Palo Alto looks at trenches for Caltrain | November 1, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 1, 2013

Palo Alto looks at trenches for Caltrain

Proposed study would estimate costs for underpasses, trenches

by Gennady Sheyner

Commuting by train may be on the rise in job-rich Palo Alto, but when the City Council meets on Monday to discuss the local rail line, its focus will be on burying Caltrain, not to praising it.

Specifically, the council will consider commissioning a study to evaluate the cost of digging a trench for Caltrain between San Antonio Road and Matadero Creek. The study would also evaluate the costs of submerging the roadways at Churchill Avenue, Meadow Drive and Charleston Road as they cross the railroad tracks, while leaving the Alma Street intersection at grade.

The idea of separating roadways from the tracks has been lingering in the background for years but has become more prominent since 2009. The prospect of a high-speed rail system getting built between San Francisco and Los Angeles has prompted serious conversations about train alignments, with many local residents and council members urging an underground system for the new trains.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has been loathe to commit to such a system, though, citing high costs and engineering complications. The design currently on the table has high-speed rail and Caltrain sharing two tracks on the Peninsula.

Yet the prospects of underpasses and trenching continue to tickle the imaginations of Palo Alto officials and residents, many of whom remain concerned about the dangers of trains and cars both running at street level.

While most experts acknowledge that grade separations would be expensive and complicated, reliable cost estimates have been hard to come by. In 2011, the firm Hatch Mott McDonald estimated that the cost of building a 4-mile, two-track trench from one end of Palo Alto to another would cost in the ballpark of $500 million to $650 million. That study did not, however, consider such factors as shoe-fly tracks (those set up for temporary use) or temporary road construction and did not look at underpasses.

The new $127,550 study, which the council's Rail Committee had approved by a 3-1 vote on Aug. 22, with Councilman Larry Klein dissenting, would be more refined and based on a new set of assumptions. The 2011 study used data supplied by the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The new one will use "current and local construction cost information" based on information obtained about BART and other similar projects.

"The recent and local data is more relevant for Peninsula/South Bay purposes, compared to the CHSRA information which was primarily based on statewide averages," a report from the Office of City Manager's Office states.

At the Aug. 22 meeting, members of the Rail Committee emphasized the study would be a useful tool for educating the public about trenching alternatives and for enhancing the city's ability to lobby for grade separation. Councilwoman Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd both cited local anxieties about having trains and cars remain at street level. This could become a bigger issue in the coming years, as the Caltrain system becomes electrified and more trains are added.

The city's station at University Avenue is already the second-busiest in the system, behind San Francisco's.

Klein argued against the study, citing the earlier study and arguing that the city should not spend any money on a project that is so uncertain. He also argued that studying trenching in only the south end of the city would violate the city's guiding principle to treat all areas of the city the same (staff is recommending not studying trenching for the entire corridor because of the complexity of burying the tracks around the San Francisquito Creek, at the northern border).

"It just doesn't make any sense to go further," Klein said.

Councilman Pat Burt disagreed and joined Kniss and Shepherd in arguing that the study will provide much-needed information that would strengthen the city's ability to seek funds for grade separation.

"I think, like we've seen in other projects, there are possibilities long term for much greater funding that we might envision or see available at the present time," Burt said, citing possible funds to stem major impacts of train projects.

Shepherd said it would also be helpful to provide the community with more information about what it would take to create underpasses or to put the rail line in a trench.

"There still is angst and there is uncertainty in the community," Shepherd said. "I think this will allow us to get a little closer to certainty and feasibility."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


Posted by Money well spent., a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 1, 2013 at 11:29 am

South PA (which has NO grade separated crossings south Of Oregon Expressway) desperately needs a study to understand how we can solve growing arterial congestion problems caused by trains.

We need to understand this problem set better to inform our discussions with Caltrain. We can rely on Caltrain to avoid trenching because it is challenging and expensive, but trenching may be our best option to solve the problem with minimal impacts on the community as train traffic rises--and it WILL continue to rise. That is clear.

I see this as necessary due diligence for a critically important upcoming negotiation.

