02 January 2023

Deadly Caltrain Underpasses

The recent storms demonstrate once again that Caltrain underpass flooding is a clear and present danger to the public. Deadly is no understatement: while only harrowing water rescues occurred in the 31 December 2022 atmospheric river, two people lost their lives in the flooded Hillcrest Boulevard underpass in Millbrae on 23 December 2021.

Poor "split" grade separation designs that only marginally lower the height of the tracks compared to fully elevated tracks are sure to kill again if Caltrain and surrounding communities continue to build more of them. (lookin' at you, Redwood City!)

Harbor Boulevard, Belmont
Ralston Avenue, Belmont (M.M. Parden photo)

42nd Ave, San Mateo (M. Sly photo)

Hillcrest Boulevard, Millbrae (December 2021)


  1. "Poor 'split' grade separation designs that only marginally lower the height of the tracks compared to fully elevated tracks are sure to kill again if Caltrain and surrounding communities continue to build more of them."

    Your use of "only" above indicates the height of the tracks, and thus the depth of the roadway underneath with respect to ground level, should be increased normally or ordinarily. I suspect that's not what you believe.

    Rather, you might be objecting to underpasses, period, be they full underpasses, with the railroad at ground level (at-grade), or partial but deeper than here (with the tracks less elevated or raised). Also, and this may be more particularly your objection, that the occasional hazard from flooding during heavier rains is added to the other costs as well as complexity of hybrid crossings (more common name) that involve changes from ground level for both the railroads and the roadways (grade changes divided or "split" among both rights-of-way).

    P. S. And so much for trenching, the backup for the unrealistic and ridiculously demanding Peninsula residents that are rare, true, actual NIMBYs about Caltrain and other rail service on that route. Any dream of covering or "capping" the trench (with more dreams of more fabulous things atop the cover or covers) as an excuse to wave away flooding ignores that somewhere, somehow, water will be physically admitted.

  2. A viaduct for as much of the route as possible (all the way along the Peninsula, and farther, if possible) not only is safer and quieter than at-grade, but also makes the barrier the right-of-way forms the most permeable possible among realistic alternatives (i.e., at-grade and above)? Don't the critics realize this is their chance to see circulation improved or restored, eastern and western parts of streets on each side of the railroad (re)connected as before, as same-size streets or with many, still dead-ending but having at-grade pathways, bike paths, or new sidewalks crossing underneath the viaduct to connect the two sections for non-motorized use, all along the route where it's fully elevated? What would that do for "mobility" on the ground, too?

  3. Here you go, best of luck convincing those demanding Peninsula residents that viaducts are the way to go:


    AFAIK, Caltrain has a lot of requirements, but doesn't make the choices or pay for the separations. It's mostly up to the surrounding communities to choose something for which they can find sufficient political support and funding. The split grade option tends to win as it's cheapest and mostly keeps the trains out of sight (and hearing) of the rich.

    1. ""AFAIK, Caltrain has a lot of requirements"

      Yes, and they're all -- EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM -- absolutely terrible requirements, pulled directly out of the rear ends of consultants who have no aims but to maximize cost.

      "Caltrain" (the husk host body for the consultant parasites) makes up secret "requirements" (literally secret -- they took their engineering standards off the web, such is their value) which actively work against rail service on the corridor, inflate capital capital costs by high tens to to multiple hundreds of millions of dollars for every single trivial grade crossing, cause decades of delay, and end up fucking over the "communities" along the line in every way -- disruption, higher maintenance, poor service, poor connectivity, lower accessibility -- forever.

      Clem's The Exploding Cost of Grade Separations is the tip of the iceberg.

      "but doesn't make the choices or pay for the separations."

      Nothing could be further from the truth. Pretty much every dollar comes from "transit" budgets while making actual regional transportation far worse and even if you want to quibble about that, the insane rent-seeking expenditure of Other People's Money on bullshit "choices" doubles or triples the cost any public transportation agency that served public interests would even consider, meaning 1/2 to 1/3 or maybe even 1/4 of the grade separations are built from "grade separation" budgets ( it doesn't matter whether the cash comes from a county, the regional MTC slush piles, California, or the feds -- the cash for "grade separations" cash is incinerated not building grade separations.)

      "It's mostly up to the surrounding communities to choose something for which they can find sufficient political support and funding."

      This is non-factual bullshit. Back a decade ago when I used to waste my time attending "public meeting" whitewash events I got to witness agency staff and consultants actively coaching "the public" to the worst and most expensive outcome -- road subways under at-grade rail and "split" grade separations with tons of road and utility work -- every time.

      Buying off local politicians is an absolute screaming bargain -- invest like single thousands of dollars, reap hundreds of millions.

      The consultancies are happy to produce sand-bagged "alternatives" in in the form of Powerpoint slides with glaringly fraudulent "comparative budgets" and "costs and benefits" to keep things on track.

      It's all Other People's Money, after all, we're doing it for The Safety of Our Children, and The Preferences of the Community Must Be Addressed.

      But really, it's consultants rigging the process at every single step of the way.

      "The split grade option tends to win as it's cheapest and mostly keeps the trains out of sight (and hearing) of the rich."

      Nope, split separations "win" because they involve the largest amount of road construction, the largest amount of utility work, the highest costs, the longest construction time, the most disruption to local road traffic, the most egregious opportunities for cost blowouts (THIS EVERY TIME. EVERY TIME) and years-long "schedule" overruns.

      They do this not because it is easy or is cheap, but becase it is wrong, and being wrong is its own billion-dollar reward.

    2. Richard, the cathedral would be cheaper without gargoyles and stained glass. City Hall would be cheaper in a suburban office park. The Christmas gift already had adequate packaging on the store shelf, there's no need for wrapping paper. A hand-made, low-quality gift is the utmost ridiculousness. People should descope most of the stuff from their wedding parties.

      Or perhaps the pain is the point? If we did something reasonable, it would be ambiguous whether we did it because it was the right thing to do, or because we cared about the particular symbolism. Worse is better, unreasonableness is sane, self-contradictory bullshit clarifies the situation: now there is no ambiguity, we can swear loyalty to the symbolic issue by sacrificing our opportunity to do the straightforwardly beneficial thing.

