Palo Alto leaders propose putting Caltrain, HSR underground
- Published Friday, September 26, 2008, by the Palo Alto Weekly
Special report: Going underground
Community leaders propose putting Caltrain tracks deep underground.
Is the idea visionary -- or just plain crazy?
By Jocelyn Dong
Palo Alto Weekly Staff
The disruption happens more than 55 times a day along Alma Street:
Bells clang, crossing-guard arms lower, and people and cars grind
to a halt as hundreds of tons of locomotive steel approach.
The train thunders by, horn wailing, leaving wind and dust in its
wake. Then life returns to normal.
[BATN: How many hundreds of times a day does the average traffic
light turn red, forcing people and cars to "grind to a halt" as
harried drivers -- some of them distracted by kids, phones and other
gizmos -- thunder by in their multi-ton single-occupancy cars and
SUVs, leaving wind, dust and greenhouse gases in their wake? And
life rarely "returns to normal" because incessant all-day heavy
traffic *is* normal.]
One day, all that could be history if an idea being floated by some
Palo Alto leaders becomes reality.
Call it visionary or call it far-fetched: They think the railroad
could be put underground -- in tunnels 50 feet below the surface.
If that were to happen, drivers might experience Alma as a grand
boulevard in the European tradition rather than a commute corridor
flanked on one side by railroad tracks and bushes.
Where tracks now lie, bicyclists would glide on paths along a
greenbelt, while office workers would look out their windows as
commuters drive by.
And in the tunnels underground, bullet trains would silently whisk
their passengers to destinations along the Peninsula.
No more street-traffic delays due to the rail system. No more
train-on-car accidents. No more fatalities.
To some, it may sound like a pipe dream. Even the main proponents --
City Councilman John Barton, former Mayor Bern Beecham, architect
Tony Carrasco and Interim Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie -- joke
about whether they are crazy to even suggest such a thing.
But underlying their wisecracks lies a common vision, one they say
would have the power to unify -- even heal -- a city that's been
divided by the railroad for more than a century.
Until they're proven wrong, they're willing to explore the idea
with anyone who will listen.
And now, they say, is the time to do it, thanks to the rising
possibility that a high-speed train route between Los Angeles and
San Francisco could be added to the Peninsula corridor. On the
November ballot, state Proposition 1A asks voters to approve the
sale of bonds worth $9.95 billion to provide initial funding of
Due to state-budget impasse, its place on the ballot was not ensured
until Aug. 26, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 3034, giving
it the green light.
If the proposition passes, plans for running high-speed rail through
the Peninsula would pick up steam, with construction on parts of the
line following after about two years of planning, according to Mehdi
Morshed, executive director of the California High-Speed Rail
A fully functional system would enable passengers to travel from
San Francisco to Los Angeles in under three hours, operating at
speeds of up to 220 mph, the Authority predicts.
It could be the opportunity of a lifetime for Palo Alto, the
community leaders say. With high-speed rail would come funding,
and with funding -- the possibility to creatively, and radically,
alter Palo Alto's cityscape.
Building two tunnels (under Alma, they say) and placing the rail
system there would free up acres of valuable land along the current
4.25-mile right of way.
The area now occupied by the University Avenue train station, for
example, could become a dynamic gateway to downtown. The group
envisions an oval "village green" surrounded by a hotel,
community/arts center, visitors' center, retail, office space and
Below ground, the train station and an intermodal transit hub would
allow travelers to switch their mode of transportation quickly and
Along the former rail route, lining Alma, the group pictures a 25-
foot-wide park with grass, trees and pedestrian and bicycle paths.
The strip park would run from Palo Alto's southern border all the
way to its northern one, totaling about 8 acres, they estimate.
Adjacent to the greenbelt, the rest of the land could be developed
in stretches: as high-density townhomes, apartment buildings, shops
and office space, they said.
What excites them the most is the idea of removing what they call
the railroad "barrier" between the east and west sides of the city,
which now limits cross-town traffic to four intersections --
Charleston Road, Meadow Drive, Churchill Avenue and Alma -- and four
over/underpasses at San Antonio, Oregon Expressway, Embarcadero Road
and University. (The city also has two bicycle/pedestrian tunnels,
at California and Homer avenues.)
