All aboard for electrifying Caltrain

When Caltrain Rail Transformation Chief Bob Doty looks to the future, he envisions the commutes of millions not only improved, but completely reinvented by electrification.

Starting in 2015, faster, safer European train cars will zip passengers to more stations in record time. The all-electric system will wean Caltrain off costly diesel fuel, ending the cycle of raising fares to pay for operations. Improved grade crossings will reduce the risk to the public. In short, Doty said before the agency’s joint powers board earlier this month, Caltrain will become a model for the entire United States.

As the heady presentation wound down, Caltrain directors paused. Executive Director Mike Scanlon broke the silence.

“The elephant in the room is how we pay for it,” he said.

The project, which has been beset by years of delays, is now in danger of being further weighed down by its new cost estimate: $1.5 billion.

The electrification of the system’s infrastructure from San Francisco to San Jose is estimated at $785 million. Buying 98 new rail cars will take another $422 million, while managing the project through 2012 will add $100 million to the price.

In the next several months, Caltrain staff will form a strategy to go after federal, state and regional funds. While competition for dollars is stiff, officials say they have no other choice but to proceed.

“There’s a political risk, but the reality is that if we don’t move forward, we’re not going to be in business much longer,” board Chairman Jim Hartnett said. Caltrain will have to replace much of its aging fleet even if electrification is halted, he said. 

Sue Lempert of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission said she was optimistic the project would take priority for funds.

“Compared to other regional projects, I’m very comfortable this would be a priority for us,” she said.

Caltrain directors are also looking to the highly anticipated high-speed rail system proposed for California to relieve some of the burden.

“I don’t want to jinx it, but high-speed rail could be a major contributor in helping us rebuild this corridor, because it will benefit them,” Scanlon said.

Assuming California voters pass the $10 billion bond to build the high-speed rail system, construction of the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles “spine” will begin in 2012.

California High-Speed Rail Authority board member Rod Diridon stopped short of saying whether any of the $10 billion could be used to fund Caltrain’s plan, but said coordination of the two projects would bring down the price tag on both.

“Because the whole system has to be rebuilt to accommodate high-speed rail, the cost of electrification will be significantly reduced,” he said. Completing both projects at the same time will be less burdensome on surrounding neighborhoods as well, he said.

While Caltrain will feed passengers into the high-speed rail system, high-speed rail is also projected to increase Caltrain’s ridership by attracting more passengers, Diridon said.

Assuming the electrification project can obtain government funding, the remaining cost will be split by transit systems in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency CEO Nathaniel Ford, who also serves on the Caltrain board, said public-private partnership with developers along the transit corridor should be thoroughly explored before the cost is divided among the counties.

For Santa Clara County, moving forward with the electrification project may be a second priority if voters approve a half-cent sales tax in November to construct a BART extension from Fremont to San Jose.

But Carl Guardino, president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, said the two projects would complement each other, and both would likely find support.

Margaret Okuzumi, executive director of the Palo Alto-based nonprofit Bay Rail Alliance, said that while the cost of electrification may seem staggering, it is cost-effective in the long-term.

“Caltrain needs to electrify as soon as possible,” she said. “Right now, they’re trying to avoid this death spiral of increasing fares to pay for rising fuel prices. Eventually, there will be cuts to service and ridership could potentially spiral down.”

New trains would get you to your destination faster, in one piece

Caltrain commuters will be spending less time aboard their trains if the agency’s electrification project is successful, proponents say.

Diesel trains can stop at 13 stations in 81 minutes. In contrast, the electric
multiple-unit vehicles coveted by Caltrain can stop at 21 stations in 70 minutes, Rail Transformation Chief Bob Doty said. The speed increase is mainly due to the vehicles’ light weight and ability to brake and speed up more efficiently.

Much as the popularity of the Baby Bullet train lifted Caltrain out of serious financial trouble when it appeared in 2004, Caltrain officials are counting on a quicker system to save it from the drain of rising fuel costs.

Offering faster, more frequent service will likely eliminate the problem of commuters cramming onto Baby Bullets while forgoing regular trains, Doty said.

“With a maximum run time of 70 minutes, if you miss one train, you’ll just get on the next one,” he said.

The European-style vehicles would also be safer for passengers because of fewer hard, fixed objects inside, Doty said.

“American equipment is built to save equipment, not lives,” he said.

The projected increase in ridership will also save lives by getting more people out of their cars, Doty said.

“Train travel is 300 times safer than automobile travel,” he said.

— Tamara Barak Aparton

By the numbers

$1.5 billion
Total cost to electrify, replace trains, upgrade equipment

$785 million
Cost to build electric infrastructure

$422 million
Cost to replace vehicles with European-style electrical multiple-unit cars

Average weekday ridership

Stops made by new system in 70 minutes

Stops made by current system in 81 minutes

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