    3. Anonymous, "Richard, the cathedral would be cheaper without gargoyles and stained glass. City Hall would be cheaper in a suburban office park [blah blah blah]"

      This isn't even a caricature of what I am saying.

      It's not that we pay lots of money for nice things. Cathedrals! Christmas Presents!

      It's that we incinerate billions of dollars and get shit.

      Take one look at any of the dozen street blocks around San Carlos Station (split grade separation! not a "Berlin Wall"!) or Belmont Station and try to claim with a straight face that "the straightforward beneficial thing" was constructed.

      It's shit. They want more shit. They're excreting shit for hundreds of millions of dollars more than other people get nice things, and even hundreds of millions of dollars more than something crappy but not actively harmful and pointless (which is what every single Caltrain grade separation plan today is, 60mph freight design "requirements pulled out of their rent-seeking asses, split grade "community preference" screwing over everybody in the world aside from those on the construction and soft-costs take.)

      I don't want the cheapest thing. I just don't want shit, and I don't see why anybody who isn't on the take can defend shit outcomes, at any price.

      But sure, "descope the wedding parties" for "symbolic loyalty" all you like. You're not talking about anything happening on the San Francisco Peninsula.

    4. Speaking of which, https://pedestrianobservations.com/2023/02/20/cost-and-quality/

      "From time to time, I see people assume that low-construction cost infrastructure must compromise on quality somehow. Perhaps it’s inaccessible: at a Manhattan Institute event from 2020, Philip Plotch even mentioned wheelchair accessibility as one factor leading to the increase in costs since the early 1900s; one of my long-term commenters on Twitter just repeated the same point. Perhaps the stations are cramped: I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the “transit riders deserve great stations” point from various Americans (there are several such examples in the thread in the last link alone), or for that matter from the people who built the Green Line Extension, and even Korean media got in on the action, falsely assuming that the spartan, brutalist stations of the Washington Metro were cheap (in fact, Washington is building an above-ground infill station for around an order of magnitude higher cost than Seoul’s cost for an underground infill station).

      Please, stop.


    5. My last sentence in the above was "...by sacrificing our opportunity to do the straightforwardly beneficial thing." You are entirely correct that decisions are deliberately harmful and cost-increasing. Our disagreement is that not only the consultants, but also the politicians -- and the public audience to whom the politicians play -- are also endorsing the decision to do so.

      The audience believes that passion and reason are opposed, incompatible. A character who is passionate about a thing must not be reasonable about that thing -- if they are reasonable, their passion is called into question. Hence the same mechanisms in weddings and in transit projects: invite estranged "stakeholders" whose presence actively worsens the party, not saying no even to outrageous requests, not controlling unit costs. The couple deliberately lets themselves get grifted.

      You don't want the cheapest thing that technically ticks the box. You want the thing with the best cost/benefit ratio. But politicians actively avoid asking for that because doing so would make them look like a fiscal conservative, they would look like an "unemotional beancounter" character, not a "champion of the cause" character. If the project is sold as "transit" or "green", while doing fuck-all for transit, that's great for them. It shows that they care about the symbolism, the big flashing sign saying T-R-A-N-S-I-T, not the substance. Hence "grade-separating crossings is a transit project" and "transit riders deserve great stations". The bride deserves a great diamond. Any objective observer would agree that this is stupid and the money being spent on it is going to be sorely missing from actually nice things that are being ignored because they are "mundane". Alas, objective observers are rare. This is a show, it runs on narrative tropes. "All the world's a stage, all the men and women merely players."

  4. Oh, yes. The impression the NIMBYs in Palo Alto and related territory convey is one of entitlement (their demanding nature -- phffft) as well as childish opposition to rail improvements and safety measures, notably when they demand a tunnel, and never do they speak or write of how they would pay for this luxury as they should, one that's not even practical or realistic to implement. Some of them want Caltrain removed, too.

    I'm in favor of the hybrid crossing design with the railroad elevated, roadway depressed, as the best choice for Plan B after a viaduct for the Peninsula. Elevating the railroad and depressing the roadway involves less of an elevation change and less overhead clearance needed than the opposite arrangement to get over the railroad. That's aside from the problems with lowering the railroad on the Peninsula and often elsewhere. Note that bike-ped crossing of an elevated railroad needs even less overhead clearance (coarsely, about half of what a roadway needs) and won't need to be depressed much or ideally, at all. Imagine piercings of the embankment connecting road segments on both sides of Caltrain by a bike path protected by bollards, or a sidewalk extension connecting the sidewalks on both sides of the railroad, for many streets not reconnected by new roadways.

    In California the flooding of underpasses in tropical-origin storms (notably vs. Alaskan storms) isn't as large a concern (nor welcome as another excuse for weather or climate hype) as security, both with crime and with those taking up unofficial residence in them. Many avoid overpasses, too, for security concerns now as much or more than in favor of simply crossing roads or railroads directly more easily and faster, albeit at risk.

  5. I'm biased as I'm male, but the primary security concern I have with getting to/from the University Ave. station, day or night, is getting hit by a bicyclist going 20 MPH down the under-crossing sidewalk. The people who occasionally take up residence there (mostly when it's raining) have never been a problem.

    1. I haven't had trouble with the crossings, either, but many avoid them and there's a known preference among many for bridges over "tunnels" (underpasses) and a disfavoring of the latter due to security concerns.

      Related to the original article material, it's overreaction to make occasional (and in fact rare, to this degree) flooding in storms into some kind of "death design" hype fodder, unless one really wanted to poke fun at the Palo Alto NIMBYs. The main problem with this or the other kind of hybrid grade separation (the best term for all kinds for which should be "combination"), with more height required, is that it requires two kinds of new construction and related complications.

    2. You should try some perspective, because if you seriously believe the greatest threat to your safety comes come from people riding bicycles, you’re lacking it! Drivers crashing into you at any given crossswalk represent a mortal threat to your life several orders of magnitude greater than any cyclist.

      At least with reckless cyclists, you can easily defend yourself simply by holding your arms out defensively because if someone rides 20mph right into your fist, it’s going to be far more devastating to them than to you. There are aerosols and devastating consequences for any cyclists who crashes into a person, which isn’t at all true for drivers, most of which never even receive a citation for the fatalities they cause all the time.

