Electric Caltrain

Originally expected to cost $1.5 billion and be operational in 2019, the budget to electrify Caltrain and install a new signaling system has be revised upward by at least $200 million and the likely date that the first electric train will be put into service has been rolled back to April 2021.

If things don’t go as planned, a new worst case scenario would add another $340 million to Caltrain’s Modernization Program budget, for a total project cost of over $ 2 billion, and would result in the electrification not being operational until December of 2024, according to a project update delivered to Caltrain’s Board of Directors:

The delay will likely push back any redevelopment of San Francisco’s Fourth and King Street Railyard and station (the current terminus for Caltrain in the city) by at least as long and further impact the extension of Caltrain’s service to San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center as well.

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by zig

    What a huge disappointment. We are abysmal at transit planning

  2. Posted by Miah

    This is why San Francisco will never be a first-class city (though I love it dearly).

    • Posted by Brad

      What exactly does this have to do with SF? If anything, SF supports public transit more than most cities. In my view this problem is a problem with America, not SF.

  3. Posted by Bob

    I really just think that Caltrain isnt on board with electrification. I’ve lived here almost 20 years, and theyve been pushing back against electrification pretty much the entire time.
    Their hand needs to be forced on this.

    • Posted by NoeNeighbor

      What makes you think they have been pushing back? My sense is that they have wanted to do it but haven’t had the money.

      In any case, this is bad news.

      • Posted by lyqwyd

        Caltrain’s management is completely ignorant about the issues of electrification. They are trying to design a brand new system rather than adopt the system that will be used by HSR, which will be based on systems that have been developed over decades in Europe and/or Asia. Read the Caltrain HSR blog (name link) for insight into Caltrain’s problems.

        • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

          You’re thinking of the signalling system which is separate from electrification to power the trains. Instead of choosing an international standard off the shell system Caltrain decided to reinvent the wheel which forces all operators on the tracks (including HSR) to adapt to a one of a kind signalling system. But at least some contractors made out big.

          • Posted by lyqwyd

            Yes, my comment above was a simplification of the full story

          • Posted by Joel

            No, it’s not just the signalling system. As of late, the primary issue has been platform height with Caltrain wanting 25″ high (so it can have bi-level cars) and HSR insisting on 50″. I believe train width was also a point of disagreement.

        • Posted by CapacityGood

          At the Caltrain Board meeting this week, Director Cohen (San Francisco) gave the following statement:

          “Even more in light of the information presented, San Francisco cannot understate the importance of achieving platform compatibility and level boarding between Caltrain and California High Speed Rail. Platform compatibility and level boarding determine the flexibility, accessibility and capacity of rail lines. Selecting incompatible platform heights will constrain the capacity of the Peninsula Corridor for decades.
          Boarding levels determine dwell times and accessibility for disabled or otherwise burdened people. Non level boarding requires every passenger to ascend stairs; and every passenger with mobility issues to use specialized equipment.

          For a rail system, flexibility, also known as the ability to work around the unexpected, is paramount. Meaningful flexibility in a rail system means the ability to have any train, anywhere, anytime. Incompatible platform heights that require dedicated platforms preclude one or more operators from stopping at stations with different platform heights.

          Whereas compatibility will lead to a single integrated system that can attract private investment and help Caltrain finally become self-sustaining, incompatibility will forever forclose on future options for the whole alignment, including capacity necessary to meet future travel demands. Great care should be exercise to avoid decisions made for economic reasons today that may preclude opportunities or expansion in the future.

          San Francisco strongly urges Caltrain to pursue common platform heights and level boarding with California High Speed Rail”

    • Posted by zig

      Public agencies always want capital improvements whether they are good or not. Mo’ money

    • Posted by zig

      The MTC allocates the $$$

  4. Posted by Mark

    Yet another sign that we are becoming the 4th world (declining markets). But, we will have the Central Subway and BART extensions to the suburbs (insert applause) which will do so much for meeting our future transit needs. Yeah, right…and I’ve got a bridge with faulty rods I can sell ya.

    Don’t worry…the project’s cost will double or triple before a single wire is installed.

  5. Posted by BigV

    why? what ballooned the budget? Are they stuffing more things like platform expansions (to deal with longer cars) or other changes into the plan that are needed to deal with the drastic and rapid increase in ridership? I can imagine that their forward capacity projections have gone up and the project needs to adapt (more cars, longer stations, more overall train strings, etc.).