Posted by parent, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 1, 2013 at 11:59 am

In my opinion, all the existing grade separations in town (San Antonio Road, Oregon Expressway, Embarcadero Road, University Ave) are huge failures. All of these interchanges are much more dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists than regular at-grade crossings.

Grade separations are NOT a safety issue. Grade separations are entirely about speeding up car traffic. Please do not build any more grade separations unless the design can be proven to improve safety and convenience for PEDESTRIANS.

Grade separations without safe and easy pedestrian crossings will just cut our city in half. Remember that all the public high schools are west of the train tracks, so cutting off pedestrian access for east-side residents will be tremendously bad for our students.

Posted by Safety is Worth it, a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 1, 2013 at 12:05 pm

The grade crossings in South Palo Alto are very dangerous and cause increasing levels of traffic problems as the population in the area grows. Because North Palo Alto and South Palo Alto are different in ways that are relevant to this decision - the creek posing greater challenges to burying the tracks in the North, and the current population growth in South Palo Alto - it is wrong of Klein to stand in the way of this study. His simplistic interpretation of the policy of treating the North and South Palo Alto the same, means ignoring the practical realities of running a city well. Thank you Burt, Kniss and Shepherd for supporting a reasonable and realistic approach.

Posted by Cur Mudgeon, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 1, 2013 at 12:57 pm

It's the cross town traffic, plain and simple, especially during peak hours which are longer than ever, as ever more housing units are squeezed into south Palo Alto by the powers that be.

San Carlos has elevated the tracks. While one can still hear the noise of trains going by, it's made for safer undercrossings and more of them for pedestrian use. Leave it to our politicians to shoot for the most problematic solution.

Posted by Margaret Fruth, a resident of Ventura
on Nov 1, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Please join me in asking the City Council not to spend a penny on any more High Speed Rail studies until Judge Michael Kenny rules on whether to stop construction. Please table the possibly moot agenda item until then.


Posted by member, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 1, 2013 at 1:31 pm

This proposed study is based on a number of assumptions which will not come to pass. HSR will not come down the Central Expressway / Alma as it is the most heavily trafficked roadway at major commute times. Central Expressway and CALTran support the purpose of linking the cities from Gilroy to SF. The HSR is not suppose to stop at numerous locations - it is a high speed link LA to SF with a probable stop in central valley. HSR cannot assume eminent domain to establish the right of way - there is no money available for that. If it tries there will be many law suits. HSR will ride in an elevated line consistent with existing major highways - I-5, 101 or 580. That is lowest cost approach to HSR many problems.
The electrification of CALTran is also questionable - we need to be able to carry freight / product as well as people on the existing line. We can get modern engines which reduce pollution and noise. The technology is out there now.
Digging trenches will disrupt current daily traffic for the train.
I agree that the digging of an underpass(s) is the way to go - best idea. That solves the immediate concern and does not pre-empt future plans as better technology and money becomes available.

Posted by Scott McMahon, a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 1, 2013 at 3:04 pm

I don't understand why "Parent" says the grade separated crossings in town are dangerous. I use them all the time, and they seem to me to be adequate and safe. Not to be critical, but what more do we need?

University Ave has a Tunnel with a separate, elevated, shared bike/pedestrian lane on either side of the roadway.

Embarcadero has a nearly identical set up.

Oregon Expressway has a separate tunnel for bikes and pedestrians at California St.

San Antonio has a tunnel at the train station for bikes and pedestrians.

Posted by steve eittreim, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 1, 2013 at 4:19 pm

This discussion is needed because there is clearly a lot of misinformation out there. People don't seem to understand the idea of trenching the train tracks. The trench can be partly covered. The rail right of way which presently cuts Palo Alto in half could be "greened up" making parkland, pedestrian and bike crossings where none exists at present. Put the trains below ground and all sorts of possibilities open up for greenways, pedestrian and bike crossings; then of course there is the improvement in safety at al crossings. Probably there are engineering challenges that I am ignoring. Getting under San Francisco Creek and the other smaller creeks is one. If trenching is, done surely it would make sense to do it the full length of the super-high-priced real estate areas: Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View at the least. However our city council has only jurisdiction from north to south borders. But we need the vision and discussion out there, then let the engineers at it to see what is possible and where the money might come from.

