  The heavy-handed public outreach process carried out by the CHSRA five years ago thoroughly poisoned the well, and discussions of above-grade solutions still elicit raw emotions.  Case in point: a recent grade separation study commissioned by the City from tunneling firm Hatch Mott MacDonald studied only the most expensive below-grade options while pointedly excluding a raised berm solution from its scope.  Considering this context, the Weekly would do better to call for the City of Palo Alto to study those controversial raised berms.

Rather than complain, the Palo Alto Weekly should start covering what it really takes to get grade separations built:
  • Calling on the City of Palo Alto to perform a complete study of grade separations, one that does not side-step or ignore affordable above-grade solutions
  • Building strong community support for grade separations, by educating the community not just about technical possibilities but also about costs and available funding sources
  • Prodding the BART-obsessed VTA to start paying attention to the funding needs of northern Santa Clara County
  • Scraping together a local funding contribution as Berkeley once did for their preferred BART configuration
  • Working through the Public Utilities Commission, the agency that regulates all grade crossings and grade separations in California, to obtain Federal and State funding contributions
  • Applying to get Palo Alto crossings onto the CPUC's grade separation priority list
  • Undoing years of misinformation and community resentment lingering from the controversial HSR process
Grade separation of the peninsula corridor is a decadal undertaking that will eventually run its course.  The Palo Alto Weekly editorial board can either help or hinder this necessary progress, and blaming Caltrain doesn't help.


  1. I wonder if they'd be more open to a viaduct, with shopping, office space, or even affordable housing (Or dorms for Stanford?) underneath all the way along. I know a berm is cheaper, but you could probably finance the increased costs of a viaduct by leasing the new retail space. In fact, you could probably provide a good income stream for Caltrain, the same way that the Hong Kong subway is mostly funded by its own real estate.

  2. Doubt that would go over (or work) well. It would put the trains much higher in the air and it's doubtful such uses would be welcome (or easily-accessible from either the Alma or residential side) along there.

  3. The benefit of better grade separation is a more connected community. If the City would look at grade separations as an opportunity to improve the connectivity and access to El Camino rather than a surrender to the CAHSRA. They've had years to think about electrification.


    The City Council initiated the Palo Alto Rail Corridor Study in July 2010 to evaluate land use, transportation and urban design elements of the rail corridor, particularly in response to potential improvements to fixed rail services along the Caltrain tracks. T

    The Study analyzed the City’s existing land use and transportation policies and the potential impacts from the range of possible rail improvements, including Caltrain upgrades, such as electrification and/or grade separations, and/or the potential options for the High Speed Rail project.

    1. At-grade crossings are not a barrier to crossing the tracks. So grade-separating them would make no difference as far as community connectivity. And if the grade-separation is done badly (which is often the case), it would make connectivity much worse; i.e. if pedestrians have to walk up a long bridge, or through a dank undercrossing.

      Not to say grade-separation is a bad idea, but community connectivity isn't the reason to do it.

    2. They are s barrier when the gates are down. They get really annoying when they are down for an inbound train ( whatever direction that happens to be on the line in question ) they twitch and come down again for an outbound train. And if the schedule is just a bit off there is one unlucky crossing where they twitch a second time for the second train inbound or outbound. They do that in the middle of rush hour. It gets really really annoying.

    3. Gates coming down only affect intersection LOS for cars. That has nothing to do with neighborhood connectivity. Perhaps Palo Alto should grade separate all its intersections with bad LOS?

    4. The pedestrians and bicyclists are spreading their wings and flying over the train blocking the road? Or is that pedestrians and bicyclists don't count as connecting a neighborhood across the tracks? Mobility scooter users, skateboarders, the very rare wheelchair user...

    5. When at-grade crossings are eliminated by elevating tracks, additional bike/ped (and vehicle) crossings can easily be punched through the berm (or under the viaduct) in multiple areas between the few original at-grade crossings, thereby increasing "community connectivity" across the ROW.

