Guest Opinion: 'Hey Elon, we need Tesla trains not trucks!' | News | Palo Alto Online |


Guest Opinion: 'Hey Elon, we need Tesla trains not trucks!'

Electric engineer says antiquated Caltrain system needs to be replaced

On Oct. 26, Tesla is set to demonstrate its newest baby — long-haul trucks — but it has missed a technically easier target: commuter trains. Here on the Peninsula, politics, money and confusion have turned the iron-horse modernization discussions into horse meat.

The competing proposals are incompatible. Yes, intercity high-speed rail transit will be important in the future. But right now, we need to rethink our commuter rail system, which has been around since Abraham Lincoln was president.

To minimize the cost, improvements have been made piecemeal. We need to revitalize the entire system to encourage people to leave their cars at home — not just to go to work but to attend events in neighboring cities.

We need to facilitate commutes from south of San Jose so that housing pressure will be reduced and industry can flourish. The technology exists, right here in Silicon Valley; we just need to harness it and replace the antiquated Caltrain system.

No one imagined 30 years ago that batteries could dramatically reduce the cost of commuter rail service by eliminating both third rails between stations and the need to change many existing grade crossings. Unfortunately, this proposed commuter system is incompatible with intercity High-Speed Rail.

Electrification has begun on an old Caltrain system that is ill-suited to commuter needs and demands very expensive grade crossing updates. Caltrain wants the money for the electrification and apparently does not care that the resulting commuter train is a disaster. It is not too late to do the job right, optimizing both the commute and High-Speed Rail systems at reduced cost.

In the trenches

Burying the high-speed electric train has become a priority — but trench depth is crucial. In heavily populated areas, placing the high-speed electric train largely in a shallow trench would be practical, with the price of construction a fraction of the cost of a tunnel. Low-height BART-like cars would operate in 10-foot-deep trenches without third rails or overhead wires.

In most areas, the trenches could be covered over by buildings or parks, and the real estate reused, recouping perhaps $4 million per acre. Passing over creeks and under roads would be far more easily done with a low-height tunnel/trench. Imagine the commuter train running often beneath the existing Caltrain tracks. As those tracks would be used after midnight for freight, there would be no urgent need to change the grade crossings for safety or traffic reasons. No excavations for underpasses. Nothing removed. In open areas, the commute train could use the old tracks. In the long run, the disruption created by the old tracks might become history, as freight goes via Tesla trucks, and the unused tracks removed. Yahoo!

New design required

Commute requirements demand a different type of passenger car design from the existing Caltrain double-deckers:

• The lower the car height, the shallower the trench, the cheaper the dig.

• Bicycles could be loaded quickly through a side door — not lifted into a baggage car. Spaces could be reserved and paid for in advance for ease of access, with cell phone payment and ID. Whatever it is, it has to be fast!

• Disabled folks could also board quickly through a side door into a compartment. No time-consuming steps to lower and lift, no pallets, no delays. No long aisles. They could just roll on.

• This proposed car is nothing like the existing Caltrain cars; it is designed for commuters, period.

A battery-powered commuter train would meet the requirements of fast acceleration, elimination of a third rail and overhead wires between stations, and ready deployment of single-car trains.

Here are the nuts and bolts: With the train operating on $50,000 of Tesla-like car batteries, its acceleration and grade tolerance could be at least twice that of a diesel-electric. Third rails would be needed only in the stations.

Even better, inductive charging could eliminate the need for a third rail and ease safety concerns. Add in regenerative braking, and much of the energy used in accelerating the train could be recovered by using the motors as generators: slowing the train, recharging the batteries, recycling the energy.

Because no overhead wires or third rails would be needed between stations, work on overhead wires could stop immediately.

Trying to make a commuter rail mesh with a system designed for intercity travel is wasteful. A commuter rail requires fast acceleration and rapid adjustment to meet passenger demands. Special event and frequent evening service could be easily accommodated with shorter — or longer — trains as needed. The high-speed rail, by contrast, does not require fast acceleration or flexible scheduling. Instead, it would be more economical to run longer trains less frequently, on set schedules.

However, such a system is unfriendly to commuters — and inflexible. We have found that Caltrain's poor nighttime service makes it difficult to use public transit to attend social and cultural events.

