Editorial: Caltrain's bad judgment | January 9, 2015 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 9, 2015

Editorial: Caltrain's bad judgment

Electrification project is pushed forward with impunity

With trains on the Peninsula currently operating at record, standing-room-only levels and providing an increasingly unpleasant commute experience, Caltrain is appropriately eager to get started this year on its $1.5 billion electrification project.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2015 at 8:49 am

I don't blame Caltrain. I blame Palo Alto for not working with them on a unified solution. Clearly, the only practical way to build grade separations through Palo Alto is to elevate the train tracks. San Mateo County have realized this and have helped Caltrain to elevate the tracks through several cities there. A few years ago, Caltrain tried to engage Palo Alto with proposed grade separations by elevating the tracks, but Palo Alto shot them down by repeated whining and even lawsuits. If Palo Alto had gotten on board then, the work might be done by now. I don't blame Caltrain for ignoring the city now. The ball is in Palo Alto's court now, don't expect Caltrain to revive the proposals unless Palo Alto shows that they are serious this time.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 9:04 am

Once again, there is no ownership of Traffic as a regional problem. When one entity makes a decision it is tough cookies to all others.

So tired of the blame game. Work together to get this done and alleviate any consequential problems.

Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2015 at 9:09 am

What about Berlin Walls!!!!

Posted by hmmm
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 9, 2015 at 10:13 am

Nothing prevents Palo Alto from taking the lead and implementing these mitigation measures. This is fully in our control. Caltrain doesn't have to pay for that, but we can and we should. People are concerned about the extra traffic from having to wait for more trains, but they should be much more concerned about all the people who no longer fit on the Caltrain and who are going to join us at those intersections in their own cars. THAT'S the real traffic nightmare.

Posted by Paul
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 9, 2015 at 11:04 am

Caltrain is simply following the lead Jerry Brown and the High Speed Rail Authority provided. HSR has flunked every independent financial analysis known to man. Jerry Brown knew from the beginning how to put lipstick on a pig, and he had big labor and the Democratic Party strangle hold on California as his aces in the hole.

Does no one get it that the rail line that cuts every Peninsula community in half is about to eat Silicon Valley alive like the snake that it is? At-grade auto crossings are just one Achilles heal point of failure.

Caltrain electrification sounded good, until you learn the details. HSR sounded good, until you learned the details.

Posted by Susan
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2015 at 11:25 am

VTA and the city of Palo Alto need to participate in frequent bus service along major corridors to the train stations to alleviate the traffic congestion!

Posted by Steve Rock
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 9, 2015 at 11:39 am

I think improved Cal Train service is very important and grade separation is essential and not very costly. A previous article gave an estimate of about $75 million for each crossing. Palo Alto has a population of about 67,000 which means about $1,100 per person. Assuming a lifetime of at least 50 years (I think the Oregon under crossing is that old), yields less than $22/year/resident/crossing. This is less than $66/yr for all three Palo Alto crossings. (My estimate does not include interest and meantenance costs). I do not use these crossing often, but I am still willing to pay this amount to make Palo Alto a better place to live. My guess is that several thousand people use these crossing every day, which implies over a million crossings per year, so the cost per crossing is about 0.007 cents/crossing.
Big improvements in other public transportation systems to reduce auto usage and pollution is also an important part of the total picture to reduce traffic problems.

Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 9, 2015 at 12:08 pm

This is what grade separation look like in San Carlos (Howard @ Old Country Rd).

Web Link

It is not a berlin wall, not comparable to elevated trains, not dark, very pleasant, not much worse than Alma is now, and better than the dank creepy University and Oregon underpasses. Palo Alto is making a huge mistake not working toward a similar solution.

Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2015 at 12:25 pm

Deep underpasses (like Oregon and Embarcadero) are narrow and dark and really bad for pedestrians and bicyclists and wheelchairs and baby strollers. Bridges over the tracks are even worse (no pedestrians allowed on San Antonio Road). We much prefer the elevated tracks that San Mateo County has.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 12:31 pm

That's lovely. I'd love to have that right across from my house. What does it look like with a train on it, and a bunch of ugly overhead electrical wires? Oh, and next time you are in San Carlos make a sound recording of a train passing by, and post a sound file for us

elevated transit = urban blight

Posted by Hugh
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2015 at 12:41 pm

This should be thought of as two issues: electrification and grade-crossing safety. Let's opt for electrification, and get quieter, better service. Grade crossings can be worked on separately.

It seems in the article that the advantages of quietness and better service are implied to be disadvantages. We could go retro with old-fashioned steam engines which make more noise and are slower.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 12:52 pm


>We could go retro with old-fashioned steam engines which make more noise and are slower.