      And what do you mean gates "twitch"?

      Or is that what you call gates activating and timing-out without a train passing, when, for example, the train stops short at a station?

    6. Sometime the gates are just beginning to raise when a train approaches in the opposite direction and they stop and then lower again. If you are really lucky that will happen twice as three trains pass. It screws up connectivity to no end for those few minutes. And traffic for blocks around the crossing.

    7. Mr. Reality Check,
      I suspect that punching ped crossings through a berm is somewhat expensive, otherwise Caltrain would be doing it a lot more. I count just 2 such crossings for the Hillsdale grade separation projects, where there are now long stretches with no place for a ped to cross.

      In the very old days of Caltrain service, the line was more at-grade with no fencing, so residents could cross wherever and whenever. Grade-separating the line generally reduces connectivity by channelizing peds to cross at a few designated places. I don't mean that as a criticism against grade-separations, just pointing out that grade-separation usually has nothing to do with connectivity. Aerials, of course, don't have that problem -- but aerials aren't exactly popular.

    8. But why are aerials really less popular than berms?

    9. It's difficult if not impossible to abandon garbage in a berm or setup camp inside one. they are quieter too. And usually cheaper. Easier to maintain. and if it's a berm and not retained fill with a big wall they can be landscaped to almost disappear.

    10. Drunk: yes, "punching through" an existing berm isn't free, but I believe it's cheaper than building a new under or overpass ... and in any case, it certainly makes for a better finished product and user experience than either of those.

      What I actually had in mind when writing my prior "easily be punched through the berm" comment was more along the lines of the new bike/ped which were created as part of the Belmont-San Carlos grade seps project.

    11. I suspect that the lack of pedestrian crossings has more to do with Caltrain not really thinking things through and less with cost.

    12. Alon: fill is cheaper than viaduct and absorbs noise better.

    13. @Alon - it's partly because California builds some of the ugliest aerial highway structures in the world, and that's what people, probably correctly, assume they'll get with HSR. Not to mention they tend to become magnets for garbage and crime. Now, if CAHSR was planning to build more graceful, arcade like structures like those that exist in many European cities, there might be more of a case for aerials, but I doubt anyone's eager to come up with the additional funds to do that.

    14. Nobody anywhere builds the sorts of "arcade like structures" for which you anachronistically pine, no more than they build Venetian palaces. Nor would any hypothetical brick (brick!) under-rail arches in Santa Clara or Burlingame ever be transformed into quaint bohemian London shoppes. Get over it.

      The fact is that modern design can be attractive and functional. There are whole continents full of the stuff. Check it out!

      But both "attractive" and "functional" require "designers", not the barrel-scraping quality that comes with America's Finest Transportation Planning Professionals.

    15. "Punched through" after the fact:
      Homer Avenue, Palo Alto

      As part of new (and otherwise horrifically mis-conceived and executed and disastrously wrong and short-sighted) Caltrain grade separations of recent decades:
      F Street, San Carlos
      Arroyo/Commercial, San Carlos
      Walnut Street, San Bruno

      Note the problems that come with insufficient rail elevation. Tracks that pass directly over at grade roads and walkways make for a much more pleasant human environment than mis-conceived "split" separations.

      Compare complete messes like the under-elevated Ralston Avenue, Belmont or Harbor Boulevard, Belmont with the less-awful (because more-elevated) nearby
      Brittan Avenue, San Carlos.

      And note how wrectched for everybody and everything and every purpose the under-elevated San Carlos Station shitshow is, right outside Caltrain and CBOSS Galactic HQ. America's Finest Transportation Planning Professionals, on the job!

    16. The Award Winning Homer undercrossing cost $4.5 million (2005 dollars).

    17. Richard: agree, the experience of the under-tracks passage behind (or in front of, depending on your point of view) the San Carlos station makes clear they should have raised the tracks a just a few more feet, at least. Perhaps excavating the area a little deeper could have ameliorated the effect, but only at the expense of having to go down and back up to negotiate the undercrossing.

