Pedestrian Access to South San Francisco Caltrain Station Gets a Boost

Passengers currently have to access the South San Francisco Caltrain station via the Grand Avenue overpass and walk across the tracks to board trains. Photo: Andrew Boone

The South San Francisco Caltrain station is set to get better walking connections to downtown and a more spacious boarding area after the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SMCTA) Board awarded a grant for station reconstruction last Thursday.

The $59 million project will widen the center platform and build a pedestrian tunnel re-connecting the station directly to the east end of downtown’s Grand Avenue. Passengers will no longer need to climb an overpass to get to the station or walk across train tracks to board. Instead they will be able to get to the station’s center platform via ramps connecting to a tunnel underneath the tracks.

“This is a vast improvement in safety that will also increase connections to businesses nearby,” said SMCTA Board member and Burlingame City Council member Terry Nagel at the meeting.

Currently the only access to the Caltrain station is from the west side of the train tracks, via a Grand Avenue overpass that spans the tracks directly above the station itself. This overpass requires a long and uncomfortable detour for people walking and bicycling, who have to cross the highway-like, six-lane Grand Avenue and descend either a tall metal staircase or a long frontage road on-ramp.

The overpass and its retaining walls also create a gloomy and unwelcoming area for passengers to wait. With the Caltrain station wedged in between the tracks and Highway 101 and access only available from the west side, passengers arriving by bus or car must also follow circuitous routes to reach the platform.

Walking to the South San Francisco Caltrain requires passing under Highway 101 (upper left), up a long sidewalk on the Grand Avenue overpass (upper right), and down a tall metal staircase (bottom). Photos: Andrew Boone

“The current configuration is a major barrier for residents and employees since it hinders those who need to walk or bike from downtown or BART to our major biotech employers on the east side of the city,” wrote the South San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and representatives of several biotech and real estate companies in identical letters of support.

The tunnel through which passengers will access the new center platform will connect to a pedestrian plaza at Grand Avenue and Airport Boulevard on the west side of the tracks and a transit plaza at the end of three-lane Grand Avenue on the east side of the tracks. Buses and shuttles will pick up and drop off Caltrain passengers from the new east-side plaza rather than the parking lot on the west side of the station, cutting trip times for passengers commuting to the city’s biotech job center on its sprawling east side.

“Improving access and safety at the South San Francisco Caltrain Station will encourage more commuters to utilize Caltrain and other public transportation options in the area, reducing the number of vehicles driven on the region’s already over-congested freeways,” stated Genentech Associate Director of Local Government Affairs Ariane Coleman Hogan at the SMCTA meeting.

The new South San Francisco Caltrain Station will include a pedestrian plaza (top) and tunnel (bottom). Image: SMCTA

The South San Francisco station currently ranks 21st in ridership out of 29 Caltrain stations that receive weekday service.

“The poor condition of the station leads many residents to avoid it altogether,” explained South San Francisco Mayor Richard Garbarino. “This improvement project is a centerpiece of our Downtown Station Area Plan, which paves the way for mixed-use, transit-oriented development near the station.”

The land use and transportation plan, approved unanimously by the City Council on January 28 after three years of community meetings and review, now allows higher-density office buildings and apartments within half a mile of the Caltrain station. The zoning changes are expected to add 1,435 units of housing and 1.2 million square feet of office space over the next 20 years.

Caltrain officials have not announced when they expect the station upgrades to be finished, but the budget for the project requires it to be built before the “overhead contact system” (the poles and overhead wires needed to power electric trains, expected to be running by 2021). After the overhead contact system goes in, costs for the new South San Francisco platform would jump because the poles and wires near the station would have to be relocated and raised to match the platform.

In addition to SMCTA’s $49 million contribution to the project, South San Francisco chipped in $6 million on January 14 and Caltrain has already spent $4 million.

According to Caltrain’s most recent schedule for electrification, the overhead contact system will be built beginning in March 2016.

  • p_chazz

    Pedestrian tunnel–sounds like a magnet for crime, graffiti and homeless.

  • murphstahoe

    I know you might find this shocking, but there are pedestrian tunnels at the stations at Palo Alto, Cal Ave, San Antonio, Lawrence, Santa Clara – and I have never heard of a crime in one, seen any graffiti, nor a homeless person.

