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California High Speed Rail: Peninsula Legislators Take Action

Caltrain is the Spine of the Peninsula Transportation System.
Caltrain is the Spine of the Peninsula Transportation System.
K. Hamilton

Finally the peninsula has some elected officials who are tired of just listening to the High Speed Rail (HSR) Project issues. Senator Joe Simitian(D) Palo Alto, Anna Eshoo (D) US Representative and Rich Gordon (D) Los Altos all agreed that it was time to take matters into their own hands.

In a prepared statement, they called for HSR and Caltrain to work on a blended system of High Speed Rail arriving in San Jose and continuing with an updated Caltrain system at speeds that would have been used by High Speed Rail. See the actual announcements.

link 1:

(5 minutes) Senator Simitian make the announcement.

link 2:

(7 minutes) Senator Simitian and Rep Eshoo making comments.

link 3.

(7 minutes)

Simitian, Gordon and Eshoo defined what the elusive phrase "done right” for the High Speed Rail project looks like for the peninsula and south county:

  1. No Aerial Viaduct
  2. Stay within the ROW of the Caltrain system
  3. Abandon the Environmental Impact Report for the larger phased project or Amend the Environmental Impact Report for a smaller project with credible ridership numbers.


Is what they proposed perfect? No. But according to many people in attendance they believe it’s an improvement, including Atherton’s Council Member Jerry Carlson, “it’s a step in the right direction.”

Council Member from San Mateo, David Lim, gave his personal opinion, "He whole-heartedly agrees" and is "grateful for the bold statement." He only wishes that it had been a year ago when chances were better to “grab more funding for electrification and grade separations.”

The idea of perhaps a two track system that would be at grade or underground was a new possibility that intrigued Council Member Pat Burt, from Palo Alto. However he believes that there may be a new definition of a phased approach if an at grade design is chosen. He suggests the system might run trains without grade separations first, adding grade separations in later years with increased traffic. Traffic issues increase with volume of trains and no grade separations.

David Schonbrunn, President of TRANSDEF, and train expert remarked, “I'm quite intrigued. There's more common sense in their proposal than I've seen in 12 years of work by the Authority. That said, there are several questions that are worth studying before going down that path:

How many trains per hour would be the ultimate capacity of such a system?

How well could that serve the California travel market in the long-term?”

He also wonders if arrangements can be reached with the Union Pacific (UP) Railroad and reminds us that UP can veto any intercity passenger operations on the Caltrain Corridor.

Another reaction came from Community Coalition on High Speed Rail- “Plain and simple,” said Jim Janz President, “Senator Simitian, Assembly Member Gordon, and Congress Member Eshoo are establishing a “minimum standard” for any high-speed rail development on the Peninsula, and are taking “off the table” the worst features of the proposal advanced by the California High Speed Rail Authority.


There appears to be lots of confusion about a perceived “Stop in San Jose” option. Neighborhoods had been clamoring for this approach for years but it is clearly against the law that governs the project. Simitian’s statement was: “a single blended system could allow high-speed rail arriving in San Jose to continue north in a seamless fashion as part of the 21stCentury CalTrain.”

There were early reports yesterday that quoted Anna Eshoo as supporting the idea of transferring in San Jose. She did not say that in her speech on Monday and today a release from Congresswoman Eshoo’s office clarifying the following:

Congresswoman Eshoo, Senator Simitian and Assemblyman Gordon wish to make clear that they are not calling for high-speed trains to stop in San Jose, forcing riders from the south, for instance, to transfer to Caltrain to reach San Francisco. There would be no transfers. The idea is to upgrade the Caltrain corridor so that high-speed trains can run on the same tracks.”

All the legislators do support the concept of High Speed Rail but have no doubts this is more about saving Caltrain and getting funding for them than the High Speed Rail system, Eshoo said, “Caltrain is our anchor commuter system for the 21stCentury, period.”

She also said “money is tough to come by, “so every resource that we pursue is difficult to secure but it also has to be used wisely and invested well. “I think the investment in the positive train control (directs and coordinates train traffic in order to avoid accidents) and a blended system that integrates High Speed Rail that comes up from the central valley with a 21stcentury Caltrain will benefit not only my constituents but Caltrain and future generations as well.”


Senator Simitian was asked about enforcement of this proposal, he said it was legal under 1A and he reminded the audience that he and Assemblyperson Rich Gordon were the Chairmen for the Budget Committees for the Senate and Assembly Transportation Committees respectively and they would withhold funds if the Authority didn’t do what they asked.


It is true that Senator Simitian did not say a two track system, he said this blended system had to be built within the existing Cal Train ROW and while there might be room in some areas for four tracks, it’s not a sure thing that a four track system will be built. The legislators emphasized that the system must be built in a scaled down version and be based on credible ridership numbers.

All three legislatures endorsed the Pacheco Pass using the Caltrain route between San Francisco and San Jose. And while the Pacheco Pass is the preferred route under the Program level EIR, until the ridership numbers are objectively done, no one knows for sure what the best way to approach the Bay Area is.

Altamont is still the preferred option by many knowledgeable people and was the chosen route of the California High Speed Rail Commission, the agency prior to the High Speed Rail Authority when it wrote its final report in December 1996 and reached the following conclusion:

“Of the three northern mountain pass options (from south to North: The Panoche, the Pacheco and the Altamont), the Commission recommends the Altamont Pass for linking the Central Valley to the greater San Francisco Bay Area. This option generates higher ridership and revenue for the system, and is less costly to construct than the other mountain passes considered.”


The state is still left with a project that has not been managed correctly. It has a poor business plan, questionable ridership numbers, no proof that a state revenue subsidy will be not be required by the state and no promise for federal money in future years.

The High Speed Rail Authority is still planning to start in the central valley under great protest from family farmers for a route that may not meet route selection criteria set in AB 3034 nor have the ridership and revenue nor meet the funding requirements in the law.

Major legislation is in the works to hold the Authority's feet to the fire and Peninsula residents ask that Assemblyman Gordon, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and Senator Simitian to continue to be vigilant and tough to make sure the project does not squander funds.