Caltrain capacity – the importance of Redwood City

Passing tracks are seen by local community leaders as the most challenging infrastructure needed to reach the higher levels of 2040 ridership, according to feedback to presentations on the Caltrain business plan at city council meetings in cities including Mountain View, Palo Alto, Redwood City and Belmont.  

Caltrain already has 4-track sections at its stations in Brisbane and Sunnyvale Lawrence that allow the baby bullet express trains to pass the locals.

Caltrain’s analysis indicates that to achieve a moderate level of growth above the baseline, short passing segments would be needed in Millbrae, San Mateo, Redwood City, and North Santa Clara County (Palo Alto or Mountain View).   A high growth scenario, which would carry the equivalent of six freeway lanes, would require longer passing sections in the San Bruno/Millbrae/Burlingame, Belmont/San Carlos/Redwood City, and Palo Alto/Mountain View areas (see graphic below).

Grade separations – separating or closing the 40+ at-grade crossings – are costly and challenging to plan locally – but in recent years cities have been eagerly queuing up to plan projects for their cities, in preparation for a future with much more frequent train service.

The importance of Redwood City

But, in the presentations to various city councils and public venues, Caltrain staff have explained that the needs for passing infrastructure would depend on when (or perhaps whether) High Speed Rail service comes onto the Peninsula Corridor.  And until High Speed Rail arrives on the corridor, the most important, and maybe only needed passing section for Caltrain service is the one in Redwood City.

The Redwood City station is also potentially important for the connection to the Dumbarton Rail project being planned, since Dumbarton trains would connect to Caltrain in Redwood City.

Meanwhile, Redwood City is starting to study the possibilities for grade separation, with a focus on Whipple Avenue, but also looking at Brewster Avenue, and Broadway to the North of Downtown, and considering the City’s overall grade separation strategy at existing grade crossings to the south at Maple, Main, and Chestnut Streets.   Whipple grade separation was the second favorite project identified by the city’s survey for it RWCMoves citywide transportation plan; the street sees about 16,000 cars crossing the tracks daily.

And Redwood City is also starting an initiative to update next phase of its downtown precise plan. The first phase of Redwood City’s Downtown Plan evolved a sleepy and more car-centric area into a lively and more pedestrian and transit-friendly center, with infill housing and commercial development. Recent city data shows that people who live or work in the walkable, transit-rich downtown area have a driving rate around 50%, much lower than the driving rate elsewhere in the city; and with this data, the city is setting tougher standards; new buildings will be restricted to a ⅓ driving rate.

Also, since the initial Downtown Plan was passed (but after many lower income residents were displaced), Redwood City has put into place policies and funding strategies for affordable housing, to protect against the potential gentrifying impacts of development near transit.

The downtown area still has large areas near the Caltrain tracks covered in surface parking, including Caltrain parking and the surface lots of an aging strip shopping center anchored by Safeway.

If the city decides that it wants to put the pieces together, there’s the potential to bring in funding for the grade separations along with passing infrastructure, ease cross-town travel and create rail capacity that is valuable for the region and state. Given the location, the city and transit agencies also have the potential to raise value capture funding from infill development using surface parking lots.

Caltrain staff has said that more technical analysis is needed to determine what if any passing infrastructure might be feasible to build in Redwood City.  More analysis is needed for the Dumbarton Rail projects about the feasibility of that project and the opportunity for a Caltrain connection. And more engagement is needed in Redwood City to consider grade separation options and the future of its downtown.

The cloudy crystal ball for High Speed Rail

While announcements of the death of the High Speed Rail project are exaggerated, the timing of service to San Francisco is in even more doubt than before this tumultuous year.  As headline-watchers know, Governor Newsom announced that the High Speed Rail project would focus on using its limited resources toward completing the Central Valley section, acknowledging the reality that the project didn’t yet have enough funding for more. Then, the Trump Administration sought to claw back federal funding, drawing litigation from the State of California.  

As for the long-term fate of the high speed rail project, your blogger has no crystal ball, but would not take bets against the eventual completion of a megaproject that has the potential to be transformative for the state.

The long-term path for California’s High Speed Rail may depend on factors well beyond the State of California, such as the results of national elections, and the potential for Green New Deal style massive national initiatives to address climate change with major investments in transit and high speed rail infrastructure. Not to mention the hopes and dreams of longtime fans of an Altamont alignment that the plans to improve rail service building on today’s San Joaquin and Altamont Commuter Express routes would turn into a permanent alignment for High Speed Rail.

Meanwhile, Redwood City seems like the highest priority passing infrastructure option in the medium term, and the extensive planning processes that could assess feasibility and funding are just getting started.

Stay tuned for new info on the Caltrain vision capital roadmap

In the shortly upcoming next part of the business plan, Caltrain will publish a multi-phased roadmap of potential capital investments in order to deliver envisioned capacity increases, including longer trains, level boarding, grade separations and passing infrastructure. This will include interesting and important information about how Caltrain presents to the potential short, medium, and the long-term sequence of investments that could take another 101 worth of cars off the road.