    3. Re Anonymous' "if you seriously believe the greatest the greatest threat to your safety comes come from people riding bicycles" I surmise that what the original poster "Marc" was on about are the less-deep pedestrian walkways that sometimes but not always flank the deeper-excavated (and remember always: "deeper" = more $$$ profit for the very worst people) higher-headroom roadways. These walkways are always narrow (because the sort of scum who profit from "split" grade separations are 100% automobile-first and actively hate humans) and should they also attract bicyclists there is never adequate, let alone comfortable, passing clearance.

      You can sort-of see what Marc is talking about in flanking University Avenue in Palo Alto in the old crossing here.

      Now god-awful human-hating cost-maximizing "split" grade separations don't necessarily feature such split-split-grade pedestrian pathways -- for example 25th Avenue in San Mateo (only several years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, SCORE!) doesn't. But Holly Street in San Carlos does (and what a absolutely horrid pedestrian-unfriendly anti-urban environment that split grade separation gives us!)

      Re hateful anti-urbanism, the insane Ralston Avenue in Belmont has a bit of everything -- the grade-separated side pedestrian walkways are wide enough that bikes and peds won't always conflict, on the other hand the wide low hulking railroad bridge over a depressed and super-depressing SIX-LANE city street is just a hellscape of misdesign and hostility. The depression floods. All the land on either side of the road on both sides of the tracks is completely dead because there are no human connections to the undevelopable land. Space is wasted by a pump station (costly to build, costly to operate, fails to pump when most needed, opportunity cost of land). The grade separation is actively incompatible with quad-tracking. It's basically everything wrong with Caltrain, including no trains in sight, at a glance.

      And then there's Harbor in Belmont. Only the more timid road-adverse cyclist is going to use these non-split-split sideways, but everything about else this "environment" actively screams "WE HATE HUMANS".

      But in the end, all that roadway excavation and utility relocation profits SOMEBODY, and gosh darn if the same somebodies aren't right now poised to suck down hundreds of millions of EXCESS public cash to engineer purely fraudulent "split" grade separations in South San Francisco (Linden), Redwood City (every single road $$$), Broadway in Burlingame, everything in Menlo Park, etc, etc, etc.

  6. have the denizens of next door invaded this blog? spending billions to build a completely unnecessary viaduct on an existing right of way while we have actual, pressing infrastructure needs to fund would be in character for caltrain, but this is the caltrain HSR blog, not the palo alto homeowner's put the poor people on stilts wet dream blog

    1. If you were familiar with the location and situation you know that almost nobody there wants a viaduct or wants the railroad raised even one millimeter, any lift of which constitutes the creation of a "Berlin Wall," to use their own words. The strong critics want Caltrain put in a tunnel, or if not, then in a trench that many want covered, and a few want Caltrain removed completely, relocated and/or possibly replaced by BART, etc. With their attitudes they deserve a viaduct with four tracks. There also are cheaper means to consider, crossing closures, which simply isn't standard in a metro area but deserved by people with their attitude.

      As for grade-separating Caltrain, that should have been completed before the end of the post-war growth times and Golden Era or Age (1973-4), but it wasn't important enough then. It's needed now even more. It may have lower priority than other things at the moment is what's also to be said about it, in addition to the obvious of more separations to come being hybrids, not an embankment or a viaduct along the Peninsula. (Crossings will continue to be limited.)

  7. Not unrelated ... same clown show as the Caltrain grade separation industry experts, some outcome -- nothing of any value, forever, costs climbing forever.

    Transbay Terminal Caltrain extension now officially up-costed (and climbing!) to $6.5 billion for under two miles of track and one stupid underground station under Townsend Street. And you can bet a couple billion they're lying about this number also.

    Just take the DTX out back and shoot it.

    1. New $6.7 billion price tag makes Caltrain’s SF extension among costliest in the world

      Preparations for the final 1.3-mile leg — pushing trains to the city’s Salesforce Tower — are finally picking up speed after decades of on-and-off planning. But there’s one major hurdle: a new $6.7 billion price tag.

      The rail line — also planned as the finishing northern stretch for California’s High-Speed Rail — saw a cost increase of 34% from a 2015 budget, according to a new estimate from the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which oversees the project.

      At $5.15 billion per mile of new track, the Caltrain undertaking is now runner-up for the world’s most costly transit project, behind New York’s notoriously pricey East Side Access project, according to a database at New York University.

      The escalating figure is not holding back transit planners. They have set an ambitious 2032 completion date, allocated over $1.7 million toward lobbying the state and federal government for funds, and rebranded the extension with a new name: “The Portal”

      “This is a generational investment in our climate, mobility and economic future for California. This is not extending a commuter rail one mile,” said Adam Van De Water, executive director of the TJPA. Instead, he said, Bay Area residents should view the mega project as a linchpin for a climate-friendly future by uniting high-speed rail, bus and BART at San Francisco’s Salesforce Transit Center.

      “It is a critical connection to bring those 11 agencies together,” said Van De Water. “So then you can take a bus from any of the Bay Area counties into downtown and hop on Caltrain or high-speed rail and be destined statewide.”

      A similar vision for regional transit connectivity is also underway in San Jose, with BART, electrified Caltrain and high-speed rail eventually meeting at Diridon Station. Both transit hubs in San Francisco and San Jose have been dubbed the future “Grand Central Station of the West” by local officials. BART’s $9.4 billion extension through the South Bay is scheduled to open in 2034, two years after the Caltrain extension.

      The majority of the Caltrain project’s costs come from building the new underground station and underground tunnel that extends the tracks from Caltrain’s current terminus near Oracle Park at 4th and King to the basement of the Salesforce Transit Center.

      Along with tunneling costs, inflation and planning for unforeseen expenses are behind a “conservative but realistic approach” to budgeting, Van De Water said. With an eye toward ballooning costs for bringing BART through San Jose and other mega projects around the country, Caltrain is saving some money by shrinking its tunnel size and eliminating an underground passage from the Salesforce building to the Embarcadero BART Station.

      “Every year we don’t get this project underway is almost $300 million in escalation alone,” said Van De Water. “That’s not adding any bell, any whistle any change to the design.”

