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Menlo Park resident sues Caltrain, California High-Speed Rail Authority to stop bullet trains

(The following story by Jessica Bernstein-Wax appeared on the San Jose Mercury-News website on August 18, 2009.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — A Menlo Park resident has sued the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Caltrain, alleging that the two cannot retrofit existing tracks for bullet trains without Union Pacific Railroad Company's permission.

The lawsuit, filed last week in San Mateo County Superior Court, attempts to thwart plans to run high-speed trains along Caltrain's Peninsula corridor.

In April, the rail authority and Caltrain signed an agreement outlining how the two agencies will share the Caltrain tracks at some future date.

While Caltrain has the right to operate commuter service on that corridor, Union Pacific "has the exclusive power to hire an operator to provide intercity passenger service" there, the complaint filed by attorneys for Russell Peterson alleges.

"No party doubts that high-speed rail service joins multiple cities throughout California and is certainly intercity passenger rail service," said attorney Zachary Tyson, who is representing Peterson on a pro-bono basis with Redwood City attorney Michael Brady. "They need to obtain Union Pacific's consent because (Caltrain) isn't really the owner."

Peterson, who lives with his wife and 10-year-old triplets in a home on Felton Drive bordering the Caltrain tracks, said he was a former high-speed rail enthusiast who has since turned sour on the project because of mismanagement and other issues.

"I seriously think the voters didn't know what they passed," Peterson said. "I want (the rail authority) to explain to the public what it is and what it's going to cost. They don't seem to have a budget, and, worse, they don't seem to have answers as to how they're going to get a budget."

Deputy Attorney General George Spanos, who is representing the rail authority, said he received the case file Tuesday afternoon and hadn't had an opportunity to review it yet. Caltrain attorney Kimon Manolius said the defendants would ask a judge to move the case to Sacramento County because all rail authority cases are heard there.

"We've seen the suit and are evaluating what action, if any, we will take," Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said in an e-mail Tuesday. "UP has been working with many states across its network in evaluating the feasibility of high-speed rail along or on its right-of-way."

In a February letter to the authority, Union Pacific's general manager of network infrastructure, Jerry Wilmoth, said the company would keep its rights over the corridor regardless of any high-speed rail projects that come along.

"Union Pacific's permanent easement for freight and Amtrak service over this line is a valuable property and operational right that must not be impaired by construction and operation of the (high-speed rail)," Wilmoth wrote.

California voters in November approved a measure authorizing the sale of $9.9 billion in bonds to help finance a high-speed rail system, but the issue has become increasingly contentious on the Peninsula, where some cities are demanding the authority run the trains underground.

Menlo Park, Atherton and environmental groups have a case against the rail authority pending in Sacramento County Superior Court challenging the decision to run bullet trains through the Peninsula instead of the East Bay. A judge is expected to issue a ruling in that case by the end of August.

Meanwhile, the Peninsula Cities Consortium, representing Palo Alto, Atherton, Menlo Park, Belmont and Burlingame, has drafted an agreement asking the authority to consult it about the train's final alignment on the Peninsula, as well as track design, grade options and other issues. The rail authority has yet to sign the document.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

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