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The Sounder commuter rail system existed
only as a ballot referendum in 1996. Now it is a
system that extends 86 miles from just south of
Tacoma to Everett, WA, with a stop at Sea-Tac
airport. When the current phase of the system is
fully implemented in 2001, there will be 18 trains
between Tacoma and Seattle during the com-
mute periods of 6-9am and 4-7pm at 30 minute
intervals, and there will be 12 trains between
Seattle and Everett within the same time peri-
ods and frequency. The run between Seattle and
Tacoma will take 54 minutes—short enough to
get rush hour cars off of the freeway.
The rail system will operate eighteen week-
day trains versus Altamont Commuter Express’s
four trains between Stockton and San Jose. The
entire service, including the smooth-riding, low
floor Bombardier commuter railcars, is nearly
all from scratch using Burlington Northern-Santa
Fe tracks. All the cars will have been delivered,
and all will be ready to go when the first of the
service starts this Spring. In contrast, Caltrain’s
custom built cars following the outdated, high
floor design were ordered a few months before
Sounder placed its order, and most have yet to
be delivered.
Check it out on www.soundtransit.org/
Seattle Gets Commuter Rail in Short Order
fication, it prioritized electrification after cosmetic
and unnecessary station redesigns (so-called “En-
hancement Projects”).
The present electrification study aims to per-
form the preliminary engineering in preparation
for the environmental reports and the design of
the Overhead Contact System (OCS). This will
require mapping and layout for support poles,
clearances, power substation locations, standards
for signal upgrades (part of the rehabilitation
projects) and type of electric locomotion.
SamTrans staff has directed consultants to
evaluate the use of Electrical Multiple Units
(EMUs), considered a waste of time by some pro-
ponents of Caltrain upgrades. EMUs are self-pro-
pelled cars that contain overhead pantographs
and traction motors. While popular in Europe,
most EMUs designed for U.S. operation are single
level with lower capacity.
EMUs have proven to be more costly to pur-
chase and operate in the U.S. than locomotive-
hauled double deck cars, largely due to Federal
Railroad Administration regulations governing
equipment inspections and maintenance frequen-
cies. Many of the suburban rail lines on the East
Cost which have used EMUs are converting to
electric-locomotive-hauled trains. EMUs provide
a few benefits in operating flexibility, but these
are outweighed by significant additional cost. A
potential advantage of electric locomotives and
unpowered cars is coordination with other
Caltrain-type services in the Bay Area such as
ACE to Stockton, the Capitol Corridor to Sacra-
mento, and future Dumbarton trains, as well as
trains to the Monterey Bay area.
The Rapid Rail Study arrived at a grossly
inflated cost of $376 million for the 77-mile
Caltrain system (SF-Gilroy). The recently-com-
pleted Amtrak Boston-New Haven electrification
project, originally estimated to cost $321 million
for 156 miles, was completed for about $360 mil-
lion (about $2.3 million per mile). The Amtrak
project included additional items, some not
needed by Caltrain: rebuilding bridges, straight-
ening out curves, station improvements, an over-
head power system to withstand 1/2-foot of ice
on the overhead catenary wires with 70 mph
winds, 150 mph trains, resignaling and tunnel
work.The Rapid Rail estimate, besides costing more
(nearly $5 million per mile) for half the distance,
is only for the catenary and new locomotives. For
those familiar with the San Francisco Downtown
Extension (DTX) study in 1996-97, the inclusion
of unnecessary project options and inflated costs
was viewed by Caltrain supporters as a possible
attempt to scuttle the Caltrain electrification
To their credit, SamTrans staff has opted for
an overhead electric power system of 25,000
volts alternating current (AC) and a frequency
of 60 Hz for Caltrain electrification. This is the
de-facto world standard for modern electric
trains in all heavy rail services including sub-
urban, intercity, and high speed rail.
Based on the experience of Amtrak, New
Jersey Transit, and elsewhere in the world, elec-
trification projects like the Caltrain system take
about four years—or two years if all the fund-
ing is available initially. A large portion of the
funds are currently available. Preliminary En-
gineering will cost $3.5 million and is planned
to take 18 months. If the JPB waits till then to
begin the Environmental Impact Report (EIR),
another two years could elapse before actual
construction begins. However, it is possible that
the EIR process could be accelerated if it were
combined with the revived San Francisco DTX
EIR. Many of the items to be addressed in the
EIR for electrification were already addressed
in the 1992 Caltrans Electrification Feasibility
Study and the SF DTX EIR.
In May of 1999, a majority of members of
the JPB voted to make electrification an equal
priority with rehabilitation projects of the Rapid
Rail program. There may no longer be a pro-
electrification majority by the time the JPB must
decide whether to move forward with the EIR
process for this project. Current pro-electrifica-
tion JPB members may no longer be serving on
the JPB before the EIR is even started.
Key San Mateo County Supervisors have
indicated their preference for the massively
expensive Peninsula BART option. The 18-
month Preliminary Engineering timeframe for
Caltrain electrification can be viewed as advan-
tageous for officials working to commit the
County to additional BART construction. The
County has spent $396 million so far of local
funds on the BART extension to Millbrae/SFO.
Because Caltrain uses high-capacity cars and
existing infrastructure, Caltrain electrification
would deliver significant speed, capacity and
cost effectiveness advantages over BART.
If electrification were built simultaneously
with the rehabilitation projects of the Rapid Rail
Study using the funds currently available,
Caltrain riders would be riding faster, quieter,
cleaner and more frequent trains in less than
four years.
Caltrain Ecopass Offered
The Eco Pass program, sponsored the Santa
Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA),
enables employers to get a tax break for buying
transit passes for employees.
Under an 11-month pilot program approved
by the Caltrain board, beginning Feb. 1, Santa
Clara County employers participating in the Eco
Pass Program will have the option to purchase
Caltrain service at a cost of $41.25 per employee for
the remainder of 2000.
Santa Clara County employers interested
in participating in the program can call Scott
Haywood at 408.321.7544.
VTA Introduces Single Ride Tokens
Santa Clara County Valley Transportation Au-
thority has started offering tokens for use on buses.
Adults save $2.50 and youth save $1.50 on 10 rides.
Tokens are available for sale at the VTA Down-
town Customer Service Center and at VTA sales
outlets, including many Albertsons and Longs.
“These folks are like bugs under a
rock. Shine a light on them and they
move very fast.”
Vaughn Wolffe, Rail Passengers
Association of California, referring to politi-
cians on the Caltrain, SamTrans and VTA
boards who react to PR2000-generated public
scrutiny on decisions concerning Caltrain.