Tunneling the trains is not a new vision Jay Thorwaldson's Blog, posted by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Sep 30, 2008 at 5:14 pm Jay Thorwaldson is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
The “mini Big Four” Palo Alto city leaders proposing to tunnel the Caltrain tracks deep underground to make room for parks, bike lanes and condos were a bit surprised to hear they weren’t the first to think up the idea.
There have been earlier proposals to underground the tracks, most recently a serious effort by the late Joe Carleton in 2000.
Carleton, a longtime Palo Altan active in community and social issues, outlined his idea to me for more than an hour shortly after I became editor of the Weekly in mid-2000 -- before he became ill with cancer and died in October. His idea died with him.
And in 1967, Martin Gorfinkel ran for City Council on the platform, so to speak, of “Trench the Tracks.” In 1976, Gorfinkel founded LARC Computing, a development and consulting firm, and has long been active in Democratic and progressive political organizations.
Trenching is still an alternative to deep tunneling, but with far more impact during construction. The trenches can be covered over.
But, then as now, the idea of burying the tracks caused people to roll their eyes and shake their heads about where the funds would come from.
The latest vision emanates from City Councilman John Barton, former Councilman and Mayor Bern Beecham, Palo Alto-based architect Tony Carrasco and Planning Director Steve Emslie, currently the interim deputy city manager. They are proposing (as covered in detail in last Friday’s cover story, Sept. 26) that tunneling be explored as an alternative to major surface rebuilding of the tracks up the Peninsula.
They warn that growing frequency of local and “Baby Bullet” express trains will be increasingly intrusive on nearby residents and on east-west movement across the tracks, long considered a barrier dividing neighborhoods.
To make impacts worse, the Peninsula has been chosen as the route of the future High Speed Rail (HSR) connection between Southern California and San Francisco. Trains would speed up the valley at up to 220 miles per hour, then slow to about 100 or so going up the Peninsula. That’s still pretty fast. It’s the HSR system -- up for voter approval on Nov. 4 as Proposition 1A -- that could provide the core funding to make the tunneling concept feasible, its backers believe.
Even with grade separations or elevated tracks -- either by a big berm as further north or by elevated tracks, as with sections of BART -- the impact of more and faster trains will be significant on the Peninsula communities.
They hope their “tunnel the tracks” vision will spread to adjacent communities north and south to help spread the overhead fixed costs of tunneling, such as building a huge tunneling machine, and thus reduce the per-mile costs through Palo Alto.
There are parallels between the current vision and Carleton’s ideas.
Carleton was a gentle gadfly to city officials and pushed for things he felt were important to improving life for people in Palo Alto and beyond. In the early 1970s, he picked up on a five-part series I wrote for the Palo Alto Times on how poorly trained many ambulance crews were, and lobbied the city into creating the life-saving paramedics program in the Fire Department. This became a model and impetus for other cities in the county.
Carleton also helped arrange the donation of a fire truck and paramedics van to Oaxaca, Mexico, a sister city, and coordinated transport to get them down there.
Burying the tracks, he said, would open up east-west access by removing the barrier that predated most of Palo Alto’s neighborhoods, when the town was largely open spaces with oak trees. Below-ground tracks would provide space for open, landscaped areas, a long strip park, he said.
And, he said, it would provide room for housing -- places to live for people who couldn’t compete in the housing market, which even in 2000 was one of the highest in the nation. Palo Alto recently was rated the fourth highest housing market nationally.
That’s pretty much what the current proponents of tunneling have in mind, with one substantive difference: Joe saw housing as primarily filling a social need, whereas today’s tunneling advocates see sale of maybe 660 condos as a source of funds. The sales could raise perhaps between $450 million and $500 million, possibly enough to cover the extra cost compared to surface construction, whatever that cost might be.
Yet despite the dearth of reliable cost estimates for tunneling, absence of any design configurations or even rudimentary engineering work, the subject has already stirred up an intense and increasingly polarized debate on the online Town Square forum, www.PaloAltoOnline.com. Who needs facts to be confused by, anyway?
And the figurative or literal eye-rolling is still around: One Palo Alto neighborhood leader, after listening intently to a brief outline of the concept, sat quietly a moment before offering his two-word appraisal:
Posted by seriously?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Sep 30, 2008 at 6:29 pm
What a great idea that will help to increase real estate values and reduce the danger associated with above ground tracks. Our town would be so much nicer without the tracks running through it. Imagine life at PALY without the sound of the train running by!
