City of Palo Alto opts not to sue Caltrain

City looks to work with rail agency to address concerns about electrification project

Palo Alto has a few qualms about Caltrain's plan to electrify the rail corridor, but after a closed-door meeting early Tuesday morning, the City Council decided that the best way to address the city's concerns would be through collaboration rather than litigation.

The council agreed not to move forward with a lawsuit challenging Caltrain's recently approved Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the long-planned electrification of the Caltrain corridor. The $1.5 billion project will allow Caltrain to increase its service, though the additional trains would also worsen congestion at Alma Street intersections with Churchill Avenue, Charleston Road and Meadow Drive.

Caltrain's environmental analysis does not propose any ways to mitigate these problems, which it calls "significant and unavoidable." Caltrain also did not accede to the city's request that the agency set aside funds for design and engineering of grade separations (over- or under-passes) along the rail corridor. However, at a Jan. 12 meeting in Palo Alto, Catrain staff assured the council that the agency is willing to work with the city to address its concerns.

Marian Lee, executive officer for Caltrain's modernization, told the council that she believes the Caltrain board and the city can establish "an effective relationship" on the issue of grade separation, possibly through an memorandum of understanding. Caltrain has a record of such partnerships, she said, including ones with Burlingame and San Mateo.

"It's a true partnership in trying to figure out how to build a sufficient public plan to make it happen," Lee said.

Though council members did not find Caltrain's response entirely satisfactory Tuesday, they agreed this week that a lawsuit would be the wrong way to go at this time. According to City Attorney Molly Stump, the council's decision was based on Caltrain's "stated commitment to work on resolving the issues that Palo Alto has identified as areas of concern."

Adina Levin, representing the group Friends of Caltrain, urged the council before the closed session not to move ahead with litigation, noting that a lawsuit could harm the city's potential bid to build a trench for the train tracks. The most effective way to reach this goal, she said, is to forge partnerships with Caltrain and with other cities along the corridor to raise the necessary money.

After Levin's comment, the council voted 8-1, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss dissenting, to go into closed session to discuss potential litigation. Kniss told the Weekly she voted against going into the closed session because it would send the wrong message. Ultimately, the decision proved moot as the council decided not to move ahead with litigation.

The city did get one positive assurance of cooperation from Caltrain. For months, Palo Alto officials had maintained that one of the locations that Caltrain was considering for a new paralleling station, which boosts power along the rail corridor, is inappropriate and should not be included in further analysis for the project. In a Jan. 15 letter, the city insisted that Caltrain exclude the option that would place a station near Greenmeadow Way. This is both because of the Greenmeadow neighborhood's "historical" status and because the vegetative screening that Caltrain proposed was "clearly inadequate."

On Jan. 22, Caltrain issued a response noting that the agency's technical team had completed its analysis and that it plans to move ahead with a different site, near a commercial parcel on Page Mill Road. This option was the city's preferred option in the Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

The letter from Stacy Cocke, Caltrain's senior planner, notes that the agency appreciates the city's partnership.

"Outside of the EIR process, we look forward to continuing to work with City of Palo Alto staff on their areas of interest, including grade separation, suicide prevention and service planning," Cocke wrote.

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11 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 27, 2015 at 4:51 pm

San Mateo County is using sales tax money to build Caltrain grade separations. Why can't Palo Alto and Santa Clara County do this? Lawsuits are not the answer; but doing nothing is not the answer either.

Like this comment
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2015 at 6:14 pm

For those that are not familiar with specific terminology regarding electrification it might of been helpful if the person writing this article clarified what a 'Paralleling Station' is since it's not inconceivable that quite a few people could of mistakenly thought it was a reference to an actual train station and not something more like an electrical sub-station.

7 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2015 at 6:57 pm

Common sense prevails! Let's get this project rolling, and done before schedule. I propose:

1) Shut down service over the weekends, for construction.

2) Financial incentive for early completion.


1 person likes this
Posted by Ed
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2015 at 7:10 pm

If the tracks were below grade in a trench or in a tunnel, we would not be having this discussion, and most likely no one would care.

4 people like this
Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 27, 2015 at 8:32 pm

@Ed, if Caltrain were put in a trench we would be having a much more difficult discussion about the disruption of all the creeks that the trench would cross.

