City Hall Pushes Caltrain to Move the 4th/King Railyard

Photo: ## Tegnerud/Flickr##

The various public agencies shaping the plan to bring high-speed rail into downtown San Francisco disagree on what should be done with the Caltrain railyard at the 4th and King Street station. Officials from San Francisco’s Planning Department and Mayor’s Office say it’s time for the railyard — along with the northern spur of the 280 freeway — to be opened up for development, reconnecting the South of Market District and Mission Bay while making it more feasible to build a more direct HSR alignment to connect to the Transbay Transit Center.

Caltrain, however, is not on board. The agency has its sights set on electrifying the rail line by 2019, including the 4th and King Station, and it is wary of possibly delaying the project by setting out to relocate the yard. “There is an urgency for Caltrain to get electrification in place with expediency,” Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Ackemann told the SF Chronicle in January. “With electrification we significantly reduce our operating costs.”

There’s no dispute that Caltrain needs to reap the benefits of electrification, particularly since it will be necessary to share tracks with CAHSR, which is providing the funds to make it happen. But SF officials warn that moving ahead with $250 million in spending to electrify the railyard when a re-think of the site is in order will be a huge waste. With the land value of the 19-acre SoMa site estimated to be upwards of $225 million, opening it up for development could pay for a significant chunk of high-speed rail infrastructure in San Francisco.

“The opportunity is to both knit the neighborhoods back together by redeveloping the yards, while at the same time producing value that could we could use to fund transportation improvements,” said Gillian Gillett, Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation policy director.

“We totally support electrification, and we want to make sure it happens as quickly as possible, but we don’t want to allow it to happen in such a way that it precludes future benefits for the city,” Planning Director John Rahaim told the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee earlier this week.

The idea of developing the Caltrain yard, which sits between 4th and 7th Streets, has been well-studied. The Planning Department published a study in December exploring some of the possibilities, including building an underground train station. In 2007, the SF Planning and Urban Research Association published its own study of a similar scope called A New Transit First Neighborhood. In a blog post last month, SPUR’s Tomiquia Moss and Sarah Karlinsky noted that “putting the right type of development here could knit together the surrounding neighborhoods [and] capitalize on the extensive transit access.”

“The railyards form an enormous barrier between Mission Bay and SoMa,” they wrote. “Pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles can only cross the site at one intersection, and a tangle of 280 freeway ramps clutters the southwest edge of the site.”

Although Caltrain has completed a state-mandated environmental impact report on electrification, the document didn’t consider removing the 4th and King railyard, and it’s now outdated (the draft was released in 2004, and the final report released in 2009). Caltrain is setting out to revise it, and yesterday held the last in a series of public outreach meetings at San Francisco City Hall to field input on the scope of the 18-month revision of the EIR. According to city staffers, Caltrain has agreed to include a city-conducted analysis of alternative uses for the railyard, and will perform an eight-month feasibility study.

“The information they’re using for their EIR… is more than ten years old. The neighborhoods have changed,” said Corrine Woods, chair of the Mission Bay Citizens Advisory Committee, which supports moving the Caltrain yard.

Still, Caltrain says that studying a yard replacement now could delay its 2019 target for electrification, putting at risk its $700 million grant from the CAHSR Authority. “It was very important to high-speed rail when they gave us the money that this truly be an early investment in the region, so we’re really committed to meeting that deadline,” Ackemann said on an edition of KQED Forum in late January.

The CAHSRA, however, doesn’t seem too worried about Caltrain’s tracks being ready in time to run high-speed trains. With CAHSRA planning to begin service on the Peninsula in 2029, spokesperson Rob Wilcox said Caltrain’s 2019 target is far ahead of the authority’s schedule.

Ackemann also said on KQED that Caltrain is “a long ways from even identifying other potential locations,” and that storing trains elsewhere along the rail corridor could increase its operating costs “because of additional labor to move trains, [and] fuel costs in the interim leading up to electrification.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener said he’s been “frustrated” at Caltrain’s reluctance, and urged city agencies “to keep pushing very, very hard to make sure that Caltrain takes this into account.”

