04 December 2008

Focus on: San Carlos

San Carlos is about midway between San Francisco and San Jose. It is home to Caltrain headquarters, located just a block from the historic train depot. The depot was built in 1888 by Nathaniel Brittan, from the same stone and by the same masons as Stanford University. If the roof were made of tile rather than slate, you might think you were on The Farm.

Grade Separations

San Carlos is among the few peninsula communities where Caltrain is already fully grade-separated. The grade separations were built south to north, starting with Howard and Brittan Avenues (built 1993-95), followed by a bike / pedestrian tunnel at Arroyo Ave, a large concourse under the tracks at the San Carlos depot near San Carlos Ave, and ending with Holly St (built 1996-2000, in combination with Harbor and Ralston in Belmont). The two grade-separated tracks run on a raised berm which was opened to trains in October 1999. The Howard and Brittan overpasses sat unused for several years after they were finished, while the other projects to the north suffered delays. Due to poor construction phasing, Caltrain operated on temporary shoo-fly tracks (built on the west side of the right of way, alongside El Camino Real) for six years. Traffic and businesses were heavily disrupted by construction.

One might think that after all this pain and anguish, San Carlos would enjoy the prospect of breezing through the improvements required for high speed rail. Think again!

In another example of sheer incompetence, the 1990s Caltrain engineering department conceived all the San Carlos grade separations entirely without accommodation for future additional tracks, even as alarmed transit advocates tried to draw attention to this design flaw. Indeed, quite aside from HSR, the midpoint of the SF-SJ line is one of the most desirable spots to add passing tracks to allow Caltrain express trains to overtake local trains. Unfortunately, such forward-thinking transportation concepts as skip-stop express service were not yet ingrained in Caltrain's culture; the Baby Bullet had not been invented.

Throughout San Carlos, every rail overpass, including the pedestrian concourse at the station, was built for exactly two tracks. Every concrete structure that Caltrain built in San Carlos over the last 15 years will have to be reconfigured or rebuilt to make room for the two additional tracks required for high speed rail. Those concrete structures now constrain the possible placement of high speed tracks and may prevent shifting their alignment to the most optimal position. (Not that Caltrain has ever been known for shifting tracks to their optimal position: the signal in this tongue-in-cheek photo is just north of the San Carlos station.)

HSR Plans

The California High Speed Rail Authority indicates in its EIR/EIS peninsula maps that the tracks will run at "existing ground" level, with a reference to Volume 2, Appendix E, Figure CC-8, which shows four tracks running at grade. This configuration is not consistent with the existing embankment, which would more likely become a retained embankment with walls on each side.


The San Carlos depot is considered a local landmark, so it will not be demolished. Built of sandstone masonry, it is not easily moved, unlike the even more historic wood frame depot in Menlo Park. The Caltrain grade separation project was built right up against it, in the manner of a thick lava flow frozen just short of the eaves. The photo to the right shows how little clearance remains, looking in the southbound direction. Note the textured concrete, strenuously trying (and failing) not to overpower the Richardson Romanesque style of the depot.

The CHSRA plans a four-track station with two center express tracks. This poses a thorny engineering question: how to squeeze four tracks plus two 15-foot platforms between the depot building (to the west) and Old County Road (to the east), while constraining two of the four tracks to use the existing overpass structure alignments. Something will have to give: the depot, the overpasses, or both. The figure at right illustrates the problem by overlaying an aerial photo of the San Carlos depot with a short section of 4-track right of way (red outline) drawn to scale, using the dimensions provided by the CHSRA.

Given the alternatives, perhaps moving the depot doesn't sound so bad after all.

Station Area Development

The city of San Carlos and Samtrans have plans to develop the land between El Camino Real and the tracks into a transit village. This 8.7 acre strip of land is owned by Samtrans, and was formerly occupied by the shoo-fly tracks during construction of the grade separations. The transit-oriented development was awarded to Legacy Partners after a drawn out "visioning" process that began in 2002. Samtrans will retain ownership of the land, and sign a 99-year lease with Legacy Partners. Construction is planned to begin within the next couple of years, well before HSR comes to town.

A Samtrans official has claimed that the development would leave enough room to add two tracks for high speed rail, although details remain unclear. There is enough uncertainty in how exactly the two tracks will be added, given all the existing constraints, that additional physical constrains from the TOD would be unwelcome.

NOTE: This post will be updated continuously, as warranted by additional information or new events relating to San Carlos. Full disclosure: the author lives in San Carlos


  1. It sounds to me like the only solution is to move the depot, although residents will probably put up some protest to the idea. Looking at the entire Caltrains route, it looks like there are a lot of overpasses that are only wide enough for two tracks. I think by the end of the HSR project there will be many examples of overpasses/bridges having to be heavily modified or torn down and rebuilt.

