Editorial: Tunneling the tracks worth exploring | September 26, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 26, 2008

Editorial: Tunneling the tracks worth exploring

Seemingly bizarre concept may be an impossible dream, but the alternatives of surface or elevated tracks may be nightmarish

Four Palo Alto community leaders have in today's Weekly taken a big risk by proposing that the Caltrain tracks through Palo Alto — and possibly neighboring cities — be placed in a tunnel deep underground.

The present tracks and four main crossings would be opened up to become a mix of open areas, bicycle paths, park spaces and some housing developments. Sale of the housing units, most likely condominiums, at Palo Alto prices might even offset most or all of the cost differential of tunneling, they believe, or hope.

The local "Big Four" visionaries are City Councilman John Barton, former Councilman and Mayor Bern Beecham, longtime Palo Alto architect Tony Carrasco and Steve Emslie, interim deputy city manager and director of planning for Palo Alto.

They have no guesstimate of the overall cost of creating two parallel tunnels with two tracks in each direction, perhaps 50 to 60 feet underground, for the 4.5-mile stretch in Palo Alto. But they believe the added cost for tunneling could be $500 million or more. If other cities join in the tunnel project, costs per mile would drop.

They acknowledge major problems, one of which is what to do with the diesel-powered freight trains that run mostly at night up the Peninsula, operated by Union Pacific, which isn't crazy about the tunneling idea.

We also see an explosive impact on the local community debate over the impacts of adding more housing in the corridor. Depending on scale and design, there could be serious concerns about creating a visual barrier to residents east of the Alma Street/Caltrain corridor.

But for big-picture thinking, this proposal is about as colossal a long-term vision as has been floated for awhile, and we expect the process of discussing it will be more like a roller-coaster ride than a Caltrain commute.

Yet the visionaries warn that there may be a narrow window of just several years before decisions start getting made that could preclude the tunneling — or alternative trenching to build and later cover-over the tracks — from being even a possibility.

Funding also is questionable, with both the state budget and national economy in chaos. But this is a long-term vision — perhaps times and priorities will change.

Yet the tunneling idea seems more realistic in terms of local acceptance when one considers the alternatives, as outlined in detail in the Weekly's cover story today.

First, Caltrain is already implementing "Baby Bullet" trains to speed commuters up and down the Peninsula, and has experienced a ridership surge related to the faster commute. It plans to add more trains, perhaps doubling today's commuter-train frequency.

That in itself will further disrupt the existing track crossings at Meadow Drive, Charleston Road, Churchill Avenue and Alma Street, with more train horns and noise affecting residents.

Second, the state has designated the Peninsula as the preferred route for its planned high-speed-rail (HSR) system that would whisk commuters from Los Angeles to San Francisco initially.

Palo Alto and Redwood City are alternative sites for a single Peninsula stop.

HSR trains would speed up to 220 miles per hour between stations, but would go more slowly, perhaps 100 miles per hour, up the Peninsula if the tracks remain on the surface, with grade separations replacing surface crossings.

Another alternative, elevating the tracks, would also be expensive and would impact local residents both visually and with noise, while not creating open areas or removing the longtime community barrier of the tracks.

There is opposition to HSR, including both Menlo Park and Atherton, which are considering lawsuits. The HSR plan is before voters statewide Nov. 4 as Proposition 1a, along with the Santa Clara County Measure B, a 1/8-cent sales tax increase that would help fund BART operations if and when BART is extended into San Jose and Santa Clara.

Both these and other proposals are primarily for the next generation, just as our generation has inherited projects dreamed up many decades or even a century ago. We have a long way to go to see what becomes real, or possible, and to debate the desirability of different alternatives and visions. The tunneling idea adds one more vision to the mix.


