Caltrain plan would fell trees, add substations

Agency's new Environmental Impact Report analyzes the costs and benefits of long-planned electrification

For years, Caltrain officials have been advocating a switch from diesel trains to electrified ones as the the best way to both help the environment and keep the popular but cash-strapped commuter service financially viable.

But a new report analyzing the environmental impacts of electrification indicates that these benefits will come at a cost beyond the project's $1.5 billion price tag. Specifically, it could result in removal of more than 2,000 trees and the addition of poles up to 50 feet high, safety walls built on existing bridges that cross the train corridor, and substations -- including one in Palo Alto -- to support the electrification.

The draft Environmental Impact Report, which the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board released Friday morning, argues that Caltrain's long-planned electrification is a critical project for increasing ridership and for giving the Peninsula an "environmentally friendly and reliable service." More than a decade in the works, the previously stalled project sparked back to life in 2012, when the California High-Speed Rail Authority agreed to adopt a "blended" two-track system along the Peninsula in which the new high-speed trains would share electrified tracks with Caltrain. As part of a 2013 agreement between the agencies, the rail authority would pay for about half of the project's $1.5 billion costs, with the balance coming from Caltrain and other Bay Area transportation agencies.

According to the new report, Caltrain plans to have its new electrified system in place by 2019, at which time about 75 percent of its train fleet would be electric and 25 percent would be diesel. Once the remaining diesel trains reach the end of their service life, they would be replaced.

Caltrain carried about 47,000 riders on a typical weekday in 2013, according to the report, a number that is projected to go up to 57,000 in 2020 and to 84,000 even if electrification doesn't happen. With the project, the estimated ridership would be 69,000 in 2020 and 111,000 in 2040. The overall number of daily weekday trains would jump from the present level of 92 to 114.

The environmental review notes that the project would significantly reduce traffic on regional roads by 235,000 "vehicle miles traveled" in 2020 and by 619,000 in 2040.

Yet the benefits will come with costs. The overhead power lines would be supported by poles with heights ranging from 30 to 50 feet, according to the report. The poles would stand on either side of the tracks, about 10 to 12 feet from the centerline, and would be spaced about 200 feet from each other (with shorter spans between poles on curved track sections). Wires would stretch across the tracks in a cantilever configuration.

The electric infrastructure would also require installation of one switching station, which controls how power is fed within the system; 10 traction power substations, which convert electricity to the voltage trains use; and six paralleling stations, which boost power along the system.

One paralleling station would be in Palo Alto, either near Greenmeadow Way and just south of Page Mill Road, according to the report. But, the report notes, such a station would have some visual impact. Located in a compound that has typical dimensions of 40 feet wide and 80 feet long, the station could be partially screened by trees. If located by Greenmeadow, "roadway users and residents may have limited views" of the site when there are gaps in vegetation.

The Page Mill option would also benefit from screening provided by trees on the Alma Street side and from the new four-story Park Plaza building on the other side, according to the report.

The environmental analysis noted that the Greenmeadow Way option would require trees to be removed, causing "significant" aesthetic impact. Caltrain is proposing to compensate by installing new "screening vegetation" along Alma between the roadway and the new station.

In addition to the electric infrastructure, Caltrain plans to build safety barriers on dozens of existing bridges to prohibit access to the Caltrain corridor and to prevent objects from being thrown off the bridges, according to the document. These barriers would typically be about 6.5 feet above the pavement level and would generally be about 40 feet long. Each barrier would feature a black, red and white signage that reads: "Danger. Live Wire."

The 47 bridges identified in the report include one bridge in Palo Alto (two new walls would be built on the San Antonio Road overpass) and six in Mountain View (Shoreline Boulevard overpass and Stevens Creek pedestrian crossing; Whisman Road; and Route 237, both eastbound and westbound).

While the new infrastructure will be going up, hundreds and possibly thousands of trees would be going down. The report estimates that about 2,220 trees would be removed for the project and another 3,616 pruned. This includes 188 trees in Menlo Park, 177 trees in Palo Alto and 284 in Mountain View, which is second only to Sunnyvale's 497.

The report notes that Caltrain is exempt from local regulations guarding tree removal because it is a federally regulated rail carrier and thus benefits from an exemption in the Public Utilities Code. Still, it lays out a strategy to mitigate the loss of trees, including locating poles and alignments to "minimize tree removal and pruning" and removing trees "only as necessary to provide safety clearance." The project would include a creation of a "Tree Avoidance, Minimization and Replacement Plan," which would be developed in consultation with cities and an certified arborist and which would consider best practices for replacing and protecting trees.