Or we could could look toward the future for a change, and electrify with battery powered locomotives (or fuel cells). Overhead electrification is a 100 year old solution, and almost as dated a steam power.

Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2015 at 12:53 pm

Be realistic, do you ever see anyone sitting outside on their porch looking out at Alma Street? Of course not. This is already the ugliest, smelliest, noisiest street in Palo Alto.

No one driving down Alma Street is going to notice the elevated train tracks as they speed through town. Many drivers will, however, greatly appreciate safer faster traffic through grade separated intersections.

What are the NIMBYs really holding out for? Some sort of Alma Street beautification project that reduces car traffic to 2 lanes and reduces the speed limit to 25mph and adds wide beautiful sidewalks on each side? Think of the outcry from the car lobby if the city ever tries to build that.

Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Marie is a registered user.

As a homeowner on Alma Street, I really prefer a trenched solution with intermittent covered sections that would connect our neighborhoods and add more and safer school crossings. I find the elevated track in San Carlos extremely ugly. Selling rights to build on the covered sections would go a long way to pay for the additional cost. This would be a win-win for everyone, instead of pitting transit advocates against local neighborhoods. As a supporter of CARRD (Californians for Responsible Rail Development) and a long-time fan of travel by rail, I want a solution that will work for all of us.

The plans for grade separations need to be decided before electrification takes place, and the design for electrification to allow for those decisions. By going ahead with electrification with no mitigation, then many possible solutions will be eliminated by default. Caltrain and HSR have a long history of ignoring other affected people and ramming through solutions that fit the needs of politicians rather than the actual transit users and affected neighbors.

Remember - the original plans for the HSR included permanently taking two-three lanes of Alma to widen the railbed. I think it highly likely the current plan for electrification construction plans to take 2-3 lanes of Alma for years. I believe it already plans to remove all the trees, during the construction, along with the benefit of their absorbing pollution and sound. What are the details for that?

We don't live in isolation. It is not being a NIMBY to want a solution that enhances everyones quality of live, as opposed to cramming bad design down everyone's throat. Lowest cost is not best. I hope local politicians can band together to come up with solutions that can work for everyone.

Posted by Puffy Duffy
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 9, 2015 at 1:40 pm

We can point fingers and play the 'blame game' or we can focus on realistic solutions. The under-passes at University, Embarcadero and Oregon are not user friendly; and the cost of building sub-grade crossings is significantly higher than building the above-grade crossings like the one noted by Mr. Recycle.

The alternative is simply an ever growing amount of congestion. Can't look back and re-locate the rail line to abut 101 (not sure why that was not considered back in the 1960's - early 1970's when passenger service really began -- prior to that the track served primarily to move commercial/industrial goods). But it's far too late to relocate the line, and the choices are simple: essentially do nothing (leave as is), build sub-grade auto crossings like we have now, or build above-grade railway crossings. It's 3 locations and the impact on property values in the immediate vicinities should be negligable compared to present situation.

Posted by Mr.Recyle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 9, 2015 at 1:43 pm

@Ahem - trains sound better in San Carlos than here because the horns aren't blaring.

Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 9, 2015 at 1:46 pm

@Marie - Of course a trench would be great, but it will never happen. Too much money. Elevation is practical, and it wouldn't make Alma look any worse than it currently is.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 1:55 pm

Not sure about elevation at Charleston since it would have to be at grade at San Antonio to get under the road. Not even sure if there is enough space for the electrical paraphernalia on the top of an electric train anyway. It may be that the tracks will have to be lowered to accommodate that even in its present configuration.

Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Mountain View has the same grade non-separation problems in their city, especially Castro Street and Rengstorff Ave. I expect they will be willing to work with Palo Alto and Caltrain to get the tracks elevated through both cities, at least as far south as Hwy 85. Replace the antique San Antonio overpass with a level street that passes under the train tracks. This will be much safer for pedestrians than the existing San Antonio Road.

Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 9, 2015 at 2:33 pm

Put it in a trench, cover it with solar panels, and stop all the whining

Posted by HSRsupporters
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 9, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Photo in the press this week of Palo Alto council member Liz Kniss at Jerry Brown's HSR kickoff celebration. Her appearance at this event could be interpreted as an indication that her political ambitions may require quietly supporting Jerry Brown and his HSR ambitions. Kniss was the only council member to attend. We should keep in mind actions speak louder than words.

Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 9, 2015 at 4:03 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Oops - sorry. I accidentally posted this on another similar thread but I am reposting as I'm responding directly to Mr. Recycle.