Posted by Marvin Lee, a resident of Community Center
on Sep 26, 2008 at 11:59 am

The proposal to underground the railroad has been lying dormant for many years and now is an excellent time to bring it to the fore. Cost in lives lost at crossings and allowing valuable land to be used for surface high speed transportation are sufficient reasons to explore the alternatives of under grounding and the benefits that would come with using that surface land for alternative purposes. /Marvin and Alison Lee

Posted by Andreas Ramos, a resident of Ventura
on Sep 26, 2008 at 12:08 pm

My house is along the tracks. It'd be great to have the trains underground. The open space could become a glorious 4-mile park through Palo Alto, with bicycle commuter lanes, footpaths, and so on.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 26, 2008 at 12:23 pm

While I would opt for street overpasses and walling off the right of way, we have the recent examples of the Alameda Corridor out of Long Beach Harbor and the Reno trench.
Electrification is a given for any railroad as long as it is overhead 25KV and not a silly low voltage 3rd rail like the poorly engineered BART. Whatever is done the rails must still be open to freight service.

Posted by Good Idea, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 26, 2008 at 1:35 pm

If they can put the bullet train from London to Paris under the English Channel, they can put the bullet train under the Bay from San Jose to San Francisco.

I wonder if the Saudi Arabian government will loan us the money like they loaned the French and British the money to build the Channel tunnel!!!

Posted by John Wilson, a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 26, 2008 at 7:27 pm

It is very encouraging to see Palo Altoans begin to appreciate the situation that will arrive with more and faster conventional trains. It's high time that all possibilities were carefully examined. Tunneling has a whole host of issues, which should be carefully studied. The greatest is cost, as proponents will quickly discover. There are others.

Another possibility that deserves examination is that perhaps the California High Speed Rail Authority is showing its age by refusing to consider magnetic levitation technology for their system. I have recently heard Mr. Diridon mischaracterize maglev at the Menlo City Council Study Session. He dismissed it out of hand, incorrectly in my opinion, thereby showing that he and his cohort are completely out of touch with the modern world.

His argument in support of HSR is the argument from authority: It begins with his resume, moving on to the assertion that money has been lavished on the best engineers and consultants in the world, and concluding that these experts know best. Experts can be questioned when they have produced the result they were hired to produce without fair examination of genuine alternatives.

Maglev offers tremendous potential for eliminating the environmental burden that will come with more, and higher speed, trains. It is safe, high performance, green and fully demonstrated in revenue service. It does not require berms or tunnels. The American public is completely ignorant of this technology, but it is in everyday use in China and Japan. Its operating and maintenance costs are substantially lower than HSR costs. O&M costs far exceed the first capital cost over the life of any system.

Posted by Never Happen, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 26, 2008 at 8:39 pm

The Weekly's article on tunneling or trenching is funny, strange and maybe could happen in 100 years.

All ideas are ok to consider: Flying cars have been talked about for a long time, A ladder to the moon has been talked about, setting up cities on Mars has been talked about. Not going to happen soon.

The 16+ miles of BART to S.J. is proposed to cost 6+billion $$. And much of it isn't underground.
Isn't this about 400,000,000 $$ per mile? The article said it is about 5 miles from Mt.View to Menlo Park. This would calculate out to at least $2,000,000,000? (Two billion dollars just for Palo Alto.)
Isn't it about 40 miles from San Jose to San Francisco?? this would come to about 16,000,000,000 dollars just for this line.

The most obvious reason to go underground is the 100's of millions of dollars the local developers could make from this free to them new land.
I'm sure the people in Redding, Red Bluff, Chico, Sacramento, Fresno, Bakersfield, etc,etc will be happy to help Palo Alto and other cities in this area. We need your money, help us!!!

We don't seem to be able to get the Chaucer St. bridge removed to keep large areas of Palo Alto from being flooded as happened in 1998, only 10 years ago. Or another project talked about for over 30 yeas: Putting in a underpass at Page Mill and El Camino. Or putting in underground power lines, promised about 40 years ago when fees were collected to do this. AMAZING!!!

