Caltrain is proposing to permanently close the underused Atherton train station — a move that would benefit both the railroad and the town, according to the Caltrain’s executive director.
Jim Hartnett sent a letter to Atherton Jan. 8 requesting support for the closure of the station though the decision is ultimately up to Caltrain. The Atherton City Council will discuss Caltrain’s proposal at its regular meeting Wednesday.
Mayor Rick DeGolia said it would be difficult to part ways with a station that has been in town since 1912 and while it’s hard to predict the future needs of residents, he’s open to Caltrain’s proposal because he believes it would improve safety in the area. If Atherton agrees to the station closure, Caltrain is offering to implement various safety improvements where the railroad intersects with Watkins Avenue, further restrict access to the track and platform area and also explore the feasibility of a new walking path extending south of Watkins Avenue potentially to the Menlo Park Caltrain Station.
“I’m definitely willing to consider [Caltrain’s proposal], but I want to hear from residents first,” he said. “[The proposal] will improve safety and that’s the most important thing here.”
One of the least-trafficked stations in the corridor, the Atherton station currently receives weekend-only service as weekday service was suspended in 2005 when ridership averaged just 122 passengers per weekday. Today, trains arrive every 90 minutes on weekends and are used by about 114 riders per weekend day on average. By contrast, neighboring stations in Redwood City and Menlo Park average 4,220 and 1,639 boardings respectively per weekday and 523 and 435 boardings per weekend day.
In the letter, Hartnett argued that ridership would not significantly increase out of Atherton even if weekday service is restored, adding that reallocating service to nearby stations will increase overall Caltrain ridership by 300 to 500 passengers.
“The lower density, residential character of the land uses around the Atherton station suggest that the station is unlikely to generate significant future ridership, even with restored weekday service,” he wrote. “Closure of the Atherton station would allow Caltrain to re-allocate service that would have been provided to Atherton to nearby stations where denser land uses will generate more ridership and provide a broader benefit to the public as a whole.”
Hartnett also said closing the station would save the agency tens of millions of dollars in the future. The Atherton station is a center boarding station, meaning its platforms are arranged in such a way that pedestrians need to cross the tracks to get to the platform. As a result, trains are required to wait if there is another in the opposite direction boarding — what’s called the “holdout” rule.
As Caltrain moves forward with its ambitious expansion in the coming years, the station will have to be renovated to eliminate the “holdout” rule, estimated several years ago to cost $30 million, Hartnett said. Closing the station will allow “these scarce funds to potentially be put towards other system improvements that will provide broader public benefit,” he added.
He also said closing the station will improve traffic circulation and reduce noise impacts in town as there would be less gate-down time and trains would not have to sound horns while passing through.
Atherton is currently renovating its civic center and if the adjacent Caltrain station were to close then the town could potentially incorporate that land into the project, Hartnett mentioned in the letter.
The removal of the station would also exempt Atherton from Sen. Scott Wiener’s controversial Senate Bill 50 if approved in the current legislative session. The bill, back for a third time, would upzone areas near transit corridors to facilitate construction of new, dense housing in response to the statewide affordability crisis.
DeGolia said that bill is not factoring into his decision making on the station.
“I don’t think that has any impact on this at this time,” he said.
Removal of the station is expected to take five to six months after an agreement is reached and, in addition to associated site improvements, would cost Caltrain $7 million to $9 million.
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