  6. Posted by 7 by 7

    Unacceptable. We need to push like hell (politically, funding-wise, whatever) to make this happen by 2019. What are the critical paths in the build-out of this project? The ridership is ballooning, trains are packed, more capacity needs to be brought to the system asap. The thought of waiting a full DECADE before it’s running properly is a no go. No More F’ing Delays.

    • Posted by anon

      A lot of the transit in the Bay Area is already running near, at, or over capacity, including just about every single transit line that goes anywhere near downtown SF.
      The Bay Area is projected to grow some couple million people in the time it will take our leaders to realize that we better start doing something about an infrastructure problem that should have been apparent decades ago.

      I think we should just outsource all our infrastructure construction projects. It doesn’t even matter who, as long as it’s anyone from outside the US, because just about EVERYONE does it faster, cheaper, and better than we do.
      If we were to write a blank check to the Chinese and simply tell them “build us a public transit please”, they’ll probably have everyone in the Bay Area within 15 minute walk to an integrated subway system, it’ll be complete within 5 years, and it’ll end up costing less than the new Bay Bridge did. Anyone who sees how they’ve built the new subways in their own cities will know this is not even an exaggeration.

      • Posted by joh

        The people don’t have a voice in China.

        Also don’t forget that many of their infrastructure projects are totally unnecessary, even calling them wishful thinking is a stretch.

  7. Posted by jsimms3

    The implications for capped office space and lack of effective public transit are IMMENSE. The Bay Area at this point is riding on tech, and almost tech alone. If tech can no longer expand here and goes to other, cheaper cities (despite their current “cons”), we lose out big time and it will take a real come to Jesus moment to recover.

    I’m hoping that the inflation we are seeing with various projects (including construction projects around the city) is a temporary thing due to the mass of construction happening already tying up contractors.

    We NEED electrification. It’s hard to believe that out of a $1.5Bn-$2Bn budget, that an extra $100-300M would set the project back 5 years. Is it that hard to find a source for that money?

    And why is everything so DAMN expensive in CA? Denver is rolling out practically an entire MUNI/Caltrain system, with a new union station (equivalent to Transbay), with a new line to the airport, etc etc for less than simple electrification of an existing single commuter rail line here (let alone the costs to build Transbay). It’s pretty pathetic actually. Some heads should roll. Do we grease hands here in CA? Are we becoming IL?

    • Posted by BobN

      For some odd reason, Californians appear to have lost the ability to dig holes.

  8. Posted by Mark

    Tech firms will eventually move to more progressive and worker-friendly cities as the bay area continues to be priced out and stagnant in infrastructure build out.

    • Posted by curious

      Cisco Systems has a special approval process to hire any new employees in CA. Our costs are simply too high and they can find plenty of talent elsewhere. There needs to be VERY strong justification to open headcount in CA.

      • Posted by anon

        I wish that our company could “find plenty of talent elsewhere”. We’d start moving in a heartbeat, but the only places that we’ve been able to open offices that can find decent talent are in Seattle and NY, not exactly cheap places. Other places have been dismal failures (LA, Chicago, Denver were the other cities tried). We could find decent people in those cities, but then they were immediately trying to transfer to the Bay Area or Seattle. In the talks that I had with most, it was primarily so that they could be near other companies looking for their talents, so that they wouldn’t be trapped with us.

  9. Posted by seriously

    We need TRANSPARENCY and OVERSIGHT on this! I want a detailed list of reasons about WHY this is ballooning out of control and what we can do to prevent this. We need to consider multiple options and the public should have more of a say-so in this. Public private partnership? New directors? Union negotiations? Something needs to change because I refuse to be complacent with sub-mediocre transit and infrastructure projects. Like jsimms3 said- if Colorado can do this why can’t California??

    • Posted by anon

      It’s probably just inflation of construction costs. The made the last estimate using recession prices.

    • Posted by Sierrajeff

      The umpteen layers of “transparency” and public say are a major part of every infrastructure project in California. We spend *years* holding meetings with neighbors and distributing minutes of every little meeting (so that some special-interest group or another will always find something to criticize and harp on), before a single shovel goes in the ground. I feel we need the opposite – we need a transportation czar, a 21st century von Hausmann, who can come in and say “This and This and This will happen, period” and then we start working, without all the hand-holding and Kum-By-Yah.