      Alon Levy, who researches transit costs at New York University, called the new budget estimate “horrific” without clear reasoning for the sky-high price tag. The project is expected to cost more than average due to the dense urban location and the inflated price of doing business in San Francisco, said Levy. But the current estimate is “unjustified” considering that much of the heavy lifting was already completed in 2018 when the $2.2 billion Salesforce Transit Center opened with a massive empty basement prepped for Caltrain and high-speed rail’s eventual arrival.

    2. Oof, "The Portal"... to financial ruin.

      My answer to the TJPA's alarmist quote is, "Every year we don't get this project underway is almost $1 billion in opportunity for projects with a higher cost-benefit ratio." The opportunity cost of DTX is getting far too big to ignore. We need to put this shovel down.

    3. Building the Central Subway (MUNI to Chinatown) ahead of the DTX was a political choice. It was the wrong one.

    4. This is the original Anonymous on this comment thread. Yes, the appeal to emotion with alarmist misuse of (ironically here with what you really have posted correctly) the opportunity cost concept typicall also includes the form "We cannot afford NOT to do it," in this case, DTX as sought. Why, some money instead could have been instead to build a full-height embankment if a viaduct was too much a monstrous eyesore, and too liberating for all manner of crossing the right-of-way, which so many to this day seem to neglect.

      Put some of the tracks on an embankment with the money for DTX as sought, and close the crossings there, letting any residents and others claiming interests in crossing to dig their own underpasses.

  8. Driver rescued from flooded 42 Ave. Caltrain underpass dies

    A person rescued from a submerged vehicle in San Mateo during the New Year’s Eve storm died not long after, the San Mateo Police Department said Friday.

    The motorist was trapped at Pacific Boulevard and 42nd Avenue at around 5:38 p.m. and was rescued by police officers and firefighters. A subsequent investigation found before the driver became trapped, the vehicle had gone on the wrong side of the road and had eluded barricades that had been deployed to close the portion of the road, police said.

  9. "Eluded barricades," included:

    In addition to an obvious case of "Turn around, don't drown" I'm reminded of Brightline along the FEC route in southeast Florida, which has been harvesting humans along its tracks and striking motor vehicles since its service began. (That's in addition to the FEC freight trains doing it all the way to Jacksonville that never get mentioned.) That area and Brightline are a special case that features truly visceral irrational negative reaction to the passenger trains and now it's "deadliest railroad in America," et cetera. Yawn. Time after time, the pedestrians and others struck and killed have been suicidal or intoxicated, and drivers of motor vehicles that are struck routinely go around the lowered crossing gates. As with cyclists who run stop signs, there are those who go through railroad crossings when they shouldn't, and one who did it was a notable fatality fairly early after passenger service begun.

    What's going to be needed someday are vehicle barriers, suitable also for the 111-125 mph railroad crossing protection railroads don't bother to go to the trouble as well as expense even to consider now. Or the hell with it, and pensions will have priority over crossings later, just close them if they're bad crash sites, like locking transit station and other restroom facilities to end problems, already.

    1. Grade crossings in Russia have vehicle barriers that deploy after the gates come down. These would work wonders around here. See video at about 1:20 mark.

    2. Unlike perhaps Florida, Caltrain actually, happily, does not have a “drive-around” problem. Instead, the top problem by far is the numerous drivers who every month mistakenly drive off crossings to the left or right and onto the ROW and get stuck their vehicles stuck there. Some result in crashes with trains, and nearly all cause significant schedule disruptions.

      The obvious and easy (conceptually, at least) solution is installing another set of ordinary break-away gates across the tracks that work opposite to existing ones across the road: normally down (instead of normally up) and that lift into the up position when trains approach.

    3. As cool and impassable as costly pop-up barriers are, can anyone remember (or even better cite specifics) when the last (or any!) grade crossing crash was caused by someone driving through or around lowered crossing gates? I cannot. They all follow a vehicle illegally being queued on the tracks before the crossing gates activate.

    4. John Ramsbottom30 January, 2023 04:08

      Instead of having a second barrier to stop vehicles from turning onto the ROW modify the barriers to rotate horizontally instead of up and down. When no train is coming the barriers can block entry to the tracks and swing to block the road when one is. By placing sensors on the barriers to detect vehicles queued only setting signals to green when successfully blocking the road.

    5. Just build a solid curb alongside the travel lane that only stops at the extreme limits of the mandated dynamic envelope of the train. Coat it in yellow reflective thermoplastic. A thick, yellow concrete curb should alert most of the morons to stay off the tracks. No need for a gate that has the potential to malfunction and screw up the rail operations. If really necessary, add direct light to increase visibility.

    6. Rotating barriers: 1) unlike ubiquitous and proven battery-backuped standard gates that rise & fall and failsafe into either the down or up position using gravity, rotating barriers don’t exist for RRs, and so would have to be developed & debugged … and how would gravity-based failsafe cause rotation? 2) Atherton’s quad gates at Fair Oaks Lane already have crossing occupancy detection, but activating crossing gates early enough to allow for trains going 79 mph (and 110 mph for future Peninsula HSR) to brake to a stop every time an obstructions is detected & signaled means extending minimum warning times from the current 20-25 seconds (not “8 seconds”!) to a politically- and practically-unacceptable lengths of maybe 2 minutes or more per train at already traffic-choked crossings.

      @Michael, yes such curbs and better lighting should help since nearly all incidents of mistakenly driving onto the ROW occur after dark. The gates I propose across the tracks are the ordinary break-away ones used to block motor vehicles that have merely been modified to operate & failsafe opposite. So if there was any malfunction or loss of battery backup power they would be counter weighted to open instead of close, and therefore should never interfere with train operations.

    7. Yes, Clem, this is a good example and would be of great help, not only on the Peninsula, of course, but in all the metro areas and more places, too. I favor larger, more menacing barriers, but these would be helpful, indeed, four quadrants, as with gates in so many places now, of course.

      The reality, not "perhaps," in Florida is people drive, cycle, and walk around gates and active crossing warning-stop signals, including in Southeast Florida where Brightline service was started. It is a problem found in many other places, too.

