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New studies aim to speed up Palo Alto's redesign of rail crossings

Original post made on Sep 21, 2023

Eager to take advantage of recently acquired federal and state grants, Palo Alto is preparing to speed up its tortuous, decade-long effort to choose preferred alternatives for redesigning three rail crossings.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, September 21, 2023, 7:29 AM

Comments (23)

Posted by TorreyaMan
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 21, 2023 at 10:26 am

TorreyaMan is a registered user.

It's good that the funding may force the city's hand and finally make a decision. It is shameful that the studies have taken so long. It's time to XXXX or get off the pot! No decision(s) will suit everyone's opinions. But something has to be done.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 21, 2023 at 10:45 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

The article indicates that the city has already put off indefinitely any changes to the Palo Alto Ave crossing. It should do the same for the two South PA crossings, that is, do nothing for at least another 15-20 years.

Current conditions are very different from when modifications to the crossings were suggested - there is now no realistic prospect of increased rail traffic here, and likely a decrease. Why should the City spend 100s of millions of dollars to make changes, when that same money could be better used for a Cubberley Community Center, other needed transportation work, etc?

Posted by Judith Wasserman
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 21, 2023 at 10:51 am

Judith Wasserman is a registered user.

If the city hasn't "resolved some of the issues where some in the community might say, ‘We have concerns with this,'" in 20 years, it never will. It's a classic case of the perfect being an enemy of the good. Of course there will be push-back - this is Palo Alto, after all. You CC guys get elected to have backbones, not be push-(back)overs.

Posted by Golux
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 21, 2023 at 11:22 am

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@Mondoman As I understand it, Caltrain plans to increase frequency of trains once electrification is completed (targeted for 2024). Perhaps you can explain why you said "there is now no realistic prospect of increased rail traffic here, and likely a decrease"?

Posted by NTB2
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 21, 2023 at 11:24 am

NTB2 is a registered user.

What the PA city is “deathly” afraid of is the taking of six SFH houses (which this article avoids mentioning) R1 zone along the corridor. 1000 exclusive electric heat pumps for rich residents will not solve our climate crisis — denser multi family zoning in transit centered “affluent” corridors and better train / bicycle capacity w a “unanimous” signature of every CC member will. This single ally of the “good” will afford the alternative agains the “bad” (climate change) to MOVE FORWARD.

Posted by Jack
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 21, 2023 at 11:49 am

Jack is a registered user.

Maybe I'm in the minority but I don't mind the rail crossings as they are today. I hope that option is included in the studies.

Posted by llfried
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 21, 2023 at 12:20 pm

llfried is a registered user.

I've lived in P.A for 48 years and I'm so disgusted with Palo Alto's inability to make a decision that I think we have to either fire the city planners or the Council or both. We cannot continue to consider every objection to every plan. Some individuals will always be chronic complainers. Given that we need to improve these intersection overlaps it seems that a trench for the trains will probably elicit the fewest objections including concerns about potential earthquakes destroying emergency traffic. Let's get on with it!

Posted by commonsense
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 21, 2023 at 12:24 pm

commonsense is a registered user.

“While Council member Pat Burt approved the staff's request to advance the studies, he worried that speeding things up will keep the city from fully evaluating things like bike improvements, for instance.” This is embarrassing. We elect leaders to lead. Among other responsibilities, this includes making tough decisions. 10+ years means the system is broken and the state/fed will dictate what will be done. Totally avoidable and unacceptable. Make a decision and move on!

Posted by swim, soccer parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 21, 2023 at 1:30 pm

swim, soccer parent is a registered user.

kudos to commonsense...I could not have said it better. I hope various residents stand-down their concerns and love of 'process', and start demanding results.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 21, 2023 at 6:58 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

Why do we "need" to "improve" the track crossings? They seem to work fine now, and I'd like to not cut 100s of millions or even a billion dollars from other City spending to pay for a disruptive frill.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 21, 2023 at 11:22 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.


In 2019 (prepandemic), Caltrain revenue was $143m, of which $103m was fares. 5 peak trains per hour, per direction (5 phpd).

In 2023 (fiscal year ended 6/23), fare revenue was down to $43m. 30% of 2019 ridership in June 2023. In July 2023, Caltrain had $16.3m expenses and a net loss of $2.3m. Farebox revenue was only $4m.

Caltrain Business Plan - 2040 Service Vision (Document from late 2019):

2022: Start of (partial) electrical service (6 phpd);
2029: Full electrical (6 phpd) + start of High Speed Rail (HSR Central Valley) trains (2 phpd)
2033: 6 phpd + HSR SF to LA trains (4 phpd)

Reality Fall 2023:

Hoped-for delayed partial electrical service - Sept-Dec 31, 2024

Passenger count 30% of 2019. Caltrain has around $26m in reserves, about 2 years at the current burn rate. As they note, "Caltrain has a projected fiscal cliff of as much as $550 million over the next 10 years."


