Caltrain rethinks relationship with high-speed rail

Agency considers other ways to electrify trains, close structural budget deficit

A recent decision to start California's high-speed-rail line in Central Valley has prompted Caltrain to reconsider its seven-year-old partnership with the agency overseeing the controversial rail project, Caltrain officials said at a Town Hall meeting in Palo Alto Tuesday morning, May 17.

Santa Clara Supervisor Liz Kniss, who sits on Caltrain's governing board, hosted the meeting in Palo Alto City Hall to update the community about Caltrain's ongoing financial struggles and its efforts to electrify the financially troubled train system. But the discussion also touched on California's controversial high-speed-rail project, a sore subject around the Peninsula.

The high-speed-rail line is slated to stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and to pass through the Peninsula along the Caltrain corridor. In 2004, four years before California voters approved a $9 billion bond for the new rail line, the rail authority and Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which oversees Caltrain, entered into an agreement to work together on the new rail line. In 2009 the parties amended the agreement.

The arrangement seemed like a win-win situation. The rail authority needed Caltrain's right-of-way to make the system work, while Caltrain officials saw the rail project as a possible way to electrify the popular but cash-strapped system. But with high-speed rail facing its own financial challenges, as well as increasing skepticism from Peninsula residents, Caltrain is giving this partnership a second thought.

At Tuesday's meeting, several audience members questioned Caltrain's partnership with the rail authority and encouraged the JPB to take a more assertive stance. Palo Alto resident Hinda Sack said Caltrain should have a greater say in its partnership with the rail authority.

Kniss said the relationship between the agencies has always been tentative and subject to changes.

"It's like many arrangements," Kniss said. "I'd call it, maybe they were in the engagement phase.

"Caltrain got the ring but never got a wedding band."

Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, said his agency entered into a partnership with the rail authority because it felt the high-speed-rail project could help it achieve the ultimate goal of electrifying the Caltrain system, a goal that he and Kniss say is necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the popular commuter service.

He also said Caltrain has been "rethinking our relationship with high-speed rail" since the rail authority approved a plan to start the line in Central Valley. The plan has prompted many legislators, watchdogs and concerned citizens to wonder whether the Peninsula segment will ever get built. On the bright side, the plan created a welcome reprieve for many Peninsula officials who felt the project is moving too fast and in the wrong direction.

"I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the money went to Central Valley and we had ourselves a little more time to reach these decisions and think about what we can do," Simon told the audience Tuesday morning.

Some on the Peninsula still hope the high-speed-rail line and Caltrain can work together. Last month, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, proposed a plan in which high-speed rail and Caltrain would "blend" on the Peninsula. The plan calls for an electrified Caltrain system that would serve high-speed-rail passengers on the San Jose-to-San Francisco segment of the line.

The plan met a cool reception at the most recent meeting of the rail authority's board of directors. Several members, including board Chair Curt Pringle, suggested that the proposal could be little more than an attempt by Peninsula legislators to take money from the high-speed rail and use it for Caltrain's needs.

For Caltrain, the uncertainty over the Peninsula segment means it has to look for other ways to raise the roughly $1.5 billion needed to electrify the system. The three partnering agencies have already set aside $269 million for the project and expect to receive about $350 million more in grants. Even so, Caltrain is still looking for about $640 million to make electrification possible, said Marian Lee, Caltrain's executive officer for planning and development.

The capital project is one of two major funding challenges the agency is wrestling with. Caltrain, which has no permanent, dedicated funding sources, is facing a structural budget gap of about $30 million. The shortfall can be attributed largely to decreases in voluntary contributions from the three partner agencies that support the commuter service -- the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Simon and Kniss said Tuesday that switching Caltrain from diesel to electricity would reduce emissions by 90 percent as well as cut down noise. The agency also hopes to install "positive train controls" -- a GPS-based signal system that will allow Caltrain to run more trains and further boost its ridership.

Caltrain has already completed a draft Environmental Impact Report for the electrification project and hopes to certify the state-mandated document this summer.


Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of another community
on May 18, 2011 at 12:21 pm

How does electrifying Caltrain improve service? What does an electric train do that the current diesel train cannot? Is that worth $1.5 billion?

Like this comment
Posted by Ron
a resident of Waverly Park
on May 18, 2011 at 2:20 pm

@Mike: Fair question. They are quieter, less expensive to operate (fuel-wise) per mile, make the environmentalists happy, and most importantly, shorten commute times since they accelerate faster, allowing shorter travel times between stops.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark
a resident of Sylvan Park
on May 18, 2011 at 2:49 pm

I live 2 blocks from the tracks, and very rarely even notice the noise from Caltrain. If Caltrain DOES "electrify" the track, will the ticket prices reflect the fact that the operational costs are less expensive? For some reason, I seriously doubt that. And just HOW MUCH less expensive? Would it be like 8% lower, NOT REALLY making it a worthwhile reason to rationalize the project? And is it REALLY worth what appears to be, if I understand the numbers correctly, over $1 billion just to reduce the commute of a small percentage of the working, tax-paying public by what - a minute or two? Doesn't seem to be the wisest choice of how to spend our tax money in ways that serve the general taxpaying public.that would be in the best interest of the taxpaying public. Personally, I have absolutely NO use for a highspeed (or any other kind of transportation) train to ANYWHERE in southern California. We live in the more beautiful area - why would we want to go to a hot, dry, dusty and polluted soCal area? OF COURSE southern Californians want to quickly travel quickly to get to the more beautiful, classy and cultured area of the state - it's called "escaping"!