Posted by bob, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Sep 30, 2008 at 6:39 pm
Before I jump on the bandwagon I want to know the cost per mile to tunnel or trench. Then I would ask where the funds are coming from. The surface extension of BART to SFO cost hundreds of millions (several billion?). And it was surface construction.
Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Sep 30, 2008 at 7:21 pm
When it is deemed necessary for highway to be widened between Palo Alto and Mountain View, who pays for it? It isn't the residents of Palo Alto or Mountain View. No. Caltrain finds the funds from its system and overall funding for California. Who benefits from it? Well, it can be argued that Palo Alto and Mountain View residents if they use highway 101 will benefit. But, the benefit is not to them alone, it is to all those who use highways all over the Peninsula, the South Bay, and even the East Bay.
Similarly, who should pay for an upgrade of the rail service (by tunnel, trench or what have you)? Certainly not the residents of the area in which the tracks are located. Who will benefit from the upgrade of the service? One could argue that the local residents who use the service. But, the benefit is not to them alone, but to all who use public transport all over the Peninsula, the South Bay, the East Bay and yes, all the way to LA.
So really what we need is not a localized project by a small transport body, but a Californian transport czar with oversight for all transport, not just in the Bay Area, but all over California.
We need a statewide public transit authority with oversight and funding for the overall transport policy for the whole of state. If we cannot get a statewide body, even a Bay Area body would be better than nothing. But, we must not do any upgrades piecemeal. We must get a picture of what is necessary for the whole of the State and the funding must come, not just from Palo Alto, or Mountain View, but from California.
And for those who think that they would never use the system, the fact that it is there will ultimately benefit every single Californian, from keeping the roads and skies less busy, to transport of food and freight, to giving our tourists an additional method of seeing the State and by having an overall authority to see the overall picture, this can be achieved for the benefit of every one of us.
Posted by JLD, a resident of the University South neighborhood, on Sep 30, 2008 at 7:24 pm
Trenching all of the three discussed train lines (Caltrain, BART and the HST) under El Camino through the peninsula would be a great enhancement both for trains and communities, who can rdeclaim the land now used for the rail road tracks.
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Sep 30, 2008 at 9:13 pm Walter_E_Wallis is a member (registered user) of Palo Alto Online
Just, please, no BART. Beside everything else, the inability of BART to carry freight wastes the benefit of public carriage that rationalized use of eminent domain to extend railroads. Imagine if the freight that now rides the night trains were to be thrown on to 101.
Posted by Clem, a resident of another community, on Sep 30, 2008 at 10:50 pm
> Imagine life at PALY without the sound of the train running by!
A tunnel is not the best solution to that problem.
The sound of the train running by PALY is principally composed of (a) 1/4 mile of federally mandated horn blowing for the Churchill Ave grade crossing, and (b) a barely-muffled 3000 horsepower diesel engine designed in the 1970s.
Build an underpass for Churchill and electrify the railroad, and presto, no more sound of the train running by PALY... just a discreet swish. And for billions cheaper than a tunnel!
> who should pay for an upgrade of the rail service (by tunnel, trench or what have you)
Since the tunnel or trench itself adds nothing to the rail system's ability to perform its transportation function, the state certainly shouldn't pay for it. Burying the tracks is solely a benefit to local residents.
Posted by I Read Somewhere, a member of the Palo Alto High School community, on Oct 1, 2008 at 11:07 am
Somewhere I read that FOUR, count 'em FOUR tracks are being contemplated for the peninsula: two for CalTrain and two for HSR. Criminy sakes alive, how many tracks do you need going up and down the peninsula? H***s bells, why not go all out and have SIX tracks -- two for Caltrain, two for HSR and two for freight?!?! And Bayshore will still be jam-packed! Name one other place in the U.S. which has FOUR parallel tracks for passenger service.
Somewhere else I read that after the trains are tunneled/trenched, the existing right-of-way will be turned into the world's most expensive bike path. Then I read that the right-of-way will be used for HSR. Then I read that they want to lease "air space" on the right of way for real estate development. So which is it, bike path, HSR or development? I also read somewhere that they want to tear down the Palo Alto depot and develop there. So where is this envisioned influx of HSR passengers supposed to debark, where will they park their cars and how will they make arrangements for other means of transportation once they have detrained?
