Caltrain plan would fell trees, add substations

Agency's new Environmental Impact Report analyzes the costs and benefits of long-planned electrification

For years, Caltrain officials have been advocating a switch from diesel trains to electrified ones as the the best way to both help the environment and keep the popular but cash-strapped commuter service financially viable.

But a new report analyzing the environmental impacts of electrification indicates that these benefits will come at a cost beyond the project's $1.5 billion price tag. Specifically, it could result in removal of more than 2,000 trees and the addition of poles up to 50 feet high, safety walls built on existing bridges that cross the train corridor, and substations -- including one in Palo Alto -- to support the electrification.

The draft Environmental Impact Report, which the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board released Friday morning, argues that Caltrain's long-planned electrification is a critical project for increasing ridership and for giving the Peninsula an "environmentally friendly and reliable service." More than a decade in the works, the previously stalled project sparked back to life in 2012, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority agreed to adopt a "blended" two-track system along the Peninsula in which the new high-speed trains would share electrified tracks with Caltrain. As part of a 2013 agreement between the agencies, the rail authority would pay for about half of the project's $1.5 billion costs, with the balance coming from Caltrain and other Bay Area transportation agencies.

According to the new report, Caltrain plans to have its new electrified system in place by 2019, at which time about 75 percent of its train fleet would be electric and 25 percent would be diesel. Once the remaining diesel trains reach the end of their service life, they would be replaced with electric trains.

Caltrain carried about 47,000 riders on a typical weekday in 2013, according to the report, a number that is projected to go up to 57,000 in 2020 and to 84,000 in 2040 even if electrification doesn't happen. With the project, the estimated ridership would be 69,000 in 2020 and 111,000 in 2040. The overall number of daily weekday trains would jump from the present level of 92 to 114.

The environmental review notes that the project would significantly reduce traffic on regional roads by 235,000 "vehicle miles traveled" in 2020 and by 619,000 in 2040.

Yet the benefits will come with costs. The overhead power lines would be supported by poles with heights ranging from 30 to 50 feet, according to the report. The poles would stand on either side of the tracks, about 10 to 12 feet from the centerline, and would be spaced about 200 feet from each other (with shorter spans between poles on curved track sections). Wires would stretch across the tracks in a cantilever configuration.

The electric infrastructure would also require installation of one switching station, which controls how power is fed within the system; 10 traction power substations, which convert electricity to the voltage trains use; and six paralleling stations, which boost power along the system.

One paralleling station would be in Palo Alto, either near Greenmeadow Way or just south of Page Mill Road, according to the report. But, the report notes, such a station would have some visual impact. Located in a compound that has typical dimensions of 40 feet wide and 80 feet long, the station could be partially screened by trees. If located by Greenmeadow, "roadway users and residents may have limited views" of the site when there are gaps in vegetation.

The Page Mill option would also benefit from screening provided by trees on the Alma Street side and from the new four-story Park Plaza building on the other side, according to the report.

The environmental analysis noted that the Greenmeadow Way option would require trees to be removed, causing "significant" aesthetic impact. Caltrain is proposing to compensate by installing new "screening vegetation" along Alma between the roadway and the new station.

In addition to the electric infrastructure, Caltrain plans to build safety barriers on dozens of existing bridges to prohibit access to the Caltrain corridor and to prevent objects from being thrown off the bridges, according to the document. These barriers would typically be about 6.5 feet above the pavement level and would generally be about 40 feet long. Each barrier would feature a black, red and white signage that reads: "Danger. Live Wire."

The 47 bridges identified in the report include one bridge in Palo Alto (two new walls would be built on the San Antonio Road overpass) and six in Mountain View (Shoreline Boulevard overpass; Stevens Creek pedestrian crossing; Whisman Road; Route 85; and Route 237, both eastbound and westbound).

While the new infrastructure will be going up, hundreds and possibly thousands of trees would be going down. The report estimates that about 2,220 trees would be removed for the project and another 3,616 pruned. This includes 188 trees in Menlo Park, 177 trees in Palo Alto and 284 in Mountain View, which is second only to Sunnyvale's 497.

The report notes that Caltrain is exempt from local regulations guarding tree removal because it is a federally regulated rail carrier and thus benefits from an exemption in the Public Utilities Code. Still, it lays out a strategy to mitigate the loss of trees, including locating poles and alignments to "minimize tree removal and pruning" and removing trees "only as necessary to provide safety clearance." The project would include a creation of a "Tree Avoidance, Minimization and Replacement Plan," which would be developed in consultation with cities and a certified arborist and which would consider best practices for replacing and protecting trees.

