AFTER years of false starts caused by funding squabbles and foot-dragging politicians, Caltrain, the San Francisco peninsula commuter railway, has finally embarked on its much-delayed modernisation project that its backers hope will transform the 125km-line into a nimble electrified railway with a service that mirrors the best of European practices.


Caltrain cab car at San CarlosThe $US 1.9bn Caltrain Modernisation Programme (CalMod) will see the double-track line that runs from San Francisco, through Silicon Valley and some of the world’s most expensive property to San Jose, electrified at 25kV ac, and the current locomotive-hauled passenger trains replaced by a 96-strong fleet of Stadler EMUs. Electrification will also allow the line to be used in the future by high-speed trains as part of California’s high-speed rail project.

“It was an absolutely extraordinary thing that we received federal funding to complete our budget to proceed with electrification,” Caltrain’s chief executive, Mr Jim Hartnett, told IRJ at a recent briefing at the railway’s headquarters at San Carlos, roughly the midpoint of the line. “It has been thought about since the 1990s - there is a long history of not being able to do this project.”

Hartnett notes it took “tremendous cooperation” between various entities, including the state of California, the state’s high-speed rail project and congressional representatives, to overcome the immense funding hurdles, along with support from the private sector “to obtain the dollars and agreements to proceed.”

By the time the 2016 presidential race kicked-off in earnest, Caltrain had not completed the processes to trigger the federal funding that is a major part of the financing structure for the project. “We had qualified through significant efforts but we had not completed the process before the change in national administration,” Hartnett said.

“We were then in a vacuum - one only needs to read the newspapers to understand the complexity of the changed situation - so it took a tremendous effort among many parties to get us across the goal line so our grant agreement could be signed with the new administration in place.”

Effective lobbying by the various agencies which, Hartnett notes, included overcoming Republican opposition in Congress on the basis that the Caltrain project was too closely aligned with California’s high-speed rail project, saw Caltrain prevail and the money, in the form of a $US 647m Federal Transit Administration grant, was forthcoming. “Despite opposition, we received everything we asked for,” Hartnett says.

Original route

Caltrain’s corridor follows the original route of the San Francisco and San Jose Rail Road which opened in 1863. Southern Pacific bought the line in 1870, and operated passenger trains until the late 1970s, after which it began running a subsidised commuter service paid for by local transit districts.

California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) took over the line in 1980, and in 1987 the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board was created to manage the railway and acquire the remainder of the route to San Jose.

The line connects with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (Bart) metro, most notably by offering a link to San Francisco International Airport, as well as to the Muni public transport system in San Francisco, Amtrak and the Santa Clara light rail network in San Jose.

The route is currently operated by TransitAmerica Services, a subsidiary of Herzog Transit Systems, which provides drivers and conductors and is responsible for train dispatching, as well as track and rolling stock maintenance.
Currently, trains are formed of five or six double-deck coaches powered by single MPI MP36PH or ageing EMD FP40 locomotives, with a cab car at the other end of the train.

The railway’s flagship trains are the semi-fast “Baby Bullets” which stop at just a handful of stations, covering the 75km route in just over one hour, compared with 1h 30min for stopping trains.

Electric services are expected to start running in 2022. In keeping with federal localisation requirements, the EMUs are being built at Stadler’s new plant in Utah.

Big-spend projects that draw on taxpayers’ money are usually difficult to sell to sceptical voters.

Caltrain, running as it does through a densely-populated part of the United States where highways are clogged with increasing numbers of vehicles, would appear to be an easy sell to its potential users, especially in such a “green” state as California where protection for the environment is taken for granted.

Hartnett says there has been “extensive outreach” over the past few years, with substantial public support for CalMod partly because it will result in a better, quieter and more environmentally-friendly service.

Looking after the city’s legions of cyclists who form a powerful if informal pressure group has been a key factor in getting such strong approval. “We have the most bicycles-on-board of any rail service in the country and we have a continuing demand for more capacity,” Hartnett says, and admits that Caltrain never anticipated the number of bicycles that its trains carry every day.

Success begets demand for further success and Caltrain has had to add capacity continually for bike users, both on the trains and at stations. “We’ve been so successful with our on-board programme that we haven’t got our wayside storage programme up to snuff such that it could be a substitute,” says Caltrain’s chief operating officer, Ms Michelle Bouchard.

The railway has expended considerable effort polling cyclists on what kind of system they would prefer to see implemented on the new trains. The trick will be to balance the needs of cyclists with those of other commuters. “If the capacity is such that you can only fit so many bikes on the train and you still want to ride a bike, can your needs be met in a different way?” Bouchard asks. “We’re in the business of moving people, and people access the system in different ways. We have to be as flexible as possible to offer as many means as possible to access the system.”

To use a deeply West Coast term, is Caltrain close to becoming fully self-actualised? Hartnett says that day is still some way off. “We have evolved to providing more service than anybody ever anticipated,” he says. Ridership has tripled since 2004 to 65,000 passengers a day. “It’s standing room only during rush hours,” he says.

The question for Caltrain is not where the railway will be once the electrification project is complete but where it will be in the decades ahead.

“There is a general belief that at some point in time we ought to be able to carry the amount of riders that we are serving now,” Hartnett says. That expected ridership will be only from Caltrain’s existing corridor and does not account for the future possibility of expanding into other corridors.

Caltrain is currently competing for an additional $US 600m state grant that would be used to expedite the full electrification of the fleet and lengthen certain station platforms which would allow the railway to offer an expanded service.

The question on many people’s lips is Caltrain’s future integration with other rail corridors and transport modes.

According to the recently-published California state rail plan, Caltrain is envisaged as a significant contributor to the state’s integrated passenger rail network, the spine of which is expected to be the controversial $US 77bn California High-Speed Rail project linking Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Whether it’s about how passengers get to Sacramento or take a train down to Monterey, the plan “sets a policy framework for us to think about and work towards,” says Caltrain’s planning director, Ms Elizabeth Scanlon.

While Caltrain quietly forges ahead with its modernisation scheme, the debate around the high-speed rail project is heating up. According to a report in The Mercury News on April 13, the project is facing an audit from the US Department of Transportation, which will look at the Federal Railroad Administration’s oversight of almost $US 3.5bn of federal funding awarded to the project.

The audit comes in the wake of a recent business plan that showed that California did not have the $US 30bn needed for the first phase of the line.

There is no question that whatever the outcome, California’s high-speed rail dreams have helped Caltrain. Bouchard points out that high-speed rail funding was used for a “significant portion” of the railway’s electrification programme. “It was an investment in our corridor in order to help high-speed rail in the future,” she says. “In many ways, we’re readying the corridor for high-speed rail when they come along.”

Along with identifying the high-speed rail infrastructure, CalMod will also help establish a unified vision and service plan for the corridor. “We look at ourselves as the corridor operator,” Bouchard says. “We have a responsibility to ensure that everyone has their rights to operate on the corridor and we need to make sure that all operators are able to get their service over the road.”

Set against that vision, a $US 2bn investment seems like money well-spent.