Mr. Recycle

Actually no. the elevated track in San Carlos is much more ugly than the trees next to the tracks I see today, which also filter pollution, which berms do not.

In terms of cost, I've never seen a true cost comparison. Caltrain never included the land acquisition costs required to construct a berm and a below grade crossing, nor have I ever seen any value assigned to air rights if the train was trenched, and buildings and parks were built over half the trench. Both these numbers would change the equation considerably. I would much rather have a apartment building and more pedestrian/bike crossings than an unsightly berm, which would also mean that what noise remained would be spread much wider. While there would be no more horns or engine noise, the actual sound of trains on a track is quite loud. Having been around elevated electrified railways in Chicago and NY, i would only consider them quieter than the current trains, but not at all quiet.

As I have double paned windows, the noise of commuter trains is negligible so I doubt that will change and I've gotten used to the horns. If I'm awake, I still notice freight trains. So I see no real improvement from electrified trains per se for the surrounding neighborhoods.

If we had trenches, I would expect almost no noise at all. What I want is a solution that will improve conditions for everyone, in perpetuity, not a one-sided solution that helps 10,000 additional commuters, and worsens conditions for hundreds of thousands living in neighborhoods surrounding the tracks.

Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 9, 2015 at 9:19 pm

@Marie - Alma is the second ugliest street in Palo Alto after El Camino. You could call it tree lined, but it you could also call it chain link fence lined. And if the train isn't elevated, you can call it traffic jam lined. I agree trenches would be better, but again, it will never ever happen. So the only practical solution is to elevate the train. Doing nothing is the worst outcome, and pining for an impossible trench is doing nothing.

Posted by overwhelming mess
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 9:44 pm

Ugliness is spreading across all the streets, neighborhoods, commercial
districts. The downward spiral which the City Council and staff has put us in over the last dozen years is playing out with the full impacts not
even being felt yet by a long shot. Their legacy is a series of large
intractable, unsolvable problems and underneath that continued
degradation through just continued bad management, enforcement,poor
values. In a nutshell, the new Council is facing an overwhelming mess.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 10:14 pm

In actual fact, Palo Alto is now in a race against time. As soon as the plans start taking shape, it will be a lot harder to make a decision on how to deal with all the crossings, at grade or not. Once working plans are made, it will be impractical to stop things going which will be so much harder to work around. This has to be done asap to get ahead of electrification and prevent the present state of things at each crossing continue with grade separation.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 9, 2015 at 10:25 pm

Mr Recycle,

Alma Street is a paradise compared to the blighted areas in the shadow of elevated transit.

I grew up in the Philadelphia area. 69th Street in Philly was a thriving commercial street (think SF Union Square) until they built the El. Today 69th Street is 15 blocks of toothless, yellow eyed, zombies stumbling in and out of boarded-up crack houses in the shadows of the El.

It took it took 15-20 years for it all to unravel, but nobody in their right mind wants to live in the shadow of elevated transit, so the sane move out, and the insane or desperate move in.

elevated transit = urban blight

Posted by Sunshine
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 9, 2015 at 10:27 pm

I arrived in palo alto in 1964. I wondered why all the train crossings were at grade level. It seemed unsafe and appropriate only for undeveloped areas. Same for non-electric system as trains ran between two cities.
Now we can do both, and we should as soon as possible. Then we can add high speed rail to it.
Wouldn't it be great for palo alto which likes to consider itself an ideal lace to live in the midst of all the latest developments to join the 21st century in the area of rail transit.

Posted by Clem
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2015 at 11:20 pm

@Resident: this "race" you write of is already over. The preliminary design is in the books, with only the details left for the Request For Proposals to be issued in the next couple of months, to be worked out with the contractor. Have you ever noticed those strange circles about two feet wide, scored at regular intervals into the concrete of the train platforms at University and Cal Ave? They are for future pole footings of the overhead contact system.

Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 10, 2015 at 3:00 am

@Clem, speaking of things already baked-in, have you seen the Transbay Center progress in downtown S.F. recently? Impressive hole in the ground right now, worth a look. When the residential towers and the Salesforce skyscraper are completed (2017), I don't know what increases in Caltrain ridership are projected, even before the extension from 4th & Townsend.

Posted by Mr. Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 10, 2015 at 1:53 pm

@ Ahem - except no one is proposing anything like the elevated trains of Chicago or NY. Those are tracks directly above roads and sidewalks, this is a berm on an existing right of way next to a rod. I agree with you that elevated trains like you describe are a blight. I've been to Chicago, and to San Carlos, they are not the same. The elevation in San Carlos wouldn't make Alma any darker than it is today. Probably less because the current fence and shrubbery come right to the edge of the street, where is there is an incline to the elevation in San Carlos. I'd argue the closest thing in palo alto to the blight of elevated trains are the underpasses at University and Oregon. Dark, noisy, bad for pedestrians and bikes.