"It will heal Palo Alto and connect so many neighborhoods to other
uses," Carrasco said. He co-chaired the 1990s Dream Team Citizens
Advisory Committee, which explored the possibility of transforming
the University Avenue train station area into a major entryway into
"We talk about 'walkable' and 'bikeable,'" Carrasco said of Palo
Alto's long-term goals, which he said the undergrounding plan would
advance. "This does so much to be able to get across from business
areas to residential areas," he said.
The California Avenue shopping district, for example, could be
quickly accessed by cars without them looping around via Oregon
Barton, who is also an architect, said the benefits could be
"Imagine if Colorado Avenue could come through. Suddenly the new
police station [planned for Park Boulevard] is that much closer to
a whole section of Palo Alto," he said.
Removing the tracks "would take four quadrants of Palo Alto and
make it two," he added.
The idea could also raise a lot of money, the group contends. By
selling or leasing "air rights" -- rights to build on the land,
without acquiring the land itself -- the Peninsula Corridor Joint
Powers Board in theory might garner enough funding to pay for the
added cost of undergrounding. The board owns the right of way and
"If you go along with our estimates, we get to about a half billion
dollars of land value, which hopefully is the marginal difference in
cost between what high-speed rail would pay for above-grade [rail]
and the cost of undergrounding," Carrasco said.
To get those estimates, the men determined what kinds of buildings
the community and developers might want on the 44 acres of land --
varying from moderate-income apartments to live/work units to
offices and retail shops.
All told, they calculated more than 660 homes and 814,000 square
feet of office and retail space could be built, placing the land
at a value of $464 million.
"The basics of what we know is there's a reasonable value in the
land in air rights, and it's going to cost a lot to do tunneling,"
"If somebody's going to come out anyway and lay out the tracks [for
high-speed rail] and put a lot of investment in ... then you can
say, 'We've got another, smaller pool of money that might make it
worthwhile enough to go underground rather than do this.'
"We don't know if it's going to work. ... But [the estimates] are
adequate to show there's meat on the bones," Beecham said. "It is
The idea of burying the railroad and selling air rights may seem
unusual, but it's hardly inventing the wheel.
In fact, it was key to the monumental transformation of Grand
Central Terminal in New York in the early 1900s.
At that time, city and state officials prohibited steam engines in
Manhattan, following a 1902 crash that killed 15 people, according
to the PBS documentary, "Grand Central," which Barton cited as one
inspiration for the Palo Alto idea.
So New York Central Railroad's chief engineer decided to switch to
electrified engines. Not only that, he determined they should run
underground and the land above them could be sold to developers.
He called the concept "taking wealth from the air," and it was
the first time the notion of "air rights" had been proposed, the
documentary states. The idea helped the railroad company successfully
finance the project, estimated at $70 million, avoiding the need for
Today, Grand Central spans 48 acres and contains 103 retail shops,
occupying 130,000 square feet.
Closer to home, the San Francisco Transbay Joint Powers Authority is
attempting a similar project, which will replace the city's current
Transbay Terminal along Mission Street with a new station, extend
the Caltrain line underground to the new transit center, and build
a new neighborhood of 3,400 homes, 60,000 square feet of shops and
1.2 million square feet of other commercial space.
Sale of that land is expected to bring in more than $200 million,
according to the Transbay Joint Powers Authority.
The idea of a city advocating for undergrounding rather than
accepting ground-level or above-ground tracks also has precedent,
In the early 1960s, BART planned to build a line on elevated tracks
through the heart of Berkeley's downtown.
"BART was supposed to run down Shattuck, and folks in Berkeley said,
'Hell, no.' And they won," Barton said.
The city eventually used a sales tax to finance the undergrounding.
From an engineering standpoint, other elements of the Palo Alto idea
-- tunnels and high-speed rail -- also have plenty of predecessors,
the group members said.
Civil engineers note that tunneling is constantly improving.
"We have tunnels all over the world that have been around for 150
years," said the Rail Authority's Morshed, a civil engineer who has
planned and implemented transportation projects for 34 years and
worked on state policies and laws.