Because of financial constraints, Caltrain is now running 4 phpd trains.

Increasing train service after electrification was a requirement for grants/subsidies for the electrification work. However, Caltrain cannot afford to do so. From Caltrain's Sep 2023 proposed 2024+ schedule:
"In fall 2024, Caltrain plans to continue providing 104 weekday trains per day and 4 trains phpd ... consistent with the FY24-25 Budget."

Because of the drastic drop in ridership and revenue, Caltrain has been forced to apply for a waiver to reduce promised train frequency. Again, from Caltrain's Sep 2023 document:
"With ridership still recovering from the effects of the pandemic, Caltrain is requesting a waiver from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to delay further service expansion until ridership returns. Discussions with FTA have been positive and Caltrain expects to receive the waiver in fall 2023."

Thus, 4 phpd trains is the max for the forseeable future. Palo Alto would not have to implement grade separation for at least another 15-20 years.

Posted by Marie
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 22, 2023 at 8:14 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Until Caltrain indicates they will approve any of the current proposals for South Palo Alto, how can the council make a decision? Caltrain has indicated that they would prefer an alternative that would accommodate 4 tracks. None of the current alternatives woukd do so. Any alternative that accommodates 4 tracks would be much more expensive and require acquiring much more land and likely 2-3 lanes of Alma Street. Until Caltrain agrees to a grade separation for two tracks only, no final decision can be made. I believe there is now an agreement with Caltrain to review Palo Alto’s choice. The sooner that can be done, the sooner Palo Alto can move forward. The delay is not from the city council but from Caltrain’s desire for four tracks in South Palo Alto sometime in the far distant future.

Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 25, 2023 at 9:46 pm

Leslie York is a registered user.

"he doesn't want to see the city "forced into making a quick decision"

Quick decision? Are you kidding? We're way past "quick". 10 years is not "quick". CPA has engaged not one, not two, but THREE different engineering firms over 10 years with no viable plan to show for it.

This project has been studied to death. I am astonished that the rail committee is still considering a trench (which could halt all train service due to storm flooding) without input from Caltrain. Now that CPA has an agreement with Caltrain to review grade sep plans, has CPA made any progress at all in presenting even the nascent plans to Caltrain? I suspect not.

With all this deliberation, foot dragging and tail chasing, it's easy to predict that CPA will miss the deadline and lose the funding. The rail committee continues to pursue this mythical unicorn of an IDEAL SOLUTION. Guess what — there isn't one!

As others have said, the do-nothing plan looks more and more attractive with each passing year. Has Caltrain issued new timetables reflecting this enhanced service? Of course they haven't. All we've seen are vaporware projections.

Posted by Eeyore
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 1, 2023 at 10:14 am

Eeyore is a registered user.

Caltrain may be looking at reduced service for *now*, but let us not be pennywise and pound foolish. Just look at how the budgeted cost of those rail crossings goes up, and up, and up each year CC has failed to take action. With the predicted uptick in population density CalTrain will become the primary carrier up and down the Peninsula. We don't have the luxury of a dedicated subway system, so, for now, CalTrain and BART are where we have to invest going forward. I urge CC to get off the post and get going on this long delayed project.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 1, 2023 at 11:58 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

I wish your predictions had a chance of coming true, but I think we need to face facts that Caltrain will not be increasing the number of trains anytime in the next 15 years. The current crossings work fine for that. As people still prefer to use cars, even if an increase in population density happens, the increase in the number of people will be small, and few will use Caltrain. Caltrain also has to come up with $500 million over the next ten years not to go bankrupt, much less increase service.

Thus, spending a billion PA dollars on grade separation, traffic blockage during years of construction, and even taking Palo Altan's houses doesn't make sense to me. Instead, we should spend that money on a real PA need like a new Cubberley Community Center or starting to reduce the City's enormous pension funding shortfall.

Finally, if ridership does somehow massively increase, Caltrain can implement its plan for running longer trains -- more passengers per train without an increase in train frequency, so little impact on crossings.

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of another community
on Oct 1, 2023 at 2:09 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Building costs are rising at alarming rates. I guess the Fed wants to keep insisting that inflation has only risen 3% in the past year, so as to deprive elderly and disabled people from being able to afford medicine, housing and food. PA needs to make a choice. More studies are not choices, they are DELAY MECHANISMS. Time = money.

Rather than merely repeating the obvious common sense solutions offered above, I have one that may be far fetched but can be achieved quickly and at a lower cost. Mow down Paly and relocate it to the location where the coffee shop used to sit Middlefield. Put a huge Section 8 project where Paly used to be, and make sure there's plenty of RV parking. Change Paly to mostly distance learning. Plenty of nerds would like that.

Or, re-wind the clock to the day before Stanford's groundbreaking. Re-think what it will do if the University and all of the residential property sits on the west side, while the poorer people are literally relegated to the "wrong side of the tracks", east of El Camino. This city has a built-in social, financial, and educational divide. The train tracks are intended as a barrier.