This wouldn't be all that different from Alma near Homer where the tracks are a little higher than the road, and that allowed the pedestrian underpass. Anyone can look at this picture of Chicago vs San Carlos - there is no comparison as to the impact.

Chicago vs San Carlos:
Web Link

Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 10, 2015 at 4:26 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Let us close all those grade crossings to cars. Perfect solution, with 0 pollution.
A Ped tunnel under should only cost about a $1M after all the Fibre and pipelines in the right of way have been relocated .
Lots cheaper than a solution that allows cars.
This also Eliminates the Horn blowing which should make Mr. Ahem's property worth something.
While we are at it. Rush Bus Rapid thru so we can have a way for all those who can no longer drive from the Alma side to move.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2015 at 5:11 pm

@ Recycle,

The "berm" is just El-lite, and it will suffer from many of the same ill effects.

The berm takes what will be an ugly piece of infrastructure composed of crushed rock, rough concrete, rusty rails, and a tangle of poles and wires, and puts it on a pedestal.

The complete assemblage (berm, tracks, trains, and overhead wires) will form a composite structure that will overwhelm the architectural scale of homes, schools, parks, and small enterprises on either side of the tracks. It will be visible above most tree lines, and from the elevated position will broadcast the other-worldly whir, whoosh, and low bass vibration, for several blocks in either direction.

In the morning and evening trains will cast long, kaleidoscopic shadows over the surrounding neighborhood. The tracks will be bordered on either side by a tall chain link fence (in an attempt to reduce suicides). Cash strapped Caltrain will pinch pennies by doing only the minimum repairs and maintenance needed to keep the system running, and the area between the fences will become a collection zone for every type of litter, and refuse. Paint will peal, and not be repainted. Surfaces will become covered by graffiti, and only occasionally cover by a mismatched grey swatch.

Imagine the Berlin Wall with a train rumbling on top. Disneyland isn't real... elevated transit = urban blight.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2015 at 5:35 pm


I live far from the train. My property value will not be effected.

I like your solution better than Recycle's. Your solution should help maintain the rail associated blight at it current level, and it will be a lot easier to demolish, and restore the neighborhood around the rails, when the self-driving car makes the obsolescence of local-rail undeniable.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2015 at 6:00 pm

Ahem, I'll bite.

Please tell me how the self driving car will make the train obsolete?

I get that self driving cars are coming. I get that they will change how we view car ownership. I get that perhaps a "caravan" of self driving cars along I5 could be a better solution than HSR.

At present, the law has been fixed that a self driving car still has to have a real live driver ready to take over at the wheel. This means that people who are blind, too young, too old, and various other reasons will not be able to use them to get to where they are going on a regular basis.

If a self driving car still needs a driver, then that car cannot drive itself to a central location to park or wait for its next summons after the driver has reached the destination and exited the car.

If a self driving car can be used by multi people, then how will it get from where person A has finished with it to where person B is waiting for it?

If a self driving car is safer, which it probably will be, it will still need to take space on a road/highway/ and for a very long time still share that space with old fashioned driver driven cars. If more and more people are moving here, living here, and working here, and if they still feel the need to use a car (self drive or driver driven) they will still be making the roads busy and filling up desirable parking spots in business/recreation/residential locations.

A train will still get a large number of people to a central location (eg downtown San Francisco or downtown San Jose) in a faster time than being stuck in traffic on a highway. A train will still get people to intermediary stops along its route in an efficient manner. A car may be the best first mile/last mile part of the commute, but parking those cars are still going to be necessary for all apart from those that are in biking/walking distance particularly those who are too (fill in the blank) to walk/bike.

Looking 100 years ahead is one thing, but looking 10 years ahead, self driving cars are not going to make trains obsolete unless you can (a) change the law so that a driver is not going to be needed and (b) you can see something that I can't see, which is entirely possible. So please explain further how self driving cars are going to make trains obsolete within a decade.

Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 10, 2015 at 7:12 pm

@Resident - The rules you mention requiring a driver are from of the Autonomous Vehicle Testing program permit from the DMV. Because they are still in testing phase, you want extra safety precautions. The legislation covering real private or commercial autonomous vehicles has been created yet, but will certainly allow unmanned cars.

@ahem - The El runs on the top of streets and sidewalks, over people's heads. That is nothing like what is in San Carlos, where you have landscaped, unfenced track. As for noise, the loudest most disturbing part of the trains currently are the horns they have to blow, which would go away.

