In response to fierce backlash from residents of San Mateo’s Hayward Park neighborhood, Caltrain officials are exploring alternative locations for a rail maintenance equipment storage area, known as a siding track, and their findings will be announced in August.
Caltrain’s preferred location for the siding track is an area adjacent to the main tracks between 10th and 14th avenues in San Mateo but, because of pushback, a committee consisting of Caltrain and San Mateo staff has been formed to search for alternative locations.
“We’ve broadened our reach and we’re looking at any alternatives we may have missed, up to and including potentially are there areas that aren’t on our right-of-way, but could physically meet our needs,” Project Manager Rafael Bolon said at a meeting July 11, adding that the search will continue through July. “We started with the assumption that we had to own the property, and now we’re taking a step back and saying is there anything we could have missed within that area that meets our operational needs.”
Needed to ensure the railroad operates safely, siding tracks are used to store on-track maintenance vehicles and potentially rail cars. During the day, parked maintenance vehicles are loaded with equipment and then deployed between midnight and 4:30 a.m. to wherever they’re needed to maintain the tracks.
Bolon said there are currently about 10 such siding tracks along the Caltrain right-of-way and they must be located within a certain distance of each other. That’s to ensure the slow-moving maintenance vehicles can collectively cover the entire corridor within the short period of time when trains aren’t running.
One such siding track is being displaced because of the grade separation project occurring at 25th Avenue.
Caltrain officials searched between San Carlos and Millbrae, the mid-range of the railroad’s right-of-way, and the only feasible location that was identified is an area between 10th and 14th avenues in San Mateo’s Hayward Park neighborhood, about 30 to 50 feet from homes.
Bolon said that only that area met the various needs of a siding track.
“We took the Caltrain criteria for siding tracks, in particular the restrictions on you can’t have a switch on a curve, you need it to be at least 1,000 feet long and you need access by [trucks] at various points, and when you plug those constraints in, really we looked at all the available alternatives within that area and that’s how we came up with a location between 10th and 14th in San Mateo,” he said.
Those who live in that area got wind of Caltrain’s plans when trucks began dumping soil on the site a little over a month ago. Bolon said the soil dumping was part of the 25th Avenue grade separation project and not the beginning of construction on the siding track, but word got out nonetheless and outcry about noise impacts and Caltrain’s minimal outreach efforts ensued.
Bolon confirmed that activity on and around the siding track will generate noise in the middle of the night.
“There will be noise,” he said. “Any time you have equipment, there’s going to be backup alarms — we always get complaints on that. … You’ll get hooking noises, occasionally they may oil something, but the primary utilization is to store it.”
The San Mateo City Council shares the concerns of its residents and has drafted a letter urging Caltrain to find a new location for the siding track. It will vote on officially sending the letter Monday.
“The area that has been selected is directly adjacent to a large residential neighborhood, and a set-out track at that location would cause a significant, tangible impact on our residents’ quality of life,” according to the letter. “The inadequate outreach prevented our residents from any meaningful participation in the process.”
While Caltrain staff maintains the siding track location was decided on and publicized according to all legal requirements, it does concede there’s room for improvement in terms of its outreach efforts.
“As we continue to work with the communities and the city, we have to really do a better job of clarifying what to expect there,” said Michelle Bouchard, Caltrain’s chief operating officer.
During the CEQA process in 2018, Caltrain publicized a notice in the San Jose Mercury News about the siding track relocation that many said they never saw. Board Member Charles Stone, also a Belmont councilman, suggested notices should instead or additionally be published in the San Mateo Daily Journal.
“Since we do have the fortunate benefit of a local paper that covers most of the county, when we’re noticing stuff it’s never a bad idea to get it into the newspaper that people are reading the most in this area,” he said.
Stone added that if no other locations can be identified for the siding track then he wants to see mitigating measures implemented.
In other business, Caltrain board members expressed interest in starting meetings at 9 a.m. rather than 10 a.m. The August meeting, when the board votes on one of three service visions outlined in the Business Plan, will begin at 9 a.m. regardless of whether that becomes the permanent start time.
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