I wrote the above in response to a later posted article (above),but will add some comments as this above writing remains in the "Add a Comment" space after sending it earlier.

I followed the local light rail construction and Mr Diridon was in charge of it. Even though it ran hundreds of millions of dollars over budget and it was long outdated before being built and it runs very slow and many auto-train crashes occurr all the time, He got this high position to run or help the obselete HSR project.
He was promoted, in my opinion, to get him out of the county and get rid of him for local projects. He has said that when he was a kid that trains were his hobby and the system was designed on this basis.(my recollection of the history). It is considered one of the slowest and worst system in the whole country. Portland and San Diego have highly rated systems for local transit I have read.

I suspect all we will get for HSR if it is built is a Amtrack train running 200 mph.
If Palo Alto got a "station" it would have to build a garage like at the big local airports. Where would that be built? Downtown, The El Camino Park? In N.Palo Alto residental area where there are mostly 60 yr old, obselete houses that don't meet any of the new codes for "Green",earthquake resistance, etc.??

Besides MAG-Lev the trains should be able to drop off cars and pick up cars (cars=sections of the train) without slowing down along the way. High tech, new technology, new designs that probably don't exist now.
Has how to deal with maybe 30,000,000 people getting off and on the trains each year just for the local section of the train. Over 100,000,000 are projected to use the train each year in the future.
How many trains each day will handle these numbers?? Go figure.

Posted by registered user, Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2008 at 7:01 am

Any mass transit scheme needs feeders, most appropriately private jitneys. I loved those Desotos running on Mission in Frisco.

Posted by Local corruption, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 27, 2008 at 4:41 pm

Never Happen said: The most obvious reason to go underground is the 100's of millions of dollars the local developers could make from this free to them new land.

John Barton has parlayed his council membership into Big Bucks again and again. He supports bigger and more development without limit. He wants more housing, bigger office buildings and bigger bucks and influence for himself.
Even his wife is a developer, she administers the big development Campus for Jewish Life. As I recall when this huge project came before the city council Barton did not want to recuse himself, he said he didn't have a conflict of interest.
Not all corruption comes from Washington, we have our own.

Posted by Not a smart idea, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 28, 2008 at 3:39 am

If they go ahead with this idea will the tunnel's construction turn into the fiasco of the "big dig" in Boston - glad I don't live near the train tracks!!

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 28, 2008 at 5:20 am

1. Cut-off walls 10' above and 20' below grade, plus temporary auto overpasses at existing crossings.
2. Progressively excavate in 5' steps until 15' below grade, using a moving 150' transition structure to maintain traffic.
3. Provide prefab crossover structures where desired.
4. Establish permanent rails 25' below top of walls.
5. Electrify.
6. Cover and build in air rights as desired.
7. Celebrate Tricentennial.

Posted by Dave Simpson, a resident of another community
on May 26, 2017 at 9:54 pm

Tunneling is complete nonsense, even if the water table permitted it and lowering the railroad into a tunnel through Palo Alto didn't result in an unacceptably high gradient on the railroad at either end. It's a non-starter and not the least serious and shouldn't be wasting adults' time. Besides, where's Palo Alto's promise to pay in full without hesitation or the slightest delay, without one syllable of complaint or even argument, for this endeavor rather than something real and serious?

Trenching, partial or fully, is possible, but again only if the water table permits it and there is no excess gradient of the railroad if this were done (and Palo Alto paid for much or all of it, if a better way existed instead, which is the case). Note trenching must be deep enough to include overhead electrical apparatus for future electrification. Trenching may only be able to be partial.

The best solution keeps the railroad as flat as possible along its entire length through Palo Alto and the other cities with grade crossings to be separated or closed. A "hybrid" crossing with a partially elevated railroad on a low embankment and roads or trails crossing below the railroad as underpasses is already done in San Carlos and is a model for the rest of the Peninsula where applicable due to height or gradient levels.

