Editorial: Generous offer to electrify Caltrain, but at what cost?

High-Speed Rail Authority changes course to gain 'bookend' support

In its struggle to gain credibility in the wake of more than doubling the cost to build a high-speed-rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, state rail authority officials Tuesday offered nearly $1 billion to help electrify Caltrain and a similar amount to a Los Angeles rail system.

It is an appealing offer. Caltrain desperately needs to electrify its aging fleet of diesel engines and upgrade its rolling stock and train control system to serve a growing number of riders. But if the state High-Speed Rail Authority's deal is accepted, Caltrain will effectively endorse blending its Peninsula corridor trains with high-speed trains on a mostly two-track system with passing lanes, which could end any talk of the four track sets in the original high-speed rail proposal which were roundly criticized on the Peninsula.

Under the blended plan, high-speed trains would reach speeds of over 200 miles per hour through the Central Valley and over Pacheco Pass to San Jose, where they would slow to just over 100 miles per hour to make the run on to San Francisco. Until recently, this plan -- originally advanced by state Sen. Joe Simitian, Rep. Anna Eshoo and Assemblyman Rich Gordon, all Peninsula Democrats -- was deemed unworthy by high-speed rail engineers. Then at a hearing held Tuesday in Mountain View, Dan Richard, the newly appointed chair of the high-speed rail authority and board member Jim Hartnett, embraced the idea, calling the Peninsula and Los Angeles segments "bookends" of the system, which will still include construction of a Central Valley segment that critics have called a "train from nowhere to nowhere."

No financial details were available when the new plan was rolled out, but Richard said that officials are rethinking the entire high-speed rail concept " that each station (segment) in front of us will have something that is useful -- like Caltrain electrification..." Whether the new approach, which would incorporate some parts of the existing system, will bring down the total price is not known. Last year estimates of the total cost jumped from about $40 billion to $98.5 billion. Rail officials had no answer Tuesday when asked whether there have been any changes in the project's overall cost estimate.

And that is the key question that we hope stays on the mind of every state legislator who ultimately will have to vote on whether to authorize sale of more that $2 billion in bonds to begin the "bookend" portions of the rail project. So far, the rail authority has yet to find any support from private industry to add to $10 billion in state bond funds and another $3.4 billion in a federal grant that must be used to build the Central Valley segment.

Palo Alto City Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the Peninsula Cities Consortium (made up of Atherton, Menlo Park, Belmont, Burlingame and Brisbane) said he is concerned about the early investment which would be placed with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He said the "devil will be in the details," and that he has already heard that the cities will not have a voice in any agreement (like financing Caltrain electrification) between the MTC and rail authority.

On the other hand, without help from the rail authority, it could be years before Caltrain ever finds the funds to electrify the rail line, which it desperately needs to accommodate more Peninsula passengers and increase speeds between San Jose and San Francisco.

Richard said the challenge for the authority is to show that construction of the Peninsula segment would provide lasting value even if the entire project does not get funded. A revised business plan "...will have a more rational basis for how the system develops..." he said.

It is no surprise that the thousands of jobs created if the project is built has great appeal to Peninsula and Los Angeles-area legislators. And by beginning work first on the "bookends" the rail authority has overcome a huge hurdle present in earlier plans, which would not have seen trains running for 10 years or so.

Nevertheless, the true test of whether the state wants and can afford high-speed rail must rest on its business plan. With the state and federal governments continuing to struggle to merely pay for day-to-day operations, the idea of adding to our debt load doesn't make sense.

The Peninsula and Caltrain could benefit from this new design, but in our view, that is not enough to justify its approval. Until the authority produces a viable business plan, we urge the legislature to sit tight.

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Posted by regional transportation
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 18, 2012 at 11:27 am

We should be looking at Caltrain as part of the regional transportation system, including highways. We are already spending billions of tax dollars per year for Bay Area highway improvements and maintenance. Caltrain reduces the number of cars on the highways, so Caltrain should be funded out of the general transportation budget instead of some special new tax program.

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Posted by Shut-It-Down
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm

> Caltrain reduces the number of cars on the highways,

Not nearly enough to justify its continued existence, or this crazy idea of spending one billion dollars (or more) to carry about 20,000 unique people between from (mostly) San Jose and San Francisco to three or four major Palo Alto/Mountain View employers.