    I have however seen a person hit by the train I was riding on at South San Francisco.

  • Easy

    Hopefully the tunnel will be wide enough to walk and bike through, because we know people will use it for both.

  • DrunkEngineer

    The new platform will presumably have level-platform boarding, right?

  • Greg Costikyan

    Yes, access to South City from the station kind of sucks, and this will doubtless be an improvement. And the area around the station is kind of a wasteland too, but recent proposals for transit-oriented development should help in that regard. It’s always kind of amazed me that someplace with (theoretically) excellent transit access to both SF and the Peninsula turns its back on Caltrain the way it does.

  • murphstahoe

    When I look at the area, it feels like Caltrans turned their back on the area when they put 101 through there.

  • ladyfleur

    Thank God. I biked to the station once and it was confusing to plan and horrible to ride. The walking route didn’t look any better either.

  • Andy Chow

    My concern about this project is HSR compatibility. A center platform served by trains in both directions may conflict with HSR with its passing tracks. There are passing tracks in Brisbane and space for passing tracks is also available in San Bruno. Given that SSF is one of the few cities that have no objection against building more tracks for HSR, it would be dumb to build a center platform that would either prevent HSR from installing passing tracks through SSF, or have it to be rebuilt in the future if passing tracks are needed.

    Caltrain dropped planning for the station several years ago because of funding and unresolved issues with UPRR and HSR. This should be the time to get it right.

  • This story is old, but strong arm robberies and plain old assaults still happen at University Ave and at Cal Ave stations.

  • vcs

    The position seems to be that if HSR is ever built into SF, they’ll spend more money fixing it later.

    The other thing which should be done is to improve access from the office buildings on Gateway Blvd. In my old office, I could see the station right out the window, but actually walking there was a nightmare. The building management ran shuttles even though it was only about two blocks as the bird flies.

  • crazyvag

    I agree that this area needs to be 4-tracked before or as part of the new station. Seems like rebuilding for 4 tracks would be even a more expensive retrofit than electrification.

  • Amanda Clark

    San Antonio and Lawrence get so few passengers, I’m not sure if they are good analogies (and in Lawrence’s case, its a station with zero bus access surrounded by suburban office parks-I doubt a magnet for criminals).

  • p_chazz

    Those station stops are located in much more suburban areas than South San Francisco–“The Industrial City”. Not a good comparison.

  • murphstahoe

    Guess you’ve never been to Bertoluccis

  • theqin

    What the photo doesn’t show is what it looks like going the other way. This area is a quite large train yard and there are probably six or so tracks running through this station with only the two closest to the parking area used by Caltrain.

    You can see a rendering here

    As a side note this station provides pretty nice access to Lowes and West Marine, it’s faster to take the train here on weekends than it is to drive.

  • Bruce

    The tunnel will connect to Grand Avenue on the east side of the tracks, so a pedestrian could walk from Gateway along Grand without having to climb up the overpass and then down the stairs.

  • Bruce

    And then they rubbed salt in the wound by putting an eyesore of a maintenance yard right in between the station platform and downtown. Thankfully they are undoing that mistake by converting it to a pedestrian plaza.

  • Bruce

    The very underpass you deride will make the station feel very close to downtown (which it actually is!) The area should be much more walkable just with that on its own, not to mention the new mixed-use developments going up.

  • p_chazz

    It could if it’s done right, but not if it becomes a grimy, urine-stained nightmare that you have to hold your breath to pass through.

  • p_chazz

    Doesn’t appear from the drawings that it will be, so bicyclists should walk their bikes.

  • vcs

    That is good news. I tried to find the actual plans online and was unsuccessful. Anyone have a link?

  • Bruce

    It takes some digging but the EIRs are on the Downtown SSF Station Area Plan website.

  • Bruce
  • vcs

    Thanks Bruce!

  • zig

    more “suburban”

    Nice euphemism. Most people in SSF are homeowners. It is pretty much suburban by the definitions I use.

  • DG

    It’s over due.

  • DG

    I pray and hope that this so called pedestrian access will comply with ADA, (American Disabilities Act).


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