WRT the Paly High noise problem, electrification alone will take care of that. I don't see why you need an underpass at Churchill for noise abatement. Besides, the noise problem is of PAUSD's own devisement. They knew full well what they were getting into when they built those buildings so close to the tracks back in the late '60s.
Posted by Clem, a resident of another community, on Oct 1, 2008 at 12:00 pm
> Name one other place in the U.S. which has FOUR parallel tracks for passenger service.
There are several.
Let's start locally. You might not have guessed: Caltrain. There are sections with four parallel tracks in Sunnyvale, Redwood City and Brisbane to enable Baby Bullets to overtake local services. Without them Baby Bullet express service would not be possible.
The four-track example that most readily comes to mind is Amtrak's Northeast Corridor between New York City and Philadelphia, which sees much the same mix of traffic envisioned for the peninsula: commuter rail with frequent stops, and long distance intercity trains (Acela Express) cruising at 135 mph. Due to their different speeds, these trains need to overtake each other; you simply can't mix them together on the same track.
Track is cheap. Right of way is expensive, but thankfully already owned by Caltrain (including the bike path behind PALY). Earth works and concrete (of which tunneling is an extreme example) are very expensive.
> I don't see why you need an underpass at Churchill for noise abatement.
Horn blowing, and on rare occasions, the crunch of sheet metal followed by emergency sirens.
Posted by I Read Somewhere, a member of the Palo Alto High School community, on Oct 1, 2008 at 2:29 pm
<< Caltrain. There are sections with four parallel tracks in Sunnyvale, Redwood City and Brisbane to enable Baby Bullets to overtake local services. Without them Baby Bullet express service would not be possible. >>
Add two tracks for HSR to the four existing and my remark about six tracks is no joke.
<< Earth works and concrete (of which tunneling is an extreme example) are very expensive. >>
And we haven't even broached the issue of the water table. The underpass at Oregon/Page Mill has to be pumped 24 hours per day.
It is my understanding that there are to be no grade crossings for HSR, so if it were built it would have to go either over or under Alma, Churchill, Meadow and Charleston. In that case the idea of underpasses for those roads sounds sensible, but HSR in its current form is so badly conceived that it may never happen.
Posted by anonymous, a resident of the Downtown North neighborhood, on Oct 1, 2008 at 5:00 pm
Hmmm...anyone here ever hear of the "big dig" in Boston?? Not sure that that was such a great success and it was a great expense. I seem to recall that is already having issues with parts of it falling down.
Posted by Andrew Mackenzie, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Oct 3, 2008 at 8:13 am
OK, consider for a moment that we did have the funds to "bury" the train tracks. Do you know that the underpass at Oregon Expwy and the train track is below the water table and as such requires constant pumping to keep it dry? And that constant pumping has sucked contaminants from HP and other companies that have polluted to the site. Not to mention El nino years - remember '98 when the Oregon underpass flooded?
WAY too many what-if's here w/ potentially really bad answers.
Posted by JustMe, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Oct 6, 2008 at 11:21 am
Of course “They’re insane.”, all of Palo Alto is insane. That's what makes it such a great place to live. This place is fueled with insane people coming up with wild, hair-brained ideas that sometimes actually work. It would be wrong to dismiss this idea out-of-hand without giving it some consideration.
Posted by Hal Plotkin, a resident of the Midtown neighborhood, on Oct 16, 2008 at 4:48 pm
Thanks for remembering the late, wonderful community leader Joe Carelton. Joe was an exceptional leader and mentor.
Ditto with Martin Gorfinkel, who remains a very active and positive force for good in our local community affairs.
Jay, I wonder if you remember the way Joe led the fight to create a paramedic service here in Palo Alto?
He was a brilliant tactician. Gentle, smart and effective. He was having trouble getting the city staff to focus on the issue so he came up with the idea of getting our Palo Alto Youth Commission, which I chaired as a junior in high school, involved. Joe also brought us together with Palo Alto firefighter Tony Spitaleri (now the mayor of Sunnyvale), who brought experts from other communities to the Youth Commission to talk about how we could improve our city's emergency services. Joe helped us hold hearings, take testimony and watched over us from the back of the council chambers as we made our report to the City Council. He made it look like it was our idea.
When the Council finally approved the paramedic program Joe wrote me and our other Youth Commissioners a nice letter giving us credit for the accomplishment and encouraging us to stay involved in public affairs.
It was so good to see his name in your column today.