A higher embankment or berm is acceptable, as is a fully elevated or aerial structure like Bart's East Bay viaduct, but larger, like Prague's New Connection. A wide enough aerial structure (viaduct or continuous bridge) can hold four tracks, which should be present along the Peninsula, and permit many more at-grade crossings of the railroad right-of-way (under the railroad that is on the viaduct).

Sound barriers are interesting. For a slightly raised or fully raised railroad, and for trenching when not covered by something more substantial, has thought been given to something that covers the entire railway, or each track, in the shape of tunnel clearance or a ("sound") roof supported by sound walls? (This could also be done to the railroad at-grade now, but many things are more important, obviously, and grade separations are paramount.)

Note that Palo Alto has had decades, repeat, decades, to work on grade separation, and shouldn't continue to hold up progress now, or make nonsensical NIMBY demands.

Posted by Dave Simpson, a resident of another community
on May 26, 2017 at 10:04 pm

Even if trenching were done to full depth, and covered in much or all of its length, then the fighting would start between those wanting a linear park kind of land use (without ever stating what quality bike trail would be there, would it go under each road or path crossing it at-grade, etc., or tackling other details), and those who want high-rises or other development, typically the addition of badly-needed new housing. (Anticipate NIMBY-led height or floor limits, setbacks, etc.)

I will also add that the big-name tech companies reflect the post-Boomer developmental problems of their owners in that they have done nothing of note, much less offered to help pay, for long-overdue grade separations at crossings of the railroad, nor for any larger revision of the right-of-way, including trenching. They don't seem to be at the forefront or for that matter, anywhere when it comes to adding much-needed new housing to Palo Alto and other related cities, which could easily feature both mid-rise and high-rise new housing that's long overdue. (There are three corridors where mid-rise and high-rise housing would be promptly suitable, El Camino Real, the rail right-of-way, and by U.S. 101, as well as toward the Bay, which would include any development straddling any trenching of Caltrain.) Sadly, the people and companies for which Palo Alto and related cities now are known are too self-centered or self-absorbed to be very knowledgeable or involved.

Posted by Leslie, a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2017 at 12:41 am

I have posted dozens and dozens of times in this space about the myriad technical, political and economic challenges associated with upgrading the Caltrain ROW. Anyone who follows the discussions here — and there have been many of them — has a surface familiarity with the issues.

When you "explore" the matter it quickly becomes abundantly clear that such a grandiose vision as complete tunneling through town would be hideously expensive, running well into the tens, even hundreds of billions of dollars. All you would have to do is convince Palo Alto voters to approve massive sales- and property-tax increases to pay for it.

Palo Alto already has three fully grade-separated crossings, one of which has major water-table issues. This plan for full underground tunneling leverages none of that.

One major obstacle is crossing San Francisquito creek, where the train crosses a city limit and a county line. You would have to get the city of Menlo Park and San Mateo county to receive the north end of this tunnel as it would presumably be in their jurisdiction.

Development on top of a tunnel is technically possible. There are sure to be cries of building a "Berlin wall" of 10-story buildings across town, but the overarching consideration is that the city of Palo Alto does not own that land or the air space above it. That is owned by JPB (Caltrain). It is not possible for the city of Palo Alto to sell that land, the air space above it, or to start developing along a vacated ROW without first dealing with the JPB which owns it.

Clearly these four "community leaders", the authors of this vision, are woefully uninformed on the attendant issues. Their plan crosses the line from naive to ignorant — ignorant of the many, many technical, political and economic challenges their vision faces.

The headline says, "Tunneling the tracks worth 'exploring'". Explore it all you want. Spend the next 5, 10 or 20 years "exploring" it. Upgrading the Caltrain ROW is so far behind the curve that another 5 - 20 years won't matter.

