Atherton Joins HSR Opponents to Sue Caltrain; Menlo Park Drops Its Suit

The Town of Atherton alleges that the review of the Caltrain/High Speed Rail Blended System’s environmental impacts cannot be segmented into two separate environmental impact reports. Image: CAHSR

Last week, the Town of Atherton teamed up with opponents of California High-Speed Rail to file a lawsuit against Caltrain [PDF]. The City of Menlo Park, meanwhile, dropped threats to file a similar lawsuit, one week after listing five issues that the city wants Caltrain to resolve.

Caltrain must complete its electrification project before it starts sharing track, in what’s known as the blended system, with high-speed trains, which are scheduled to start running in 2029The lawsuit from Atherton and two groups opposed to CAHSR asserts that Caltrain violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by conducting environmental impact reports of electrification and the blended system separately, rather than a single project.

“If the project is truly a stand-alone project — independent of serving as a precursor to the blended system – it is hard to understand why providing electrical infrastructure compatible with the blended system should be a major project purpose,” states the lawsuit.

The suit argues that the impacts of several changes for the blended track system weren’t disclosed in the electrification EIR: The reconstruction of curved sections of track for 110 mph trains, the cumulative traffic impacts on at-grade crossings when high-speed trains overtake Caltrain trains, and how high-speed trains sharing the tracks could limit the expansion of Caltrain service in the future.

Caltrain officials said that because the electrification and CAHSR each have “independent utility,” the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) allows them to be analyzed in separate environmental documents.

“Caltrain electrification is planned to be in operation starting in 2020, and can then immediately start to provide project benefits in terms of improved service, lower fuel costs, improved air quality, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and lower operational subsidy for Caltrain compared with that of a diesel system,” Caltrain officials wrote in response to Atherton’s comments on the draft EIR.

Atherton argues that even when viewed as a stand-alone project,  the Caltrain electrification EIR is inadequate, and that specific impacts and mitigation measures were ignored.

“The significant safety impact of expanding service through grade crossings, such as that at Watkins Avenue in Atherton, which are already unsafe and whose safety will be significantly and adversely affected by the increase in service,” states the lawsuit.

Caltrain turned down Atherton’s January 21 request that the agency partially pay to install “quad gates” at Watkins Avenue, arguing that the electrified trains’ advanced signal system will make them safer than today’s trains, even if trains are more frequent. Quad gates block access to the tracks when trains are passing by, lowering gate arms from both sides of the street, and would allow Atherton to establish a “quiet zone” restricting Caltrain from blowing its horn in the vicinity.

Atherton wants Caltrain to help pay for the installation of quad gates at Watkins Avenue to improve traffic safety and establish a “quiet zone” free of train horns. Photo: Google Maps

Atheron’s lawsuit also claims that the EIR didn’t analyze the impacts of tree removal pruning required for side-mounted electric poles, urging alternatives like center-mounted poles or “selective track movement.” Caltrain officials have not committed to any specific design but said they’ll propose an electric pole placement “that most effectively minimizes removal of trees along the corridor.”

A rendering of an electrified Caltrain with side-mounted electric power poles, which would likely require cutting down more trees than center-mounted poles would. Image: Caltrain

“What is not part of the electrification project are local interests in grade separations or quad gates,” Caltrain Modernization Program Executive Officer Marian Lee said at a February 5 board meeting. “We’re poised, we’re ready, we have a solid environmental document, and we will continue to work with all of the cities, regardless of legal action or not.”

The City of Menlo Park decided, however, that filing a lawsuit would not be productive. Earlier this month, Public Works Director Jesse Quirion wrote to Caltrain that the city is satisfied with the agency’s responses “regarding tree replacement, traffic, service, and support for future grade separations” [PDF].

Without any delays, construction on Caltrain electrification is set to begin in 2016, and electric trains could run by 2021.

  • Andy Chow

    We should send a message to Atherton that lawsuit is not the most productive strategy to obtain concessions from Caltrain:

  • the_greasybear

    Little in this world deserves as much derision as a city of such wealth and privilege shouting “Stop the world! You cannot have nice things until we are given even more than we already have!”

  • Eric Panzer

    It’s a sad irony of the Bay Area: A large tech company provides its employees with an alternative to commuting by single-occupancy vehicle and people show up to protest and literally vomit. Meanwhile a wealthy and exclusive suburban enclave throws monkey wrench after monkey wrench into the public transportation that serves the very same corridor, and those protestors are nowhere to be seen.

  • voltairesmistress

    In Atherton money does indeed grow on trees. Hope that enclave exhausts its treasury over this nit-picking lawsuit.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The protesters have been manipulated into hating the upper middle class instead of hating actual rich people.

