09 September 2010

Peninsula Rail Corridor Road Crossings

Click to enlarge, or better yet, download the PDF (57 kB)

This was the snapshot as of 2010.  For how this configuration might evolve over coming decades, please see Grade Separation: the Decadal View


  1. Thanks, Clem. This will help me 'sperg out and explore the entire Caltrain corridor with Google's Bird's Eye View imagery.

  2. Very nice reference graphic, Clem. That was yeoman's work.

    It shows how the remaining grade crossings are concentrated in several clusters in the 20-mile section between South SF and south Palo Alto.

    In that section, the majority of the grade separations that do exist have the trains running above the cross traffic lanes. I presume the dotted blue circles for what appear to be San Mateo and Angus Ave in San Mateo refer to already-planned split grade separations.

    Clearly, many mid-peninsula communities have not been eager to implement full grade separation on their own dime, even though there has been, on average, roughly one suicide or fatal accident on the tracks each month. This might be excusable if these cities and counties were too poor to afford the public works, but that really hasn't been the case for at least several decades.

    Historically, the mid-peninsula cities have implemented selected grade separations only if and where the constraints on cross traffic capacity became severe enough to override the objections of the small number of voters who own property abutting the tracks, regardless of whether those objections related to property access or to visual impact.

    The only crossings at which Caltrain runs underground and cars at grade are in SF and there only because the local topography was too steep for Southern Pacific's steam engines to negotiate. The total number of miles of new railroad tunnels and trenches constructed in the SF peninsula since 1906 is ZERO.

    Therefore, claiming that the only types of grade separation that is compatible with the existing architectural environment in the mid-peninsula are trenches and tunnels - funded entirely by non-local sources, no less - amounts to a new definition of chutzpah. There simply is no precedent for trenching in the area.

    The crux of the issue is that the combination of Caltrain's plans for 2025 and CHSRA's plans for HSR service represent a huge increase in both passenger demand and rail traffic volume over the next few decades. There is no precedent for that, either.

    Given the history of incremental grade separations in the SF peninsula, it is tempting to defer additional grade separations to whenever Caltrain and/or the HSR operator(s) can demonstrate sufficient real-world demand for substantially expanded service.

    Tempting, but foolish: there is now a once-in-a-century opportunity to fund these projects out of state, federal and (perhaps) private coffers. Caving to irate voters who took the risk of purchasing private property abutting an active railroad could saddle peninsula cities and counties with huge future liabilities. Meanwhile, crossing safety would remain compromised and the regional economy would continue to incur opportunity costs due to delays at frequently closed crossing gates.

    All of the above would still apply if CHSRA were to reduce its speed target below 125mph, i.e. the point at which FRA insists on full grade separation on safety grounds alone.

    Therefore, even though some peninsula residents do vociferously oppose it, separating all of the remaining 43 grade crossings with tracks at or above grade is actually a really good idea IMHO.

  3. @ Rafael

    "The total number of miles of new railroad tunnels and trenches constructed in the SF peninsula since 1906 is ZERO."

    Not quite true. BART has been tunneled in many locations since, as has Muni.

  4. I think this is information for your resources tab, Clem.

  5. @ Peter -

    fair enough, the BART extension to SFO did indeed involve super-expensive trenching and tunneling. I was thinking narrowly in terms of the standard gauge tracks.

    As for SF itself, I guess it's geographically part of the peninsula. Politically, I think of the "SF peninsula" as distinct from the city. So that's where that came from.

  6. I remain puzzled as to how the grade separation would make things any worse for those with property already along the corridor, especially in places like Burlingame where the tracks are almost universally (everywhere there is residential property next to the tracks) behind cover of trees. I just don't understand it.

  7. @ anon @ 15:37 -

    Those trees might well have to be felled if the number of tracks is indeed increased from 2 to 4 throughout the Caltrain corridor, as CHSRA is proposing.

    The issue of whether or not and which types of grade separations are desirable ought to be distinct from the issue of the number of tracks, but in the real world they are intertwined.