      I'm not a proponent of that rotating-gate concept, but it could be extended to four quadrants, providing guidance to motor vehicles to go straight and discourage left as well as right turns. Heh.

    8. Vehicle barriers might be useful now at crosswalks, too.

      Don't forget streets closed to through traffic not servicing those small streets designed and intended and sized to serve those alongside those small streets, not to be unofficial through routes and substitutes for arterials and sometimes collector streets. Barriers could control traffic during school, work or commute, other special hours, too. That's in addition to the subject here, Caltrain grade crossings and sites.

    9. Great Britain used to have horizontally-swinging crossing gates. They took the continuity of the railway fence very seriously.

      Gates can be failsafed by making the axis of rotation slightly off-vertical, just like a crooked door. Fewer people should get themselves or their vehicles trapped than today, since the gates physically sweep 78% of the square.

  10. There is no solution as long as people drive by looking at their phone. I now regularly see people driving the wrong way down one way streets in downtown San Francisco because they just turned right at the next available intersection. Turning onto tracks is probably a condition that has arisen in the last five years, right? More signs and mechanical devices won't fix this.

    1. They’re not looking at phones. It happens almost exclusively after dark and with people trying to follow their navigation system instructions to “take the next right/left turn.” A standard reflective gate across the tracks lined with twinkling red lights will stop them from mistaking the dark ROW for a street. They’re actually looking, and so will not mistakenly drive through a lowered crossing gate. A pilot/demonstration project at one of the worst crossings will prove effectiveness.

    2. Quoting from the January Caltrain CAC meeting agenda staff report: “Vehicle on Tracks – There were eight days with a vehicle on the tracks, which caused train delays, and all were located at grade crossings. The train delays were on December 1 (Peninsula Ave.), December 4 (Scott St.), December 8 (3rd Ave.), December 12 ( 2 delays on the same day at the same location at 16th St.), December 20 (E. Meadows Dr.), December 27 (16th St.), and December 30 (Churchill Ave).”

    3. Gates across the tracks are just silly, at the first malfunction bits will go flying all over the place when a train smashes through.

      I suggest a counter-intuitive solution to the driving-onto-tracks problem: extend track panels for 30 feet on either side of the crossing! If given the chance, drivers will self-correct their mistakes. You just need to give them a second or two to recognize their error before they get high-centered on the rails and can't maneuver their way back out. From your stats, it looks like 16th would be a great place to try this.

    4. Yes, if the ordinary break-away crossing gates are not made to reliably failsafe in the up position a malfunction causing them to remain down could send bits dangerously flying when hit by a train.

      Another approach is to use a “gate” designed to safely shatter enclosed in of a tough woven weatherproof flexible woven sleeve that makes the unlikely event of being hit by a train harmless to both the train & bystanders. Kind of like how safety glass works to keep things stuck together and shards from flying.

    5. @Clem we know these confused motorists sometimes already drive remarkably long distances off the crossings before stopping, so the 30-foot (or so) crossing panel extensions won’t work unless fitted with extremely rough-riding bumps/curbs or something to really let them know they need to stop and backup. And yet it needs to be such that they can & do back up to the crossing and get their vehicles off the ROW. My idea is to create an eye-level visual/physical barrier … but one that lifts out of the way by gravity if the system keeping it down fails (opposite regular gates) … and, as you point out, that can safely be hit by a train in case the failsafe or crossing activation circuit fail.

    6. Yes, these pavement extensions would obviously be extremely rough-riding. Mounted perhaps 3 inches below top-of-rail with 3-inch tall ridges. It should give the driver a good shake but still allow a car with 4-inch ground clearance to make a three-point turn. The problem is less that people drive onto the tracks than it is that they can't get off the tracks once they're on them. There should not be a need for a tow truck or a police response or a train delay!

      Passive solutions are always better and cheaper to build and maintain. Your idea of train gates involves even more avionics and endless SCADA crap layered on top.

    7. One thing I'll add: driving remarkably long distances down the tracks likely results from failed attempts to turn the vehicle across the rails, i.e. the best efforts of the driver to get off the tracks. Why not help them?

    8. Agreed, passive solutions are better — if they are effective in eliminating the problem. It would be interesting to know how well the solar powered LED-lit “bots dots” that line several of the worst crossing edges are (or are not) working.

      What’s even sillier than testing an active solution that provides an unmissable windshield-level physical barrier across the ROW is staff continuing to essentially shrug their shoulders 🤷‍♂️ and do essentially nothing to stop the half dozen or so “car on tracks” incidents that have been occurring monthly for years now. A number have caused spectacular collisions, last-second rescues, and at least two have sparked significant fires that scorched the front of the train.

      One last year or so drove south almost to the elevated San Bruno station platforms, requiring extra effort for tow truck to get the vehicle off the berm-elevated ROW.

      Of course, there is always a non-zero risk of a derailment and/or injuries or deaths to innocents aboard the train or nearby.

      We know how often motorists are getting their vehicles stuck on the ROW and the consequences thereof, but does anyone know about how often Caltrain crossing gates fails to lower when a train barrels through the crossing? That’s about how often we can expect a ROW gate fail to lift when a train barrels through …

      Note in today’s board meeting agenda package, Caltrain & Burlingame are being sued by a rider & spouse claiming injuries from their train hitting a vehicle at Broadway. Also note that it has been so long that a crash was caused by a vehicle driving past a lowered gate that citing such an incident is extremely difficult … and yet that’s all Caltrain, HSRA, and Operation Lifesaver focus on with talk of quad gates with occupancy detection, etc.

      Accidental crashes are all the result of actions & vehicle code violations that occur BEFORE the gates activate. And nearly all of the rest are suicides that no proposed crossing gate or station platform design (short of platform screen doors) can stop.

  11. The idea that split crossings are dangerous because ignorant drivers might occasionally get their cars stuck in them when they fill with water during storms is absurd! Certainly there are cheaper and more effective ways to keep people from driving their cars into flooded underpasses.