Instead of trying to turn the high-speed rail into a one-size-fits-all form of transportation, we need to link efficient commuter and long-distance trains at transit hubs.

The best commute system for the Peninsula is clearly practical with today's technology and at far lower cost than a compromise Caltrain conversion that promises awful commuter service.

Allen Podell is an electrical engineer and inventor living in Palo Alto. He can be reached at


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14 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 20, 2017 at 10:12 pm

Last I looked, trains need tracks to take them places. We got all the tracks we're gonna get, which is less trackage than when Lincoln was president. Tracks gotta go where riders wanna go, or no riders. No riders, no trains.

So keep on truckin', Elon.

15 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 20, 2017 at 10:19 pm

The addled ageing hippies and party apparatchiks are pursuing their antiquated vision of the future and Elon Musk is pursuing his vision of the future.

Moving people around on a one dimensional rail system with modified freight cars is not part of Musk's vision.

15 people like this
Posted by Smart
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 21, 2017 at 2:02 am

"We need to facilitate commutes from south of San Jose so that housing pressure will be reduced and industry can flourish."

Or maybe we need to facilitate moving companies that have outgrown Palo Alto to places like San Jose that want the growth. People need to get around for more than just going to work, and we simply don't have a political system that will ever produce, say, the Swiss rail system. The destruction of any reasonable traffic circulation to accommodate every company that wants a Palo Alto address is stupid, environmentally unsound, and not even safe. San Jose can accommodate a lot of growth and wants it. Stanford U is our neighbor and cannot move the way companies like Facebook can when they grow.

Musk has the right idea - smart trucks will save lives.

3 people like this
Posted by musky intern
a resident of another community
on Oct 22, 2017 at 11:12 am

The reality is the the commuter rail and light rail systems are already 20 years obsolete.
Progress is the real answer and the progress is in all renewable all electric transportation everywhere all the time.
Hyperloops, high speed electric trains, flying passenger drones, busses and cars.
The disasterous and short sighted politics of greed and self promotion have already taken front seat in this ride.The goal of not only Silicon Valley but also US policy should be introduced to the world that for all freight and public transportation of large numbers of people that the political will to disassemble the fossil fuel industry's chokehold on the expansion of the renewables industry has to be the Gov'ts highest priority. Set the example for others to follow or be lost to MIC and the middle east dictating the destiny of the US, all of us can get anywhere we want to go if we truly detach ourselves from the Petro-chem solutions being offered by the PTB and the staus quo to solve our highest priorities, economically, socially and politically. Funding these transitions to renewables is the only way to prevent the utter collapse of civilization. Pain and discomfort always accompanies disruption but without short term pain there is no long term gain,
and growth ceases to occur across all markets, cultures and societies...

Like this comment
Posted by Neil
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Oct 22, 2017 at 11:29 am

Tesla's mission is to reduce emissions. Freight trucks account for 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation industry (passenger cars are 60%). This industry accounts for 34% of all emissions in the US. Those are big chunks.

It is in our far, far greater longterm interest that they continue to convert both of these subsets of the transportation industry.

12 people like this
Posted by Pat Burt
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 22, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Pat Burt is a registered user.

Musk is pursuing Tessa trains on two fronts.
First, Tesla and SpaceX are sponsoring design competitions among the firms developing hyperloop technologies based on the open source design that Musk provided four years ago. The progress on that technology appears to be accelerating rapidly with the leading company now using a full scale test track for its validations. Richard Branson just became a major investor in them.
Second, Musk announced his tunneling company last year and they have very recently begun a first 10 mile tunnel for hyperloop under a Maryland state freeway allowed as a utility easement with the intention that it will become a 35 mile tube between Baltimore and D.C.
It appears that the technology is on pace to achieve a stated goal of full scale proof of concept within 1-2 years and a resulting global shutdown is high speed rail investment. Hyperloop is planned to run at 3X the speed of HSR and faster than jets, lower capital cost than HSR and a fraction of the energy required for HSR or jet travel while able to be run on clean electricity.
They still have a lot to validate, but the technology is looking more feasible and within a reasonable horizon.

