Rift with feds stalls electrification project

Caltrain’s 16-year, $471 million electrification project is idling as the agency battles with the Federal Railroad Administration over a waiver to use a type of car that would further speed up and add more trips.

Caltrain wants to use cars called electric multiple units similar to ones used by BART, spokesman Jonah Weinberg said. The units would be individually powered. The problem, according to the FRA, is that the cars are not allowed on railroads that serve diesel trains. Caltrain’s project would run cars on existing railroad tracks used by locomotives but be powered by electrical wires directly above.

In a 2000 report, the FRA concluded that electric rails operating on the same railroad featuring older locomotives “pose major safety issues,” including the increased likelihood of a collision.

The alternative would be a system in which the front car pulls the rest of the electric train, a method that would be an improvement over the current diesel train but would not be as quick as the electric multiple units, Weinberg said. Caltrain should make a decision within 18 months, he said.

The agency needs to submit a waiver request to the FRA Railroad Safety Board, spokesman Steve Kulm said. The administration’s local office would conduct an investigation into what the safety issues are and may ask Caltrain to meet certain criterions before the safety board makes a decision, Kulm said.

The FRA did not comment on the likelihood of this specific waiver passing, but it has provided similar waivers to transportation agencies in Utah and New Jersey. One of the key aspects of allowing both types of rails to operate is to ensure they run at different times of the day to minimize collision opportunities, according to the FRA.

But whatever type of car is chosen, Caltrain is expected to begin construction around 2011; electric trains should be up and running by 2014, Weinberg said.

The project would allow trains to accelerate and stop faster, therefore expediting and adding trips, Weinberg said. It would also save the transit agency about $10 million per year; make maintenance easier; and be quieter, safer and more environmentally friendly, he said.

The renovation involves adding poles connected to wires above the existing tracks from San Francisco to San Jose. Routes south of that point will still run diesel trains.

mrosenberg@examiner.com  

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