Better to shut it down and replace the whole idea of trains which buses.

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Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 18, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Well, At least the Editors have decided to wait and see the business plan, instead of taking a negative view immediately as our MAYOR has done. Good for you Editor--- Shame on you , Mayor

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Posted by Mila
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 18, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Unless all crossings are fully separated (perhaps some crossings simply closed permanently), guaranteed, as a part of the so-called blended plan, it should be rejected outright.

Adding more, and faster trains to the Caltrain corridor, regardless of whether they are HSR or Caltrain trains, without the complete separation of rail and vehicle and pedestrian traffic should not be tolerated. The safety issues of not separating crossings are obvious, and the deleterious affects of increased traffic congestion and related noise at un-separated crossings can not be ignored. Since the HSR Authority is basically a bunch of liars, I'd want any 'deal' with them spelled out, in detail, in a legally binding document. Considering the HSR's complete disregard for any fiscal responsibility, I would them to escrow at least 100% of the funds required to complete the project, before any work starts.

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Posted by Enough
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm

And still, the question remains ... where is that money going to come from?

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Posted by Two cents
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 18, 2012 at 10:52 pm

I agree with Milla. The intersections must be made safe first. The current configuration is pretty unsafe as it is and consideration for safety must be a top concern.

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 19, 2012 at 6:46 am

How many more riders will Caltrain have after the $1 billion is spent? What will their operating costs be after the $1 billion is spent?

If Caltrain has the same number of riders, then the $1 billion divided by 20,000 riders is $50,000 per person. Add in the cost of interest on the bonds, and it's over $100,000 per person.

What about leasing a Nissan Leaf electric car for the cost of go pass for each rider? The taxpayers would save about $400 million, not to mention, we'd save the taxpayer subsidies for operating Caltrain.

Or if they lease a low cost Prius, then we could save ourselves $600 million.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 19, 2012 at 9:26 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Electrification can be had without one cent of public money. Just contract with PG&E to supply electricity, paying for it by horsepower/hour.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 19, 2012 at 9:42 am

What is the number of "unique people" who use highway 101? Say the average commute on 101 is 15 miles, or 1/3 of its length on the peninsula. The commute lasts 3 hours at ~1500 vehicles per hour per lane. That's 8 lanes x 1500 vehicles/hour/lane x 1 person/vehicle x 3 hours x 3 average commute lengths = about 100,000 "unique people".

Do you think the 100,000 "unique people" who use 101 would be happy if another 20,000 "unique people" suddenly showed up one morning, in their shiny Nissan Leafs and Toyota Priuses? Gridlock is still gridlock, even with clean electric vehicles.

I suppose we could add another lane in each direction (a process that is already underway under the guise of "auxiliary lanes") but that would cost WAAAAAY more than a billion.

Freeways ain't free!

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 19, 2012 at 10:06 am

Public transportation is the way of the future. But, it has to be improved regionally not piecemeal, service by service. We really need to get one Bay Area transportation authority which looks at all public transportation by road, rail and ferry. We need to get one ticketing system, one advertising push and a system whereby the different modes of transport operate hand in glove rather than individually. We need shuttles that meet trains and wait until the train leaves before resuming its route. We need innovative pricing to encourage weekend and off peak travel. We need to look ahead rather than backwards. We need to look at other regions with successful systems for ideas of how to make it work. And most importantly, we need to get out of the mindset that they must make a profit and look more at the service they provide to everyone in the region and fund it in a similar fashion to highways.

We all benefit from public transportation even if we don't use it. We need to have everyone moving efficiently to where they need to go in exactly the same way as we need our fresh food deliveries and our urgent business deliveries. We must stop thinking of just the people who use public transportation as being the only ones who are affected by it and realise that it is just the same essential service as USPS, Police, Medical and utilities. We all use it either first hand or second hand, and it is one of those things that if it wasn't there we would all suffer.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Mar 19, 2012 at 10:47 am

I like the idea of electrifying Caltrain for the same reason why I like electric cars such as Tesla: Instead of having pollution come out of the exhaust pipe and spoil the environment here in Palo Alto, we can generate the electricity using a coal-fired plant in a place like Compton, Richmond, Oakland or Alviso. So what if the people in those places are poor and have no say in their environment. I'm just glad we're rich enough to be able to ship our pollution elsewhere so that we can have a clean environment. I really like it when wealthy white folks like us can find a way to screw poor minorities and yet feel smug about our moral superiority at the same time. Go Caltrain! Go Tesla! Go Obama!