If any structural changes are made to the train tracks, all of the agencies involved have to agree on a solution. Regardless of what solution is chosen, there needs to be alternatives to transporting around, over, or under the current configuration for the duration of the construction.

Three people deciding the fate of transportation decisions that will have far-reaching consequences is kind of amusing. Their predicted outcome in wrestling this alligator into compliance will be a lose-lose proposition. That's why they want more studies. These non-engineers know that if they make a mistake, it will be on their watch.

And that's why the CC has opted to pay for study after study. No one wants to be accountable for the impending disaster they are creating.

"Blame it on the studies" is the only good excuse they can agree on.

Posted by Eeyore
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 2, 2023 at 12:56 pm

Eeyore is a registered user.

I don't know where the commentary about the existing crossings being fine is coming from. Personally I try not to drive at commute times because San Antonio and Charleston are pretty much gridlocked at that time of day. The unwanted traffic signal at Louis and Charleston has made things much worse. CalTrain is currently running 4 trains per hour -in each direction- which is, worst case, 8 crossing drops per hour and the consequent resetting of all the associated traffic signal timing. CC isn't pushing back on the plan to add 6,000+ additional (underparked) cars to the City. Now is the time to take available funds and finally fix this long standing problem.

Posted by Jerry Underdal
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 3, 2023 at 6:05 pm

Jerry Underdal is a registered user.

"Do nothing here because we don't need it" seems to be trending on Town Square. Is Palo Alto going to take the lead in arguing that cities the length of the Peninsula should follow us and do nothing unless and until a crisis comes up in 2, 5,10,15... years into the future that would meet the standard of urgency that some would set?

That, I expect, would be a hard sell.

It will be many years before whatever option is chosen will be completed. Right now, there's not a crisis and we can make the best choice, with time study all remaining strong options before making the call. Let's give the Rail Committee time, space and support to research, discuss and decide what to put in its final report to to the City Council on how to deal with grade separation. That's where serious public debate should kick in. The Palo Alto process has been a disappointment to this point, but here's where our traditional respect for data and objective analysis has to be a key factor in what will inevitably be a political process to get community buy-in for whatever the City Council decides after it receives the Rail Committee's report.

Posted by Paly Grad
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 6, 2023 at 9:48 am

Paly Grad is a registered user.

Could either of these grants be used to fund the design or design and construction of a bicycle undercrossing at Seale Ave and Alma Street. This has been discussed in the past. The goal is a safer bicycle route to Palo Alto High School. The undercrossing would connect to Peers Park and the bike path would then merge onto Castilleja Ave which leads directly to Paly.

Posted by Steve Eittreim
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 6, 2023 at 1:19 pm

Steve Eittreim is a registered user.

Diana Diamond bemoans the Palo Alto Process (September 29 Weekly), the process that can consume so much time in decision-making that decisions are greatly delayed. I mostly agree with the criticism but in the case of the all-important one regarding the Caltrain crossings, I think we need to consider things carefully. The Caltrain tracks will shortly be electrified and trains will increase in frequency. When the High-Speed-Rail trains run down these tracks in the decades ahead it will result in many more trains, at perhaps higher speed. In the future, cars cannot simply compete for time with crossing trains. Hence the needed improvements and the debate on what kind of crossings we need. The perfect solution, which is a project costing a billion dollars, not millions of dollars, is to raise the tracks to run through Palo Alto on a viaduct. Simple solution…and one that would allow better connectivity between east and west Palo Alto…but expensive. But to just let someone else make the decision, and not discuss it, seems the wrong idea. Pat Burt is right when he worries about a quick decision on this without allowing adequate time for discussion.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 6, 2023 at 2:04 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

It seems that the Rail Committee is not thoroughly considering the likelihood that there will *never* be such a crisis. Serious public debate should take place now to ensure we don't spend hundreds of millions on something we don't need. Other cities will make their own decisions -- there's no reason for Palo Alto to "take the lead" or otherwise involve itself in their decisions.

Posted by Mondoman
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 6, 2023 at 6:00 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

Caltrain has already said it won't be increasing train frequency upon electrification due to lack of money. In addition, HSR won't be running on the Peninsula, because they don't have the estimated $20 billion+ to build tracks to connect HSR from Merced to Caltrain at Gilroy. The Rail Committee should consider this changed situation.

Posted by Leslie York
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 7, 2023 at 5:22 am

Leslie York is a registered user.

"Let's give the Rail Committee time"

"Pat Burt is right when he worries about a quick decision on this without allowing adequate time for discussion."

More time than the 10+ years they've already had, along with myriad studies from no fewer than three engineering firms? If three professional engineering firms (Hatch-Mott-MacDonald, Aecom and Hexagon) can't come up with a viable plan, it's delusional to think that a committee of three amateurs can come up with a better design.

Note that during the first 10 years, planning was taking place with NO input whatsoever from Caltrain.

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