    18. "The Award Winning Homer undercrossing cost $4.5 million (2005 dollars)"

      Hey that was over $6000 per square foot, way back in the pre-boom days when Palo Alto real estate was cheap cheap cheap and forking out more than $40 per square inch was something.

      Homer Underpass in 2005 was more expensive, and hence is and was much classier, than Sand Hill Road VC office space is in 2015.

      Imagine how much this investment in this exclusive development must have appreciated since then, especially with the world-class amenities, design, and awards. Plus location, location, location.

      Public investment!

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  5. Sort of surprised that nobody hasn't mentioned the effect of heavy freight in this discussion:


  6. There is an Opinion Piece in the Chronicle


    Coalition to stabilize Caltrain seeks support

    (NOTE: if you try to view this article from this link, you will not be able to see it, unless you subscribe to the Chronicle --- however, if you Google the title of this article, you will see the whole article -- morris)

    ( The Author's are political heavy weights who have nothing but unbridled growth on their agenda)

    What is an obvious omission from this article is, as presently planned, CalTrain is supposed to share its tracks with High Speed Rail. It is simply a physical impossibility for a two track, blended system, which some passing tracks, to be able to handle the traffic predicted.

    Yet the upgrade is being funded with over $600 million of HSR funds, and now even with those funds it is at least $300 million short of funding (most likely much more). And that does not count the needed grade separations, as mentioned in the excerpt I copy above, (of the order of several billions needed for these) and certainly not expanding to what will be needed to fund a full 4 track corridor.

    All and all a completely hopeless situation, unless a full build out is accomplished and another $5 billion or so in additional funding is found. (this doesn't count the needed 2-3 billion needed to fund the tunnel from 4th and King to the TBT.


    1. I think you need to consider this in the grand scheme of Bay Area transit spending (capital spending, not operating). The sums you describe ($300 million here, $5 billion there) are not particularly large. Caltrain has been short-changed for decades because of an unwritten plan to build BART around the bay, but this goal is about to be overtaken by events. The flood gates are opening, and there will be a lot of spending on the corridor in the coming decade or two, very much unlike the last two decades. That's why I disagree with you that this is a hopeless situation; indeed there has rarely been more hope for substantial improvements to the peninsula rail corridor.

    2. Clem: The present political reality has been that CalTrain has been unable to come anywhere near close to raise the needed funds for serous capital improvements, or even relatively small amounts of funding to support its forever operating deficits.

      You imply that this will change in the upcoming future. I don't see that happening. BART is now facing huge capital expenses to replace its aging cars etc., and MTC which is really obligated to BART (if not controlled by BART),is not going to be able to fund CalTrain needs to any appreciable degree.

      So just where is this needed funding for CalTrain to be found? Previous efforts to get the public to float bonds, have never really gotten off the ground.

      The Governor is not going to give up on HSR and its enormous need for funds. Fed Help is not going to come on that front for sure.

      I don't see any way that the peninsula is going to allow 4 tracks on the CalTrain corridor, and without that kind of ROW, CalTrain will never achieve the goals it wants.

    3. You know, there is something between mostly two tracks and four tracks all the way.

  7. Clem:

    Related to CalTrain's problems for electrification, the PUC has now reached an agreement with the parties on specs for 25 KV electrification.


    The agreement really specifically eliminates CalTrain by inclusion of several restrictions which CalTrain cannot possible meet with it present proposal. Yet CalTrain signed off of the agreement.

    You have posted two threads on this subject previously:

    http://caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2013/04/high-voltage-rule-making.html April 2013


    caltrain-hsr.blogspot.com/2014/05/high-voltage-rulemaking-update.html Nov 2014

    You clearly understood what was going to happen to CalTrain with the upcoming agreement.

    So now, just where is CalTrain with their project? It seems to me they are in deep deep trouble.

    1. What restrictions will "eliminate Caltrain"?