5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 22, 2017 at 1:26 pm

"They still have a lot to validate, but the technology is looking more feasible and within a reasonable horizon."

We KNOW the technology is feasible. It was fully demonstrated 40 years ago and is being built in developing countries like China.

What is not feasible in politically senescent America is the will to invest in infrastructure, which has been stalled in the USA since the Interstate system was completed in the early seventies. Private investment is good, but can Musk find enough people in DC who are in a big hurry to get to Baltimore to make the system financially viable?

9 people like this
Posted by Lmao!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 22, 2017 at 3:12 pm

Haven't you learned yet? It's not about needs, it's about what Elon wants! No one needs to space travel. No one needs a Model S. Everyone needs clean water, but I bet Elon doesn't give a second thought.

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 22, 2017 at 4:39 pm

There's a lot of interesting comments here. I have a couple of comments.

First, just because one innovator is looking in only one direction it doesn't follow that someone just as innovative isn't doing the same thing elsewhere. There's a lot going on about improving drinking water around the planet, just not by someone with a famous name. So don't blame Elon for drinking water when it isn't his thing.

Second, if you look through history, there are just as many inventions that end up being dead ends as those that make it. Trouble is, nobody knows which are the dead ends and which ones will work and become the norm. Remember 8 tracks and beta tapes? It could be said that without failures nobody is going to try again and find something else that will work next time. I would rather see a few failed enterprises than no enterprises at all.

My own thoughts are that programmable pod cars on tracks would make good sense for commuting, but I'm no expert and wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to make it happen. I just like the fact that there are those out there who are willing to put their vision into reality and if they make the world a better place if they succeed then we need them to try. Along the way there may be some expensive mistakes too. If everyone was too cautious or afraid to try we wouldn't get very far.

The world needs more boffins! Some will succeed and some will fail. Long live the boffins!

4 people like this
Posted by Alternative View
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 23, 2017 at 11:30 am

Good Op-Ed! Can someone please let the public know why freight gets the right of way at night? What is being transported to and from San Francisco that up to 3 freight trains run a night. Too, more commuter service at night could transport thousands of service workers, custodial, etc. that clean giant tech complexes along the peninsula corridor – not just offer people an alternate ride to and from cultural events.

However this said. Walking or riding a bike from the North and South track for up to two miles to their destination also causes consternation and a major reluctance on the part of the would be commuter. As soon as one gets into our automobiles, we've lost the use of our legs.

Like this comment
Posted by Allen Podell
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 23, 2017 at 1:47 pm

By the time the commuter electric train is running, driverless cars will carry people to and from the rail backbone.
Economical passenger service into the wee hours is practical, because a single electric car can run every quarter hour, when multi-car trains become ridiculous.

9 people like this
Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2017 at 7:16 pm

If you are already in a driverless car, why would you take it to a train station? Why not take it all the way to your destination?

There is probably no place to park at the train station and you are probably going to have to catch another car at the end of the line to get to your final destination. Maybe you can ride a bike (if you brought a bike along in your driverless car), or you could walk, but to get to a typical destination you need to employ three modes of transportation to take one trip. Each change of mode involves a delay of 10-15 minutes.

One-dimensional trains just can't compete for efficiency with two-dimensional modes of transportation. Caltrain serves less than 1% of the peninsula's population. People voted with their feet a long time ago and Caltrain lost by an overwhelming majority.

Like this comment
Posted by Lives by the Tracks
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 24, 2017 at 8:57 am

[Post removed.]

2 people like this
Posted by Sunny
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 24, 2017 at 9:55 am

We need to improve our local transportation infrastructure before adding high-speed rail, which will do nothing to alleviate traffic on our overly congested streets. High-speed rail won't improve the train system we currently have as the San Jose to San Francisco portion is piggy-backing on the system already in place. It's not improving how we get to a train station or how we arrive at our final destination after arriving at the train station. We need a better bus/light rail system that will actually take us to where we want to go in a timely manner, like in Europe where cars are not needed to get around. That's where our money needs to go.

High Speed rail is nothing more than a giant housing project sold as a transportation project - it's about new housing made to look attractive because of its proximity to high-speed rail that will take them to San Jose and San Francisco. Wake up people!

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