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Posted by Patrick
a resident of Castro City
on May 18, 2011 at 3:50 pm

The biggest advantage of electrifying Caltrains would be to make it more cost effective. The costs for fuel and maintenance of diesel engines is extremely expensive. The last Save Caltrains meeting I attended the Caltrains representative indicated that if the trains were electrified the ticket sales would make up almost 80% of their operating costs vs with Diesel where it is musch less.

Like this comment
Posted by oldabelincoln
a resident of Blossom Valley
on May 18, 2011 at 3:53 pm

The whole idea of high speed rail as it is done in Europe, Japan, and other countries is based on mid-distance population centers with good urban transportation networks at each end to go the last few miles with a taxi, bus, or subway.

None of these criteria are met by the proposed system, which has long distances, long travel times, and a sparse local transit infrastructure, with local travel distances generally too large to walk, with car rentals often cheaper than taxis.

In California, our travel infrastructure is based on car rentals at each end. Until that changes (hah!) we'll need car rental agencies at every HSR stop - unless you really think that someone coming from LA to do business with HP on Page Mill Road is going to get off at Mountain View, take the 52 bus to transfer to the 22 at El Camino and then some bus I'm unfamiliar with (I've only lived here 22 years) to go up Page Mill. Do we want car rental lots to take over MV and PA's downtown? The alternative is parking lots full of taxis, but one war or another, there must be many individual rental cars or taxis at each stop.

HSR needs dense urban infrastructures at each end, and we simply don't have that here. The closest we come is San Francisco, and you probably can guess how long it would take to get from a downtown HSR station to the Presidio complex today.SF is denser that the rest of California, but not dense enough. And it has one of the highest taxi fares in the US.

HSR will work in the Northeast Corridor - Bosto to DC - but not here. It's just not practical for California's situation.

Like this comment
Posted by ben
a resident of Monta Loma
on May 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Japan has an extensive government and private feeder rail system making it an almost door-to-door system that we do not have – fatal flaw for HSR here. No one should consider the L.A. sprawl as being serviced by high-speed rail or the East Bay region. . (This is not a door-to-door system – more cars traveling even further – more traffic jams.)
See: Web Link
or better yet Google “Map of Tokyo transportation system”
It is crazy and stupid of the pro transit people to think transit will transport people like in Japan.

Like this comment
Posted by BEN
a resident of Monta Loma
on May 18, 2011 at 4:37 pm


Here it is See: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by BEN
a resident of Monta Loma
on May 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm


See: Web Link
(Web Link)

Like this comment
Posted by ben
a resident of Monta Loma
on May 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm

I will again try to post the web link.


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Posted by NIMBY
a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 18, 2011 at 6:06 pm

The more I think about the High-Speed boondoggle, the more I think its rails should come no closer to us than I680, from Pleasanton to Martinez, then on north to Sacto. Built on our side of the bay, it's going into an already built-up area that has airports and rail service. Going into the 680 corridor, it will provide great transit and travel opportunities for the areas where our greatest future growth will be, and will be reachable from the northern peninsula and the eastbay via bart. Also, it will be farther from our known major earthquake faults.

Like this comment
Posted by Kid Bosco
a resident of Monta Loma
on May 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Electrify Caltrain? BAD idea. When the juice fails, a wire goes down, etc., it all stops, right where it's at. With each train individually self-powered, the system is less likely to be brought to a total halt, and trains can can at least proceed to a station.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Big
a resident of Rex Manor
on May 19, 2011 at 1:18 am

Electrify Caltrain: Yes, no brainer... but wait until you can get the money from the Feds or state.

HSR: The HSR stations in SF, SJ, MV will connect with BART, Muni, Light Rail, Caltrain, ACE etc. You add the bus lines, taxis, town car service and you will be able to get to any of the major population centers in NorCal.

Like this comment
Posted by David Bloom
a resident of Rex Manor
on May 19, 2011 at 2:00 pm

@Kid Bosco:

Yes, if the power goes out, trains will be stalled (until they can be moved by a diesel or battery-powered rescue train). But Caltrain diesel locomotives are less reliable than the power grid, so electrification would still lead to a large overall increase in reliability.

Like this comment
Posted by Rodger
a resident of Sylvan Park
on May 19, 2011 at 6:31 pm

I think it's great news that Caltrain wants to toss HSR under the bus, I am much in favor of Caltrain and think HSR new to be cancelled.

Like this comment
Posted by Oleg
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jun 16, 2011 at 11:43 am

It is much more important to make Caltrain corridor a closed system, like BART, so there are no grade crossings and pedestrians can't easily go on the tracks. This should be the highest priority, next the electrifying and only then - HSR.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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