  10. Posted by mjtowns

    Absurdly unacceptable!

  11. Posted by Joseph A

    Getting Cal Train Electrified should be a much higher priority , but its just par for the course of badly run projects here in the Bay Area ,

  12. Posted by curious

    Maybe if they focused instead on forcing cities on the peninsula to tie housing development to job growth, then we wouldn’t be so damn dependent on an over-taxed system in the first place. As it stands the cities on the peninsula have approximately 400 housing units in the plans for every 8,000 projected jobs. San Francisco is the only city “on the peninsula” with a pro-growth agenda.

    Why are there no systems thinkers in government?

    • Posted by S

      AMEN!

    • Posted by Mark

      ” San Francisco is the only city “on the peninsula” with a pro-growth agenda.”

      Perhaps, but our pro-growth transit initiatives are just as short sighted. Every day we witness MUNI running itself into the ground. The Central Subway will do very little, if anything at all, to connect new jobs with new residents. BRT? A joke.

    • Posted by SFRealist

      Ummm, who are “they”? And how should they “force” cities to build housing?

      (I agree that they should, but would like to point out that you or I can’t make a separate city government do anything)

    • Posted by zig

      San Mateo has thousands of units in the pipeline right now. Redwood City seems to be doing alright with the housing development as well.

  13. Posted by Jake

    In the presentation this week to the Caltrain Board looks like more than $100 million is just increase in the costs of the new trains over the 2008 estimate. Seems odd that they wouldn’t have updated the complete estimate every year or two.

    There is also a large increase in contractor costs, maybe $100-150 million They have baked in a 3% annual cost increase (inflation catchall?), which adds up fast on a $1.5B base with multi-year delay.

    Reading between the ppt bullets, it looks like the anticipated schedule delay is due to scheduling construction to cause less impact to current service than the “baseline” plan.

    Big numbers like these deserve a narrative explanation/defense, not just an outline in bullet pts. I hope whoever gave the presentation has suitability large hands for waving.

  14. Posted by SocketSite

    UPDATE: The full Board presentation, with a breakdown of the cost overruns, new timeline, and possible scenarios has been added above.

  15. Posted by Rob

    How convenient that this is realized right after the election. Bay Area voters should make a commitment to voting only for politicians that have extensive support and plans for regional and local public rail transit!

  16. Posted by anon

    Wow, who could have seen this coming? Uh, everyone.

    Next up, high-speed rail in 2064…or maybe 2114.

    • Posted by anon

      I’m surprised that it only took us 25 years to replace the broken Bay Bridge, that we knew would fall down in the next earthquake.

      • Posted by Arch

        So true. The bridge fell when I was just out of college 25 years ago. CalTrain may not be electrified until AFTER I am retired! I would have never imagined things would take this long here. 25 years ago I thought by 2014 we wild have BART to Palo Alto and Marin by now. I am surprised at the ever expanding transit infrastructure Los Angeles has built in the same time period.

        • Posted by anon

          Meh, LA may have built some decent transit, but they’re just as bad as the Bay Area on cost overruns. Vancouver is the city that we should be looking to – automated (no ridiculously expensive drivers) great transit built for pennies compared to California. And that’s in a city that has housing costs as high or higher than SF.

        • Posted by zig

          BART to Marin will never happen, never was going to happen and should never happen

  17. Posted by brooder

    This is really incredible. In China they can build a Shanghai – Beijing high-speed line from scratch in 5 years. Here we cannot electrify a line of 100 miles or so based on standard technology in the same time. This is unacceptable. Maybe eminent domain should force their hand.

  18. Posted by SFRealist

    Note that, as it stands now, this is actually less than the cost of the Central Subway.

    At least Caltrain will be jammed with people…

  19. Posted by jenofla

    Please forgive my totally honest ignorance, but can someone send me a link explaining what electrification is and what it would mean for Caltrain? This is a new issue to me. I’ve Googled it and not seeing much. I’m not an engineer. Is it more energy efficient? Does it mean public transport will be dependent on the energy grid? I don’t see how changing an energy source affects passenger volume and speed. I can see it’s probably necessary for HSR, but if that’s not guaranteed, would simple electrification be a good thing by itself? I mean, when I ride Caltrain, I get from point A to point B, and I’m happy. So please tell this clueless voter what 1.5 billion buckaroo is buying. Thank you.