The report is subject to modification based on comments from stakeholder communities along the corridor. But Caltrain officials stressed the importance of releasing the document, which Caltrain Executive Director Michael Scanlon called "the next step in a critical partnership between Caltrain and the communities we serve."

"We must work together to ensure the successful delivery of the Caltrain Modernization Program," Scanlon said in a statement. "We are committed to seeking public comment and to make sure the concerns of our communities are addressed directly, collaboratively and transparently."

Caltrain will be accepting comments on the draft EIR until April 29. The document can be found here.


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Posted by pda
a resident of another community
on Feb 28, 2014 at 2:26 pm

The better alternate solution is BART

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Posted by AC
a resident of another community
on Feb 28, 2014 at 2:40 pm

AC is a registered user.


I'm afraid that's not correct. If anything, BART is what needs to be replaced. If you look at the non-standard track sizes, specialized parts, labour costs, maintenance costs, government subsidy, and all that junk, I think you might discover that the BART solution may not be as desirable as the average rider may think.

BART could save a lot of money with standard track sizes and rolling stock, and compatible electrification systems. Then spread that out to unify the infrastructure with an electrified Caltrain and compatibility with Muni and VTA light rail systems, and the "special hidden costs" are greatly reduced.

Of course in its favour is the, "well, the darn thing seems to work well" argument, which does indeed have some substance to it. But it comes at a price.

Let's not even get started with how great things like HSR were supposed to be, until the costs start mounting.

In Caltrain's favour, I'd have to say that the costs are at least above-board. And the more obvious infrastructure pieces are not hidden in paperwork and bureaucracy. Railroad right-of-way, standard track sizes, etc etc etc.

Like this comment
Posted by vkmo
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 28, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Most of the bay area has already done this. This is part of urbanization. Nowadays the freeways are so clogged, that this is a better commute and travel alternative.

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Posted by Wrong Fit
a resident of Martens-Carmelita
on Feb 28, 2014 at 3:34 pm

...and how much to simply add more cars and extend the boarding areas?
I hardly think CalTrain pollution is an issue. If CalTrain can show how much air quality will MEASURABLY improve I might be interested in hearing that data(and how they got it.)Diesel engines are efficient, and electric engines may one day be a reality, engines that could use the existing infrastructure.
No, I don't see the need to electrify the entire system and make our area some Orwellian sterile blank zone...with 50 foot towers!

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Posted by MV Caltrain Commuter
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 28, 2014 at 3:44 pm

@Wrong Fit

Your response is indicative of someone who doesn't understand train systems. It's not just about air quality. There are numerous more reasons

When you got to EMU systems, the trains can start and stop as fast as a subway system since they're motorized on a car by car basis, they're significantly quieter, cheaper to operate, and because each car has their own motors, they are flexible from 1 car to 100 cars chained together.

They're safer because they can start and stop quickly.
They run more frequently because of that.
They will be quieter for everyone living along the line.
They don't use liquid fuel, which itself requires an infrastructure that is taxpayer subsidized from crude to oil.
There won't be the diesel particulate matter along the Caltrain life, especially since sulfur emissions have been known to increase Cancer in Europe, which already uses ULS Diesel.

And, if you can get rid of level crossings, you would also eliminate horn requirements.

The benefits of Caltrain electrification outweigh the cost.

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Posted by Martin Omander
a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 28, 2014 at 3:46 pm

Less noise and diesel exhaust is good. I'm curious, how does electrification help run more trains per day? How does it help Caltrain's finances? Caltrain's web page on this topic (Web Link) seems to say that is the case, but it's short on specifics.

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Posted by say_no_to_overhead_utilities
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 28, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Why put up towers for power? Lets either put the power underground or the whole train under ground, or simply leave it alone and run it!

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Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Jackson Park
on Feb 28, 2014 at 3:55 pm

What do you mean that "electric engines may one day be a reality"?

Japan has been running high-speed electric trains for half a century; the Shinkansen debuted in 1964 and ran at 130mph. The trains ran on 25kV, 60Hz electricity.

The current generation Tokaido Shinkansen runs at 170mph, using the same electricity.

Most of Europe's train system electrified a long time ago.

Even here in the USA, where electric trains are a bit slow on the uptake, Amtrak's Acela Express runs at an operational maximum speed of 150mph on the parts of the track where it can.

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Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Feb 28, 2014 at 4:24 pm

@Martin Omander

Electrification means the trains will be much lighter and able to start and stop quicker, which (in addition to the benefits of PTC) means they can be run closer together and more frequently. Also electric trains are cheaper to run due to electric power being much cheaper than diesel (due to the fact it is much more efficient), as well as these lighter trains needing much less power to run.