“It’s a huge potential missed opportunity if we do anything that prevents us from ending the severe under-utilization of this land,” he said.

Caltrain will continue to accept public comments on the scope of its EIR until March 18 at

  • mikesonn

    This city sees a project and puts the brakes on it anyway they see possible.

    Electrification has been on the table for 20 years, give me a break.

    Market. Fell/Oak. Masonic. 2nd St. Etc. etc.

    Also, the city dropped this on Caltrain not much before that KQED interview.

  • If SF wants the railyard land, I think they should pay for the study about the costs to move the yards, and then pay for the changes if moving the yard comes out as a good idea. Right now they’re saying to someone with the rights to the land “Move on your dime so we can have money!”

  • You always like to preach that even a single automobile can slow down transit, therefore increase operating cost, and then criticize Caltrain for suggesting that moving the railyard somewhere else could increase operating cost. It’s say that this project is not about Caltrain, but a Muni yard somewhere like in the Fisherman’s Wharf, would you be as critical towards transit supporters who question the impact on Muni’s operating costs?

    There’s nothing about electrification that could preclude future development in the yard, and trying to suggest that it is an either or is irresponsible.

  • voltairesmistress

    Seems like a naked land grab for developer interests and their lawyers, but it is cleverly packaged as being about neighborhood livability.  I agree with mikesonn that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.  And the Caltrain/HSR program is the good.  Let’s not hold up everything by trying to move the railyards before any further rail systems into San Francisco can be built. Doesn’t Willie Brown have extensive interests in representing the rail companies that would get to sell this land?  And isn’t Ed Lee part of that Willie Brown political establishment?  The whole thing reeks of something other than good policy or politics for the people.

  • the greasybear

    What is the reason the yard cannot be developed after electrification?

  • mikesonn

    Caltrain spends the money to electrify then has to turn around and tear it all down <10 years later.

  • Of course the land can be redeveloped. Yes the poles would have to be removed, but so are the tracks. That’s not where most of the cost go, and is not really a throwaway costs. We have grade separations along the alignment that tracks have to be removed, temporary tracks built, and temporary tracks removed. If we are so concerned about moving electrification poles, we won’t be electrifying because there sure will be other grade separations that require moving poles.

    Muni built poles on 5th Street so that the 30 and 45 can still use trolley buses during the construction of Central Subway. Muni didn’t think moving wires was a waste.

  • David

    Obvious solution–mimic Grand Central in NYC.   Put the yards below street level complete w/ the required through tracks aimed to Transbay.  Then let Caltrain lease the air rights over the rails.   Caltrain needs to build the ramps down to the tunnel anyway, why not move all of it down?  Bonus, if the ramps are built far enough south, Muni gets to reroute the 22 on 16th straight to the Mission Bay area w/o conflicting w/Caltrain

  • “With CAHSRA planning to begin service on the Peninsula in 2029,”

    Good thing I have a growler of Pliny the Elder in my fridge.

  • Someone with rights to the land? You sound like Rob Anderson.

    These turkeys need to man up, work together for the best regional solution.

    We need to lure Rahm Emanuel to the Bay Area – not to be Mayor of some podunk town but to become the all knowing dictatorial overlord of the MTC.

  • My problem with the concept of land grab – and I think this is something that is item #1,#2,#3 on Wiener’s mind – is that anything we can do to produce more housing in San Francisco is a huge win in a time when the average rent for a 1 BR city wide is in the $2700 range. #1A is “how do we move all these new residents around”.

  • Anonymous

    I’m reading these comments and don’t get it.  The city wants to get rid of a huge eyesore, tear down a freeway, and get the trains to downtown at Transbay (which, by the way, creates the ability to get rid of the yards) and this is a bad idea?  Really?  Did it ever occur to people that instead of parking trains all day, like Caltrain does, they actually should run trains all day long every 10 or 15 minutes, and then they wouldn’t need to park anything!  The ideas the city is throwing out are great for transit, great for the city and great for the region.  There is no reason at all to spend money to keep the yards at 4th and King — that’s why we’re spending billions to get the trains to downtown.  And if we need to get into bed with developers to get more money for the Transbay Terminal, so what?  Welcome to reality.  It’s not the city that is obstructionist, it’s Caltrain.