    • Posted by Jake

      replace diesel trains with electric, plus upgrading signalling systems and misc modernizations (Caltrain page at namelink):
      – increase capacity, safety, reliability
      – reduce noise and pollution
      – easier to integrate with future (HSR)

      Caltrain’s one-pager: Peninsula Corridor Electrification.

    • Posted by Joel

      A large part of it is the rate of acceleration: slowing down, stopping, and getting back up to speed is a much faster process on an electrified system (e.g. BART). The project is also supposed to include level boarding, which would reduce station dwell times since people don’t have to hike up a flight of stairs and wheelchair users wouldn’t have to rely on lifts.

    • Posted by timbad

      basically, the electrification itself means:
      – cheaper (electricity costs less than diesel and overall maintenance costs lower)
      – cleaner (not burning diesel)
      – faster (acceleration as mentioned)
      – quieter
      – safer
      – compatibility with HSR and tunnel to downtown

      and as mentioned, some other aspects of the modernization mean speedier boarding, and ability to run trains closer together, so increased capacity

  20. Posted by MarketSt

    i think at least part of the point of it was to enable the trains to go underground by tunnel to terminate at the the Transbay Terminal. Wouldn’t be possible with diesel trains.

    • Posted by Anon

      How could proposing electrification not include grade separation for tracks from streets if the goal is increased train frequency and speed? I just read the links but could not find one dollar for trenching or above grade tracks.
      1. How would HSR be able to use this portion of rail without greatly reduced speeds since there is no grade separation?
      2.) Didn’t some communities such as Palo Alto, Menlo Park and San Carlos say they would remove HSR and increased CalTrain frequency if the tracks were trenches to allow grade separation from existing neighborhoods and their streets?

      • Posted by Jake

        Palo Alto just completed a grade separation study for their existing 3 at-grade crossings. The options were estimated to cost from about $500 million to $1 billion. Some options require property acquisitions.

      • Posted by zig

        San Carlos already has grade separations. My sister lives on the east side and I find it much improved. They can actually walk to the downtown now easily

  21. Posted by Tom

    Why do we even have Caltrain ?
    Why not just replace it with BART ?
    Then we’d have single integrated system. That Millbrae station is a pain in my ass
    getting from the Mission to SV.

    • Posted by zig

      Electrified Caltrain is a superior system to BART for intercity travel is why. BART in the suburbs is really as much a part of the problem as anything else in our transit planning.

  22. Posted by Sam

    I rode caltrain for years, and just recently managed to move to a company in SF. Caltrain is so packed now it’s almost unreasonable to ride.

  23. Posted by Dave

    HSR is a bad idea but its coming. Years away and it must ultimately come up the East Bay side from San Jose.

    Putting IT on the Peninsula was forced by SF centric politicians..

    Makes no sense. The East Bay corridor up to Oakland is closer to a much larger population base than is the Peninsula. Plus it would connect with AMTRAK.

    Good news is the Peninsula does not want it, there will lawsuits forever and the over-budget situation will worsen over time.

    All this will eventually, if there is any sense of common sense, cause the San Jose leg to connect to Oakland and not SF.

    • Posted by anon

      Why in the world should HSR need to connect to Amtrak? Connecting to larger population centers, employment centers, and tourist centers should be the focus of HSR, not connecting to a crappy little train line that carries a few thousand folks per day.

    • Posted by zig

      You can’t build HSR that doesn’t terminate in downtown SF. Nonstarter

      • Posted by Robert S. Allen

        Nonsense. Embarcadero is only 6 minutes from the BART overhead in Oakland, with 16 trains per hour. 3 more downtown San Francisco BART/Muni stations within 4 more minutes. Run HSR from San Jose to Oakland and Sacramento. Don’t squander HSR funds on Caltrain electrification and extension to the mis-named Transbay Transit Center that won’t even see BART, by far the major trans-Bay transit provider.