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Posted by MV Caltrain Commuter
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Feb 28, 2014 at 5:13 pm


Taipei Metro goes as low as 90-120 seconds between trains during peak times with their PTC system. The more frequent, the more convenient it is. The more convenient it is, the more people use it. Less cars would be on the road.

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Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Jackson Park
on Feb 28, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Unlike electric automobiles which must carry around their own fuel source in the form of batteries, an electric train doesn't need that since the power is provided by wire (typically in the form of an overhead catenary). There is no refueling requirement and electric motors require vastly less service compared to combustion engines.

In electric trains, each car has multiple motors powering the wheels. If a motor in a given car fails, the rest of the motors can typically handle the slight power loss with only a minimal speed loss.

Diesel trains have a single point of failure: the locomotive. What happens on Caltrain when the locomotive fails? Well, minimally, the passengers are forced to get off the train and board another one, plus a reserve locomotive is sent to the location to tow the disabled train and cars back to the yard. Since the Caltrain right-of-way is two tracks on most of the Peninsula -- with few areas to pass -- this sends systemwide delays of at least 30 minutes, sometimes much more.

Note that electric trains are also more space efficient since a diesel locomotive can be replaced with a control car that is mostly passenger seating, with only a small amount dedicated to a driver's compartment.

Note that the Tokyo subway system runs at a similar frequency as Taipei Metro, with trains on the most popular lines running every 2 minutes during peak commute hours. Diesel trains can't accelerate/decelerate fast enough to provide that type of performance.

Like this comment
Posted by David Harkness
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 28, 2014 at 7:09 pm

Thank you, everyone, for the comprehensive electric train information. I, like our first commenter, wondered why BART wouldn't be a better option. I had no idea of the corners they cut and standards they broke to build that system.

As someone else pointed out, an underground solution would eliminate noise--but more importantly suicide. When was the last BART delay caused by suicide? This is an at-least-monthly occurrence on CalTrain that is sad and extremely depressing.

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Posted by USA
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 28, 2014 at 8:17 pm

USA is a registered user.

Another boondoggle like HSR.

The electricity comes from power plants that pollute. The difference is that the power plants are not in the Bay Area. They are located out where the poor Mexicans live. If the Republicans were pushing this, the papers would be screaming racism.

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Posted by USA2
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 28, 2014 at 8:44 pm

Power plants are not in the bay area???? What about the Metcalf plant just south of San Jose, or the one in Hayward, or the one in Pittsburg or the one in Antioch? Of course there is Moss Landing near Monterey, which is not in the bay area but hardly "where the poor Mexicans live". You seem to have swallowed someone's propaganda without checking the facts.

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Posted by Try Again
a resident of Rex Manor
on Mar 1, 2014 at 6:54 am

HOOORIBLE impact. The uglification of the entire corridor. You need another plan Caltrain. I will fight this one tooth and nail. Wait for stand-alone electric engines. No constant power source or 50 foot poles needed.

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Posted by Garrett83
a resident of another community
on Mar 1, 2014 at 9:14 am

Garrett83 is a registered user.

I am for it, build now before it gets expensive. Freeways are ugly, big giant overpasses, signs, poles and the noise.

BART is fenced off, security and other means to keep people away from their tracks. Caltrain doesn't have much in way to keep people off tracks.

Time to leave the 19th century train system.

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Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Jackson Park
on Mar 1, 2014 at 9:55 am

@David Harkness:

The last BART suicide was November 2013, which was the third in a six-month period. BART probably averages between 4-6 suicides per year on its tracks.

Caltrain is more like 8-16 track fatalities per year.


Not all electricity is generated by coal/gas-fired power plants. California gets a sizable amount of its power from large hydroelectric. California is also dedicated to increasing the use of renewable energy resources.

On February 24, the California solar generation grid reached a peak of 3600 MW, which is roughly about ten percent of available power resources. With other renewable energy resources (thermal, wind, etc.), renewables make up roughly 15 percent of California's available power resources. The long-term goal is for a third of California's power to be provide by renewable sources.

@Try Again:

Again, carrying around batteries is not energy efficient because of the extra weight. There's also a bit of efficiency lost by battery storage. Also, the weight issue of on-board batteries negatively impacts performance, specifically acceleration and deceleration.