Posted by Guy_Fawkes
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 10, 2015 at 7:28 pm

Guy_Fawkes is a registered user.

The City recently hired a consultant to look at trenching costs vs grade crossings.
Web Link

Two variables - how quickly can the train descend into a trench (1% grade vs 2% grade) vs the cost of eminent domain to seize the houses necessary to build overpasses for cars.

If we can build a 2% grade, the cost of trenching vs grade crossing is the same. The costs of grade crossings is much, much higher than someone cited earlier in this thread. See the report.

Posted by Realist
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2015 at 7:37 pm

It's comical to read how many people — including the Weekly's editorial writer — seem to place blame on Caltrain for Palo Alto's at-grade crossing situation.

If you look at the history of virtually every grade separation along the route, those seperations exist because local municipalities took the initiative to get them done.

San Carlos and Belmont were done because leaders in those cities made it happen.

Fifth Avenue is the result of work by the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

Some years ago in San Mateo, city leaders decided they wanted an underpass where no crossing existed. That's why 39th Avenue goes under the tracks today.

South San Francisco used to have some incredibly dangerous at-grade crossings, but city leaders pushed for overpasses and now they have them.

Even Morgan Hill, which sees but six Caltrains on weekdays and a handful of other trains, managed to build an overpass.

What have Palo Alto's leaders been doing? The need to do something at Churchill, Charleston and Meadow is nothing new. Some sort of underpass or overpass has been needed at those crossings for years, and really, it has nothing to do with electrification.

It's time for Palo Alto's elected officials to show some leadership and get this done. It means compromise. It means some private property will likely be needed for a project that will benefit the entire community. It means members of the City Council should stop making ridiculous assertions that it's unacceptable to take private property to make this happen. It's time to take our heads out of the sand and fix this.

For the poster who believes passenger service along the Peninsula didn't begin until the 1950s, I suggest you check your facts. Trains carrying passengers have been running here since 1864. There may not have been a lot of passengers in 1864, but there were plenty of riders during the first half of the 20th century, including Southern Pacific's premier trains to Los Angeles, the Daylight and the Lark.

Posted by Want Real Public Transit
a resident of Southgate
on Jan 11, 2015 at 1:23 am

Someone wrote:

"A train will still get a large number of people to a central location (eg downtown San Francisco or downtown San Jose) in a faster time than being stuck in traffic on a highway."

But this doesn't happen even now, without self driving cars.

That is, even with the mess caused by multiple driving cultures and large numbers of untrained and unlicensed drivers, it's still significantly faster to get from San Jose to San Francisco by car. Not to mention the practical impact on door to door time of living near a local station that is often bypassed (the situation of the preponderance of residents).

We need a much more sophisticated public transit approach than "one train on its one path" to provide a reasonable alternative to cars on roads.

That approach should map time requirements of public travel for population weighted representations of every residence and destination location in the county, or bay area. Now, the approach is simply, "build more densely near trains!"

Astonishingly primitive and ineffective. We have the technology to actually model the real transportation needs of the entire bay area. We should do that, and work toward an effective public transit system that addresses those needs, rather than bicker over how much we help slow the demise of ancient organizations created to support the best we could do a hundred years ago.

Posted by Daniel
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 11, 2015 at 11:28 am

Over 6 years that I live near the Charleston crossing there was only one instance (correct me if I am wrong) of a true accident - horrible though when the car was stuck under the bar and a woman got killed. There are still questions about why would one stop on rail tracks.
That is compared to 2-3 (again correct me) instances of kids suicide per year.

You will not stop suicides by elevating tracks. Does anyone disagree? It is a matter of family/school bullying/pressure issues.

What are we winning exactly by elevating the tracks?

Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2015 at 11:57 am

Self driving cars will happen but road space will be needed. It will be awhile before all roads will be total self driving cars and not everyone will be able to afford one.

In the meantime driving from place to place by car is efficent but again the only choice to some.

We did have suburban rail on a branch line via Los Altos which was removed. Foothill Expressway is there now. Lawrence Expressway was a rail line.

Bikes are good but no one will ride a bike from Menlo Park/Atherton Station to San Francisco.

Buses are good, flexible but when they get stuck in the same traffic as everybody else commuting.

It will take years for real improvement in the transit/transportation links. In England they are building a rail from north of London to meet up with the main London Eurostar station which in the end will improve travel time to Paris. Here is another story can't get rail to cross the bay.again.

