I love trains. I’ve taken trains for various reasons throughout my life, including commuting for the majority of my working life on Caltrain. I also enjoy taking long-distance Amtrak trips, some of which you can read about by clicking the links beneath the “My Other Blogs” heading either to the right (if you are reading this on a computer) or at the very bottom (if you are reading this on a smartphone) of my website. I’ve written plenty about Caltrain, most recently just last week, when I wrote about how the Caltrain tracks through Redwood City may get upgraded, and how that upgrade would affect the city. The upgrade that we are expected to receive is being motivated by Caltrain wanting to greatly increase service, plus the possible addition of High-Speed Rail trains to our tracks. Coming in at a distant third, there is also the faint possibility that the Dumbarton rail line might someday be revived. Given that the Dumbarton rail line joins the Caltrain tracks in Redwood City (at the aptly named “Redwood Junction”), any upgrade needs to at least ensure that the Dumbarton line — part of which is used today for some freight operations — is taken into account.
For the last two weeks I’ve been making excursions to the Dumbarton rail line as best I can, and for this post I thought I’d show you where it goes and share some of the more interesting bits. Even if you aren’t into trains, you might find this interesting since it is not so much about trains themselves but more about some neighborhoods to the south and east of Redwood City.
First, a little background.
The Dumbarton Rail line opened in 1910, having been built by the Southern Pacific. A major component of this line, which was designed to transport freight between the Peninsula and the East Bay, was the Dumbarton Rail Bridge: the Bay Area’s first bay crossing. Although for a short time the bridge also carried passenger rail traffic, the line was primarily used to carry freight. Freight trains ran across this bridge from 1910 to 1982 — which is about when the Dumbarton Bridge that we drive on today opened to the public (the two bridges ran roughly in parallel, less than a mile apart). The San Mateo County Transportation Authority (SamTrans) spent $10 million to purchase the rail bridge in 1994, hoping to use it for a new commuter rail service between San Mateo County and the East Bay. Unfortunately, that service never got off the ground due to a lack of funds.
In 1998 the wooden trestle that held up the western span of the bridge caught fire. Firefighters did what they could, fighting the massive conflagration from both the land and from the water (using boats), but in the end all that remained were charred pilings sticking up from the water. The rails, the wooden decking, and most of the supports were gone.
More recently, in June of 2019, another fire took out some 100 yards of the wooden rail trestle on the east side of the bridge, leaving the rotating center section of the bridge (which rotates to allow ships to get by) standing mostly alone in the center of the bay.
In 2017 SamTrans conducted a study of the bridge and the rails that run between that bridge and Redwood City, in the hopes of either reviving the commuter rail project or building a bridge suitable for commuter buses. That study determined that it would cost $150 million just to demolish the existing bridge, and between $615 million and $1.8 billion to construct a new, 1.3 mile bridge. In 2019, Facebook (whose massive Menlo Park campus is located along the Dumbarton Rail line), in partnership with Plenary Group, joined with SamTrans in an effort to move the project along. Facebook had agreed to fund studies for the project, but, for economic reasons arising from the pandemic, in mid-2020 rescinded their offer of financial support. Today, SamTrans continues to push the project forward, with more limited funding from Facebook. Current estimates for the bridge plus the supporting rail line, which would run from Redwood City on the Peninsula to Newark in the East Bay, are roughly $3 billion.
Although the bridge is now inaccessible, the rail line from Redwood City to the edge of the bay still exists, and part of it appears to be still in use by freight trains servicing various businesses along the corridor. This is the line that I’ve spent time off and on over the last two weeks tracing.
