Plan to modernize Caltrain sails through regional commission

Metropolitan Transportation Commission approves an agreement with California High-Speed Rail Authority to fund electrification of Caltrain

Caltrain's stalled effort to electrify its tracks flickered to life Wednesday morning when the Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved an agreement with the California High-Speed Rail Authority that includes as its centerpiece a plan for funding the electrification project.

Calling it a major "milestone" in Caltrain's long quest to modernize its system, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission board voted to approve a "memorandum of understanding" with the rail authority that includes $1.5 billion for electrification and new train signals. Under the agreement, the rail authority would supply about half of the funds for the long-awaited project, with the rest coming from local and regional agencies.

The agreement was spearheaded by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the rail authority with participation from a variety of regional agencies, including the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (which operates Caltrain), San Francisco County Transportation Authority, San Mateo County Transportation Authority (Samtrans), Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and the Transbay Joint Powers Authority. It is a key component of the rail authority's "new vision" for the controversial system -- a vision that calls for early investments in the northern and southern segments of the line. The rail authority still plans to begin construction in the Central Valley.

The agreement was heralded by various Metropolitan Transportation Commission board members, local officials and Caltrain advocates as a huge step toward electrification, a project that the cash-strapped agency is banking on for long-term financial stability. With electrified tracks and a new signal system, Caltrain would be able to operate more trains and, as a result, generate more revenue.

"This really is the foundation for electrification and, really, for the future of Caltrian," said MTC board Chair Adrienne Tissier, who also chairs Caltrain's board of directors.

For the rail authority, the new agreement provides a way to appease some of its critics on the Peninsula, where opposition to the project has been particularly fierce. Palo Alto in December adopted as its official position a call for termination of the high-speed rail project. It has also joined Menlo Park, Atherton and a coalition of nonprofit groups in a lawsuit that challenge's the rail authority's environmental analyses for the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles project. Electrification also supports the rail authority's long-term plan to stretch the voter-approved rail system along the Caltrain corridor.

Some local officials form the Peninsula raised concerns about the document Wednesday, arguing that it is not explicit enough in committing the rail authority to a "blended" system in which high-speed rail and Caltrain share two tracks. Burlingame City Councilman Michael Brownrigg said the new contract is "weak" when it comes to rejecting the previously considered four-track alternative.

Richard Hackmann, a management specialist with Palo Alto's city manager's office, told the Metropolitan Transportation Commission board the city sees the new agreement as an opportunity "to rebuild a working relationship with the High-Speed Rail Authority while moving forward with electrification of Caltrain on the corridor." Like Brownrigg, Hackmann said his city would like to see a written agreement specifying that the rail system would not use the four-track design.

"We want to make sure it's done in a way that does not adversely affect communities," Hackmann said.

Tissier said that while the two-track design is not specified in the Memorandum of Understanding, it will be detailed in the rail authority's new business plan, which is scheduled to be released in the coming weeks.

Other critics of the high-speed rail project lauded the new document, which they characterized as a critical step toward improving Caltrain. The agency, which has no dedicated source of funding, has a structural deficit and has been relying on one-time funding sources to keep its service levels intact for the past two years. Yoriko Kishimoto, a former Palo Alto mayor who co-founded the group Friends of Caltrain, was among those who praised the agreement.

"There is much work still left to do, but the day seems to be arriving for Caltrain electrification and modernization," Kishimoto told the board. "I truly thank all of you and all the leaders who have worked to align the stars on this day."

Michael Scanlon, CEO of Caltrain, called Wednesday a "historic day" for Caltrain and said the new agreement provides "the framework, and only the framework, for development of high-speed rail to proceed in a reasonable, pragmatic and, I believe, enlightened way."

"Everyone does not quite agree, but Caltrain staff is fully committed to continuing to working with the stakeholders," Scanlon said. "The work only begins when you start constructing a project and you really have to know how to listen to and work with communities."