The report is subject to modification based on comments from stakeholder communities along the corridor. But Caltrain officials stressed the importance of releasing the document, which Caltrain Executive Director Michael Scanlon called "the next step in a critical partnership between Caltrain and the communities we serve."

"We must work together to ensure the successful delivery of the Caltrain Modernization Program," Scanlon said in a statement. "We are committed to seeking public comment and to make sure the concerns of our communities are addressed directly, collaboratively and transparently."

Caltrain will be accepting comments on the draft EIR until April 29. The document can be found here.


Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Feb 28, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Or perhaps the citizens of Palo Alto could fight this necessary and inevitable project, simply pushing the increased cost off to the next generation...

Posted by neighbor, a resident of another community
on Feb 28, 2014 at 3:14 pm

This project is necessary.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2014 at 4:55 pm

It is crucial for transportation in the Bay Area to be improved. Caltrain needs electrification to meet the growing needs of all the extra commuting up and down the Peninsula. It is impossible to improve its service, increase the number of trains, without coming up to 21st Century standards.

It also needs to be more aligned with other Bay Area transit agencies, needs to encourage off peak travel with off peak fares, needs to understand that someone who travels across a zone but only 2 stations shouldn't be paying more than someone who travels 4 stations within the same zone, etc. etc. etc. It is not user friendly and it needs to update to improve its overall service.

Just get on with it. More trees can be planted. Upgrades on safety measures are urgent also.

Posted by parent, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 28, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Caltrain is how long; 75 miles from San Francisco to Gilroy. There must be 100,000 trees along that distance. Removing a couple of percent of that number is insignificant. Get it done and quit whining. We'd rather spend my tax dollars on this project than new car-only bridges and freeways.

Posted by Mark, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2014 at 5:09 pm

Does the $1.5B include the cost of grade separation at Charleston, Churchill and Alma?

Posted by Drew, a resident of Mayfield
on Feb 28, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Just bury the tracks already! Save trees, better appearance and it's a one time thing! Plus think of all the space you'll get above it! Mitigate the costs of burying the track by selling the land above to develop!

Posted by Pro train, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 28, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Burying the tracks is not any more economically viable than the HSR project is, maybe even less. It's a pie in the sky scheme that is senseless.

I love trees and want to protect them, but this is one case where we should be willing to sacrifice a few trees. Electrifying Caltrain is a no-btainer.

It is a serious embarrassment to still have diesel engines on that train.

Note that even though we'll lose trees, locally the environment will gain from electrifying the line: less pollution and less noise, much less noise.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 28, 2014 at 8:30 pm

I agree that the loss of a few trees will be offset by the reduction in diesel usage and the reduction of auto traffic. Note that the project described in the DEIR does not include grade separations, only improved signals and warnings at the existing at-grade crossings. The increased number of trains will cause more disruption to local traffic until the at-grade crossings are all eliminated. That will take another project beyond this one.

Posted by Just thinking, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2014 at 8:53 pm

I think burying the tracks actually should be considered because it also creates something incredibly valuable: a right of way between here and SF that could be used for bikes, and other small vehicle traffic like Segways...

Posted by Williamr, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 28, 2014 at 9:08 pm

How would you dig a trench big enough for the trains along an operating railroad?

Posted by Johnson, a resident of Professorville
on Mar 1, 2014 at 1:32 pm

It's interesting to note Caltrain has only recently finished track and grade improvements to support the bullet trains. I doubt that has been paid for and I doubt the new engines and cars have been paid for either.

Never mind that $1.5B is probably nowhere near enough to pay for a project of this magnitude. Definitely a case of low balling the estimate (along with over promising capability) to gain support.

Then there's the "financial viability" aspect. I'm not sure how burdening the taxpayers with an additional untold billions of dollars will achieve that.

Posted by Midtown, a resident of Midtown
on Mar 1, 2014 at 8:02 pm

Mile for mile the Caltrain track is the most dangerous train in America, on average 16 people a year are splattered by it (about half the rate of the Golden Gate bridge). The death rate is 4 times as high as BART. Why? Because of the at grade crossings. For all sorts of reasons they need to go. Can you imagine what would happen if the trains were going 120 mph instead of the 69 mph they go now?