"They're not any more dangerous than above-grade or at-grade
[tracks]. It's a matter of engineering."
Eleven countries already have high-speed rail systems, according
to the Rail Authority.
Japan's ultra-fast rail network, the Shinkansen, uses tunnels that
stretch for 16 miles or more. The system has run for nearly 45 years
and carried some 7 billion passengers. It has survived numerous
earthquakes, derailing only once, and hasn't had a single fatality
due to rail collisions or natural disasters, engineers note.
The United States also has a high-speed line, Amtrak's Acela Express,
which travels between Washington, D.C., and Boston. But it runs more
slowly, up to 150 mph, than foreign high-speed trains, which can top
There are, naturally, many "ifs" on which the undergrounding idea is
* If Proposition 1A, or a succeeding measure, passes;
* If high-speed rail comes to the Peninsula as currently proposed;
* If the tunneling costs pencil out;
* If all the agencies involved -- Caltrain, the Rail Authority,
Union Pacific (which operates freight trains), other local transit
agencies, the City of Palo Alto and potentially neighboring cities
-- buy into the plan.
But there's no merit in waiting for absolute certainty before
floating the undergrounding notion, Beecham said.
"It's a long-term concept, and you're in it for the long term," he
said. "There's no value in us starting and stopping in a herky-jerky
fashion, saying, 'Oops, this week, bad news in Sacramento.'"
Even given the uncertainty, the group members are galvanized by
at least two factors: timing and an alternative they fear could
be worse for Palo Alto than ground-level tracks -- elevated ones.
They believe they face a short time-span within which to act. Even as
Rail Authority planning gathers momentum, with a potential completion
date in 2030, Caltrain is proceeding with its proposal to convert its
system from diesel engines to electric. Its goal is to finish the
electrification of the system by 2014, according to Caltrain.
"We have a short window to jump at this, short meaning five to six
years, before Caltrain and the High-Speed Rail Authority start
talking to each other on what their plan would look like," Carrasco
"Once their plans get too concrete, our chance is gone," Beecham
What the group finds even more motivating is the possibility that
high-speed rail might run through Palo Alto not at ground level but
The Rail Authority anticipates it would add two tracks to the
Peninsula right of way, which currently has two, Morshed said. It
also recommends elevating those tracks.
If the Palo Alto leaders feel current ground-level train tracks are
problematic, elevated berms (or "grade separations") would be even
worse, they said.
"Berms really don't work in these urban situations. With four tracks,
it's not a berm; it's a structure," Carrasco said, calling concrete
berms "ugly as sin."
Some cities along the Peninsula, such as San Carlos, already have
grade-separated tracks, directing cars under the tracks either
at street level or via an underpass. But the ones up north have
businesses adjacent, Carrasco said. Palo Alto's right of way abuts
Those homes closest to the tracks might even be in danger of
disappearing, according to Barton. If it's determined that a four-
track berm could require a wider strip than currently exists on the
right of way, the state could use eminent domain to purchase the
"I couldn't imagine a four-track with a berm wouldn't require buying
up all the properties on the train-track side of Park Boulevard,"
For its part, the High-Speed Rail Authority believes that grade
separations would be an improvement over ground-level crossings.
Elevated crossings would eliminate the noise from train horns and
warning bells because the railroad would no longer intersect with
traffic, the Authority's May 2008 program environmental study states.
The visual barrier would be no greater than currently exists,
according to the document. Rather than being deleterious, grade
separations "would have a beneficial effect on community cohesion
by improving circulation between neighborhood areas."
To be sure, the undergrounding idea, with all of its ramifications,
has a long distance to travel before it becomes a reality, if it
Other agencies will play a key role, the men said. So far, the groups
are open to discussing the concept.
From where he sits in Sacramento, Morshed views all ideas as
possible -- so long as they make sense financially and practically.
"Whatever we do there, life has to go on at that site," Morshed
said, referring to the construction phase. "People have to do their
business; cars have to cross. We need to be considering all those
Tunneling, he said, "might be a very viable solution" -- if the
numbers support it.