Even with the new document, which the rail authority plans to consider next month, Caltrain's electrification is far from a done deal. The project is banking on funds from Proposition 1A, a 2008 measure approved by California voters that devotes $9.95 billion for the new rail system. But while voters approved the bond measure, it is still up to the state Legislature to release the rail funds. With the project enjoying mixed support in Sacramento (and overwhelming opposition by Republicans), it's far from clear when the funds for electrification will be released.

Dan Richard, chair of the rail authority's board of directors, indicated at a public hearing in Mountain View earlier this month that the board doesn't plan to ask the legislature for electrification funds this year. Instead, its funding request will focus on the "initial construction segment" in the Central Valley. The rail authority's plan is to start building the line in the middle and to later stretch it north and south.


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Posted by yes yes yes
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 28, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Electrifying Caltrain is a huge win for the Bay Area. There are huge benefits even if HSR never gets built. Electrified Caltrain can give us most of the benefits of BART for a fraction of the cost. This is also much cheaper than building new freeways for our growing population.

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Posted by Adina Levin
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 28, 2012 at 5:55 pm

To clarify, the two-track design is mentioned in the Memorandum of Understanding. In the language MOU, the project to be funded is called a blended system, "primarily a two-track system," which remains "primarily within the Caltrain right of way." So, the project being funded by the MOU is not the expanded vision, 4 tracks x 50 miles, which High Speed Rail initially proposed.

The concern is about the High Speed Rail project's Program EIR, which continues to have language describing a 4 track system with substantial takings, even though the Project is a blended largely 2 track system largely within the existing Right of Way.

Caltrain itself, and other stakeholders, have requested that the Program EIR be amended to remove the option for 4 tracks.

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Posted by Gordon
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 28, 2012 at 8:51 pm

This document appears to be more about the money, than the project. No surprises here, the CA HSR project has always been about the money, moving passengers from A to B has always been a secondary concern.

This document also confirms that the main purpose of electrification is to enable "faster and more frequent [train] service". No surprises there, that has been a legitimate long term goal of Caltrain. However, increased rail traffic will exasperate traffic congestion and increase train horn/bell noise at all rail crossings, and faster trains may lead to more accidental fatalities on the tracks because only "selected grade separations" appear to be considered for incision in the project. Besides a few grade separations, the only plans for non rail passenger safety are "improved grade crossing warning functions".

That there has been apparently nearly zero public input regarding the terms of this memorandum speaks volumes as to the devils that surely lie buried in the undisclosed details of this proposal.

The electrification of Caltrain seems like a great idea, unless it's a rouse for the CA HSR to gain a foot hold and later claim that the blended system is unfeasible. At that point, elevated rails are the easiest/fastest way for HSR to get between SF and San Jose. Residents of the Peninsula will then be stuck with blight overhead, noise from a very fast train that will be heard well beyond the area close to the tracks, and still, the unsafe, traffic congesting, nosy unseparated rail crossings we have today. This is essentially the original CA HSR plan for the peninsula that galvanized opposition in the area.

Hey Rich and Joe, is this High Speed Rail "done right"?

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Posted by JD
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 28, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Simitian and Gordon have been influenced by Big-Money HSR all the way.....they are worse than worthless.

Time to vote them out

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Posted by Neil Shea
a resident of University South
on Mar 28, 2012 at 11:24 pm

Some can always find something to carp about, but this is a huge win. Electric trains are much quieter and they don't belch diesel smoke all day long.

They start and stop faster leading to faster travel times which makes the train a better alternative to driving, especially as gas prices continue to rise.

Yes, more trains can get scheduled due to demand, and yes we may want to plan for more grade separations, but there are other funds for that which other communities up and down the line have availed themselves of. Let's feel good we're moving forward with quality transportation alternatives!

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2012 at 8:15 am

The bond (Measure 1A) passed in 2008 for the High Speed Rail has specific terms: NO government subsidies, the entire SF to LA rail to cost no more than $40 billion to be built, that it be running by 2021, and that the remaining funding be in place.

