Electric Caltrain

In order to accommodate construction for the electrification of Caltrain over the next four years, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board is about to announce sweeping changes for Caltrain’s weekend service, including reducing the number of trains by up to 25 percent and increasing the local service headway (i.e., time between trains) from 60 to 90 minutes, changes which are slated to take effect next summer.

A series of public meetings to outline the proposed changes will be held up and down the Peninsula over the next couple of months, with a required public hearing slated for March 2, 2017 in San Carlos.

Originally expected to cost $1.5 billion and be operational in 2019, the budget to electrify Caltrain and install a new signaling system has been 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 early 2021.

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Comments from “Plugged-In” Readers

  1. Posted by Notcom

    Item of note: it took the Pennsy (only) about two years (1937-8) to electrify it’s slightly longer and yugely more crowded Mainline from Philly-Harrisburg…progress ??

    • Posted by Pero

      Can you also list the number of town hall meetings, required approvals and submitted appeals the Pennsy faced during the two years (1937-8)?

      • Posted by Notcom

        17 (not including the Paoli Garden Club Social)
        I’m not questioning why it’s taking so long, simply pointing out the difference; and in fairness, it should be pointed out this project has been underway for some time…start-to-finish is probably more like a decade (though in further fairness the full PRR electrification was a decade long project as well, though one covering many hundred of miles and some of the most heavily used lines in the world.)

      • Posted by Sierrajeff

        Fully agree with Notcom; our penchant for ever-more public meetings and charettes and hand-holding is ridiculous – especially for something such as Caltrain electrification, which should be 100% non-controversial (trains will be quieter, faster, *and* more frequent), and suitable for implementation virtually by fiat.

        The Caltrain connector to the TBT in San Francisco is being pushed back years over the same issues (and lack of funds – but I believe that if people had a more vested interest and faith that infrastructure projects would actually be built in their lifetimes, then people might be more likely to actually fund them too…)

        • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

          The reason that both electrification and DTX are opposed when it seems like they ought to be noncontroversial projects is that both are seen as greasing the path for HSR. Wealthy HSR opponents are willing to shoot down even no brainer projects like electrification just to create more obstacles for HSR.

          • Posted by Notcom

            True that, but the condition was created by not prioritizing (relatively) sensible projects like this or the electrification of the routes over the Sierra – which could have the twin benefits of reducing emissions in a sensitive ecosystem and shifting container traffic from LA/LB >Oak – but instead pushing a dubious – at best – idea which seems intent on rewarding as many contractors and unions as possible.
            In short, if you turn an engineering and economic problem into a political one, you reap what you sow.

          • Posted by kbbl

            I do love folks that presume something as intrinsically political passing a bond measure, when it’s for something “(relatively) sensible,” somehow becomes apolitical.

            I especially love it on this site, half of whose posts detail the saga of how buildings, including things as “(relatively) sensible” as 100% affordable housing, get mired in politicized foot-dragging.

            In California, we are all politicians.

          • Posted by Can't Think of Cool Name

            Does anybody know what exactly is the issue(s) the HSR opponents have with the service running up/down the peninsula?

          • Posted by SFRealist

            As I understand it, they HSR will be loud, bring more people, construction will be disruptive, I think it may require an extra track in some places. There could be others.

            Personally I don’t think any of those justify a delay, but I think that’s what they’re saying

          • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

            CToCN – I don’t know exactly what the motivations are but it seems to be tied to property values. The perception is that HSR will bring higher frequency, faster traffic along the corridor and thus increased noise. This is somewhat true though those claims are often exaggerated, asserting trains will be zipping by at 180MPH (they will be limited to 120 along the corridor). They also disregard the fact that grade crossings will be eliminated and with it most of the horn blowing.

            I find those claims of noise mostly bogus because even without HSR along the peninsula Caltrain alone will increase in both speed and frequency. HSR or not the result is about the same.

            Funny thing is that the peninsula opponents have allied with the Central Valley opponents who have different but similarly weak complaints. As a result you’ve got oligarch agribusiness execs arguing about noise in wealthy urban suburbs and then there are wealthy suburbanites arguing that HSR tracks should not divide “family” farms. They’re both trying to shake down CAHSR and to receive their “share” of the financial windfall.