2 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2015 at 8:47 pm


If the only options Palo Alto would accept would be to put the tracks below grade or in a tunnel we wouldn't be having this discussion because the electrification project would of already been DEAD.

I strongly suspect that was the main objective of Palo Alto's "tunnel it or nothing" crowd to begin with. Demand the gold plated option because "we are special and this is Palo Alto" while less affluent communities are forced to accept only what economics and operational/engineering requirements justify.

Quite a few years back Palo Alto would of had a much more justifiable position if they agreed to tax themselves for the additional expense of tunneling the Caltrain ROW just like Berkeley did with BART in the 60's. Instead they demanded to receive a disproportionately expensive ROW and it's no wonder Caltrain and CHSRA could not support the idea. If a tunnel would of been the best option based on economic, operational or engineering requirements alone then it would of been a different issue.

1 person likes this
Posted by downtownNorth
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2015 at 9:10 pm

To steal, and add to, a comment from a recent related article - it makes sense to consider the most expedient and cost effective model for a comprehensive grade separation project, which could look like this:

1. Block off the Churchill/Alma crossing and build a bike bridge over Alma. Traffic can use the Embarcadero underpass (which is only ~1000 feet away).

2. Block off the Palo Alto Avenue/Alma crossing and build a bike bridge crossing the tracks. Traffic can use the University Avenue underpass (which is only ~1000 feet away).

3. Block off the Meadow/Alma crossing and build a bike bridge over Alma. Traffic can use the Charleston crossing (below) which is only ~1000 feet away.

4. Block off the Charleston/Alma crossing and build an underpass under Alma. This would be the bulk of the cost, since there isn't much room at Charleston and an underpass would require lowering the adjoining streets.

3 people like this
Posted by Martin
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2015 at 10:43 pm


Nice work, that makes a lot of sense. Much of the Chruchill traffic, is heading to Palo Alto High School ... perfect for bikes. Progressive thinking!

As I mentioned before, let's get this project done, and ahead of schedule.

This summer I head to Germany, and let my 4 year old son ride the ICE trains. I wish I could do the same now, right outside my door.


Like this comment
Posted by chris
a resident of University South
on Jan 27, 2015 at 11:25 pm

Will the people proposing the lawsuit identify themselves or do we have to guess?

2 people like this
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2015 at 6:23 pm

If you think blocking off Churchill, Meadow and Charleston is a viable idea, why do anything at all to those crossings? Just leave them be. The gates will come down when a train passes through and traffic cedes the right of way over the tracks. Traffic would pass normally when there is no train crossing the intersection. You could still build a bike bridge or pedestrian underpass at these crossings.

The notion to block off those crossings is predicated on the notion that they are not heavily traveled arteries.

2 people like this
Posted by Greg C.
a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2015 at 6:26 pm

Grade separation is a big issue almost along the length of the Caltrain route. Not only does the lack of it detain cross traffic, the frequency of of collisions by Caltrain with vehicles on the track results in common delays along the line, affecting innumerable commuters. Essentially, this is a legacy commuter rail system that hasn't been adequately upgraded, given its current and increasing volume of passengers.

As someone who's commuted on both Caltrain and the LIRR, I'm astonished at the number of at-grade Caltrain crossings. Clearly, this needs to be fixed; yet I realize that building either trenches or overpasses is not the cheapest thing in the world.

Still, if this becomes a political focus, the money should be possible to find; both local governments and the state of California are committed to supporting transit options, and while federal money for transit is not likely to be generous, given our current congressional make-up, Caltrain sounds like a high-priority potential recipient.

2 people like this
Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2015 at 6:50 pm

The devil is in the details when it comes to trenching the trains north of Meadow drive due to issues involving creeks, existing stations, the water table, existing underpasses, etc. It would be so prohibitively expensive and disruptive to existing infrastructure as to be considered infeasible.

The San Carlos "berm" solution is definitely worth looking into. If San Carlos could get it together to solve this exact same problem, why can't Palo Alto?

3 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 7:22 pm

Local rail is an obsolete, one-dimensional, transportation system. Caltrain only serves 0.006% of the peninsula's population, and within a decade or two a networked system of self-driving cars will put Caltrain out of business.

The railroad companies know local passenger rail is dead. They are pushing these upgrades now before the public figures out what is going on, and they can still sucker the public into paying billions to upgrade their freight infrastructure.