  2. Perhaps the good people of San Carlos could rededicate their architectural gem as a Shinto shrine so they can rebuild it every 20 years to preserve it for posterity.

    Seriously, it's just a freakin' train station, by definition a utility building. Tear it down and build a new one in its place. Doesn't have to be ugly, just new.

    As for Caltrain's lack of foresight, I suspect it had something to do with a lack of money as well.

  3. If the station is designated a historical site, which most of the older stations are, demolishing it ceases to be an cheap option with all the litigation it will cause, and rightly so in my opinion; California already has a lack of well built older structures that stand the test of time, many of our railway stations on the other hand were built very well and should be preserved. Additionally, for this station, I don't believe that the building is functionally obsolete.

  4. @ Ben -

    buildings aren't worth preserving just because they are old. They need to have historical significance as well. Arguably, the railroads are an essential part of California history, so I didn't mean to be flippant.

    It's just that you wouldn't want future generations to remember this station as the one responsible for making a hash of HSR on the peninsula. I'd say document the building in great detail using photographs, video, interviews with citizens who have or have had a close relationship with the building and its historical significance for California and then, remove it from the list of historical landmarks.

    The new station should then include a multimedia exhibit reminding those who use it of what once stood in its place.

    Btw: IMHO, a utility building is functionally obsolete if it prevents the expansion of that utility. We're not talking about digging up a cemetary or tearing down a church here.

  5. It's not impossible to move the depot. The Stanford quad, built using the same materials and construction techniques, had its foundation replaced as part of the 1990s siesmic retrofit. They supported entire sections of the buildings on temporary steel frames while they tore out everything beneath.

    Rafael, I'm not sure you realize how dearly we hold our historic buildings; over here, unlike Europe, "history" is 250 years old. The "just tear it down" attitude is precisely how you would rub NIMBYs and preservationists the wrong way, unnecessarily creating a big fight.

    That being said, I agree that we can't let details like this screw up a correct implementation of HSR.

  6. Redwood City/San Carlos/Belmont:

    This is pretty straightforward.


    1. First phase is a new four-track, two-island Hillsdale station about a half mile north of the existing site, which will function as the central interchange point of the entire Caltrain service pattern.

    Construction is very easy: wide ROW, space for temporary shoo-flys, etc.

    Quadruplication runs from just S of Ninth Avenue in San Mateo (aka CP Palm, MP 18.3), though demolished site of former Hayward Park station (unnecessary since new Hillsdale will be within spitting distance), elevated over 25th Ave and whatever else San Mateo wants (see Bay Meadows plans), and south at least as far as the two-track-only-thanks-Caltrain-and-Caltrans 42nd Ave overpass (MP 21.0)

    1a. Ideally first phase would continue south as far as CP Ralson (MP 21.5) just north of Belmont station via quadruplicated 42nd overpasses.

    2. Second phase constructs a third track to the west of the two-track-only-thanks-Caltrain-we-told-you-so MSE embankment on Caltrain ROW through Belmont station (which retains its island platform), to a new interlocking just north of San Carlos station where we go back to 2 tracks again (thanks Caltrain).

    At this point it becomes possible to operate a beautiful, simple, and extremely passenger-friendly timetable in which locals and expresses each on 30 minute headways in each direction meet up at for cross-platform transfer at Hillsdale station. See the sketch here.

    3a. Further buildout, which is not necessary for Caltrain, but only for HSR, involves a fourth track on the east side of Belmont station (requires property take).

    3b. Quadruplication though San Carlos station (again, not a Caltrain project) is done by
    i. relocation of historic station building to the north and west. This is already on the cards.
    ii. Widening of existing western (existing southbound) platform to 9 to 10m width, to form a new island platform.
    iii. Construction of new southbound local (inner) and express (outer) tracks to the east of the existing tracks.
    iv. Abandonment and demolition of existing stupid northbound (eastern) platform at San Carlos.

    The mapping at San Carlos is:
    existing NB platform -> demolished
    existing NB track -> new NB express track
    existing SB track -> new NB local track
    existing SB platform -> new island platform
    existing ROW to W -> new SB local track
    existing ROW to W -> new SB express track

    I have sketches of all this somewhere or other.
    Not that it has any effect or does any good.

    None of this is rocket science. It's all pretty blindingly obvious. Just like getting HSR OFF THE ROW ASAP (ie in Redwood City) is blindingly obvious to anybody who has even a chimp-level understanding of rail operations.

  7. Hi Richard, nice to hear from you again. Some of the photos I'm putting up are from our summer 2000 right-of-way safari.

    3b.i where have you heard about this? I've only seen it mentioned that Legacy would not touch the depot for the TOD project.

    3b.iii you probably meant the new southbound tracks get built to the west of the existing station. Sounds like the "transit oriented" development will take that land first, courtesy of Samtrans.