Posted by Neil Shea
a resident of University South
on Jan 11, 2015 at 11:58 am

Several comments imply that we delay investment in proven transportation solutions because of some early testing of "self driving cars". They are a long way off. They require don't read street signs, street/driveway configurations, or follow police or flagman instructions. They don't solve road congestion. Focusing on them is a recipe to let current needs continue to go unmet for the next 10 years.

Web Link

Would you buy a self-driving car that couldn’t drive itself in 99 percent of the country? Or that knew nearly nothing about parking, couldn’t be taken out in snow or heavy rain, and would drive straight over a gaping pothole?

Google often leaves the impression that, as a Google executive once wrote, the cars can “drive anywhere a car can legally drive.” However, that’s true only if intricate preparations have been made beforehand, with the car’s exact route, including driveways, extensively mapped. Data from multiple passes by a special sensor vehicle must later be <b<pored over, meter by meter, by both computers and humans. It’s vastly more effort than what’s needed for Google Maps.

If a new stop light appeared overnight, for example, the car wouldn’t know to obey it.

Among other unsolved problems, Google has yet to drive in snow, and Urmson says safety concerns preclude testing during heavy rains. Nor has it tackled big, open parking lots or multilevel garages. ... Despite progress handling road crews, “I could construct a construction zone that could befuddle the car,” Urmson says.

Pedestrians are detected simply as moving, column-shaped blurs of pixels—meaning, Urmson agrees, that the car wouldn’t be able to spot a police officer at the side of the road frantically waving for traffic to stop.

The car’s sensors can’t tell if a road obstacle is a rock or a crumpled piece of paper, so the car will try to drive around either. Urmson also says the car can’t detect potholes or spot an uncovered manhole if it isn’t coned off.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2015 at 2:34 pm


The criticism you outline are all true, but they will all be solved in about a decade, long before even a modest rail infrastructure project can be completed.

The self-driving car business is using technology to solve the customers problem (door-to-door transit). The rail system needs the customer to solve the business' problem (one-dimensional transit), by restructuring the community to fit rail's business model.

The whole rail business model makes no sense. In order for it to work people need to live in undesirable areas next to the rail line. If by some miracle (or government subsidy) it does grow, the area that rail needs people to live in actually becomes less desirable, because of the increase in rail traffic.

Think about it. How popular would cars be if you had to live next to a freeway to use a car?

Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 11, 2015 at 3:29 pm

I'll wager $1000 that self driving cars already do a substantially better job stopping at stop signs than the average Palo Alto driver.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2015 at 4:06 pm


The questions you raise about the self-driving car are reasoned, and outline some useful though experiments. The one area where I think you are way off, is how long it is going to take (100 years).

If someone asked me how long it was going to take ten years ago, I would have said 100 years, but based on the progress that has been made over the last ten years, it is clear the self-driving car is only about a decade away. The current state of the self-driving car is astonishing.

There are reasons that self-driving car technology is leaping ahead, and rail technology is stagnant. Self-driving car technology is fueled by billions of dollars of capital invested by profitable companies in research to improve their product.

Passenger rail has been a money losing business for decades, has no profits to invest in improving its product, and is completely dependent on government subsidies to fund an infrastructure project based on a 100 year old technology (overhead electrified rail).

To understand the full potential of the self-driving car imagine companies like Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft offering self driving cars door-to-door, on demand from a cell phone, with the whole beehive of pick-ups, and drop-offs choreographed in the cloud by Google. These vehicles can all be battery powered, and will be able to drive themselves to a charging station when they run low on charge.

Would there still be traffic on the freeway at rush hour... probably, but at least you would not have to drive, You could work, watch TV, or maybe even sleep.

As far as the laws are concerned the companies investing in self-driving car technology have powerful lobbies, and will get whatever legislation they need to allow fully autonomous self-driving cars. The current laws requiring a driver, are only an intermediate step.

I don't work for Google, and I'm not really even a Google fan, but the video below might help you understand the potential of this technology.

Frist drive in a selfdriving car: Web Link

Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2015 at 4:31 pm

Ahem, you seem to be ignoring the fact that our current rail systems, which only offer "one demensional transit", are operating well above capacity. Just because something may not be useful to you personally doesn't mean nobody is benefiting.

Posted by Gertrude W. Shaver
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2015 at 5:13 pm

This editorial is like a parody of privilege and NIMBYism. It has to be a sarcastic performance art piece, right?

I don't love Jerry Brown, but his quote from the HSR groundbreaking couldn't be more apt:
"Critique is the engine of the academy, of the newspaper industry, and a lot of our American culture. We need to be critiqued. Whatever the hell that word means. I don't know why they don't just say criticized. It sounds better. But we listen, and we change, and we modify. But we still can build."

