Rail committee examines impact of changed Caltrain system

The Palo Alto City Council Rail Committee is currently working with the community to explore options for underground train tracks that are projected to run along the existing Caltrain path through Palo Alto.

The Rail Committee re-established itself this year to address the impact that the Peninsula Corridor Electrification project will have on the residents of Palo Alto. The project involves converting the current diesel-hauled trains to Electrical Multiple Unit (EMU) trains and upgrading the efficiency, safety and reliability of Caltrain’s service, according to Caltrain.

While this improvement will benefit daily commuters in the region, it will also aggravate the current disadvantages of the Caltrain’s path through Palo Alto, including disruptions and traffic jams.

Many students are inconvenienced by the current railroad crossing at the intersection of Churchill Avenue and Alma Street, located directly next to one of the entrances to Palo Alto High School.

“Technically, it’s faster for me to take Alma to school, but then I have to worry about the unpredictability [of the train passing through],” said junior Angela Cummings. “I could either be 10 minutes early or 10 minutes late to school.”

Thus, Cummings needed to find an alternative route and decided to start traveling on El Camino Real, because it was a route that she could rely on to arrive at school on time.

“I know that my commute to school would be much faster if the trains didn’t constantly pass through [the Churchill intersection],” Cummings said.

Rail Committee and City Council member Adrian Fine believes this situation would be magnified as a result of the Peninsula Corridor Electrification project.

“The railroad crossing at Churchill closes every five minutes, and causes a huge traffic backup,” Fine said. “With the efficiency of the [soon to be instated] Caltrain project, now imagine if the trains were coming twice as often and the effect it would have on residents who are trying to get across the city.”

The Rail Committee is determined to combat this issue and has decided to work directly with the community to determine what solutions they would accept by holding open workshops.

Fine says that after receiving community input from the last two workshops, the committee found that the majority of the community prefers a solution with underground train tracks.

“It would be ideal to have a tunnel, where the train is out of sight and out of mind while still maintaining great connections to San Francisco and San Jose,” Fine said. “This would also open up space to build parks or build more housing, giving us more freedom for the land above [the underground train tracks].”

When the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system was originally constructed in the 1960s, Berkeley, Calif.’s City Council voiced their concerns about the disruptions of transit above ground which were then altered when they included sections of the line underground to accommodate this request. As a result, current Berkeley residents are not affected by the disruption that an above ground system entails, which is an atmosphere that Palo Altans could look forward in the future.

However, it is important to recognize the tradeoffs of choosing to implement underground tracks. This choice will involve high costs and complicated logistics, involving working with neighboring cities, managing engineering and navigating the underground water cables, among other obstacles.

Fine also discloses that while the decision to go underground is not directly correlated with past incidents involving community members who have taken their lives on the tracks, one of the guiding principles of their decisions regarding the Rail Corridor is the community’s welfare.

“As we decide the rail corridors and grade separations, safety is top of mind,” Fine said.

In addition to addressing safety concerns, the Rail Committee’s top priorities are to promote a connected community, good transit and a clean environment.

The next workshop will be held on Oct. 21. Residents are encouraged to participate in and take advantage of the opportunity to have their voices heard as the committee begins to narrow down choices to the preferred alternative.

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