    (Samtrans will still own the land. Can they pull an eminent domain on their lessee? Ha ha)

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. @ Richard Mlynarik -

    my understanding is that HSR will run on the inside tracks throughout the entire Caltrain ROW, with the possible exception of Millbrae.

    That would preclude island platforms for Caltrain in places like San Carlos.

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  10. This doesn't seem too hard. If the whole trackwork was shifted slightly northeast the platform could be cantilevered out over Old County Road and provide clearance for the train station. Platforms don't require much support. You wouldn't want tracks cantilevered, but a platform should be easy.

    The other option would be for the high speed rail to be two tracks not in the middle, in which case they could split from Caltrain and go on the other side of the depot.

  11. @ Ari -

    I'm not sure how much flexibility CHSRA has in terms of which tracks it uses. Its trains will be traveling at 125mph or more in the SF peninsula, the express trains won't stop at all.

    You can't tolerate any sharp corners or switches at that speed. Nor would you want Caltrain tracks to cross your own. The point of HSR is to not slow down unless you're pulling into a station or the terrain forces you to.

  12. OK, this is another idea. There will be no express trains stopping between (at least) Hillsdale and Redwood City.

    This opens up a lot of options for express tracks.

    The cheapest and most obvious solution for San Carlos is a little annoying: leave the station building in place, but move the southbound platform to the north or south of it. (The northbound platform can be cantilevered over Old County Road no problem.)

    But my instinct is to run the express tracks to the west of the local tracks. At San Carlos, run them in a cut-and-cover trench to the west of the station.

    Of course, no sharp corners or switches are possible in the express tracks. This means that flyovers would be required (and the local track should do the 'flying' because the traversal would be slower).

    So this would require a flyover for the northbound local (to restore "express in the center" running) before reaching the Hillsdale station -- moving the Hillsdale station to the north as suggested would make this relatively straightforward.

    It would also require a flyover for the northbound local near Redwood City. Redwood City is bound to be a station where more than two tracks should platform -- and it's got a chokepoint -- which makes it difficult to design. A two-layer station might be necessary.

  13. @ anon @ 12:54 -

    that sounds like a really expensive solution just to keep the San Carlos station building where it is. Trains can only manage a few percent gradient, so any flyovers are necessarily very long structures.

    If the historic building can be moved rather than torn down and replaced with something new, that sounds like a better compromise to me.

  14. Clem, your insights and analysis of HSR detail for each city along the Peninsula is fascinating. Excellent work, Thank You! I hope you will give us more for the other cities along the way. Redwood City? Palo Alto? Mt. View?

    Also, a question: Does the $4.2B current price tag for the 50 miles from SF to SJ include the costs of dealing with these especially tricky sitatuations? Like the San Bruno Curve, San Carlos too narrow overpasses and problematic depot, Millbrae station fiasco, etc? If I understand you correctly, these are issues the current plan hasn't fully baked in yet - engineering wise or cost wise?

  15. "Also, a question: Does the $4.2B current price tag for the 50 miles from SF to SJ include the costs of dealing with these especially tricky sitatuations?"

    Standard practice is to include wild guesses as to how many tricky situations they will encounter and how much they will cost. (Things like "Oh, add 20% to cover trouble.") It's considered better than just assuming that there will be no tricky situations.

    So the final price tag could be higher or lower depending on how wild the guesses turn out to be.

  16. Interesting information about San Carlos and the depot. I worked with the city back then and as I remember it the historic consultant retained by Caltrans said it would be okay to move the depot to the west, provided it were left at the center of the view corridor looking east along San Carlos Ave. His logic was that the historic value came from its history/design and its important viewpoint in the city's history. He also said the station is nonreinforced masonary and moving it would require its rebuild, looking just the same, to meet current seismic code. So I guess that is a possibility.

    Also, the raised berm was designed for three tracks, at Caltrain's request, but not a fourth.

  17. The space for three tracks on the San Carlos berm would have been seen as two for BART and one for the freight remnants, correct?

  18. Just shift things over towards the road, that's all.

  19. The only solution is to NOT send this train down the Peninsula at all! Send it over to the east bay somewhere where there are not a lot of business and homes which will have to be taken by the project. The noise level is going to be god-awful. Don't belive the noise info coming out on the HSR, it is filled with lies. San Carlos and Belmont residents who hear Caltrans now need to understand the noise level could be 10-20 x greater regardless of sound walls, there height or material etc. Paralell sound wals do nothing but send the noise further away. That means homes on the hills west of the El Camino will experince god-awful noise. I don't think California has studied any of the Euro reports on HSR train noise. In Japan it was so bad the government had to step in and spend billions to abate the noise and installed new sound guidelines which are 30-40% lower than what the noise will be like all over the hills west of El Camino. Just say no! Do not send it down the middle of the peninsula. Build it on the bay front in the east bay somewhere.