Posted by Just a Fact
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 11, 2015 at 5:26 pm

More crossings of any kind are needed, and post-haste. The tracks are already an obstacle to traffic that divides the city in half at the current ( too few) crossings.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2015 at 5:49 pm


Thank you for taking the time to reply to my question.

I find what you say interesting and have watched the video. I can see and even agree with all your points. These 2 people Google cars do have a place and will make a big difference to many people's transport needs. It will probably help the elderly who are no longer safe to drive themselves, the blind, the young, those who want to go out for a drink, and lots of other things. Yes, they will enable people to work as they commute.

But I still don't see how they will take the place of a train full of commuters going to downtown San Francisco even if they are lined up to take them the last mile. I can see how they might be able to get the commuters from their homes to the Caltrain station. But how they can get all these train riders to San Francisco, or points inbetween, when they still have to use the freeways and then hit the busy surface streets to get them to their final destinations?

Regardless of what you say, even if they start taking the same number of passengers as your average minivan or SUV, even if they can take your kids to school after they have dropped you at the station, they will still be clogging up our city streets.

Yes, if every single car on the freeway was a self drive car, I can see how they would be able to drive closer, refrain from pointless lane changes and less likely to have accidents, but it is going to be a very long time before every single car is a self drive car. Even in 10 years, there will still be those who want to drive themselves, can't afford the price of a self drive, or just still driving the old fashioned type of car because they choose not to change their car.

Self drive cars are coming and they will revolutionize car ownership and usage, but I am still not persuaded that they will take the place of commuter trains.

Will they take the place of HSR, possibly, particularly if a self-drive lane on I5 could be utilized - even by people renting a self-drive car just for this purpose.

I could still be persuaded, but as yet, no.

Posted by Neil Shea
a resident of University South
on Jan 11, 2015 at 8:34 pm

Both political parties have advocated an "all of the above" energy strategy. It's probably foolish to think that trains, improved cars, plush employer buses or any single approach by itself will solve all our transportation needs. Our growing economy will attract many more workers and residents up and down the Peninsula, and we can't build enough roads for everyone to only use private cars.

PA's recent Peninsula Corridor study confirmed that residents want better cross-town mobility, across Alma/RR/El Camino. Grade separations are long overdue.

It's easy to blame Caltrain but of course it is just a JPA (Joint Powers Authority) of the 3 counties along the rail line. It does not have its own revenue stream or taxing authority. San Mateo County has directed revenues from its transportation tax to several grade seps there while Santa Clara County has allowed BART to suck up almost all previous taxes and now wants more.

The biggest voice in this is former state senator, current SC Cty Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents the North County and lives and keeps an office in PA. He planed a big role in negotiating the HSR blend that avoided HSR paying for grade seps, and for the Caltrain electrification funds for the current project. He will have to vote on any future county transportation taxes for BART or anything else.

As others have said, we can push our leaders to address this or live with longer delays at these key cross-town routes. In any case, it is great that electrification will eliminate diesel pollution and speed service.

Posted by San Carlos Resident
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2015 at 11:28 am

I live in San Carlos, very close to the train tracks in fact and they don't bother me at all. In fact I hardly even notice the train anymore until I get to RWC and have make a left onto Whipple from southbound El Camino. If you get to that light at the wrong time, when multiple trains are passing you could miss the light 2 or 3 times and all the traffic backs up and becomes congested. San Carlos did it right.

Posted by Ahem
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2015 at 11:54 am


You seem to be ignoring the fact that even operating at capacity the one-dimensional local rail system only serves about 30,000 customers out of a total population on the peninsula of 4,500,000 (0.67%), and blights the neighborhoods on either side of the tracks for most of the 30 mile distance between SJ to SF.

Next time you ride the train, close the laptop, look out the window, and try to imagine what it is like for the people who have to live next to the tracks.

Posted by Robert Gipson
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2015 at 12:45 pm

The threat of federal preemption is patently fraudulent. Federal preemption only applies to state laws that impede interstate commerce.

Posted by Robert
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2015 at 12:46 pm

I don't have to "imagine" very hard, I live next to the tracks myself. And just like everyone else who does, the tracks were there long before I moved in.

Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2015 at 1:24 pm

In perfect world I see a single transit system with many users and different types of vehicles. Trains, Buses and ferry network that would all be coordinated and timed that you can set your watch.

Farebox revenue will increase when more users chose to ride the system. More improvements are needed and expansion of the use of vehicles.

Some cities that installed RBT increased ridership so much that a subway could be possible. A subway down El Camino Real but only in a perfect world.

