Peninsula Commuter Rail History

Peninsula Commuter Rail History

The railroad we know today as Caltrain has a rich legacy of service, dating back more than 150 years. The following chronology outlines some key dates in the history of the railroad that continues to provide a vital service to tens of thousands of daily riders.

The chronology below draws heavily from two documents: a 4-page Caltrain document, “Peninsula Commuter Rail: A Short History” published in September 2000, and the milestone listing on Caltrain’s website.

We’ve noticed that some politically-troublesome items are missing from Caltrain’s official published history, such as how San Francisco and Santa Clara County failed to reimburse San Mateo County for the purchase of the right-of-way in 1991, and how Santa Clara County failed to exercise an option to from UP to run more trains between San Jose and Gilroy. Long-time advocates know this history; you’ll find it here intact.

Caltrain Milestones

January 1851: A line connecting the trading center of San Francisco with California’s first state capital, San Jose, is first proposed by Judge Davis Devine. The sum of $100,000 is raised, but the idea fizzles when the site of the capital moves to Vallejo.

September 1851: The Pacific & Atlantic Railroad (to run between San Francisco and San Jose, and coast-to-coast thereafter) is incorporated — the first in California! Unfortunately lack of funding dooms it and two subsequent ventures before ground is ever broken.

1860: San Francisco and San Jose Railroad incorporates. Financing for a railroad between those cities comes from three counties — San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara.

May 1861: Ground is broken at San Francisquito Creek, between Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Five construction camps are set up to start work.

October 1863: Regular service between San Francisco and Mayfield (now California Ave. in Palo Alto) begins. The San Francisco terminal initially is located at 18th and Valencia Streets. The trip takes two hours. At Mayfield, passengers have to board a stagecoach to get to San Jose.

January 16, 1864: The line is completed to San Jose. More than 2,000 people attend the ceremony marking the completion of the line. Within a short time, two trains operate each way weekdays between San Francisco and San Jose.

1870: SF&SJ Railroad is absorbed into Southern Pacific, controlled by the “Big Four” — Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins.

1907: The “Bayshore Cutoff,” a 10-mile line on the peninsula bypassing the hill route through San Bruno and the present Daly City, is completed. This much faster entrance to San Francisco makes commuting much more attractive.

1915:  San Francisco terminal moves to Third and Townsend streets. The station was built to handle crowds for the Panama Pacific International Exposition.

December 1935: A new terminal opens on Cahill Street in San Jose.

Early 1950s: Diesel locomotives begin to appear in the Peninsula commute rail service. Steam locomotives had pulled the trains for decades buy are phased out over the course of eight years.

June 1955: The first of 10 “gallery cars” are delivered to SP. The cars, which provide more seating, are an instant success. In January 1956, SP orders 21 more. A final order of 15 is placed in 1968.

1964: Branch line from California Avenue in Palo Alto to Los Gatos is discontinued and some of the track torn up to make way for the Foothill Expressway.

1965: Grade separation is built at Hillsdale Boulevard in San Mateo.

April 1968: The Lark, the fashionable overnight train between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is discontinued by Southern Pacific.

May 1, 1971: Amtrak takes over operation of the nation’s intercity passenger trains. The northern terminal of the Coast Daylight to Los Angeles is changed to Oakland from San Francisco so as to go through to Seattle. Southern Pacific’s Del Monte, which ran from San Francisco to Monterey, is discontinued altogether. As a result, commuter trains become the only rail passenger service between San Francisco and San Jose.

June 23, 1975: Fourth and Townsend terminal opens in San Francisco, replacing the Mission-style station one block east.

1976: San Mateo’s old station is torn down to make way for a parking structure.

1976: Peninsula Transit Alternatives Project is created by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. PENTAP does studies and creates consensus that leads to the creation years later of the Peninsula Corridor Study Joint Powers Board.