    The only reason we have so many at grade crossing collisions between cars and vehicles is because we design our grade crossings without any margin of safety. 8 seconds between a 79mph train blowing through a crossings is the reason why we can’t go a month without a crash at one of them. In Sweden they use at-grade crossings that are entirely fail-safe with trains running at 150mph, and they’ve had one crash in over 40 years. Sweden has proven that fail-safe grade crossings work. If a vehicle is obstructing the grade crossing, the gates don’t close and the train stops automatically. But that level of safety requires drivers wait longer than 8 seconds between crossing gates closing and train blowing through. We prefer sacrificing vehicles, their drivers, and reliable train operations in order to mandate that grade crossings never make drivers wait a few extra seconds for an approaching train.

    If we care so little about drivers who don’t behave perfectly all the time, why should we care about the occasional driver who tries driving in a flooded railroad underpass? If we really cared about drovers lives, shouldn’t we address the much greater threat which is dangerous grade crossings before tackling the much more obscure danger of flooded underpasses?

    1. "The idea that split crossings are dangerous because ignorant drivers might occasionally get their cars stuck in them when they fill with water during storms is absurd! Certainly there are cheaper and more effective ways to keep people from driving their cars into flooded underpasses."

      Hi, the point isn't that people shouldn't drive into flooded underpasses and die, but that the flooding associated with Caltrain's decades-long contractor-profit-always-first pushing of "split" grade crossings results in a deadly -- literally deadly, and of course one can debate how relatively deadly compared to other risks -- and, here's the point, completely unncessary deadly risk.

      "Split" grade separations combine all of the following attributes:
      * Maximum cost, always. (Yes, Caltrain's consultants sandbag "alternatives analysis" knowing know split grade separations will blow out cost and schedule, always, without fail. Any "analysis" from Caltrain's consultants suggesting anything but highest cost compared to fully-elvated rail is simple, unmbigous, proven, historically incontrovertible, self-serving, unambigous fraud.)

      * Maximum construction time, always. (See above.)

      * Maximum construction impacts, always. (Road detours for years, instead of for several weekends.)

      * Maximum property impacts, and worst urbanity results, always. (Multiple blocks of supposedly transit-adjacent street frontage are lost to excavated traffic sewer roadways, places nobody will want to walk and nobody walks except for all other choices being eliminated.)

      * Highest ongoing costs, always. (Hey, those water pumps don't operate themselves, even when they do happen to function.)

      * Worst community aesthetics, always, as the result is still elevated tracks, just a few completely meaningless feet less elevated, but with the bonus of submerged dead-zone traffic sewer always-widened roads.

      * Incompatibility with track quadruplication, at the very most critical locations along the corridor, almost without exception, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars of future cost to completely redo the deliberately rail-traffic-inhibiting split grade separation project all over again.

      * Hundreds of millions of dollars of added expense PER CROSSING, as proven time and time again by Caltrain's budget and schedule blowouts on each and every split grade separation scam project.

      So yeah, if the only downside to split grade separations compated to elevating the tracks were roadway flooding every couple years, maybe there would be an argument to be made. But that's not the case. Caltrain's split grade separations are the worst "choice", every time, at every location, and they are pushed by Caltrain's rent-seeking asshole consultants for the simple reason that they are the worst and most costly engineering choice, every single time.

      "If we really cared about [drivers'[ lives, shouldn’t we address the much greater threat which is dangerous grade crossings ..."

      Yes! Caltrain grade crossings are purely a car driver subsidy. You might argue that there are better ways to spend billions of dollars on Caltrain. I certainly argue that myself!

      But given that Caltrain is mis-spending billions of "public transit" public dollars on grade separations for motorists' benefit, wouldn't it be sort of nice if they got two or three times as many road crossings grade separated for the same amount of money, and did so decades sooner?

    2. Grade crossings, like so many other things, are not car driver "subsidies." Grade crossings are safety measures that improve crossing of the barrier that railroads constitute for all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians and operators of all kinds of contemporary faddish, often toy-like "last mile" or "micromobility" vehicles or more properly, devices. They also prevent hazards to trains from errant motor vehicles. It happens, unsurprisingly, that most road users are motor vehicle drivers. That's reality; anti-car activism (complete with related nomenclature and rhetoric) is poor and often politically corrupt transportation policy, as with other political fads found in many people in metro areas and disgracefully, in governments.

      If there won't be a viaduct, then there should be an embankment, followed by a hybrid crossing as choices. Tunnel and trench are out of the question with Caltrain and also outside personal behavior boundaries by Palo Alto (true) NIMBYs. Viaducts have the advantage of greatest permeability above ground level (of the railroad as a barrier). Embankments have one advantage for traffic planning that affects motor vehicle routes; while all arterials should pass through the embankment (high enough to permit overhead clearance for trucks and buses) and many if not all collector streets should, too, the smaller streets might also get their full right-of-way passages, too, or have the streets end with connector passages just for sidewalk extensions or rec paths. It depends on what local communities want and are willing to pay, easier up front while the embankment is being created, more difficult and more expensive later. Benefits: No through traffic on each street intended only to serve residents, and no related potential Wazer problems of today. Certainly sidewalk or rec path passages could be applied at least to school routes for the kids to use safely. Good bike route selections should be made as well, for small streets or collectors between arterial passages and streets designed as bicycle routes, particularly.

      Security? Light and monitor passages, police strongly.

      Let us never be told new railroad passages or crossings are unwanted or opposed (by the worst) because VMT will rise.

    3. One big problem is poor motorists, with their poor driving.

      If anything, that makes grade separation more important now than ever, in the real world. The entire run SF-SJ should have been grade-separated generations ago, with work now underway if already done with the SJ-Gilroy segment, all the way onward to Salinas if Salinas extension supporters see more they have wanted materialize.

      The only question is where grade separation fits among other budget items and their relative priorities and concerns for getting scheduled and completed. It's like that for new road projects and other new rail projects, like Gargantua the likely contractor bloated rail tunnel under the Bay connecting S.F. to the East Bay core at Oakland on the mainland, or to Alameda. (Add a service and emergency vehicle tunnel between each pair of rail tunnels, open usually as a rec trail.)

    4. The benefits of grade separations accrue primarily to local communities and road users. Even the safety benefits accrue to them almost exclusively, with the safety benefit to train riders almost nil. The windshield perspective that it takes to argue otherwise is really something to behold!

      I don't mind people setting money on fire to build fancy grade separations that improve communities, but just let that not be from train money. (Ironic fact: the computer system used to procure these projects is called Bonfire).