Posted by JoAnn, a resident of Ventura
on Nov 1, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Stop carving up my home town for other peoples' convenience. Take it up the middle of the bay.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 1, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Hurray for trenching. Enough of these train horns in the middle of the night.

Posted by parent, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 1, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Scott McMahon - I cannot believe that you frequently use the grade-separated pedestrian tunnels and are happy with them. Most too narrow for bicycles and pedestrians to share comfortably and some are also too convoluted, slippery, and steep for wheelchairs.

Most bicyclists currently use the surface crossings because the tunnels are so narrow and congested, but if the surface crossings are all eliminated, then what happens? Bicyclists really do not want to ride on the road through a steep tunnel because of the risk of getting run over on the dark uphill part of the tunnel. Are pedestrians willing to accept a 10x increase of bicycles on these narrow paths?

In addition, the San Antonio tunnel dumps you out onto an unprotected crosswalk on Central Expressway where you have to sprint across the expressway to avoid the cars running the stop lights.

The only grade separated tunnel that I am comfortable using is the one at Homer Street, but somehow I doubt that city will use that design at any of the other streets listed in this article.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 1, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Is it legal to ride through the Homer underpass? The separate tunnels at California Avenue or University are only pedestrian walkways where it is permitted to walk a bicycle but not to ride one. I used to ride the roadway underpasses but the traffic has become too dicey.

Posted by Larry, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 1, 2013 at 7:18 pm

Grade separations are a no brainer, trench the trains through out the city. I'd even suggest designing the trench so that it could later become a covered trench, and possibly even quieter and less obtrusive in the future, if funds become available for covering.

Kleins' alleged comment that studies about trenching tracks in south PA should not proceed because trenching at San Francisquito Creek is a problem is quite stunning. Ignoring the real need for grade separations at Charleston and East Meadow in South PA because of complications at the creek miles away is just plain dumb. Thanks Larry.

Posted by Moe, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 1, 2013 at 7:51 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by Curly, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 1, 2013 at 7:52 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

Posted by yes its legal, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 1, 2013 at 11:16 pm


its legal to ride a bike in the homer street tunnel

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 2, 2013 at 5:02 am

Thanks, I reviewed the Homer undercrossing while I was downtown this evening. It is connected reasonably well given the circumstances of the bike paths, busy Alma Street and one-way Homer Avenue. My regular crossing for decades was lifting my bike over the tracks at the now fenced-off trespassing short-cut near Matadero Creek, living on one side and working on the other side. There was a recent glimmer that a real Matadero/Caltrain crossing might happen, but turned out to be a bike path to nowhere and haven't heard anything since.

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 2, 2013 at 11:46 am

I am very opposed to trenching -- because, when a passenger has a medical issue or the train has any sort of mechanical problem, there will be almost no way to get to the train! People will be trapped on the train, with no way at all to get off. Remember: when -- not if, but when -- the next really big earthquake happens, all passengers in trains in trenches will be trapped for a very long time.

You folks who so badly want a trench do not seem to care one bit about the needs of the human beings on Caltrain, or the need to be able to quickly access the train in case of an emergency. For shame!

Yes, there should be more well-designed pedestrian and bicycle crossing of Caltrain.

Leave the tracks where they are.

Posted by resident, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 2, 2013 at 12:05 pm

The San Jose Mercury 11/02 is reporting that Mountain View is looking to obtain bond funds for numerous projects including a CALtrain grade separation at Rengstroff. It seems a number of cities are independently approaching the same topic/problem. Does it make more sense to approach this from a Santa Clara County, VTA consolidated approach? There must be funds at the state level, or county level to provide a unified approach to this issue. I cannot imagine that any one city can decide on an approach without approval by the VTA. There has to be a bigger plan that supersedes individual city desires in this matter. Possibly the MTA is the organization that rules on upgrades to the train systems.
Side note: article discusses bond issue to get more money - but then itemizes existing reserve funds that are not being used. There a huge reserves probably voted on as previous bond issues but not utilized for the designated purpose. That is an eye opener. The money is there all ready - just being "repurposed". Can't wait until the Merc locks onto the PA city budget.

Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community
on Nov 2, 2013 at 12:36 pm

This trench and cover would cost millions but it needs to be done one day. Allow buildings to be built near stations and also over the tracks.

I think emergency exits and routes would be designed and built. Do it soon instead of waiting 30 more years.

Posted by pay up, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 2, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Palo Alto's population is around 65,000. According to the article, the cost of moving the train tracks underground is $650,000,000 (and that sounds low to me). That's an even $10,000 per person (including children). Everyone who says this is a no brainer, are you volunteering to pay up? There is no funding source for this project other than local tax dollars.

Because of the extraordinary cost, seems to me that the only thing likely to happen is to leave the existing tracks as is. Close some of the roads that currently cross the tracks. Build tunnels under the tracks for roads that are kept open (similar to the current tunnels for University, Embarcadero, and Oregon). Build separate pedestrian/bicycle bridges over the tracks to supplement the road tunnels, not necessarily at the same locations as the road tunnels. Even this amount of work could cost $100,000,000, but that's only $2000 per resident instead of $10,000 per resident.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm

I will agree that trenching would a huge cost. But I have to laugh at the "no access during an emergency" argument. Certainly you cannot believe/assume that the design would not include emergency access? This would be no different than if they decided to tunnel the trains...the engineers would have to set up emergency access and egress. Honestly.

Posted by southbayresident, a resident of another community
on Nov 2, 2013 at 8:29 pm

[Post removed.]

Posted by southbayresident, a resident of another community
on Nov 2, 2013 at 9:30 pm

@Margaret Fruth,

You are mistaking grade separations as being a High Speed Rail issue and not a Caltrain issue.

Regardless of what Judge Michael Kenny decides the Caltrain grade separation issues will remain and likely get worse over time as the important and necessary modernization of Caltrain through electrification will allow it to more economically increase service levels to meet rising ridership demands.

Also, remember the fact that many of the Caltrain crossing are not grade separated is more of an artifact that 150 years ago when the line was built this was mostly a rural area. Things can change a lot in 150 years!

Even by the standards of 150 years ago if the peninsula was as urbanized and developed then as it is now it is very likely the Caltrain line (then the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad) would of been built as a 100% grade separated system from the very beginning (and likely 4-tracks as well). And that's from a time that new nothing of high speed rail.

Level grade crossings that constantly put cars, pedestrians and bicyclists at risk of colliding with trains have no place in modern urban and suburban communities. Besides, those level grade crossings subject everyone including nearby residents to incessant horn blasting. Except for a few short toots when the trains approach stations you would never have to hear those horn blasts at the crossings. Wouldn't that be nice?

I am not 100% convinced trenching is the best option for grade separation but it's time for Palo Alto to end it's belligerent attitude to the whole concept. I hope Judge Kenny DOES NOT rule against the CHSRA but even if he does Palo Alto would be very wise to refocus it's efforts toward grade separating Caltrain instead of just killing the HSR project. I mean how long does Palo Alto plan to gloat on it's success in killing the HSR project? With the distraction of HSR out of the way the ball would squarely in Palo Alto's court to address the issues the HSR project would of otherwise dealt with.

Posted by Stanford neighbor, a resident of Stanford
on Nov 3, 2013 at 12:13 am

i've seen trenching work beautifully well back east in this country and also in Europe. Time to move on into the future and stop wasting time fighting progress.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 3, 2013 at 11:47 am

The 2.25-mile Reno trench may be instructive. An expectedly divisive campaign, built in 3 years (2003-05) for $265M plus interest. Transcontinental rail traffic ran uninterrupted on parallel shoo-fly dual trackage, which in Palo Alto's case would presumably run on Alma Street. The 2008 recession derailed revenue for bond repayments and Reno now teeters on bankruptcy. Still, the Reno project, on time and on budget, was not the disaster that naysayers predicted. Railroad-related noise, accidents, and congestion have been practically eliminated.