Although the Dumbarton Rail line does go to and from Redwood City, it does so only barely. The Dumbarton Rail line meets up with the Caltrain tracks essentially behind our Costco, which is pretty much up against the southern border of the city:
[Satellite image courtesy of Apple Maps]
The annotated satellite photo, above, shows where the Dumbarton Line meets the Caltrain line. I’ve added labels to help you orient yourself (click on the above image if you need a version you can enlarge). The two tan lines running from the left edge to the bottom of the photo in front of the Target store follow El Camino Real. The longer tan line running from the top of the photo to the right edge near the bottom is Middlefield Road. Note the connection between the two train lines behind the Costco. Also note the tightly curved connection between the two tracks, near the center of the image; that connection lets northbound trains on the Caltrain tracks head east on the Dumbarton tracks (and, presumably, the reverse). As for those buildings in the center of the arched triangle formed by these tracks, that’s the so-called “Redwood Junction”:
The above photo was taken close to where the Dumbarton Line crosses Middlefield Road (Middlefield Road was to my back when I took this image). Here is a photo showing where the tracks cross Middlefield Road (Redwood Junction behind the juniper bushes on the right side of this image):
The next time you drive down Middlefield Road into North Fair Oaks, watch for this crossing; it is where the commuter trains would run if the Dumbarton Rail project is ever fully realized. For now, though, the occasional freight train uses these tracks.
From Redwood Junction, the Dumbarton Line slices diagonally through North Fair Oaks. The line here is a bit tricky to follow since there are few streets that parallel it. Eventually, the tracks cross into Menlo Park, and then make their way over Highway 101. Here is the overpass that carries the Dumbarton Line tracks, as viewed from the freeway (my wife had to drive me so I could take this picture):
This crossing is midway between Marsh and Willow roads; before this project I’ve driven beneath it thousands of times and had not given it much thought. Someday, though, motorists might see passenger trains running above them here.
Immediately after crossing Highway 101, the line passes by Joseph B Kelly Park and then finds its way behind the new Facebook buildings on the south side of Highway 84 (which of course leads to the Dumbarton Automobile Bridge). I had never explored the area behind these Facebook buildings, but if you turn off Highway 84 onto Chilco Street you’ll be able to get a good look at them from the rear. After paralleling the buildings (and the tracks), Chilco Street makes a sharp right turn into the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, but not before crossing the Dumbarton Rail line. I took the following photo from Chilco Street, looking at that crossing and the rear of some of the Facebook buildings:
In the above photo, I’m looking east across Chilco Street. The Facebook buildings are on the left, and on the right are some homes within the Belle Haven neighborhood. What’s really important, though, is the fence on the other side of the street: that fence cuts off the tracks, so that trains can proceed no further. Indeed, if you look closely at the tracks themselves, you’ll notice that leading up to the fence the tops are shiny — indicating that they are still in use — whereas if you enlarge the photo and look at the tracks beyond the fence, they are quite rusty, indicating that trains haven’t run over them for some time.
The fence indicates that trains can proceed no further, but the tracks do continue on. So did I.
The tracks continue east, eventually crossing Willow Road. After entering East Palo Alto, they cross University Avenue. The following photo was taken from alongside University Avenue, showing the now-unused rail crossing in the distance:
The above photo faces north. Not far beyond the rail crossing is Highway 84. Turn right at Highway 84, and you’ll very shortly find yourself crossing the Dumbarton Bridge.
The “street” leading to the right at the bottom of the above photo is an access to the Ravenswood Open Space Preserve. I hadn’t been aware of the preserve’s existence prior to tackling this project, so I’m certainly glad I discovered it! It’s a terrific place to walk or bike, and it extends right to the bay waters. There are some nice trails leading through the preserve, one of which conveniently runs along the top edge, where it parallels the Dumbarton Line tracks. I should note that the entrance shown above isn’t for the average vehicle; while service vehicles can use it, it is gated very close to University Avenue. You can enter here on foot or on bicycle, however. The preserve’s main entrance, and parking lot, is located at the southern end, at the end of Bay Road. However, there is a lot of road construction going on there at the moment, and the entrance is blocked off. Thus, if you want to check out the preserve, you’ll have to park somewhere in the residential areas near the above entrance (off Purdue Avenue, say) and then walk in.
Here is the University Avenue entrance, facing into the preserve:
If you look carefully at this photo, just above the chain-link fence on the left you can see a dark horizontal line. That’s the Dumbarton Rail line, making its way to the now nonexistent bay crossing.
The above shows the rail line as viewed from the Bay Trail running through the preserve. In the distance, beyond the chain-link fence, you can just make out the multi-colored buildings of Facebook headquarters, on the north side of Highway 84.
