Guest opinion: Not just technology of the past

Look to Europe for proof that urban rail is relevant

With respect to Mountain View Councilman John McAlister's comment in your article this week on express lanes -- in which he said rail is the "technology of the past" -- I recommend he try Googling "S Bahn" or "Pendeltag." These are urban rail systems in Europe -- the S Bahn in German cities and the Pendeltag in Stockholm -- that move hundreds of thousands of commuters a day in comfort.

The trains are fast and run frequently on limited access rights of way, but stop less frequently than light rail so they get to their destinations much more quickly. The stations are strategically located near industrial parks and other areas where lots of people work and live. Stockholm in 2017 completed an upgrade of its urban rail system that remodeled some stations in the urban core, and Germany also continues to invest in its urban rail systems. Sometimes, the tracks run underground through the densely built parts of the city, but just as often they run above ground outside the urban core in the suburbs. The trains run on standard gauge track and use stock equipment -- not like BART, which requires expensive, custom-built equipment and a wider gauge track.

In other words, they are much like Caltrain.

So why does the Highway 85 policy advisory board only consider light trail or carpool lanes as options for the median strip? Here's another suggestion: Run a Caltrain line up the median from just south of the Blossom Hill station, where Caltrain crosses under 85, to Mountain View. Build the stations like BART stations with large parking garages, but terminate the line at the North Bayshore industrial park, and run a branch from the San Jose to San Francisco line there too. Caltrain has been the poor stepchild of the Bay Area public transportation scene for far too long. It's about time transportation policymakers wake up and realize how valuable it could be if there was only some decent investment in it.

McAlister and the Highway 85 policy advisory board are just using the disappointing performance of light rail in San Jose as an excuse to continue doing nothing, hoping at some point that either the public caves in and they get to put in toll lanes, or that podcars, self-driving cars or Elon Musk's Hyperloop show up and rescue the Valley from perpetual gridlock. But no technology moves more people more quickly than urban rail, and waiting another 30 years for some magic solution to appear is no plan.

James Kempf lives on Foxborough Drive in Mountain View.

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15 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Dec 29, 2018 at 9:52 am

Max Hauser is a registered user.

I support James Kempf's informed praise of Caltrain, one of the more effective of the Bay Area crazy-quilt of major public-transit systems. But I tripped on the obviously well-meaning sentence "It's about time transportation policymakers wake up and realize how valuable [Caltrain] could be if there was only some decent investment in it."

Of course the spirit of that wish is undeniable. But unlike Germany and Sweden (or Austria, France, Hong Kong, or many other places with strong comprehensive public-transit facilities and planning), the Bay Area really has no substantive, region-wide "transportation policymakers" and never did. Instead, there's a patchwork of Balkan-style fiefdoms, each focused inward, jealously using or abusing whatever funding it can scrounge. There are celebrations and press releases when a new ticketing scheme arrives that actually works across multiple transit agencies -- as if that were some marvelous innovation, rather than tardy retrofit of capabilities that would have been built in from the start, elsewhere.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BARTD) of the 1950s was promoted as a regional rail planning agency on the European model, but unlike international counterparts it lacked real (fund-raising) authority, and had to approach counties and even cities separately for money. When San Mateo County refused to buy in, BART down the Peninsula was quashed; instead of a five- or six-county bay-ringing system, we got a tire-iron of perpendicular routes crossing in Oakland. Thankfully the rail line now called Caltrain had long been in place, and has partly made up for the Bay Area's non-regional transport planning.

Real regional transit planning would mean radical, politically difficult changes, like ending VTA's domination by San José's political machine and its conspicuously non-"regional" pet-project agendas. I'd class such a prospect as an aspiration, rather than a measurable probability.

1 person likes this
Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Waverly Park
on Jan 2, 2019 at 5:42 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

To quote this bizarrely ignorant article: "Build the [heavy rail] stations like BART stations with large parking garages, but terminate the [highway 85] line at the North Bayshore industrial park, and run a branch from the San Jose to San Francisco line there too."

This argument is riddled with incredibly ignorant conceptual, political, and practical disasters. It is just simplistic, delusional thinking.

1.Caltrain's heavy rail commuter line, which is shared with economically vital freight trains at night, works quite effectively from San Jose to San Francisco. It does not need to be duplicated because that would be wasted money and because there is no available land on the Peninsula!!! DUH! Caltrain will continue to work just fine as long as it is electrified and cities and counties build grade separations (hopefully PAID FOR by the useless bureaucrats running Caltrain) at all road/rail traffic intersections to allow for increased commuter train volume. As for High Speed Rail? Forget about this political debacle. It will never run up the Peninsula disaster? No land, no political will, no economic or environmental mandates.

2. Does anyone along the Highway 85 corridor want heavy trains, with all of their noise, whistles, and pollution, running through their residential neighborhoods? NO. Politically dead. End of subject.

3. Exactly along the 85 corridor will cities "Build the stations like BART stations with LARGE parking garages"??? First, most BART (and also most Caltrain) stations are much too small for riders' automobile parking, so it spills over into adjacent residential 'hoods. Second, where will anyone find the land for these parking lot disasters in hostile and wealthy residential cities along Hwy 85? NIMBY is extremely powerful (for good reasons) for wealthy landowners.

As for BART? That was a practical disaster from Day 1 when they chose to use non-standard rail gauges to prevent non-BART commuter and freight trains from using their tracks. That was a hugely expensive political disaster, and BART suffers to it to this day because they lack funding from external, shared users.

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