        • Posted by zig

          Where is HSR terminating in Oakland and how far is the BART station? How long will this transfer take? Will literally anyone on HSR be going to this destination or will it require the entire train to transfer to BART (which already has a problem with peak capacity during commute hours) either to SF or downtown Oakland? I think so

          Really bad transportation planning your idea is. I would support the Pacheco idea with a train that goes to Oakland and Sac but no access to downtown SF where the vast majority of people are going is foolish.

          Anyhow this would be so different from what the voters approved you would have to go back to them. LA to SF is not LA to Oakland

          • Posted by Sierrajeff

            Agreed that arguing over the basics of the route right now is pointless; a particular layout is authorized by the voters and we need to work to get it done, not keep second- and third- and fourth-guessing it.

          • Posted by zig

            Should read I support the altamount alignment and not the Pacheco

  24. Posted by Dave

    Larger population center is the key and employment center too. Tourist center?? I don’t think so.

    Already the East bay corridor is a larger population center than the Peninsula and that will increase in the decades before HSR is built.

    Employment center. The East Bay corridor – Fremont on up is a large employment center already and should experience massive growth relative to SF in the coming decades. The M cap will pretty much stall SF’s relative office growth and that will go to Oakland, Fremont, the Tri-Valley. The Peninsula is much less office building/jobs friendly than Oakland wants to be and Fremont the Tri-Valley are.

    HSR will not be done for a long time and, when it is, the inexorable shift East of jobs and population w/in the Bay Area will make an eastern HSR corridor all the more logical and imperative.

    • Posted by anon

      Um, HSR requires centralized employment, population, and tourist centers, which the East Bay lacks. It would be fine to run HSR up the East Bay side and under the bay, but not having the line terminate in SF would be insane. It would be like Japan terminating HSR lines outside of Tokyo.

    • Posted by Alai

      Well, the east bay employment centers are largely dispersed and suburban (with the exception of downtown Oakland and Berkeley) so putting HSR stations there would be relatively less effective. Even though they may have more total jobs and residents, they’re spread out, and so people will probably continue driving anyway, and the HSR won’t be used as much. Sure, you can build big parking garages at the stations, but that’s not much of a draw for people arriving.

      HSR already will connect to Amtrak in San Jose. In the long term, it seems logical that there will be some improvements to the Amtrak line as well (electrification), and BART is also in progress, so to some extent it’s already covered.

      • Posted by zig

        This is the same reason why transit advocates wanted Altamount

        San Jose couldn’t handle having only some trains coming to their little downtown so we have to the Pacheco alignment

    • Posted by zig

      Job density not within walking distance or within reliable public transit is a nonstarter as well. Nonstarter

    • Posted by Jake

      To be realistic about where jobs are concentrated, SF has almost as many jobs as all of Alameda County (~660k vs ~690k), according to the 2013 Census ACS. SF net imports more than 200k workers daily. The only comparable net importer of workers in the Bay area is in the heart of the valley centered around Sunnyvale.
      Alameda county net exports workers to both SF and the valley. So does Contra Costa and Marin. This has been true for decades.
      FWIW, Oakland has about the same number of jobs as workers (less than 200k). On a typical workday, San Francisco imports more workers than the entire working population of Oakland.

  25. Posted by Anon

    I doubt it will run under the bay. Tourist destinations being one of the goals of HSR. Please! Since HSR is going to mostly go to such “tourist” destinations as Fresno, Merced, Stockton and Bakersfield, I’m curious why it would not want to terminate in Oakland since it is coming from the East. I will never use HSR as it does not serve the coastal cities I frequent for visiting friends or relaxation. HSR will NOT be going to Santa Cruz, Monterey Peninsula, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, etc. Etc. I have never stopped in any of the Central Valley cities HSR is going to except to buy gas on the way to Tahoe, which is another destination HSR will not be going to. If I’m going to Los Angeles I will want to have my car to get around that vast region. Days in L.A. are spent going to multiple centers such as Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, Pasadena, Venice, etc. Getting dumped by HSR in the civic center of Los Angeles does me no good and is far from the “tourist ” destinations I want to go to.

    • Posted by SFRealist

      So maybe it doesn’t work for you.

      But as someone who used to go to downtown LA for work, I would have taken it frequently. Plenty of people travel back and forth for work between the downtowns.