The Bay Trail gets close to the waters of the bay, and provides a good look at what is left of the old Dumbarton Rail bridge:
In the above photo (which you may want to zoom in on), the tracks run along the earthen berm at the left. They then used to head onto a wooden trestle that was supported by creosote-covered wooden pilings, the remains of which can be seen sticking up from the water. Next they ran along a concrete (or so it appears) causeway before crossing the bridge itself. You may be able to tell that the bridge is permanently in the “open” position. Since the bridge is now inaccessible by train, and since boats still need to be able to make their way down to the bottom of the bay, there is no reason to ever close it.
Lastly, let me leave you with a final satellite image showing this part of the bay:
[Satellite image courtesy of Apple Maps]
In this image, the tan line running from the left edge of the photo to the top is Highway 84 and the Dumbarton Bridge. The lower of the two darker lines — the one running from the upper right corner of the image down towards the bottom — is the Dumbarton Rail line. Note the rotating section of the bridge, which is in the “open” position. If you follow the line from right to left, it appears to just stop mid-bay, but if you look really carefully (again, you may want to zoom in) you can just make out a faint continuation of the line through the water showing the remains of the burned trestle that once stood there.
As for the other black line that lies between the two bridges, well, that is the Hetch-Hetchy pipeline, which supplies us with our water. Although it appears to just stop in the middle of the bay, in fact it simply plunges underground there and continues along (or beneath) the bottom of the bay. That allows ships to make their way to the southernmost part of the San Francisco Bay without having to deal with the water line.
Because the Dumbarton Rail line still exists up to the waters of the bay on both sides, making those parts of the line serviceable once again wouldn’t seem to be a very difficult task. Clearly, the bulk of the effort and expense will involve the complete rebuilding of the 1.3 mile section that spans the bay here. If that could be done, however, we’d have a rail link that would connect Redwood City with Newark, and potentially with BART. A few carefully placed stations along the line — perhaps in East Palo Alto, then adjacent to Facebook, then in Menlo Park, and at Redwood Junction — would make mass transit much more practical for many thousands of commuters. Someone living in the East Bay, for instance, could get on a train in Newark, transfer in Redwood City, and head up to San Francisco in one relatively smooth process. Similarly, people living up the Peninsula could hop on Caltrain heading south, transfer in Redwood City, and get off at Facebook’s main campus. The possibilities are endless, and show why SamTrans is so interested in reviving this once active, but now dead, rail line. It has the potential to take many, many cars off of our freeways and bridges, which I think we can all agree would be a very good thing.
Although this project would cost an enormous amount of money — most of which would likely be state and federal dollars — it would bring huge benefits to the area. I for one would love to be able to ride this new line, and hope that someday I’ll actually be able to. There are many obstacles to bringing this project to fruition, however, so I’m not holding my breath.
Speaking of transit, there will be a live question-and-answer session regarding the current Grade Separation Study on February 3 and 5 p.m. via Zoom. This session will focus on the traffic analysis results and any outstanding questions those of us watching might have on the grade separation feasibility study. Questions can be submitted during the session, or ahead of time either through the city’s Virtual Open House or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Before you submit a question, though, know that answers to questions submitted in previous sessions have been added to the Virtual Open House and to the project web page.
Finally, the City Council was presented with the latest updates on this project and on the Sequoia Station redevelopment project at their meeting last Monday, but public comment ran so long that the remainder of the study session was continued to their next meeting, which will take place at 7 p.m. on Monday, February 8. Interested persons may want to tune in…
Apparently, both the city and Chick-fil-A got the message that their current location, which is very close to the busy intersection of Whipple Avenue and Veterans Boulevard (and Highway 101) is not ideal: traffic has been backing up towards the southbound freeway exit, and one full lane of Whipple Avenue is often blocked with cars trying to get into the Chick-fil-A drive-thru. Accordingly, Chick-fil-A will be redesigning their parking lot in an attempt to provide more room for drive-thru traffic on their property. Hopefully this will do the trick, and eliminate (or at least reduce) the traffic problems at this key Redwood City intersection. I’m curious as to how they will manage to accommodate more cars on their already somewhat tight parcel, and will be watching. I’ll keep you posted…