At this stage, the Authority is about to hire an engineering firm
to work on project plans. It expects to hold community meetings in
the future to gain input on its proposals, Morshed said.
Caltrain's Rail Transportation Director Bob Doty has already met
with the Palo Alto group, noting that they mostly wanted to get a
reality check on the idea.
He said he pointed out factors they should be considering, including
the fact that the railroad will still need to be operating during
the construction of any new rail line.
"My business has always been about creating the expectations. You
have to be realistic about what it's going to take," he said. "It's
not a trivial undertaking."
Besides the need for the railroad to stay operational, tunneling
requires a span in which to get underground -- possibly a mile on
either side of the fully submerged tunnel, Doty said.
But just because there are complexities, "it doesn't mean you should
give up," he said. "You want new ideas. ... We offered to talk with
them in the future as it starts to focus in."
The Palo Alto leaders acknowledged they could be working on the
railroad plan for years, until it either is proven impossible or
it comes to pass.
In the meantime, they said, they are undaunted by the complexity.
The outcome would be worth it to them.
"This is a dream, of course, but wouldn't it be great to say, 'We
got rid of the train. And we got sales tax [from new stores]. And
we got a better boulevard. And we solved some housing issues'?"
Barton asked rhetorically.
"And we made it a better city," Carrasco added.
"It may not happen in my lifetime, but that's OK."
Tunnel or trench?
There's more than one way to put a railroad underground
Not everyone who wants the railroad to go underground envisions a
Arthur Keller, a Palo Alto planning commissioner, favors trenches.
Using a technique known as "cut and cover" and starting at surface
level, a trench is dug, tracks laid inside, other equipment
installed, and then the trench is covered. Keller believes the
trenches could either be dug under Alma Street or under the current
railroad right of way.
If several cities buy into the idea, the trench could start as far
south as Mary Avenue in Sunnyvale, he said.
"One advantage is you don't have to put in the grade separations,"
said Keller, who has enjoyed high-speed rail in France and Japan.
He shuns tunneling.
"I don't see why you would want to do that. The cost is prohibitive,"
Keller said. "Think of the cost of tunneling for BART. This is worse
than BART in terms of tunneling costs."
Like other community leaders, Keller views air rights as key to
funding the undergrounding. He is likewise concerned about the
possible increased disruption to traffic as more -- and faster --
trains run through Palo Alto.
"As Caltrain increases the number of trains going by ... it
decreases the time for the cross traffic going along East Meadow.
It's especially problematic, going to Paly on Churchill," Keller
said. "You could have three trains going by at one time. You could
be waiting there 10 minutes -- or at least it feels like 10 minutes."
A project to electrify the Caltrain system aims to double the number
of passenger trains per hour, from six to 12, according to Bob Doty,
Caltrain's director of rail transportation.
There would be challenges to trenching, of course. Keller
acknowledged the Oregon Expressway underpass would have to be
reconstructed, and underground public utilities would need to be
Also, either Alma or the current railroad right of way would be
torn up during construction. If its the right of way, then the
train system would have to be relocated -- yet still be
operational, Keller acknowledged.
That conflict between train and auto traffic flow -- and the
everyday life of residents -- is one reason some cities and
agencies are now preferring tunneling to trenching, civil
Historically, tunneling has been more costly than other methods,
said Victor Romero, principal for Jacobs Associates in San
Francisco, a civil-engineering consulting firm.
But the costs of buying property and loss of business during
construction of trenches and other qualitative downsides have
started to add up.
"These [tunneling] projects initially have higher capital
construction costs than above-ground or cut-and-cover, but in
the long term there's the biggest benefit," he said.
Costs aside, however, trenching is possible, even at key junctions
such as San Francisquito Creek, Romero said. There, the trench
would likely go under the creek.
Trenches can also be stacked on top of one another and can go down
to depths of 80 or 90 feet, he said.
Keller believes trenches could work, even if the construction phase
could be difficult.
"It's like living through three years of hell for decades and decades
after of peace and quiet," he said.