Posted by Ben, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 1, 2014 at 9:59 pm

CalTrain took the bait/bribe from HSR to electrify, and our local politicians fell all over themselves to claim a great success! That $600M bribe may very well turn out to be illegal under the terms of Prop 1A, and leave the electrification project severely underfunded or even kill it.

The whole point of electrification is to move trains faster, and more trains in general along the caltrain tracks to increase ridership. More faster trains with no new grade separations will be a disaster along the Peninsula. Electric trains are quieter than diesel trains, but their horns and crossing gate bells will be just as loud, and more frequent. With more crossing closure time to accommodate more trains, cross track traffic will slow. More faster trains will almost surely result in more train-car and train-pedestrian collisions.

Grade separations are expensive (and in my opinion lengthy segments of trenched below grade tracks are an ideal solution to many of the problems facing Caltrain on the Peninsula) but 'modernizing' the trains and the tracks while ignoring the grade crossing safety issues is simply irresponsible.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2014 at 8:35 am

Do you remember when Caltrain was cutting back service before the current tech boom? Fuel costs were killing it. It only ran because it is subsidized by tax money. If Electrification can make Caltrain self-sufficient, by all means do it. Trees will grow back.

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2014 at 11:23 am


You do realize that the lack of grade seperations in this project is due in part to the objections of Palo Alto? Do you remember that whole "berlin wall" hysteria?

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 2, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Farebox revenue has always exceeded fuel costs by at least a factor of three. Must've been something else causing the service cutbacks.

Posted by Quercus, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 2, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Web Link

The draft EIR doesn't appear to include funding for grade separation:

'The MOU also conceptually outlines potential additional improvements
[i.e., "Core Capacity" projects(1)] needed beyond the first incremental investment to accommodate Blended Service in the corridor.'

'(1) "Core Capacity" projects (as described in the nine-party MOU) consist of needed upgrades to stations, tunnel, bridges, potential passing tracks, other track modifications, and rail crossing improvements, including selected
grade separations, and will be required to accommodate the mixed traffic capacity requirements of high-speed rail service and commuter services on the Caltrain corridor. The specific Core Capacity projects have not been
identified or defined at this time. These projects will be identified in future discussions and evaluations between CHSRA and the JPB. Core Capacity projects would be subject to separate, project-level environmental evaluation by the implementing agency.'

Posted by Clean up , a resident of Southgate
on Mar 2, 2014 at 2:09 pm

As someone who lives only a block away from the CalTrain tracks, and as an asthma sufferer, I would really appreciate it if CalTrain went electric. The smog the current trains produce, along with that of the traffic, has gotten to be overwhelming.

We installed air filtration in our home to deal with the pollution, but the filters, meant to be cleaned monthly, have had to be cleaned weekly for the last two years. Apparently this is due to the uptick in the number of trains as well as the mad increase in traffic.

Posted by SteveU, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 2, 2014 at 6:22 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Save the trees above all else. Even if electrification would provide for:
Cleaner Air
Quieter operation
Increased property values for those already along the tracks.

Makes perfect sense.
Hug a tree, forget people need to live and work.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 2, 2014 at 6:45 pm

Yeah, last appraisal I saw of El Palo Alto was only around $55,000 but we could turn it into 3,000,000 souvenir pencils and probably get a buck apiece.

Posted by Ben, a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 2, 2014 at 8:26 pm

@ Robert,

Neither Caltrain nor HSR trains require tracks perched a top of a 'Berlin wall' to have grade separations. The 'Berlin Wall' was the cheapest way to separate HSR tracks, and in fact, CA HSR proposed two levels of tracks; one on the ground and the elevated tracks for HSR, in which case there still would have been no complete grade separation. HSR's proposal was vigorously opposed by cities up and down the Peninsula because CA HSR Authority pretty much told the entire Peninsula to F*** off! we don't care what you want or think, especially considering that there are much better solutions, including trenching the tracks, that the HSR Authority refused to even consider.

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2014 at 9:43 pm

...except that they did consider all options, including trenching? And no where in the business plan state that an aerial structure was the preferred option?

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 3, 2014 at 9:22 am

Yes, trenching is a "better" solution as long as you don't include cost in your criteria.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 3, 2014 at 10:04 am

Caltrain is already electrified. The locomotives are hybrids; they generate their juice as they go. It would be much cheaper (and far more aesthetic) to fit them with pollution abatement equipment than to wire the system. Why isn't that an option in this?

Also, has anyone considered a subway system? How much of the cost could be recovered by selling surface development rights on the right of way?

Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community
on Mar 3, 2014 at 11:26 am

Just do it already.

Posted by Center, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 3, 2014 at 11:33 am

Great Caltrain is electrifying, but how about putting the poles in the center of the tracks instead of the sides? No trees existing in the center of the track corridor that have to be removed.

Posted by P.A. Native, a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 3, 2014 at 12:44 pm

I love how Palo Altans believe it's their right to go back to the drawing board again and again when it comes to all thing railroad. State already voted? No problem! Just keep arguing about details and then complain when the price goes up after 6 years of dragging your feet. And here we are, having the same discussions over and over. Trenching. Tunneled. BART. Good grief! Stop with the obstructionism already!

Posted by john francisco, a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 3, 2014 at 12:49 pm

if you put in a ditch you can use all the dirt to build dikes around the bay for the rising sea levels.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 3, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Caltrain is NOT electrified, although their diesel engines may produce electricity. They spend many millions on diesel fuel every year, which must be hauled up and down the tracks, accelerating after every station. A true electric train, with an external source of power, would be much lighter and could accelerate faster. This would allow faster service and more trains per hour, and would save on fuel costs.

Posted by gottachuckle, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 3, 2014 at 2:05 pm

I just *LOVE* reading the incredible comments posted on the Palo Alto Online forum.
The mixture of naive/dumb and conspiracy/fraud opinions are a fascinating study in modern day civics and civility.
Unfortunately, the few sane voices are almost always drowned out.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 3, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Diesel engines do NOT produce electricity; they drive generators. The weight of the fuel is a negligible fraction of the total train weight; offloading it will save much less money than would be spent on electric transmission losses. And the cars and payload of diesel and electric trains weigh the same.

Modern clean Diesel locos can give the same level of service as electrics with far less capital outlay. And without the ugly factor.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 3, 2014 at 5:17 pm

The report clearly states that acceleration and deceleration times would be reduced with electric trains, leading to faster routes. There would be a reduction of 3.4 million gallons of diesel a year, replaced by 83 million kWh of electricity. Plug in whatever numbers you like for their costs; if the numbers are at all realistic the savings is millions per year.

Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder and not a relevant factor here.

Posted by bogosity, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 3, 2014 at 8:01 pm

"Mile for mile the Caltrain track is the most dangerous train in America, on average 16 people a year are splattered by it"

Sounds like a problem of poor mental health systems than of a railroad. (railroads) don't kill people, (mental health issues and the lack of a good system) kills people.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 3, 2014 at 8:23 pm

We'll see how long that train of thought lasts. . . Note it's not all grade crossings. Caltrain incidents occur at the platforms as well, like BART. Ultimately we'd need to fence-off everything, including El Camino Real which has its share of pedestrian fatalities though not so associated with mental health.

Posted by 2,000? No big deal., a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2014 at 1:25 pm

It's amusing to see that 2,000+ healthy trees are considered "a few" by people here. Yet when 30 Holly Oaks on Calif. Ave. needed to be replaced, the result of them dying off, one by one for years and the city replacing the empty tree wells with cement, there was public outrage.

Posted by Lucky us, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 4, 2014 at 1:32 pm

South Palo Alto gets all of the impacts of the trains and very few of the benefits. At-grade crossings are a huge problem here. (Every single one of the Palo Alto grade-separated crossings that could be used by bikes or pedestrians is north of Oregon Expressway. Arterials and collector streets are heavily impacted by train preemption-caused auto congestion. People are killed at these intersections with horrifying regularity. Train whistles are a regular headache. It gets worse every time they add a train. The service to San Antonio train station is spotty and has been reduced in recent years despite heavy infill development in the area. Now we get the hideous substation and tree removal Lucky us.

Caltrain would do to pay a little more attention to local impacts of their decisions. Remember "context-based" planning? Much lip service, little action at this end of town.

Posted by Pro train, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Mar 4, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Can we move into the 21st century already or do we want to stay stuck in the 19th century?

Anywhere else, electrifying would be a no-brainer and no one or next to no one would oppose this.

As smart as they are,Palo Alto residents can be incredibly silly.

Posted by SteveU, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 4, 2014 at 6:48 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Unsafe trains?
How many trains left the tracks in this period you are discussing?
How many crossing guard failures contributed to these?

What part of RAILROAD RIGHT OF WAY does the press not understand?

People get into the NORMAL paths of a moving train and die.