      Train money should first and foremost make train service better. Grade separations pointedly do not appear anywhere on my wish list of capital spending for better service. That's because grade separations produce negligible improvement in service quality.

    5. Yes, making train service better is important, and I have already mentioned priority, but you neglect or happen to underappreciate something: Collisions (that could be prevented or reduced with grade separations) disrupt services and harm reliability and related, quality of the service, ruining it for each run that's affected by collisions.

      Yes, safety benefits accrue to road users, all kinds, and others who have an inclination to trespass, often at crossings, because as many of us were taught as if we really needed to be, trains are much bigger and more massive than people and road vehicles are. Yes, safety accrues mainly to motorists, simply because most road users are motorists. There's nothing bad or wrong about that. And what's so wrong with safety, incidentally, especially when the remedy is perfectly logical and overdue in this location?

      There is no required "windshield perspective" (an activist term itself revealing an altered perspective) to correct misunderstandings and observe and know reality about rail corridors in metro areas, particularly.

      It would be better to have a viaduct, and failing that, an embankment as a better compromise, with crossing places correctly identified and planned BEFORE the embankment was built, but if the high-speed rail project and Caltrain and others tie their own hands, then a hybrid crossing it is here and there, with the overhead clearance properly selected for the shorter road clearance than the taller railroad height. (Ideally the embankment would at least be high enough to permit at-grade sidewalk or rec path crossings with a 10-foot overhead clearance in cases like this.)

      What you can say is that had the railroad gotten attention fro authorities years ago, it might have been in the later Golden Era or even in the later 1970s, and authorities might have been inspired by the South Bay's expressway system. Hint. (And there are Palo Alto NIMBYs who want Caltrain removed. It's just a bike trail nowadays or developed real estate corridor instead of another expressway and likely a toll road already.)

    6. You artfully avoid engaging with my main point: train money shouldn't be spent on car projects. It should be spent on making train service better.

      Caltrain experiences on the order of 1000 minutes of train delays per month due to vehicle and trespasser incidents. Let's assume for a moment ridership was very high (~500 passengers per train). That's half a million train passenger minutes of delay, per month. Note that not all of those delays will be solved by grade separations, but in your favor, let's say they are.

      On the car side of things, the mean gate down time is 11 minutes per hour, i.e. the gates are down 18% of the time during the peak. During a typical weekday, 400,000 vehicles cross the tracks, or about ten million per month (mostly during the peak when gate down times are longest). Let's say 18% of those get delayed by half a minute each (about half a gate cycle). That gives us 1.8 million motorist minutes of delay per month, assuming each vehicle has one person in it; let's round up with 1.2 passengers per vehicle to 2.2 million motorist minutes of delay per month.

      We can thus estimate that grade separations provide roughly four times the delay savings to motorists as they do to train passengers.

      That means we should pay for them 80% out of road budgets and 20% out of train budgets. In actual reality, we pay for them 0% out of road budgets and 100% out of train budgets, which helps explain why we have crappy service: we spend an inordinate amount of train money on grade separations that primarily benefit cars.

      This isn't some new bicycle activist new-age mobility complete streets ideology. It's backed up with facts, not feelings.

    7. To pile on to Clem's comment, not only are grade separations of roads from the Caltrain track 100% paid for by "train budgets", they're more like 200% or 300% paid for by train budgets. The degree of rent extraction and Other People's Money piling-on associated with what could and should and ought to be rail projects within the rail corridor affecting the elevation of rail tracks and not actively and permanently degrading rail service is something to behold.

      A quick reminder that one simple two track (two tracks, forever, actively and deliberately incompatible with quad-tracking, because Caltrain) rail bridge over 100 foot wide Broadway in Burlingame is being costed at over $300 million of your earth dollars. And that's after "value engineering" that reduced (but did not eliminate, oh no, not that, not ever that) large amounts of road trenching from the scam.

      This isn't remotely a rail project. It's barely even a highway project -- though naturally they're widenign the road to eight lanes and increasing the length of the rail bridge over it by 40%, you know, just to be safe, while ensuring that additional rail tracks are never possible. It's just a metastatizing cancerous endless mindless brain-eating cash-devouring vortex of rent seeking rent seeking thievery promoted and undertaken by a truly appalling cast of bottom feeders, with a shameless PR layer of bleating about "safety" to keep the spigots full open.

      "It's one simple 100 foot two track rail bridge, Michael. What could it cost? $350 million? ... I don't have time for this"

    8. I am not avoiding anything, first of all; the key point remains:

      "As for grade-separating Caltrain, that should have been completed before the end of the post-war growth times and Golden Era or Age (1973-4), but it wasn't important enough then. It's needed now even more. It may have lower priority than other things at the moment is what's also to be said about it, in addition to the obvious of more separations to come being hybrids, not an embankment or a viaduct along the Peninsula. (Crossings will continue to be limited.)"

      The primary reason for grade separation remains safety; improved traffic flow comes next, for all road users, but obviously for motorists most, since most people travel by car, and there's nothing bad or wrong about that in the real world, along with even some overreaction to gate closure times.

      The funding source is and always will be a separate issue. Yes, it should be more widely funded than instead by Caltrain or funds to improve Caltrain service or anything else specific to the railroad or train service, where train funds should go. (Related but neglected until now is that rail vs.other modes often are treated disparately in general, and to use a word misused in a smarmy manner for a number of previous decades, a "balanced" transportation system, meaning more rail, actually should be CONSISTENT with respect to how each form of travel is addressed, funded, and governed. Funding (perhaps generally through Caltrans, much better than MTC or the like) is only part of the disparity.

      So is the problem in California and elsewhere of contractors like Tutor Perini, best-known, individually, followed possibly by what now is WSP, as with non-profits now with the insane housing supply obsession with horrid looking, poor quality, cramped housing, and without enough parking as another sop to developers when not spun off as another money grab.

      Richard used "vortex"; VTA to and beyond San Jose is the true fiscal vortex or black hole in the area, dwarfing Caltrain and better than the latter to grab for money everywhere, the local equivalent of the high-speed rail project. (At least it's too late for WSP, big employers, and loony activists here to not only re-offer maglev, but to take "Hyperloop" seriously, as in Washington state and elsewhere in the Northwest.)