Posted by Neil Shea
a resident of University South
on Jan 12, 2015 at 2:58 pm

Neil Shea is a registered user.


Why don't you quit throwing around your 'blight' word. PA and all the communities grew up around the train. All of us including you moved here with the train as a central part of the community. PA is the 2nd busiest station on Caltrain because people value that option. You hear above from San Carlos Resident that his/her community is *improved* by raising the tracks on a modest berm and no longer waiting for trains to cross.

Maybe your vision is for everyone to drive a personal vehicle and maximally congest all our roads and freeways. Obviously you have a lot of free time to wait at crossings, and you don't have any work to do on your electronic device while you are in transit. Good for you. But if anything is going to cause a 'blight' it will be delaying transportation alternatives, requiring everyone to use a personal car, congesting all our roads, and pushing silicon valley businesses to other cities with better transportation options.

Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 12, 2015 at 4:36 pm

It may be interesting to debate what "shoulda" been done or what the future might bring, but the reality is that the deciders have determined that Caltrain service will continue for many years to come and that the existing corridor will be modified to support electrification and high speed rail.

From my perspective, we should encourage our City Council to minimize the negative impacts by finding a way to bury the beast at the crossings. Yeah, it's not the least expensive option, but quality of living simply does not come on the cheap.

Posted by SH
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2015 at 4:55 pm

Had to comment on this
I lived on the east side of San Carlos off Old County road on Springfield couple doors down for 16 years (moved 14 years ago) Before they elevated the the tracks it wasn't too bad- the trees filtered the dust/dirt - the noise wasn't too bad. After the tracks were elevated (I won't even mention the mess during the construction) the noise was worse even though the said it would go over the houses and without the greenery it was so dusty/dirty. I doubt it's improved.

Posted by Robert
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2015 at 11:53 am

I'm sick of Caltrain being blamed for the backups on Charleston and Meadow. The big cause of those backups? Priority for heavy Alma traffic. When the crossing gates are down the traffic goes through on Alma, and then when the gates go up more traffic goes through on Alma. There is some loss of efficiency by cutting crossing cycles short, but that is a 20 seconds per train crossing, max, so about 1% loss of efficiency for each train crossing. In the current design eastbound Charleston and Meadow have the longest wait after a crossing interruption, and are most likely to be preempted a second time if two trains are tightly timed. If the priority could be rotated, or changed morning vs evening, the longest delays could be reduced. Without the bias and long light cycle for Alma the crossing backups could be reduced. The problem is the traffic level, not the train.

Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 13, 2015 at 12:35 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Mr. Recycle: Even if Alma is the second ugliest street in Palo Alto, and I am not at all sure of that, the comparison is against a city that today has mostly beautiful, tree-lined streets. If you compare Alma to other 4-5 lane streets in the Bay Area, it would be one of the prettiest. There are trees and bushes on both the right and left side for the vast majority of the street. Most of the chain link fence is barely visible. There are a few places where vegetation was removed to make it easier to improve Alma. I can only assume that no effort has been spent to landscape these areas as the city and Caltrain know that it would only have to be torn out again after the electrification of Caltrain.

I do hope that whatever plan is implemented to electrify Caltrain, it includes replacing any landscaping that has been destroyed.

I also encourage you to read the report linked above by Guy Fawkes on Jan. 10. Indeed, because of the cost of seizing property, the cost of trenching vs. elevated trains in South Palo Alto is not all that different. And that report does not include any estimates of revenue from air rights above a trenched train. As a homeowner on Alma in South Palo Alto, I still hope for a win-win solution that will bring the community together, by increasing the number of crossings and decreasing the barrier formed by the tracks. Why make a situation worse, if it is feasible to make it much better?

I remain a staunch supporter of upgrading railroads to improve commuting and the surrounding neighborhoods. It can be done.

Posted by southbayresident
a resident of another community
on Feb 5, 2015 at 12:43 am

This is the most absurd editorial I've ever read by the Palo Alto Weekly. It sounds like it must of been written by brand new staff members who just moved into town with no knowledge of what's actually been happening on the grade separation issue for the last several years. If they did just a little bit of research they would realize the fault clearly lies with the City of Palo Alto and not with Caltrain. Everyone knows that already. The Palo Alto Weekly's apparent ignorance on the grade separation issue is really quite alarming.

Posted by Elizabeth
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 16, 2015 at 4:17 pm

Sounds like government business as usual. Seems Palo Alto governance is being treated not unlike the Council treats its citizens. A little Karma in action?

As a neighbor I'd like to know if the overhead wiring will be below the level at which they top the hedges and trees along the tracks. It's certainly not something I want to gaze upon as I drive along Alma.

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