Stupidity and Suicide deaths are not the fault of Cal Train.
Stop blaming the victim. Trains are damaged, passengers are delayed when someone violates the right of way . Cal Train did NOT cause this.
Tell the truth.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2014 at 9:51 am

"Plug in whatever numbers you like for their costs; if the numbers are at all realistic the savings is millions per year."

Well, let's do that. The cited cost is $1.5 billion, which is 1,500 million. If the savings is $1 M/yr, then the upgrade pays for itself in only 1,500 years. At $10 M/yr, it's 150 years. And that assumes they bring the project in within the original estimate, which very seldom happens. Think of HSR.

But at least we'll have 2,200 fewer trees blocking the view and polluting the air with oxygen, at a cost of only $682,000 per tree.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 5, 2014 at 11:40 am

Don't confuse operating revenue with capital improvements. For most organizations of this type they are completely separate budgets. The reduction in fuel costs will cut the operating costs by millions, which are paid for directly by Muni, Samtrans and VTA. The capital improvements are paid for from other sources. Also, the improvements go way beyond electrification, which is why it is properly called a modernization project, not an electrification project. It includes an updated train control system, level boarding with no steps so wheelchairs and bikes can get on and off quickly and easily, etc. Look at the overall picture instead of focusing on one tiny part of it.

Posted by Morel, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 5, 2014 at 12:14 pm

VTA just spent $72 Million adding 3.2 miles of auxiliary lanes on 101. What is the payback period of that investment? Forever, since VTA will never make a penny on them, but that doesn't mean they aren't worthwhile. Transportation infrastructure investments never pay for themselves directly, and that is the wrong way to evaluate them.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2014 at 1:43 pm

"Transportation infrastructure investments never pay for themselves directly..."

Correct. But they ought to yield aggregate benefits that justify their capital outlay; let the accountants slice and dice the books as they may.

The bottom line is I don't see $1.5 billion (or whatever the final number is) of benefits from this proposal which, electrification bragging rights aside, yields at best a marginally improved level of service. Level boarding is a prime example of a small upgrade at great cost; state of the art lifts would provide the same access with far less outlay. Not to mention saving 2,200 trees.

Posted by Ellie, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 5, 2014 at 2:47 pm

They have lifts now but it takes 5 minutes to get a wheel chair on, which makes the train late. VTA changed all their light rail stations to level boarding a few years ago, and it was a great improvement. I think Caltrain provides a tremendous service to the whole peninsula and this upgrade is definitely worth it. The people who are against it seem not to know much about it, probably because they don't use it. Still, they experience less congestion because of us who are on the train instead of the freeway.

Posted by Matt, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Mar 5, 2014 at 3:13 pm

"The bottom line is I don't see ($X) of benefits from this.

C'mon, that's a pretty weak statement. One can find that statement about every infrastructure project since the dawn of government, used by nimby's, cheapos, or just old cranks.

I don't see trillion a year in intelligence and pentagon benefits, either.

Screw it, I don't see the cost benefits in the millions spent on pothole repairs around the country! But get that one down the street fixed, dammit!!

And the free thing???? How many trees in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties? five million? ten million?

I fail to see the benefits of a couple thousand trees!!

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2014 at 3:52 pm

"They have lifts now but it takes 5 minutes to get a wheel chair on, which makes the train late. VTA changed all their light rail stations to level boarding a few years ago, and it was a great improvement."

I totally agree that new lifts are needed. Let's do them right now. However, level boarding is achieved by putting the tracks below platform level. That is egregiously unsafe. It is much easier to get clear of tracks on the surface than to climb out of the way of an approaching train after one has fallen off the platform and possibly gotten injured.

Posted by Ellie, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 5, 2014 at 4:07 pm

The tracks are below the platform level now. As I said, the people complaining don't seem to know much about Caltrain.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2014 at 4:37 pm

This is the kind of innovative out of the box thinking that Bay Area transit, Caltrain, etc. need to do. Web Link

It is pathetic that there is no innovative pricing to attract users to off peak and recreational transit.

People will use public transit if they feel they are getting a good deal and that it is a better option than driving. Getting into San Francisco or San Jose for evening entertainment by car is terrible, this sort of thing could help.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 5, 2014 at 5:07 pm

"The tracks are below the platform level now. As I said, ..."

But not far enough, are they? For level boarding they need to be as deep as the train floor is high from the ground. I don't know the exact number of feet, but the resulting platform to track drop is substantial. We got relatively minor hazard; why go for major menace? Upgrade the lifts now.

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