Whatever happened to the "vision" for the Caltrain corridor written in 2012, or the report from engineering firm Hatch, Mott, MacDonald of 2014? Have they evaporated? The idea of putting the trains in a trench through Palo Alto has been around since the 1960's. One reason Palo Alto is no closer to grade separation in 2017 than it was 50 years ago is that the project keeps being reinvented, starting over from square one every time. Go ahead and take another 5 - 20 years to explore this vision; we might have flying cars or flying trains or a ladder to the moon by then. Meanwhile, as noted above, San Carlos has had grade separation for over 10 years now with a very nice hybrid separation, and is finished with the matter of grade separation once and for all.

See you in 20 years.

Posted by Juan, a resident of Mountain View
on May 27, 2017 at 10:31 am

Tunneling / trenching was a realistic solution in 2008 and it remains a realistic solution today. The only unrealistic solution I have seen proposed is grade seperation / overpass / underpass, because it involves seizing dozens to hundreds of properties through eminent domain. There is no moral justification (or political will, for that matter) for seizing the homes of long-time residents by force so that you can save two minutes crossing the train tracks. I see the pejorative "NIMBY" was used to label anyone in favor of tunneling / trenching -- well if the other side gets their way, dozens to hundreds of families living in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale will no longer have a back yard, a front yard, side yard, or even a roof over their head for that matter. So leave your personal attacks at the door if you wish to have a realistic discussion, it's not helping your side.

"Tunneling / trenching is too expensive" is not a valid argument -- it's a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of HSR. "It's impossible to build" is not a valid argument -- BART is underground through most of San Francisco (and even under the Bay!), somehow they managed it. "It will take too long" is not a valid argument -- there is no rush, our cities will not spontaneously combust because Caltrain decides to run a few more trains per day.

The absolute worst thing that can come of this is a rush to implement a bad solution like grade separation / underpass / overpass. Keep in mind that the city of Berlin was not better off the day the Berlin Wall was finished -- it would have been far better off had the wall never been built.

Posted by boondoggle, a resident of Downtown North
on May 27, 2017 at 10:31 am

Wasn't tunneling the tracks explored 15 years ago when money was available to create grade separations by elevating the tracks? The city decided to pass on the grade separations (which would have been finished years ago) and spend their time exploring tunneling. 15 years later, the tunneling project flopped and the grade separation money is gone and traffic is worse than ever and getting even worser. The next time money is available, we need to proceed quickly with a project that is realistic in the short term. These 10 year studies that lead to nothing are a huge boondoggle.

Posted by Leslie, a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2017 at 11:56 am

There is no plan which calls for taking "hundreds" of homes in Palo Alto. There are two trenching proposals which involve taking NO homes if one would bother to read the engineering study. The 2% trench plan makes use of the three existing grade separations already in Palo Alto.

"Cost is irrelevant" and "drop in the bucket compared to HSR" are straw-man arguments. HSR has a $10 billion statewide bond measure behind it. To date, no private capital has purchased any of those bonds (they know a bad deal when they see one). At the same time, the projected cost of HSR has ballooned way beyond $10 billion and will be 2 - 3 times higher than the currently-projected $68 billion when the inevitable "cost overruns" are taken into account (c.f. Bay Bridge).

These projects don't happen for free or with the wave of a magic wand. They have to be paid for somehow, usually through bond sales or increased taxes. How much additional sales or property tax are people willing to pay to put the trains in a tunnel?

As noted previously, Palo Alto has spent a great deal of time stalling on this project. Years and years go by when nothing takes place to advance the project -- no planning, no studying -- nothing.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on May 27, 2017 at 3:16 pm

"Palo Alto has spent a great deal of time stalling on this project. Years and years go by when nothing takes place to advance the project -- no planning, no studying -- nothing."

Because: "These projects don't happen for free or with the wave of a magic wand. They have to be paid for somehow, usually through bond sales or increased taxes. How much additional sales or property tax are people willing to pay to put the trains in a tunnel?"

Or on mile-long pedestals?

At some point, more will be invested in this system than it is worth to the investors (us). Maybe that should be in the past tense.