"It's unifying ... and in terms of the benefit of not having to get
rid of homes for the right of way, you're doing something nice for
Undergrounding the trains in Palo Alto won't be easy or cheap, and
there are many potential roadblocks, Palo Alto leaders John Barton,
Bern Beecham, Tony Carrasco and Steve Emslie acknowledge.
Here are a few of the challenges:
Cost estimates vary widely for boring two tunnels, each of which
would contain two tracks. But costs can exceed thousands of dollars
per square foot, Victor Romero, principal for Jacobs Associates in
San Francisco, a civil-engineering consulting firm, said of tunneling
One of the most expensive fixed costs is the boring machine, Beecham
said, noting that it is so difficult to remove from the ground that
generally the huge machine is left in the tunnel following the job.
A number of factors influence the cost, Romero said. A tunnel in
an urban environment would have much higher costs than suburban
tunneling. Soil conditions determine degree of difficulty and
On the other hand, the longer the tunnel, the more economy-of-scale
is a factor, he said of fixed-costs involved.
Romero's firm -- whose work includes the seismic upgrade of the
Claremont Tunnel in Berkeley and design of the to-be-constructed
fourth Caldecott Tunnel in Oakland -- prices jobs by each element:
labor, equipment, materials and other identifiable costs, plus
"We never estimate per mile," he said, emphasizing that the cost
of two different projects of similar length could vary greatly.
As for the length of time it takes to construct a tunnel, that, too,
varies, Romero said. But it follows general stages: preparation of
the site, including protecting adjacent buildings, which could take
a half a year; the boring itself, including putting in the tunnel's
structural lining, which could take up to a year or more; installing
tracks, safety systems, ventilation and signals, which could take an
additional couple of years; and finally building the station, which
comes with its own challenges.
"The station takes longer to build than the tunnel," Romero said.
Menlo Park and Atherton have both joined environmental groups in
suing the California High Speed Rail Authority over its environmental
study, completed in May.
Local officials have protested the potential impact on businesses
and residents if the route runs through the Peninsula, as presently
Legal action could derail high-speed train plans, or at least keep
them tied up in the courts for years.
On the other hand, the idea of tunneling could also sway some high-
"It's pretty hypothetical, but certainly, putting all the tracks in
a tunnel ... and being able to use the right of way for bike lanes
and parkland would definitely bear a serious look," Menlo Park
Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson, a civil engineer, said of the concept.
"It would have to be dramatically dense development" on the land to
pay for the project, though, she said.
And there would need to be sufficient trust among all of the
agencies. The worst-case scenario would be if the Rail Authority
were to agree to the undergrounding then revert to above-ground
plans if funding proved insufficient, she said.
Diesel in tunnels
Putting electricity-powered passenger rail lines in a tunnel is
one thing; running diesel-fueled freight trains through is another.
The problem: fumes.
In addition to Caltrain's passenger service, Union Pacific sends
about five to seven freight trains through the corridor a day,
according to Zoe Richmond, the director of corporate relations and
media for Union Pacific.
If the idea of undergrounding the railroad is to eliminate the
current ground-level tracks, Union Pacific would have to operate
in the tunnel, too.
Romero, of Jacobs Associates, noted that freight trains generally
don't run in underground tunnels except for short distances.
"You see a bit of it on the East Coast, the Capitol Corridor," he
said. "We tend not to run diesel underground."
But Carrasco is hopeful that it might be possible to install a
ventilation system that would suck the fumes out of the tunnel.
Richmond said Union Pacific has trains that run through tunnels in
the Sierra Nevada on the Sacramento-to-Reno stretch. Holes have
been drilled in the mountainous terrain for ventilation. But engine
operators also carry breathing apparatus, akin to what scuba divers
use, in case of emergency.
Electrifying the freight trains is not yet feasible, Richmond said.
"That's definitely a challenge. So far the [electrification]
technology isn't viable when it comes to freight trains," she said.
Freight trains are heavier and require more power. In addition, she
said, Union Pacific would need to electrify its whole system -- a
"The challenge is you can't just pick one area to electrify," she
said. [BATN: Nonsense. You just need to switch locomotives, as is
done in Europe -- which has a mix of electrified and diesel-only