High-speed rail worldwide is almost exclusively operated by electric trains using overhead catenaries because those trains can rapidly accelerate and decelerate. Why is that important? Because there are sections of track (typically areas of sparse population, rural areas) where the trains can operate at maximum operational speeds (170-200mph), but must slow down to speeds more like 60-80 mph in densely populated areas, or of course, coming to stop at a station.

A standalone electric train carrying its own batteries simply can't compete with an electric train provided by a constant power source.

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Posted by AC
a resident of another community
on Mar 1, 2014 at 4:10 pm

AC is a registered user.

@ David Harkness,

In fairness, there really weren't "standards" per se when BART was built. Honestly they made a very workable system that has served for a good long time based on the technologies they had available. BART was designed after the New York Subway system. Thing is, the Bay Area at large isn't like the island of Manhattan. And even the NYC Metro subway is fed by outlying regional transit (from the outer burroughs, from Newark, etc).

What we're looking at here is rail transit for the entire Bay Area, and that is where the BART model falls short. Aside from the horrible noise in a tunnel riding on BART (seriously, bring a dB pressure meter sometime), it does operate well and with good safety underground. It's just very expensive and outdated.

Standard rails, parts, and labour sources is the way to go. Caltrain has already taken steps to reduce its labour costs (every Caltrain employee used to be an Amtrak employee, and those kinds of benefits are expensive; ask any American auto maker how much their labour costs are). BART went on strike, what, twice in the second half of last year? Quite a debacle, and because of the irreplaceably specific labour costs.

We need to update our infrastructure certainly, but we need to be able to afford it, both building it and operating it. And that means digging out all the hidden costs and greater transparency to the customer. In this case, to the taxpayer, because these systems are supported in part with tax dollars.

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Posted by SER
a resident of Stierlin Estates
on Mar 1, 2014 at 6:33 pm

BART was build as a non standard system. They wanted to be 'different" from regular railroad systems. Normal railroad gage allows a third rail to be installed next to existing tracks and both trains that use a diesel engine, overhead wires, and rapid transit can use the same tracks. Just look at the train systems in Europe. But the original BART board didn't like a system like that what was build in Toronto, Cleveland, it wanted to be different. Now look at all the extra cost with the wider tracks.

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Posted by Rodger
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Mar 2, 2014 at 9:04 am

I thought Bart was ugly, but now I see that an electric Cal Train will be super ugly. They are planning, I think, to get most of the money from the High Speed Rail project which is just about dead, so this project will probably not happen.

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Posted by Jay Park
a resident of Jackson Park
on Mar 2, 2014 at 11:59 am


That's an artist conceptualization, but yes, that's pretty much what it will look like. And that's because that's how regional commuter trains look like.

Here's a picture of the electric double-deck train recently deployed on the S-Bahn Zurich:

Web Link

Hopefully by the time Caltrain gets electric trains, someone will have decided on a more tasteful livery.

At least it's not the Caltrain logo and graphics from the Nineties. Those were *UGLY*.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Monta Loma
on Mar 2, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Roger, you are so right!
This sort of nonsense is exactly what the judge ruled on.
Crazy train money is only to be used for the crazy train and NOTHING else!
The proposition specified a 2 hour 40 minute trip, a cap on taxpayer funding, private investment, and non subsidized operations.
Sorry, but Caltrain will have look elsewhere for the money to clear cut the corridor and eliminate grade crossings.
This about overpaid bureaucrats dreaming things. Up until pension time.

Like this comment
Posted by SER
a resident of Stierlin Estates
on Mar 2, 2014 at 3:08 pm

Great looking new train in Zurich, I am sure it has more capacity than any current Caltrain. Plus there is a bicycle car for all those riders with their bikes. But in Europe you need a ticket for the bike, they just don't get on the train for free. Also those trains run on time in Switzerland.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2014 at 7:52 pm

As stated in the article, Caltrain is hoping to get half of the funding for the modernization program from HSR. They began preparing this plan long ago, before HSR, but have had no hope of implementing it until now. If they are not allowed to use HSR funds then it will go on hold indefinitely until they can find another funding source. As things stand now Caltrain has no dedicated funding and is paid for by three transit agencies in three counties: VTA, Samtrans and Muni. The Caltrain board has 9 members, 3 from each county. Their funding crisis a few years ago that caused them to reduce service was the result of each of the transit agencies, although Samtrans more than the others, being short of funds. This is a crazy way to run a critical train service. Caltrain needs a dedicated source of funding to give it stability and future predictability regardless of the future of HSR.

Like this comment
Posted by Oh Sure, fine, no problem!
a resident of Gemello
on Mar 3, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Why not 3000 trees and 75 foot towers? What a croc.

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