1977: SP Petitions the state Public Utilities Commission (which says “no,”) and then the Interstate Commerce Commission to discontinue its Peninsula commuter rail service. A bitter fight follows. After long months of negotiation, the three counties through which the train runs and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) reach an agreement with Southern Pacific. SP would become a contractor and the public agencies would cover most of the operating costs.

1979: The 1909 wood-frame/stucco Redwood City station is damaged in a fire and then replaced by a trailer.

1980: Caltrans takes over financial and administrative responsibilities for Southern Pacific’s 47-mile, 44-train per weekday Peninsula Commute Service.

October 1981: Train schedules are extensively modified and several “reverse commute” trains are added. Total number of weekday trains increases from 44 to 46. During the 1980s, Caltrans embarks on a Peninsula Commute Improvement Program to upgrade the service.

June 1985: The first of 63 new gallery cars equipped for push-pull operation go into service, along with 18 new F40PH diesel electric locomotives (each named after a city on the line).

1987: Peninsula Corridor Study Joint Powers Board is formed.

1988: San Carlos station celebrates its centennial. Two additional locomotives and 10 more cars are purchased for the commuter rail line.

December 27, 1991: The PCJPB purchased the 51.4-mile railroad right-of-way from Southern Pacific. The right-of-way, which runs from San Francisco to San Jose, cost $219 million. San Mateo County provides the funding with the understanding that San Francisco and Santa Clara County would pay San Mateo County back, promises that are later broken and which create a sore point between the counties. Included with the purchase were trackage rights for the rails between San Jose and Gilroy, with an option to acquire half the right of way at a cost of $30 million (check this number). Santa Clara County fails to pursue this option to buy the right of way, and it expires in 1996.

July 1, 1992: The PCSJPB becomes the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board and assumes operation of Caltrain, taking over from Caltrans. The JPB contracts with Amtrak to operate the service. Six off-peak trains are added to increase weekday service from 54 to 60 trains. Tamien station opens in San Jose and service is extended to Gilroy. New stations subsequently open at Capitol Expressway, Blossom Hill Road, Morgan Hill and San Martin.

September 1992: After heavy lobbying by community activists such as Ellen Fletcher and the predecessor organization to BayRail Alliance, bicycles begin to be allowed on Caltrain under a pilot program.

January 15-16, 1994: PCJPB celebrates 130 years of continuous passenger service between San Francisco and San Jose at an open house marking the 130th anniversary of the Santa Clara Depot. It is the oldest continuously operating train station in California.

February 7, 1994: Gilroy service doubles to four round trips a day, and a storage yard opens there. Capitol station in San Jose opens.

September 17, 1994: Burlingame station marks 100th anniversary with a community fair.

December 8, 1994: Dedication ceremony is held to mark the completion of the reconstruction and restoration of the San Jose terminal, which is renamed “San Jose Diridon Station.”

July 13, 1995: The Redwood City Transit Center, serving Caltrain and SamTrans bus passengers, is dedicated.

July 24, 1995: Caltrain becomes accessible to passengers in wheelchairs with the completion of retrofit of trains to accommodate wheelchairs and the installation of wheelchair lifts at 15 stations.

November 1995: The number of bicycles allowed per train is increased to 24 with the retrofit of cab cars, making Caltrain the least-restrictive and most accessible rail system to bikes in the country.

May 18, 1996: Caltrain operates a Sun Tan Special from San Jose to Santa Cruz via Watsonville, the first time since the 1960s.

July 1997: Six weekday trains added, for a total of 66. Two Saturday trains added for a total of 28. Caltrain also introduces a new logo. 

March 1998: Caltrain orders 20 new passenger cars, six of which are cab cars, and 101 ticket vending machines.

July 1998: Caltrain posts record ridership, 8.8 million — the highest annual ridership since 1954. Caltrain addes a southbound Sunday evening train and a northbound Friday evening train.

August 1998: Caltrain begins selling 10-ride tickets via the Internet.

January 1999: Caltrain board awards a $41 million contruction contract for 30 projects along the Caltrain right of way. The project is known as Ponderosa.

