As construction for Caltrain’s electrification project continues, a meeting in Burlingame Wednesday, July 18, to update residents on the project status and its effects outlined some nascent concerns over a small power station north of Broadway and a possible increase in noise.
The $2 billion modernization program is expected to replace 80 percent of Caltrain’s current diesel fleet — some locomotives date back to the 1980s — with electric trains traveling between San Jose and San Francisco by 2022.
While many are thrilled about the prospect of improved service with quieter, environmentally friendly locomotives, some Burlingame residents living near the tracks are concerned about the increase in train-horn noise that more frequent service may bring.
Caltrain also announced at the meeting a new location at the corner of California Drive and Mills Avenue north of Broadway for what’s called a paralleling station, which Greg Parks, a consultant who led the presentation, described as a small power station. Generally speaking, these stations look like large utility boxes and range in size. Parks said a separate meeting devoted to that project will be held in the coming months and a schematic with the footprint for the structure will be shared then as well.
While he said that particular project is only in the preliminary design phase, some residents expressed concerns about the eyesore and its proximity to homes and anticipate a growing backlash.
“It’s perhaps unfortunate where it landed, but we exhausted our options,” said Lin Guan, an engineer with SamTrans. “We don’t expect it to be a popular decision by any means. With a project of this size, there are going to be tough decisions and this was certainly one of them, but it’s the best answer we can come up with at this point.”
Parks said they had to relocate the paralleling station to its new home so it wouldn’t affect the Broadway grade separation project, adding that the station will be mostly unmanned and make “minimal noise.” And Guan said it couldn’t be located east of the tracks because there would be insufficient access there for construction and maintenance.
The new location was decided on about a month ago and the station will be set back from the curb as far as possible, said Stacy Cocke, deputy director, program management and environmental compliance.
“Not only will we mitigate per the electrification project’s tree mitigation replacement ratio, but we’ll apply vegetation screening as well as trees in between California [Drive] and the paralleling station to try to minimize that visual impact,” she said.
Construction on the paralleling station is expected to begin at the end of this year and take three to five months to complete.
As for train horn noise, resident Marsha Kunz is not looking forward to Caltrain’s goal of running 12 trains per peak hour — which could mean a honking locomotive every five minutes — by 2022.
“Every five minutes is going to be really tough to live with,” she said.
Cocke said the horns on electric trains will be about as loud as the ones currently in use.
“Because they’re gong to be newer there’s some variability on horns with the conductor so I think there’s an opportunity to standardize the sound of each horn on each train just because they’ll be brand-new trains, but I don’t expect that it’ll be vastly different,” she said.
Some residents wondered out loud why a train out of San Diego called the Pacific Surfliner’s horn seems much quieter than Caltrain’s and there was talk of trying to pass a local ordinance to soften the noise somehow.
Electrification related construction is currently happening in what Caltrain officials call “segment two,” which extends from South San Francisco to Atherton with Burlingame in the middle. At this point, various surveying, soil testing and other pre-construction work is complete, while tree pruning and removal, potholing and foundation installation is underway. The poles that support the wires that supply power to the trains will be installed in Burlingame in the fall of this year. That work should take four to five months to complete and will largely occur at night.
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