    • Posted by Alai

      Another difference between now and then: in 1937, the elite would have traveled regularly by rail, and not on windy, bumpy intercity roads, or air. Today, it’s poor people, or at best nouveau riche wage slave techies.

  2. Posted by SFRealist

    Electrification will be great for Caltrain. They need to do this as quickly as possible though

  3. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    This is fairly good news. Previously when Caltrain needed to work on the whole ROW (for example the project that created passing tracks for the Baby Bullet), they completely shut down weekend service and replaced it with a lame bus substitute. A 25% reduction will be felt, but not nearly as bad as shutting the whole thing down.

    • Posted by zig

      True that these things do not magically just happen and on balance will be good.

      As a Peninsula resident who lives near Caltrain even the current schedule makes a trip on Caltrain from town to town less likely. My kids love riding one way but timing the return sucks. I sometimes ride one way to SF or another town but always Uber home.

      But even with the new infrastructure it is a dilemma that you can’t attract more weekend riders without more frequent service (and frankly more density in the Peninsula towns and more difficult parking) but can’t justify the service without the riders.

      Maybe some day

      • Posted by RobBob

        As a resident of SF with the service reduction I don’t take Caltrain on the weekends anymore to the south bay, I just drive. Trains always seemed fairly full on weekends, even though most of them took quite a long time as they stopped at every stop, including some which are skipped on weekdays. Not as full as some of the weekday standing-room-only trains, but probably up to 70% of capacity (my rough non scientific estimate) leaving 22nd st.

  4. Posted by Jeff K

    I’m just happy the project is happening.

  5. Posted by pablito

    It’s great that it is finally happening – it ridiculous it costs this much and takes this long in the Bay Area. All our big infrastructure projects are over schedule and over budget. Btw. Original price for this was $600 million when they started the planning 5+ years ago.

    • Posted by Jeff K

      This is the way it is all over the U.S., not just the Bay Area. (See: Big Dig)

  6. Posted by Accounting

    At $2B, this project will only electrify 70% of the diesel fleet. The first leg of this project, Caltrain’s new signal system (CBOSS) is delayed over a year, with no new schedule or budget known. It is doubtful that Caltrain will complete electrification before 2022.

    • Posted by Martin

      I think Caltrain has the option to purchase additional trains to both lengthen trains from 6-car to 8-car sets if additional funding is identified. Platforms will need to be lengthened too else longer trains can service only some stations.

      As for Gilroy, there was talk of letting Capitol Corridor take over that segment with its diesel trains. There are only 3 trains that would need to be covered and that service could go back to Caltrain after hsr is built out to Gilroy.

  7. Posted by Mark F.

    1 hour is already too long between trains, but I suppose they have to do it.

  8. Posted by CJD

    It seems to me that with BART finally being built out through San Jose we should bight the Bullet & finish BART Around the Bay for all local service and give the Caltrain Corridor over completely to HSR.

    • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

      BART from San Jose to Milbrae would be very expensive and redundant. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be beneficial but it is low on the list of Bay Area transportation priorities. (Build it east of 101 to minimize redundancy and NIMBY opposition)

      • Posted by Notcom

        It wouldn’t be redundant, since HSR and commuter rail are fundamentally incompatible and need separate ROW’s – or at least separate sets of tracks – but of course it would be hugely – yes, even yugely – expensive. But, hey, if you can get someone else to pay for it – be it at the regional, state or federal level – then it doesn’t really cost anything, does it ?? Maybe we should start talking about NOMP – Not Out of My Pocketbook – opposition.

        • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

          I meant that BART would be redundant with Caltrain, not HSR. And HSR and Caltrain are not necessarily incompatible. They will use the same track gauge and electrical supplies. And since they would be moving at about the same speed (100 vs. 120MPH), the scheduling challenge is tractable. Here’s an informative blog about making Caltrain and HSR compatible. Caltrain is even planning to rebuild its stations so the platform height is compatible with HSR.

