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$1.25 Billion Approved for Caltrain Electrification; More Funding Needed

At their July 7 meeting, the Caltrain Joint Powers Board, a 3-county body that administers the crowded San Jose-to-San Francisco commuter rail line, unanimously approved $1.25 billion in contracts to rail and infrastructure firms for electrification.
July 18, 2016, 10am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The 55-mile Caltrain commuter line runs 92 weekday trains connecting the three premier hubs of Silicon Valley: San Francisco, the Peninsula (home to Facebook in Menlo Park and Google in Mountain View), and San Jose. It has seen ridership escalate rapidly since it introduced its so-called 'baby bullet' trains in 2004. It's now ready to take the next big step: convert from diesel power to overhead electrification.

If, and that's a big 'if,' the funding falls into place, electric service could begin on 51 miles of the line in 2020. "The board’s unanimous vote highlighted its optimism in Caltrain’s ability to secure the remainder of its necessary funding," observed Samantha Weigel for the Daily Journal.

"Included in the contract is an order for 96 rail vehicles, with an option to buy an additional 20," reports Roger Rudick, Streetsblog SF editor. 

According to the Caltrain staff report [PDF] issued during the meeting, the new electric multiple unit (EMU) trains will be built by Stadler, a Swiss company, and stringing the overhead wire and additional infrastructure for the electrification of the tracks will be done by the British firm Balfour Beatty.

Caltrain was the first railroad in the country to be granted a waiver by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to use 'European-style' EMUs on tracks where diesel trains also operate. "For decades, the Federal Railroad Administration had effectively banned modern European trains from American mainline rail networks," according to Next City (posted here).

"What will it mean for commutes between San Francisco and the South Bay?" asks Ruddick.

In a previous post, Caltrain official Casey Fromson said because of the improved acceleration, a trip that diesel baby bullets do in 60 minutes will take 45 with a train of EMUs. Electric trains are also quieter, more reliable and non-polluting."

Funding not all in place

Electrification is one of two projects that compose the Caltrain Modernization Program.

“The total program is $2 billion. That includes money for the advanced signal system [aka positive train control] which we’re already installing today,” said Jayme Ackemann, spokeswoman for Caltrain. [Seproject status (PDF)]. “But the $1.25 billion is the lion’s share for electrification.”

"However, the regional local transit agency doesn’t yet have $1.3 billion in necessary funding — the gap includes contributions from high-speed rail as well as a federal grant it applied for last year that staff hopes to hear about by the year’s end," reports the Daily Journal's Weigel.

The agreements include provisions for both [Balfour Beatty and Stadler] to begin designing their projects with only a portion of funding, with acknowledgment they must wait until Caltrain secures the remainder before actually commencing construction. 

Immediately following approval of the contracts, the board went on to enter into an agreement with the California High-Speed Rail Authority [PDF] for the state to provide a total of $713 million toward electrifying the corridor they may share. [See 2012 post on regional agreement to fund electrification].

However, not even the state funding is in place. Legislation introduced last month to distinguish funds for 'bookend projects,' including Caltrain electrification, from funds for the mainline construction which have yet to be authorized, is in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Caltrain anticipates hearing whether its application for a $647 federal grant [for a Federal full funding grant agreement from the Federal Transit Administration] is approved later this year.

Weigel reports on opponents to the project, including the Town of Atherton in southern San Mateo County, "which alleges the environmental review of electrification is lacking and the impacts of bringing high-speed rail to the corridor would be overly burdensome."

The town, which had "the nation’s most expensive zip code" in 2014, and neighbor Menlo Park filed the first lawsuit against the High-Speed Rail Authority in 2009.

Caltrain, among the shortest lines in the country with only 77 miles including the Gilroy extension, had the seventh highest ridership among U.S. commuter rail lines last year. However, commute-hour trains are packed in both directions, resulting in it being the third highest ridership per mile, below only New York MTA's LIRR and Metro-North.

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Published on Thursday, July 7, 2016 in Streetsblog SF
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