Caltrain wants to replace San Francisquito Creek bridge, a move that will accelerate other planning decisions

The train bridge spanning San Francisquito Creek at Palo Alto Avenue. Photo by Bo Crane.

This story first appeared in the Friday, Sept. 23, print edition of the Daily Post. If you want to read important local news stories first, pick up the Post in the mornings at 1,000 Mid-Peninsula locations.

Daily Post Staff Writer

Caltrain officials say that the train bridge between Menlo Park and Palo Alto must be replaced, and they’re giving the city a two-year deadline to figure out what it’s doing at the Palo Alto Avenue train crossing or risk getting left behind.

The bridge over San Francisquito Creek is 120 years old, and the steel could crack at any time, said Rob Barnard, Caltrain’s deputy chief of rail development.

Caltrain will get to work on designing the bridge at the end of 2024, and Barnard said that ideally the city will have a vision by then for the rail crossing at Palo Alto Avenue. But the area around the bridge is complicated. There’s El Palo Alto, the 1,000-year-old redwood tree that is a symbol for the city and Stanford. The tracks go above University Avenue and at grade level across Palo Alto Avenue, and the Art Deco-style transit center is in need of a redesign.

“Coming up with a real cohesive plan for that within the next few years is going to be a real stretch — if not an impossibility,” Mayor Pat Burt said on Wednesday.

Discussions about the Palo Alto Avenue crossing have been put off because of how complicated it is. Instead, City Council has been focusing on separating the Caltrain tracks from the road at Churchill Avenue and at Meadow Drive and Charleston Road.

Councilwoman Alison Cormack suggested that the timeline from Caltrain puts the Palo Alto Avenue crossing at the top of the city’s list of priorities.

Caltrain will come up with a preferred method for replacing the bridge over San Francisquito Creek by 2025, Barnard said. The agency’s approach would depend on what the city wants to do at the crossing so that neither project has to be re-done.

Combining two tasks into one

“In a perfect world, we would integrate the bridge work with the grade separation of Palo Alto Avenue, and do them as one project,” Barnard told the city’s Rail Committee, which is made up of Burt, Cormack and Vice Mayor Lydia Kou.

Caltrain engineers inspected the bridge over the course of three weekends last fall, Barnard said. First, they removed all of the debris and vegetation to inspect the underside, and they scanned the bridge with lasers to get a 3D model.

Workers then set up high-speed cameras to measure how much the bridge flexed when trains went over it, looking at both passenger trains and Union Pacific’s heavier freight trains.

Steel from the bridge was sent to a lab to be analyzed for its strength and composition.
The study found that the bridge is not in imminent danger of collapse, and there are no cracks.

“That’s good news,” Barnard said.

However, given the age and constant use of the bridge, there is a risk of cracking that will only increase.

“Action is necessary,” Barnard said.

The bridge must be replaced by 2033, and the project will take nine years in total, Barnard said.

That leaves two years for Palo Alto to come up with a plan before Caltrain gets to work on permitting, designing and undergoing an environmental review.

Construction would begin in 2032, Barnard said.

Bus bridge

Trains won’t be able to cross the bridge during two years of construction, Barnard said.
Caltrain may have to run fleets of busses between the Palo Alto station and the Menlo Park station so people can still ride the train, he said.

The “bus bridge” would have to move hundreds of people during peak hours, so the logistics would be very complicated, Barnard said.

Caltrain has taken a couple of steps to protect the bridge in the meantime. Passenger trains will stop and let freight trains cross so both aren’t on the bridge at the same time. The bridge will be inspected every six months, and sound monitors will be installed to listen for cracking, Barnard said.

Switch to electric

Caltrain is working to increase its number of trains as it switches from diesel to electric engines.

Currently, four trains run per hour during commute times, or one train every 15 minutes.

A federal grant to fund electric wires over the tracks requires Caltrain to have six trains per hour by 2024, or one train every 10 minutes, Barnard said.

And by 2033, Caltrain is anticipating having 10 trains per hour — one train every six minutes, Barnard said.
Burt said that he wanted Caltrain to look at strengthening the bridge rather than replacing it. He wanted to know much it would cost, how long it would take and why it couldn’t be a permanent solution.

Lindsey Kiner, a consultant who is managing the project, said strengthening the bridge would still take about seven years because of all of the permits, and it would only be a Band-aid solution. The bridge would still need to be eventually replaced, she said.

A couple members of the public were at the Rail Committee meeting. Resident Martin Sommer suggested connecting Alma Street between Palo Alto and Menlo Park so drivers don’t have to cross the tracks to move between the two cities.

Top priority

Nadia Naik, who worked on a citizen panel dedicated to rail crossings, said the Palo Alto Avenue crossing was now number one on the city’s list.

Naik suggested elevating the Caltrain tracks over the road, thus increasing the height of the bridge. While residents don’t like to live near viaducts, they are a good option for downtown areas, she said.

Naik also said council should look at the area as a whole. It’s harder to get state and federal funding to separate the railroad from the street, but upgrading the transit center would be “sexy” and easier to fund, she said.

1 Comment

  1. It doesn’t sound like there is any immediate need for the bridge to be replaced, rather a bunch of busy-bodies are obsessed with ‘doing something’ to add to their resume. If there are no cracks after 120 years then I don’t expect any to appear by 2033 when it supposedly “must” be replaced. OF COURSE the consultant who is “managing the project” isn’t going to support strengthening the bridge when a total replacement (that’ll cause massive disruptions to Peninsula transportation) for (at least) 2 years, offers juicier contracts for a decade to come. Infrastructure that has withstood the test of time is a BLESSING, a precious gift from past generations who built things to last like the great civilizations of the past did, leave it alone, go fix what’s broken like the potholes along El Camino!

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