  • “Rights”, whatever, I have no clue how the land use for the 4th & King Railyard is set up. It just sounds like SF says “We want the land!” and doesn’t sound like they want to help make it work.

  • Anonymous

    It’s so very San Francisco that you consider “tear down a freeway” to be intrinsically a good thing and a benefit, as opposed to being a thing with both positive and negative features that might be the right thing to do as part of a general plan.

  • SF’s “big idea” has a lot of interdependencies, and that not all of them are fully funded. Is SF suggesting that we should hold off Caltrain improvements until they get their act together, until the tunnel to Transbay is done? Sorry Caltrain should’ve electrified 20 years ago so I don’t think we can wait for another 20 years for that perfect moment for the developers.

    The proponents are saying that this would provide revenue, but I doubt it would be at a level to build proper replacements. Even Transbay aren’t fully funded from downtown land sales, which is much more valuable than Mission Bay.

    If they chose the path of attacking Caltrain and electrification than they would be no different than the Peninsula NIMBYs.

  • Anonymous

    Seems like the wise thing to do in the long run is keep the railyard where it is.  If we want to depend more on this kind of transit in the future, let’s not tear out the existing basis for future infrastructure.  What this city calls “development” these days, is often a trashy eyesore, exhibit A, anything new in the Mission Bay area.

  • Gillian Gillett

    San Francisco is paying for the study. That’s how the Joint Powers Agreement between the three counties that pay for Caltrain works.

  • Greg Riessen

    The title of this article is disingenuous.  The City is not “fighting” Caltrain over the railyard.  What is true is that the City, working closely with Caltrain and ensuring no delays to the electrification project, is funding a study to determine if the railyard could be relocated.  

    It would serve both Caltrain’s and the City’s interests to create transit-oriented development at the railyard site, and create a new yard elsewhere.

  • mikesonn

    This comment was made in haste and frustration yesterday, which I feel is warranted but not constructive.

    Apparently the city has been working with Caltrain for years to switch the rail yard to housing/mixed-use. I was under the impression this was a new development and that is my misunderstanding.

    After thinking this over last night, this is a tough situation because Caltrain needs to be electrified ASAP, but this city also needs more housing ASAP. Though, in both cases, ASAP is really 20+ years of planning and implementation.

    Add in that both of these things (electrification and rail-yard housing) would benefit from moving the 280 stub back, I really hope that city and Caltrain leadership can produce something that won’t delay either project unnecessarily.

  • Fair enough. That wasn’t the first version of the headline we wrote as we strove to simplify it, but I can see how “fight” may seem a little overdramatic. I changed it to what you now see above. Thanks for the feedback, Greg.

  • @1c2479aa2321001a784df574ea1bbe7f:disqus Fair enough. That wasn’t the first version of the headline we wrote as we strove to simplify it, but I can see how “fight” may seem a little overdramatic. I changed it to what you now see above. Thanks for the feedback, Greg.

    P.S. Hey, at least we didn’t use the Chronicle’s terminology of a “squabble.”

  • Anonymous

    Too bad the old Bayshore Yard in Brisbane was sold off by Espee. I wonder if it could be reacquired for rail use? The current owner isn’t doing anything with it.

  • Harry57

    Back to Andy’s note — see Greg Riessen’s comment, which is instructive.  And, you’ve got your history a bit contorted on Transbay, AC Transit, and the electrification project.  AC did insist on all the funding being identified for Transbay before moving — which included moving bus storage off-site — before vacating old Transbay.  It appears to me that the city is using the same process on this project — proceed with the electrification work and look for other places to store trains — which what happened with AC at Transbay.  And I stand by my earlier comment — Caltrain shouldn’t be storing a lot of trains midday anyway — they should be running them in service.

