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.