There is no money in local passenger rail... never will be. All of the money is in freight. The whole passenger rail system is just a PR campaign.

Better not to throw good money, after bad. Keep the tracks at grade. It is a lot cheaper, and it will be easier to demolish when Caltrain goes under.

Like this comment
Posted by ODB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2015 at 7:53 pm

The train tracks in Palo Alto will not be demolished. Union Pacific uses them for freight and U.P. is not about to give that up.

Thousands more cars on the road are still thousands more cars on the road whether they drive themselves or not.

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2015 at 9:27 pm


The tracks will not be demolished. As long as freight is still more profitable than developing the real-estate under the tracks, Union Pacific will keep running their dirty diesel freight locomotives up and down the peninsula.

When the self-driving car puts Caltrain out of business, the passenger related infrastructure that has fallen into disuse will need to be demolished and redeveloped, or the surrounding area will become blighted.

The networked self-driving car will bring about efficiencies, that will make it easy for the automotive infrastructure to absorb the 0.006% of people on the peninsula, that use Caltrain.

Like this comment
Posted by Todd
a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2015 at 10:09 pm


You're marking your vote down for no grade seperations. I have a feeling most people would disagree when it comes to having crossing gates down 12-16 times an hour.

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2015 at 12:55 am


The networked self-driving car is going to put Caltrain out of business before any grade separation can be completed, so the only gate closures will be due to the usual evening and nighttime freight trains.

Palo Alto already has grade separation at the San Francisquito Creek, University, Embarcadero, Oregon, Matadero Creek, Baron/Adobe Creek, and San Antonio... where else do you want grade separation, how much is it going to cost, and who is going to pay for it?

Creek & Watershed Map of Palo Alto & Vicinity: Web Link

7 people like this
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2015 at 3:48 am


Are you trying to tell us that nearly 200 years after England introduced us to the world's first grade separated railways here in Silicon Valley (the so-called "Capital of Innovation") we are so clueless as to how to deal with grade separation that our only possible salvation could be the "self-driving car"?

Here's a nice little fun fact: guess why most of the world's first locomotives in the UK were designed without headlights? Answer: because there was no need for them. They were designed to operate on fully grade separated systems where no person or thing could possibly get in their way. Remember that was standard practice throughout the postcard perfect countryside, towns and cities of "quaint old England" circa the early 1800's. They had clever architects and engineers back then just as we do now capable of designing attractive grade separated systems.

Grade separation is not a challenge we can't deal with in a skillful manner. I think your continual reference to "self-driving cars" is just a red herring. Sure the day will come when we have a safe and reliable system of self-driving cars but hopefully by that time we will be smart enough to realize the mistakes we previously made in basing our entire society around the car (and try not to repeat the more negative aspects).

Anyways I wouldn't hold your breath that self-driving cars are going to be able to SOLVE ALL OUR PROBLEMS anytime soon as you seem to be expecting. Sorry, but I think you are going to have to be a bit more patient and then you can fulfill your UTOPIAN Disneyland fantasy of perfect societies organized around the self driving car. In the meantime I think we can figure out a means to grade separate the Charleston and East Meadow crossings and go on to deal with other important issues.

Also, in case you weren't aware: the amount of freight traffic on the Caltrain line is inconsequential. It is continually diminishing and before long will probably disappear. Basically the only freight traffic it receives is between the Kaiser Quarry above Cupertino and the Port of Redwood City. That could always be replaced with more trucks on the 101. Caltrain owns the tracks and lets the Union Pacific use them at it's own discretion. Also, you might like to know that Oakland and the East Bay replaced San Francisco long ago as the primary industrial center in the Bay Area so very little demand for for freight on the peninsula. That is unless a major new container ship port is built in San Francisco and we know that will never happen.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 29, 2015 at 7:19 am

So we can stop arguing over who owns the tracks...from Wikipedia:

The Caltrain right of way between San Francisco and Tamien stations is owned and maintained by its operating agency, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB). PCJPB purchased the right of way from Southern Pacific (SP) in 1991, while SP maintained rights to inter-city passenger and freight trains. In exchange SP granted PCJPB rights to operate up to 6 trains per day between Tamien and Gilroy stations, later increased to 10 trains per day on a deal with SP's successor Union Pacific (UP) in 2005.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 29, 2015 at 8:39 am

@CPD -- maybe the tracks, but who owns the land?