  • vcs

    Electrification is such a huge win that it would be worth it, in my opinion, even it was ripped out 10 years later. (and 10 years is optimistic)

  • I am not against studying to relocate the rail yard, the development, and even removal of the 280 structure (though I have my doubts because of inter-dependencies). My view is that Caltrain should have priority over future development in terms of implementation, which means that electrification cannot be delayed, and that the 4th & King site would not be available for redevelopment until DTX is built.

    Currently Caltrain does not use the tracks other than at the station to store trains midday or overnight. Caltrain used to do some light maintenance work in SF until the bigger maintenance facility is opened in SJ. I cannot imagine Caltrain to propose to electrify tracks other than the station tracks.

    With the DTX, there would be fewer station tracks at 4th & King, so trains would have to be stored off site. If SF proposes wants the storage after DTX to be somewhere else other than 4th & King, that’s fine for consideration.

    There shouldn’t be any conflict with electrification and DTX, even though tracks that would be electrified won’t be permanent. I think it is acceptable (when Caltrans rebuilt the I-80 freeway in SOMA, they built a temporary structure to divert traffic rather than detour through city streets). We shouldn’t be holding electrification off until DTX, and/or until the entire corridor is grade separated.

  • Patrick Kitto

    the current owner is developing transit oriented development. They just finished the haz-mat clean-up from the old Schlage Lock factory.

  • guest

    @mikesonn, they wont need to ‘tear it all down’ they will need to reconstruct the northernmost 2 of 50 miles. and as has been said elswhere in the comments, moving the wires is a small portion of the costs to move the entire alignment.

  • mikesonn

    @8f3d5baacc3a2213494dac794556a39b:disqus I meant “tear down rail yard electrification” and should have been more specific as to that point.

  • mikesonn

    @8f3d5baacc3a2213494dac794556a39b:disqus Is this TOD only on the SF side of that area? I haven’t heard anything about development on the San Mateo County side of the line.

  • Anonymous

    @mikesonn:disqus:  Checking Google maps, I found this link for the Bayshore Yard in Brisbane:  A group is restoring the old roundhouse located there.  I seem to recall that Catellus, the real estate group that sprung out of the failed SP-Santa Fe merger sold that property to an Asian investor, but the extensive clean up costs made development prohibitive. If so, this would be a good way for him to unload the property and for Caltrain to relocate the yard. 

  • Anonymous

    There isn’t enough demand to support running trains every 10 –  15 minutes during the day, and even if there were, Caltrain would still need a yard to store the trains at night, and when they needed to go into the shop for repairs.

  • mikesonn

    The SF/SM county line splits that area near the Bayshore station. The roundhouse is deep in San Mateo County and from what I heard at my office, only the property in SF is being developed but haven’t found anything besides rumors yet. And I would like to go explore that roundhouse sometime, it looks awesome.

    EDIT: Looks like it extends into SM County.
    And study to connect T-Third to Bayshore station

  • voltairesmistress

    Aaron, this is a complicated story with a lot of history, I imagine.  What are the best sources one can access to educate oneself about options for the Caltrain yard at 4th and King?  Do you perhaps want to do a series of stories on this?  Who has an economic stake in development going one way or another?  Who are the politicians like Ed Lee serving on this issue?  The whole thing seems to beg for investigative journalism, perhaps beyond the resources of advocacy site like Streetsblog, but perhaps not.  Anyway, I would appreciate more information, if you have it.  Thanks.

  • p_chazz – that’s an interesting assertion. Are there some statistics you are basing that assertion on? I suspect “Wild guess”, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

     Could we for example compare ridership on BART from Dublin to Bayfair midday compared to Caltrain? BART runs those trains at 20 minute headways midday.

  • Gillian – “That’s how the Joint Powers Agreement between the three counties … works”. Do you mean that by virtue of San Francisco paying their share of the Caltrain subsidy, you expect them to do this research? Or are you paying above and beyond for the study?


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