What CalTrain Could Be

Article published Spring 1996

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CalTrain downtown SF extension | Electrification of CalTrain

Electrification of CalTrain would eliminate diesel fumes, reduce noise and operating costs, and improve local train speeds by up to 10% due to faster acceleration and improved braking. Modern electric equipment would also enhance public perception of CalTrain. According to studies, electrification would eliminate CalTrain's current 1% contribution to nitrogen oxide emissions in the region. Electrification is a critical step towards enabling CalTrain to operate at frequencies comparable to BART's. Furthermore, savings in operating costs are particularly important in today's transit business as funding continues to become scarcer.

One study sponsored by Caltrans determined that electrification of the entire CalTrain line between San Francisco and Gilroy would cost as little as $170 million including new electric locomotives. This is close to the cost of some of BART's new stations.

Considering the advantages of CalTrain electrification, can an explanation be found for why CalTrain's operating agency, the Joint Powers Board, is not aggressively pursuing it? PR2000 vice-president Adrian Brandt sees upgrading CalTrain as making technical and economic sense, "but for a variety of reasons it does not seem to make political sense."

Brandt explained that "responsibility for CalTrain is split between the jurisdictions of three counties, which often have conflicting priorities. There has been a lot of disagreement and finger pointing over how much each county should pay for even minor improvements. So try to imagine putting together the consensus to fund anything major."

"The JPB has no intrinsic incentive to invest what it takes to make substantial improvements to CalTrain," he continued. "It seems that each of the positive changes the JPB has made have been motivated by external factors: enough individuals, transit activist groups, and other official or unofficial bodies beating up on them, writing them letters. That's what it took for us to get bikes on the train, to get studies now underway on connecting CalTrain to the SFO airport light rail system, and on extending it to downtown San Francisco. I don't think we'd be seeing progress in these areas if it wasn't for the outside pressure on the JPB. It's tough when you've got an agency that seems to need prodding every step of the way."

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Last updated: October 27, 1998

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