Definition of "right of way":

the legal right, established by usage or grant, to pass along a specific route through grounds or property belonging to another.
the legal right of a pedestrian, vehicle, or ship to proceed with precedence over others in a particular situation or place.
the right to build and operate a railroad line, road, or utility on land belonging to another.

1 person likes this
Posted by Thomas Paine IV
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 29, 2015 at 9:17 am

I support the right of those who work on the Peninsula to live in really cool places like SF. I am happy to subsidize their commuting patterns because we all know the best bars are in SF and not in Mountain View. So what if the planned increase in the Cal Train schedule virutally freezes traffic on El Camino from Mountain View to Redwood City during morning and evening commutes.

1 person likes this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 29, 2015 at 9:37 am

SteveU is a registered user.

There are lots of other things underneath using that right of way.

Palo Alto is Against grade separation? Says WHO? Typical Polls are tailored (skewed) to produce specific results (to wit, the Palo Alto Library upgrade was biased to How Big, not if or limited .

How about a real (Santa Clara) Ballot POLL next election:
1)Raise tracks on a berm (cost est $)
2)Fully Underground (Tunnel) (cost est $)
3)Trench (cost est $)
4)Close at Grade crossings
5)Leave as is

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 29, 2015 at 2:29 pm

I'm glad I check out this thread and saw Thomas Paine IV's post!
Some people know the score.
I am a bit divided, though, as we are so in the dark ages with our public transit in this region...

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2015 at 5:39 pm


The US really missed the boat on passenger rail, but it might be the best thing that ever happened to us.

The US will not be burdened by heavy investment in the Victorian era, one-dimensional, passenger rail system. This will make it a lot easier for us to jump ahead to a highly networked system of self-driving cars.

There is a good analogy in the telecommunications industry. Many developing countries were never able to build-out their whole land-line infrastructure... they just jumped directly to cell phones.

Like this comment
Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2015 at 6:33 pm


What makes you think we won't be burdened by a heavy investment in self driving cars? How are self driving cars supposed to pay for themselves when our regular roadway system can't cover it's costs?

Besides the technological challenges how about the liability issues that will inevitably happen with the adoption of a new technology that will likely be less than perfect when first introduced?

Who will be responsible and how will you feel as you helplessly watch your neighbor's child, cat or dog get killed beneath the wheels of your self driving car? Maybe the manufacturer would assume all responsibility but I imagine you might still feel a tinge of guilt as in "if only I wasn't messing around with my tablet maybe I could of hit the panic stop button in time".

How will the self driving car help me avoid congested airports and get from the Bay Area to LA in under 3 hours? That self driving car better have some very good tires and we better invest a hell of a lot of money inventing a new type of highway that can allow our self driving cars to safely operate at over 200 mph in the close formation traffic configuration that is supposed to give self driving cars all their capacity advantages.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 29, 2015 at 9:59 pm

@Ahem >> "Caltrain only serves 0.006% of the peninsula's population"

If you mean by ridership, please show calculation. I'm off by at least two orders of magnitude.

If we consider that Caltrain removes up to 25,000 cars daily from 101 and 280, shouldn't that also count as a service to users of those freeways?

Like this comment
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2015 at 11:09 pm


This was discussed in another Caltrain thread. Population of the Peninsula is about 4.5M. A very generous estimate of the number of people using Caltrain is about 30K.

The idea that all 30K of these CalTrain riders are being removed from 101 and 280 is a questionable assumption.

Many Caltrain riders are only traveling between nearby stations, some people that live in SF and work on the peninsula would find a job in SF, some would move to the Peninsula, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 30, 2015 at 3:19 am

Ok, I get it. 30K/4.5M = 0.006 = 0.6%. That 0.006% was just a typo.

I agree it would be a bad assumption that all riders would revert to cars on the freeways, which is why I fudged by saying "up to 25,000". Still I believe Caltrain serves more than just the actual riders, and as a non-commuter (found a career within walking distance) I'm selfishly happy to have it subsidized for my dozen or so trips per year into the City, though often for events that render the experience standing-room only (Fleet Week, Giants World Series Parade, New Year's Eve, etc.) Personally I can do without the electrification.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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