Posted by resident, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Southbay resident - I take issue with your comments regarding PA killing the HSR. At this point in time the HSR is in legal issues with it's eminent domain tactics in the Central Valley. That is HSR's initial focus. The southern California folks have diminishing interest in HSR. If HSR sinks it will be a state-wide disillusionment with the concept versus implementation of the concept. Everyone may agree it is a good concept - but few agree with the way it is being implemented. The devil is in the details. Concept versus implementation of concept appears to be a pervasive problem throughout CA when land and money are involved. Proposals tend to provide inflated benefits to get people on board but do not measure up in delivery of the product - especially when funding is diminishing at a rapid pace.

Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community
on Nov 3, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Lets forget HSR or lets end in San Jose with improved tracking to San Francisco. Express trains with 3rd rail passing all in a trench or behind enhanced noise reduction measures.

Don't but with all brains, money and know how must be a solution.

We don't have money or land for a 3rd freeway. See saving the baylands.

Posted by resident, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Further on HSR - off topic I know - but good article in Insight Section in SF today "Why we need more rails". HSR's biggest hurdle are: 1. tunneling through the Tehachapi mountains,2. AMTRAK is singled tracked end to end and freight trains have control. Article is pro-HSR but points up hurdles in place now - most important funding. Same problem with CALTrain - radio said yesterday that funding is down 1/2 for CALTrain. HSR needs to solve that hurdle before everyone else uses it as an excuse to tear apart what is there now and working. No tunnel - no HSR.

Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community
on Nov 3, 2013 at 3:19 pm

@ Resident.

I read that same article.

Bakersfield being the 25th busy rail station and in some cases serve East Bay Commuters.

Sad note the LAX shooting caused havoc at other airports which I wonder what would happen if SFO has an event.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 3, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Any suggestions for security on HSR and the effect on overall travel time?

Posted by Ventura Neighbor, a resident of Ventura
on Nov 5, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Why don't we start with electrifying the trains - for the commuters, and moving the 1 freight train, off of the tracks.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2013 at 4:16 pm

Having used train networks extensively in Europe, security is only maintained for those trains (Eurostar) going through the Channel Tunnel. The Eurostar security is similar to airline security but since all passengers keep all their baggage with them it is amazing just how quickly it seems to work. There is, as far as I remember, no need to put liquids in plastic bags, but electronics do have to be separated.

Posted by Bruce, a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 5, 2013 at 6:36 pm

Trenching makes no sense at all for Alma, next to San Francisquito Creek. The tracks are already on a berm to the south (Alma has to climb 4 or 5 feet to meet them), and cross over the creek on a bridge to the north. Alma should have an underpass, similar to the grade separations in San Carlos or Belmont, or the ones currently under construction in San Bruno.

Posted by parent, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 5, 2013 at 6:55 pm

In San Mateo County, the train tracks are elevated so the road travels underneath at a level grade, instead of descending and climbing like Oregon Expy or Embarcadero Road or University Ave. A level street underneath the tracks is probably much safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, so I prefer this design.

Posted by Stephen Rosenblum, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 6, 2013 at 12:38 pm

A covered trench is the best option for Palo Alto. It will eliminate Caltrain as a barrier to east-west travel in Palo Alto. In addition, when the Caltrain right of way is covered it will create a 5 mile long by 100 foot wide strip of buildable land in Palo Alto which comes to 60 acres. At a conservative price of $10 million per acre this amounts to $600 million that can be used to offset the costs of trenching. Finally, there will be no train noise or horn noise and neither the Caltrain schedule nor vehicular traffic will be constrained by gate down time at grade crossings. And the specter of suicides at grade crossings will be eliminated. BART has no grade crossings and if Caltrain aspires to be a rail mass transit system, it should not have them either.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 6, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Simple parking lots maybe, but I wouldn't advocate intensive building on land overlaying a transportation corridor. Even the Hetch Hetchy pipes have little if any building above them. You can see the aqueduct easement cutting through the new San Antonio high rise development in Mountain View. Best to keep any such easement land as green space, and let people argue about whether the extra green space then makes it palatable to put buildings in our existing city parks "for the public benefit."