      And returning to roads to end, even now, in 2023, so many governments are too inept and now, tainted by diseased politics, to at least grade-separate their major, largest arterials where suited, such as where these intersect. Any hysteria over "evolving toward freeways" with grade separation and additionally, limiting access to reduce collision hazards, is not worth respecting or honoring.

    9. > insane housing supply obsession with horrid looking, poor quality, cramped housing, and without enough parking

      you're lost mate, let me point you in the right direction: https://nextdoor.com

    10. Agreed, any further NIMBY screeds will be deleted.

  12. "That means we should pay for them 80% out of road budgets and 20% out of train budgets. In actual reality, we pay for them 0% out of road budgets and 100% out of train budgets, which helps explain why we have crappy service: we spend an inordinate amount of train money on grade separations that primarily benefit cars."

    There's nothing wrong in particular with benefiting most road users by far; in fact, government is wrongful deliberately to reject that.

    Meanwhile, the railroad operations and related service are degraded by collisions and related delays, plus by any substantial damage to rolling stock, for example.

    Also, meanwhile, bridge toll money has routinely been misappropriated from where it naturally and understandably belongs, to bridge and approach work including maintenance, repair, replacement, all-new Bay crossings that have been needed for multiple generations. But all we get is MTC and coming soon, beyond the ambitious enough "mega-measure," is Link21, and Caltrans itself is politicized now and cannot be relied on to be its best or superlative, just better than MTC or the likes of, e.g., VTA. (Even cycle tracks and pretending to be Amsterdam actually is a better use of VTA light rail routes than VTA light rail. Bus lanes?)

  13. At this week’s CAC meeting, Caltrain staff reported another 5 vehicle-driven-onto-tracks incidents for January. And SMPD today just posted pics of one in downtown San Mateo on their FB page. The photo shows the edge of the crossing in the foreground lined with the (apparently ineffective) red LED-lit “bots dots” Caltrain installed to stop this.

    1. They should pave the tracks.

      I'm not kidding. On either side of the railroad crossing, build turnaround pads that are (1) large enough to execute a three point turn, including the area between the tracks, (2) MUCH rougher than Botts dots or reflectors-- think multiple rows of 5-inch armadillos, (3) of course recessed in such a manner that they won't protrude above top-of-rail, (4) and not so deep that a Honda Civic will get high-centered.

      The point is to allow a driver to correct their mistake. Right now they fall off the pavement and it's game over, emergency response + service disruption. This is all self-inflicted.

      Meet drivers right where they are: stupid and impulsive

    2. Yup, sure enough, the car was high-centered! This driver could easily have corrected their mistake if just given the chance.

    3. Hard to tell if they’re really stuck or just gave up at about 14 center fence poles away from the crossing edge. Assuming a pole spacing of 8 feet or so, it’s not clear why it would take straddling the constant-height rails for well over 100 feet before getting high-centered. As mentioned earlier, it’s remarkable just how far down the tracks some of these drivers drive before either getting stuck or giving up after being unable to get their wheels out from between the rails.

      At any rate, the paving idea is worth a trial (perhaps at 16th, which again was included in January’s incidents). A member of the CAC suggested to staff at this week’s meeting that since a past presentation showed that all but one incident occurred after dark, why not just try installing a set of modern, bright LED overhead streetlights to brightly light the ROW on either side of the crossing?

    4. Dunno how effective they are in stopping errant drivers, but I noticed that in the UK some crossing edges are fitted with “anti-trespass panels” — which seem to be meant to function somewhat like cattle guards for humans.

    5. Those are both lovely ideas: bright track lighting, and the rubber anti-trespass panels. Those ought to be very rough to drive onto, but not impossible to reverse out of. I especially like that they are rubber and unlikely to cause a derailment if dislodged by dragging equipment.

    6. Re the "lovely ideas" of "bright track lighting, and the rubber anti-trespass panels": the Muni tunnel portals in San Francisco have this and more in spades, including "DO NOT ENTER" LED signs that are so bright I find them painful to look at directly, and still...

      PS People, stop suggesting Caltrain innovate new solutions ("CBOSS"), or that Caltrain resuccitate stuff that was done away with half a century ago. No no no no just no. There are no Catrain-special-needs-specific problems here. There's nobody in any way connected with Catrain who should be proposing any Caltrain-special-needs anything, for any purpose, for any reason, under any circumstance, ever. No no no just no.

    7. The problem is the drivers. Remember when some cities put out orange flags for pedestrians to use to cross the street in marked crosswalks? Didn't change driver behavior of inattentive drivers. If you drive onto the tracks, you are not an attentive driver. Sorry. License gone for a year. It's not the railroad's fault. They are not responsible to hold every inattentive driver's hand and tell them everything's going to be alright. Next time they're not paying attention, it'll be someone's kid in a crosswalk.

    8. Innovation brings political credit and often big bucks if the official innovator is a contractor or a transport system who loves the custom route to as much as possible, though.

      There's always the net barrier (suitable for abused freeway off-ramps, like Jackson in San Jose) rather than a hard vehicle barrier.

      Or jumbo Evel Kneivel-BMX ramps for only $100M each

  14. "On either side of the railroad crossing, build turnaround pads [...] three point turn [...] The point is to allow a driver to correct their mistake. Meet [blundering or wrongful] drivers right where they are: stupid and impulsive."

    Consider paving it all across and to the side of the tracks, for enough distance in each direction to enable turning around in one movement to go to the right lane in either direction to exit the crossing, continuing on one's merry or confused way, or stopping at an other-side quad gate on the far side of the crossing. (Or even stopping at a left lane, pointing the wrong way, stupid but better to be off the tracks.)

    A continuous movement should take less time as well as be less challenging to these drivers than a three-point turn.

    Worst case driver scenario (for one driver only, at least), pave an even wider area to just park off the tracks if there is enough clearance. That's if one doesn't give up and do nothing or close the crossing in frustration. (Side-to-side, 50-100 feet in each direction?)

  15. Or a side-action catapult (a reverse mouse trap).

  16. Don't forget the railroad powers that be, too. Caltrain gets bashed enough, but don't forget