    • Posted by anon

      Um, the tourists would be coming FROM those cities to SF. Thought that would be obvious.

    • Posted by Alai

      You know there are train lines going straight from the LA Union Station to Pasadena, Hollywood, etc. with more under construction. Now, maybe you still won’t take it, but I believe it’ll be more popular than you think.

  26. Posted by Anon

    I hear Disney is making sure they get a station at their parks in Anaheim. It could possibly be that the only time most Bay Areans will ever experience HSR is on a family outing to Disneyland. Disney will profit enormously by this, and at one time they were trying to put together a HSR system between LAX, Disneyland , and Las Vegas, and I could actually see the Las Vegas route getting a lot of passengers.

  27. Posted by 7 by 7

    Guys, enough derailing this thread with HSR convo, it’s going to downtown SF and that’s it, decided long ago by the voters. Back on topic, Caltrain electrification. See name link for Caltrain’s board of directors. Contact them often. There are three from each of the three counties that Caltrain serves. Also noticed one of the San Mateo county slots is open, maybe a chance for someone with some urgency to get on the board? Anyone know the process for filling that vacant position?

  28. Posted by Anon

    @7 x 7, if we use the Bay Bridge as an example , it took roughly 24 years from planning to completion of the new bridge. Unless I am reading the above article wrong, it sounds like the EARLIEST CalTrain will be connected to Transbay will be 2024, or sometime thereafter. If we lived in Southern California I would be more optimistic about the timeline, but up here things move very slow. Instead of ignoring peninsula cities, transit planners of CalTrai should have incorporated grade separation between tracks and streets as has been requested up and down the peninsula, this would have allowed for greatly increased travel times, and greater safety. Electrification alone will not increase speeds considerably, or train frequency.

    As for HSR…voters may have voted for it to go to San Francisco, but we’ll see where it ends up by 2035 or thereafter. Voters also voted for HSR to be comparable to the Shinkansen , instead it will be a blended system of tracks with travel times to Southern California in excess of 4.5 hours according to their last public presentations to the California State Assembly. ( numerous blogs have articles on the ever slowing journey times of HSR). With cost estimates of round trip fares being double air travel and more than four times the cost of driving, I’m still waiting to see who will actually ride it. If HSR had separate tracking to San Jose ( not part of any plan) and grade separation you could mitigate peninsula noise concerns and get the construction started. 30 minute travel times would be VERY attractive for a lot of commuters to the Bay Area’s largest population center.

    • Posted by RobBob

      Caltrain does grade separations in communities that request it. In fact the original HSR plan was to grade separate Palo Alto by sinking the roads beneath the rails at 10% of the cost of trying to put the existing tracks into a tunnel. But this would still require taking property. The non blended system requires even greater amounts of acquiring private property, which of course people generally try to fight quite hard against even though their property value is likely to decrease as a result of increased rail traffic.

  29. Posted by Live Smart

    I propose we ask Elon Musk for his ideas on how to best proceed forward with this. He was interested in creating an infinity loop of electro-magnetic pods. See if Musk and Google (with its driverless cars) could come up with a cost efficient and innovative solution putting CA on the cutting edge of transport.

    • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

      Go ahead and explore the future. Meanwhile the peninsula has a known demand for commuter rail which can be easily satisfied using existing technology, proven in hundreds of systems carrying millions of passengers.

  30. Posted by Pablo

    And if the MTC criminals had not gone $6+ billion over budget on a defective Bay Bridge then this important improvement could have been done and paid for by now.

  31. Posted by Mark F.

    You can take a bus to LA and it takes 7 hours. HSR may take 4.5–if it’s ever built.

    • Posted by Alai

      Or it may take the amount of time the plans call for – 2.7 hours. And there’s a huge comfort difference.

  32. Posted by Anon

    Not so fast Alai, that 2.7 hour figure is only possible on a non-stop train that would operate during non-prime hours (late in the evening as an example). You may not be aware, the new HSR plan calls for a “blended” system using EXISTING rail lines in certain areas that already have so much traffic during the day that it would be impossible to operate a non stop train. The 4.5 hour figure posted by Mark F. is correct. (This new blended plan requires HSR trains to travel at slower speeds in urban regions, so there goes any hope of riding HSR from San Jose to San Francisco in less than 45 minutes or an hour)

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