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Posted by check first
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 19, 2012 at 10:55 am

It's not 20,000. Shut-It-Down misrepresented the daily ridership. According to Caltrain it's twice that. Google, it takes only a few seconds.

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Posted by Ray
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 19, 2012 at 11:36 am

Why does this make me think of the adage, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me"?

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Posted by FrankF
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 19, 2012 at 11:37 am

This is (apparently) turning into a very good opportunity.

I agree with Mila - I'm not sure HSRA are "Liars" exactly but we do want any deal spelled out and binding.

Also we definitely need to grade separate all of the crossings - this needs to be in the plan although it can be done in sections (remember it will be disruptive to existing traffic for many months - maybe years while the work is being done).

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Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 19, 2012 at 12:34 pm

But Wait....
Let's say Caltrain is electrified, thus saving untold gallons of diesel fuel and contributing to the "Palo Alto" concept.

Whose left with replacing all the diesel locomotives with modern lightweight electric ones like those most european countries have been using for decades????

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 19, 2012 at 12:48 pm

"20,000 unique people" is a way of making Caltrain ridership look small. Caltrain counts weekday boardings, and since the vast majority of Caltrain riders are commuting to/from jobs, each "unique person" is counted twice in the ridership figures.

You can play the "unique people" card with freeways too, as I did above. Freeways carry far fewer "unique people" than you might initially think.

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Posted by Don
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 19, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Mila has described a major problem. Until safety is emphasized, we are all at risk by retaining the dangerous at-grade crossings. Doubling the number of trains per hour (Caltrain plus HSR) without removing them is a disaster in the making. Of course I doubt the cost of remodeling the Peninsula's >30 crossings has been factored into the present proposal.

Mr. Wallis. The cost of electrification by PG&E still involves "public money". Or is paying PG&E under contract by "horsepower/hour" somehow mean that the "public", by tax or out-of-pocket, doesn't pay for the contract?

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Posted by Sarcastic
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 19, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Let's follow the lead of Palo Alto online and of most of its habitual posters and let's stay stuck in the early 20th century with our Caltrain and our car and airplane based transportation system. Why would Palo Alto be forward-looking and future oriented after all?

(sarcasm intended)

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Posted by Douglas Moran
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 19, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

The problem of grade separation (over/under passes) is not just one of safety, but of the efficiency of the road network. The figure commonly sited by traffic engineers is that after a train passes, it takes approx 6 full cycles of a nearby traffic light for that intersection to return to its previous efficiency.

The biggest benefit of electrifying Caltrain would be to be able to run more trains. However, the current rush hour schedule is reportedly very close to the maximum without causing havoc on the nearby arterials up and down the Peninsula (other cities have the same problem as Palo Alto).

Consequently, the electrification of Caltrain has always been regarded as being done in tandem with grade separation. Until now. Politicians of various stripes are eager to spend money and are now advocating electrifying Caltrain without grade separation, and then coming back later and re-building everything with grade separation.

Further complicating matters is that VTA wants to have bus-priority signals along El Camino: The buses would have a device that signals upcoming traffic lights to give the bus the green light. Great for buses, but it greatly decreases the efficiency of the intersection in much the same way that a train does (although different recovery periods).

Further complicating this complication is that having two bus/train-priority system close together creates interactions that further degrade the efficiency of the road network.

And if this is not enough, VTA want to not have the express buses pull over to the curb, but have them stop in the travel lane while passengers get on and off. This benefits the bus because it doesn't have spend seconds to merge back into traffic, but significantly reduces the carrying capacity of the street.

The MTC/VTA/ABAG bureaucrats and their allies are impervious to cost-benefit. Its a good and evil issue for them. The portion of the population whose circumstances make using public transit feasible are good people and are to be rewarded. Those who refuse to use public transit, even when it means a 20 minute trip would take over 2 hours, are bad people and need to be punished until they conform. I'm not kidding. One sits in these meetings and hears them advocate increasing congestion as a way to force people to use public transit. And in congratulating themselves on their "green-ness", they refuse to count all the pollution created by that congestion.