  • helloandyhihi

    We should get Charles Schwab and all of the other high-profile people who live in Atherton to publicly shame Atherton officials for dong this.

  • Gezellig

    Those protesters have also been manipulated into ignoring how irresponsible, shortsighted and anti-progressive local governments (whether SF, Mill Valley, Mountain View, etc.) have refused over multiple decades to build sufficient new housing and transit to meet demands that have been projected since literally the 1950s, if not before:

    These protesters have too often conflated NIMBYist lack of development with progressive conservationism when all it’s done is ironically lead to further non-conservationist unsustainable sprawl and housing shortages causing artificially high housing/rent costs.

    I guess it’s much easier to scapegoat the 22-year olds of the world who’ve just moved here for a new job as the supposed Gentrifying Devil when in reality the housing/transit crisis has been entirely self-inflicted by decades of inaction by pretty much every local Bay Area community since long before said 22-year olds were born.

  • crazyvag

    How low does ridership have to be at a station before Caltrain drops it completely? My train on Monday stopped at Atherton on Monday with no passengers in sight. By throwing up these roadblocks, Atherton clearly doesn’t appreciate the service provided, so why should other passengers be subjected to this this unwanted stop on Peninsula?

  • theqin

    To be fair, atherton is currently only served on weekends. Probably the president’s day schedule was modified from the weekend schedule.

  • EastBayer

    It’s not that Atherton wants more concessions. They just hate rail. This is one of the few Republican-majority cities in the Bay Area…

  • murphstahoe

    Caltrain tried to close Atherton (and Broadway). Atherton and Burlingame protested and Caltrain caved and threw them a bone with weekend service. They were being proposed for closure due to low ridership an proximity to other stations – Broadway has some value but it’s way too close to Burlingame station to justify two train stops.

  • crazyvag

    Broadway seems to have more value since there are businesses and houses in the area. There’s also potential to build more density around the station, although I agree, it’s too close to Burlingame and Millbrae.

    No hope exists for density at Atherton.

    I suppose Atherton seeing as they’ve nothing to lose (Weekend service is not worth much), they’re going all out.

  • chasmader

    When I was growing up in Palo Alto in the 70’s, Southern Pacific used to run freight trains all night through Atherton, Meno Park and Palo Alto. Everybody lived with it. Living near train tracks is like buying a house next to the airport. If you don’t like it, sell your house and moved to Hillsborough or Los Altos Hills.

  • zig

    I live in San Mateo. SP still runs the trains at least one a night I hear.

  • frenchjr25

    I don’t understand why there is going to need to be a need for both systems. Why doesn’t the high speed train simply replace Caltrain?

  • abe1000

    High speed rail is sexy and glamorous yet very expensive and has problems like noise. Why not settle for something more practical like higher speed trains (100 to 120 mph) powered by DMUs (diesel mobile units) which are quiet and practical. This is what is used in the UK. Building electrified tracks is expensive and unsightly. Diesel engines are now very clean and quiet. Using diesel would allow easy expansion of the system.

  • Sparafucile

    Atherton residents: always perfectly happy to force the impacts of the policies it demands onto others.

  • Sparafucile

    Because Caltrain is commuter rail. HSR (in every incarnation of its idiocy) is intercity transport.

  • Sparafucile

    Hardly. It’s just like (modern) Palo Alto — leftie liberal elites, always happy to make others endure the impacts of its demands, while insisting those demands don’t apply personally to them.

  • Sparafucile

    It certainly is the most effective way to “derail” any proposal. Just look at how anti-nuclear-power nutjobs use the technique.

  • Flatlander

    No, actually I was citing real data. From Wikipedia: “Unlike most of San Mateo County, 55% of Atherton voters are registered Republicans, and 27.8% are registered Democrats.”

    Perhaps educate yourself before spouting off.

  • Sparafucile

    Perhaps you should. What passes for a “Republican” in Atherton is nothing most Republicans would recognize. And I write this, even with one of their past Republican mayors as a personal friend.

    I never claimed the city isn’t “republican majority” — I wrote, precisely, that it’s occupied by “leftie liberal elites” — who are the ones who make ALL the noise.

    And you might want to check your County lines — I compared it to Palo Alto, which isn’t in San Mateo County.

  • Flatlander

    In other words, you were wrong. Got it.

  • Sparafucile

    I see you missed the part about my reference to the Palo Alto of not-too-long ago, not the PA of today.

    What am imbecile you regularly demonstrate yourself to be.


Overhead electrification in Connecticut. Caltrain electrification will survive the Trump Administration after all. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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