          • Posted by Notcom

            The suggestion (of the OP) as I understood it is that the corridor would be turned over to HSR – exclusively – and BART would replace the service Caltrain currently offers; there wouldn’t be redundancy, since CT wouldn’t exist anymore.
            As for the compatibility of the two types of service: if the proponents of ether of these proposals really think (1) it’s efficient to operate trains @ 100MPH that stop every few miles, or (2) it’s possible to somehow maneuver other trains around these stopped trains @ even higher speeds (120MPH) then I have even less faith in the plans than I did before…which in the case of HSR I didn’t think was even possible. I think I’d like to join you and become the “Malted of Hopelessness.

          • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

            Notcom – I don’t think CJD is claiming that BART will replace Caltrain, just suggesting it as an option. I’ve never heard even a wild rumor that there’s any plans to turn the Caltrain corridor completely over to HSR. Nor does that make any sense. HSR and Caltrain are complementary.

            As for 100MPH Caltrain, you may be interested to know that Caltrain already reaches 80MPH every day, so 100MPH is not much of a stretch. Think express trains that skip past stations. Electric trains accelerate faster than diesel. Please read that Caltrain-HSR compatibility blog for the nitty gritty details of how this all works.

          • Posted by Notcom

            “BART Around the Bay for all local service and give the Caltrain Corridor over completely to HSR” was a comment that I took literally.

            As for the pas de deux of local/HSR, the first thing I saw on the blog – thank you for the link BTW – was a cautionary discussion about platform heights: that the Agency had taken forever to settle even a basic issue and then – in the blogmaster’s opinion – had settled on the wrong option…so you’ll have to forgive me that every time I learn more about HSR I like it less.

            Is 80>100 a big deal or not…remember power goes up with the square of speed so its 100*100/80*80>1.56 or more than 50% more energy, all for a few minutes saved on the overall run…whether/not that makes sense I guess depends on who rides it.

        • Posted by zig

          I support HSR and Caltrain coming by my house but you try to run BART by and I think not

      • Posted by stvr

        Why is redundant infrastructure a bad thing? If one breaks down, then you have the other. Having more than six pairs of socks is “redundant,” but I happen to own a dozen…

        • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

          Redundancy is not intrinsically bad. But when faced with fixed scarce resources ($), implementing redundancy is generally lower priority than providing service where none exists and there’s strong demand.

          BTW – Backup for rail transit breakdown is usually addressed via temporary bus service. Rail agencies have a Plan-B ready to go. It is slower and less convenient, but does get people where they need to go. Most rail breakdowns are quickly resolved.

        • Posted by zig

          Why don’t we just focus on building one really good electrified modern interurban system like the rest of the world would in that setting and not the less efficient way more expensive redundant one (BART) that can’t even maintain what it has. If we need more BART it should be more subway stops in SF, Berk and Oakland not more subways to Livermore and San Jose

      • Posted by zig

        It would be expensive and not very beneficial. A modern electrified Caltrain would be faster more comfortable and more appropriate for the setting. So basically better and cheaper. BART is unsuited even to go to San Jose as that is a really long ride to SF.

        It is really simple. If you want to see the right way to do it just go to Japan, Switzerland, Germany etc

    • Posted by Deadtime

      It seems to me, that with Caltrain finally getting electrified, we should bite the bullet and give the BART corridors to Caltrain to finish Caltrain Around the Bay. BART is a weird one-off system using non-standard gauge, 1970’s electronics, is incompatible with other uses of the rail line, and is an extremely uncomfortable experience to ride (100 dB through the tube). Recent extensions have been costing in the range of $200 million per mile! Caltrain is a commuter rail using standard gauge, equipment that is commercially available, can share their line with other uses (freight, HSR), and is comfortable to ride.

      Caltrain isn’t perfect… but BART is a pretty poor metro system that is essentially being used as a commuter rail line… so why not replace it with a commuter rail line?

      I’m being (partly) facetious, but everyone who suggests replacing Caltrain with BART really hasn’t done their research.

      • Posted by pablito

        I’m sure a gold ribbon committee of SF Planners has already studied this very thing. Their proposal? CalART – we take all the stinky diesel and separated grade crossings of Caltrain, combine them with the squeaky wheels and poor reliability of BART – and run it to a new station under the Ferry Terminal. It can be done by 2030 for only $6 billion….

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