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Posted by Shut-It-Down
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 19, 2012 at 6:25 pm

> How many unique people are carried by Highway 101?

This is a hard number to know with any precision, but the State Department of Highways does give a clue--
2010 California Highway Counts:
Web Link

From this data, there are somewhere between 200K and 250K vehicles passing various counting points on Highway 101 per day. Assuming more than one person per vehicle, on average, so we are looking at 400K to 600K (and maybe more at the most travelled counting points. Keep in mind that people do not travel Highway 101 from San Francisco to San Jose, but only use the segment that they need to use in order to get to where they want to go. So, the actual number of unique people is going to be a sum of the counts of the segments. Without actual tracking of each vehicle, including occupant count, there is just no way to know the number of unique people. So, given that there are about 4M people living between San Francisco and Hollister, it would not be hard to guestimate that 1.5M to 2M unique people use 101 on the busy days.

This is compared to 20K unique people who use Caltrain.

> Highways aren’t free

No .. but they drive the economy, and Caltrain does not. There is simply no way that a complex economy, and metropolitan complex like the SF Bay Area could be operated solely by trains--without cars.

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Posted by Shut-It-Down
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 19, 2012 at 6:37 pm

> It's not 20,000. Shut-It-Down misrepresented the daily ridership

Ridership and unique people transported are different, but related.

Ridership means "tickets counted" or "people boarded". A "unique person" who is commuting will be counted as "two riders" per day, since he/she will travel from home to work, and from work to home, typically.

Since Caltrain wants to publish the biggest numbers possible, it publishes headcounts, not the smaller number of "unique people".

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Posted by Train Neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 20, 2012 at 10:31 am

CALTRAIN Electrification documents are posted here: Web Link

and Final EIR (July 2009) is here: Web Link

I scanned the EIR but didn't see any mention of grade separations.

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Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 20, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Offering bagatelles to the bookends (CalTrain electrification) won't make HSR economically viable. It's too expensive to build and will lose money once in operation. I see no mention of HSR covering the cost of grade separations, a cost which would likely be borne by the cities; they only mention electrification. It would be a deal with the devil to go ahead with HSR merely as a means of getting CalTrain electrified.

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Posted by Greg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 21, 2012 at 8:50 am

Wouldn't it be much cheaper to replace the locomotives with hybrids? No need to build all of those expensive unsightly electric towers and the result is similar: better acceleration and lower emissions. If someone on this forum is a train expert please fill me in on why this isn't being considered. Thanks.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2012 at 9:52 am

For Greg, on why "hybrid" trains won't work: Web Link

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Don - Not one dime of public money until the first electric train runs.
Everyone else - What we need is a massive "everyone walks to work" campaign, Where only those workers who handle discrete material have to devolve to a certain location. All information folk need just walk to their local information center and sign into a computer, or walk from their bedroom to their study and sign in. Physical presence at a jobsite is becoming a rarer and rarer need.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 21, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I always appreciate a data-driven argument, Shut-it-down. Thanks for the link to traffic counts.

200 - 250 k vehicles per day (counting both directions) works out to 100 - 125 k unique vehicles per day passing any given point. Suppose the average trip on 101 is 15 miles (some longer, some shorter). That gives a factor of 3, or 300 - 375 k unique vehicles per day using the freeway. While some of those vehicles may carry more than one person, the average vehicle occupancy is closer to 1.2. That gives us 360 - 450 k unique people using 101 over an entire day.

That's 4 times less than your guesstimate of 1.5 to 2 million.

Those people are widely spread throughout the day, unlike Caltrain ridership which is highly concentrated during the rush. So, shutting down Caltrain would affect rush hour more than anything. Peak hour traffic counts on 101 range from 15 to 18 k vehicles per hour (counting both directions). Over a 3-hour peak, that's 45 to 54 k vehicles. Taking a factor of 3 to account for an average trip of 15 miles, you get 135 - 162 k unique vehicles using 101 during the rush. At 1.2 people per vehicle, we arrive at 160 - 194 k unique people using 101 during the rush.

That's almost twice as much as I had claimed (100 k).

So, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. You were high by more than 4x. I was low by less than 2x. During the peak period, highway 101 carries about 8 to 9 times as many "unique people" as Caltrain.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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