  8. In the case of Burlingame, if the City is so adamant on having a trench, the width alone of the trench would probably lead to even more trees being cut down as the root systems would be significantly damaged. On the other hand, if a above-ground structure was built perhaps that could do more to preserve root structures and therefore help save trees.

  9. Clem:

    The California Rail Foundation has a large article, much of which relates to technical problems of the project and how the Authority plans to meet the goals and specifications laid out in Prop 1A.


    I would think you might well want to address many of these points, authored by Rich Tolmach.

  10. Morris,

    You article is obviously very biased. The article is right on one thing, we are not Europe and we have a lot more valuable farm land in the central valley that would get eaten up if the system was left going around all towns. There will always be something to give up when something new is put into place. Get over it.

    All big projects have politics involved in them. It's the way things are done in the U.S.. Some win, some lose, that's progress.

  11. we have a lot more valuable farm land

    It might be valuable by farming standards (eg much more valuable than the average piece of farmland in Kansas), but that still makes it unbelievably cheap by mega-project standards. Bypassing as many CV towns as possible is a no-brainer.

  12. @ Morris

    That article is year old FUD at this point. Tolmach is NOTHING what could be considered a neutral party at this point.

  13. @Peter, Tolmach is no crackpot. He generally knows what he's talking about, as far as I can tell.

    @Morris, that article is a couple of years old, and the main thesis is that HSR should not go through CV downtowns at 220 mph. I couldn't agree more, although that's way beyond the scope of this blog. I believe this issue will largely take care of itself, through budget and NIMBY pressure. We're already seeing this in places like Hanford. The peninsula may be revved up, but Fresno isn't. Yet. The day will come.

    The 125 mph that we'll see here on the peninsula (probably more like 100 mph, once all is said and done) is far less disruptive, and there is little doubt in my mind that using the Caltrain ROW (at least from Redwood City north) was a correct decision that will ultimately pay off for peninsula communities.

    Were you not surprised to see that 59% of the road crossings on the peninsula are already grade separated? I would have guessed far lower.

  14. What is the best graphic for discovering what the alignment will look like on the Peninsula, such as which portions are probably going to be at-grade and which are going to be elevated?

    As far as the Central Valley goes, I doubt trains will serve Central Valley downtowns, whatever they are, but at least they won't be as far away as I-5. I'm thinking suburban stations with a lot of parking. If fast trains aren't a problem, then we'll see development spring up around the stations. If fast trains are a problem, then there will be no development. One side will be vindicated in the end.

    There are pros and cons to both approaches, and the project will inevitably be compromised in the middle.

  15. @ Clem

    I'm sorry, but anyone who thinks that an I-5 alignment is an appropriate way to route HSR through California, bypassing all the major cities in the Central Valley, is a crackpot in my opinion.

    Tolmach may "know what he's talking about", but the articles and "news"letters he puts out are pure unadulterated shit.

    I have no problem discussing something on its merits, but the crap he puts out is pure propaganda, nothing else.

  16. Clem,

    Tolmach's article is only a year old. How time flies when you are having fun.

  17. @rafael:
    The ROW in Burlingame is so wide that north of Broadway few if any trees would come down. South of Broadway one row of trees would likely come down, leaving two more rows likely untouched.

    I like trees as much as the next person, but this amounts to practically zero change for residents in those locations.

    On a slightly different note, living close to the tracks as I do, I've spent a lot of time lately listening to how loud Caltrain and the freight trains are and what causes the noise. I'm having a hard time imagining electric trains, even moving 30-50 mph faster than Caltrain, would be close to as loud.

    Much ado about nothing -- at least in Burlingame.

  18. "Clearly, many mid-peninsula communities have not been eager to implement full grade separation on their own dime, even though there has been, on average, roughly one suicide or fatal accident on the tracks each month."

    Perhaps the communities believe in social Darwinism and would like to eliminate the 'less competent' before they breed.

    Perhaps they support voluntary euthanasia and want to maintain a readily available, reliable form of suicide; while failing to consider the impact on the commuters and train drivers.

    OK, I'm being macabre.

  19. @Clem, Tolmach has been a complete crackpot about HSR since his beloved Altamont route was rejected; he now looks for any excuse to attack it, whether reasonable or not. I think it's emotional.