April 1999: Opened the San Antonio station in Mountain View; added two more weekday trains, bringing weekday total to 68.

May 6, 1999: Caltrain board approved the Rapid Rail Plan, an $836 million rehabilitation and electrification program.

November 1999: New, relocated Hayward Park station in San Mateo opened.

March 2000: Inaugurated special service to Pacific Bell Park for San Francisco Giants baseball games.

September 2000: Added 10 weekday and four Saturday trains.

February 2001:  Caltrain reports highest ridership in the rail line’s 138-year history: 10.3m in calendar 2000.

April 2001:  Caltrain adds two weekday trains for a total of 80. The $58m Ponderosa Project brings about numerous systemwide improvements including new track (rail and ties), grade separations and improvments to permit opposing trains to use stations simultaneously.

December 2001:  Caltrain and the Golden Gate Railroad Museum jointly run the first annual Trains for Tots Special to generate toy donations for local charities.

April 2002: Caltrain awards $64.5m for North CTX Project, which sets the stage for Baby Bullet trains and a BART connection at Millbrae. A centralized traffic control (CTC) system will be installed and bi-directional passing tracks will be added in Brisbane and Sunnyvale.

June 2002: Caltrain unveils first of 17 Bombardier level-boarding commuter cars for Baby Bullet service during a ceremony in San Francisco, featuring Gov. Gray Davis and State Senator Jackie Speier. Ms. Speier was instrumental in getting $127m in funding included in the governor’s budget for the Baby Bullet. The cars go into service in October 2002; actual “baby bullet” service begins in June 2004.

July 2002: To facilitate CTX work, Caltrain suspends weekend service for nearly two years to finish the project as quickly, economically and safely as possible.

August 2002: Responding to declining ridership and revenue, Caltrain reduces weekday service from 80 to 76 trains.

February 2003: Construction starts on the $49m South CTX construction project to facilitate Baby Bullet service.

April 2003: The first of six new streamlined Baby Bullet locomotives debuts in Burlingame, christened by Senator Jackie Speier. Locomotive 925 is named Jackie Speier in honor of her work to get Baby Bullet improvements funded.

May 2003:  $11.4m Sunnyvale Transit Center is dedicated, adding a net gain of 217 parking spaces with a new 400-space garage.

June 2003: Connection to BART at Millbrae opens.

September 2003: After a year of phase-in, Caltrain adopts full Proof-of-Payment fare collection system. Caltrain also changes its fare zone structure, reducing the number of zones to six and making them equidistant.

March 2004: Rebuilt Lawrence station makes its debut a few weeks before the completely reconstructed Bayshore station opens for service on March 22. In preparation for the Baby Bullet service, both stations become fully accessible to people with disabilities and have a number of aesthetic improvements.

June 2004: Caltrain launches Baby Bullet service and brings back weekend train service. Ten Baby Bullet trains are included in the new 86-train schedule. Weekend service increases to 32 trains on Saturdays and 30 on Sundays.

November 2004: Ground is broken for the $140m Centralized Equipment Maintenance and Operations Facility in San Jose.

May 2005: Caltrain adds two more Baby Bullet trains to serve the “reverse commute” from San Jose to San Francisco.

July 2005: A year after introducing Baby Bullet trains, average weekday ridership rose 6.3% from 30,330 to 32,238, but hit by rising diesel fuel prices, Caltrain still faces a financial shortfall. Fares are increased an average of 17%, with another 5.6% increase implemented in January 2006.

August 2005: Caltrain modifies its schedule with 22 Baby Bullet expresses serving more stations, and adds more limited-stop trains. A total of 96 trains operate on weekdays.

March 12, 2007: Caltrain receives award from Federal Transit Administration for increasing ridership by almost 23 percent between June 2004 and June 2005, with the introduction of “Baby Bullet” service. On August 1, 2005, the reinvented Caltrain schedule, which increased the number of weekday trains to 96 without increasing equipment or staff, along with modest fare increase, increased ridership almost 23 percent and farebox by nearly 50 percent.