If Simitian & Gordon vote to fund the bonds for electrification of Caltrain, it would be violating the terms of the bond measure, as well as violating the trust of the electorate.

The bond for this use, if passed, will cost the state $56 million each year to pay the interest & principal. This amounts to $2,800 per rider of Caltrain. Added to existing spending on Caltrain, and each rider will be subsidized $7,000 - $8,000 per rider.

Governor Brown says the state is broke, and he needs to raise taxes in order to fund education. Yet he is willing to spend money on the high speed rail versus education or social services.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on Mar 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

And here's an idea: let Palo Alto decide if grade separations are needed, where, when, and how to build them. The community can apply its famous process to vet each one down to the last detail, with nobody from the outside to tell them what to do. There are four grade crossings in the entire city; I'm sure each one can be dealt with given enough creativity, time and money.

The mistake the HSR people made was to assume from the get-go a 100% closed system with no grade crossings. High-speed trains can and do run through grade crossings, at reduced speeds of course, in many countries. That gives us plenty of time to let the Palo Alto process run its course.

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Posted by Old Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Mar 29, 2012 at 9:13 am

Common Sense:

The project described in the bond measure could only have been built as described if Palo Alto and other eliteist Peninsula communities have kept their eyes on the goal, and not derailed a state-wide project for their own selfish ideals. Now that much of the job creation potential will be lost into rising construction demand, going from three points is the only way to proceed. Another year of environmental review certainly won't help. Those trying to kill the project may succeed, just like those who prevented the Peninsula from joining BART fifty years ago succeeded then.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 29, 2012 at 9:42 am

Public Transport is a wise investment. Public Transport is infrastructure and investment in infrastructure is investing in our future.

While they are at it, they should get rid of all the individual agencies and have one Bay Area Regional Transit Agency with one source of admin and pricing structures followed by advertising and marketing.

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Posted by Who are you calling elitist?
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 29, 2012 at 10:01 am

@Old Steve,
Easy on the Palo Alto bashing please. It's a great place to live, thanks to years of community spirit. Why shouldn't we be vigilant against being run over by CHSRA which has provent to be completely untrustworthy? It is the HSR interests that are selfish and elitist. You've got it backwards.

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Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Mar 29, 2012 at 10:47 am

YIMBY is a registered user.

@Who are you calling elitist?:
I'll have to support 'Old Steve' in this debate, which veers away, somewhat, from Caltrain electrification/HSRA early investment. You write, "(Palo Alto) is a great place to live, thanks to years of community spirit. Why shouldn't we be vigilant against being run over by CHSRA which has proven to be completely untrustworthy"?

Yes, PA, MP, and Atherton, the three litigants and main HSR opponents, are wonderful cities (if you can afford to live here), but we also have to look toward the future - not just of our cities, but the region and the state. By calling us elitist, I think Old Steve is saying we only care about our own quality of life - today - not the future in a changing state. Quality of life must be more than just aesthetics. A HSR train is an essential mode for any industrial society, as all our industrialized competitors have them. But due to many public policies of the last century, the influences of Big Oil and Big Auto (now perhaps little auto), we, as a country, have forsaken our rail investment, as shown by the state of today's Amtrak system - which I think most agree is, for the more part, pitiful.

Yet, it doesn't have to be that way.
How many have taken the Capitol Corridor (Web Link) to Sacramento from San Jose? It may be a ridiculously long 3 hours, but it 's a wonderful ride, complete with cafe car and wi-fi, and modern rail cars - all because the state of California chose to subsidize that route along with the San Joaquins and the Surfliners.

HSR from SF/SJ to LA can be done with stronger state intervention.

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2012 at 11:20 am

@YIMBY - HSR will not improve the quality of life for most of the people in California - it will only make it worse; instead of spending the money to improve education and retain vital social services, the politicians are spending the money on a train so that the vast majority of Californians won't use.

It will be money pit both to pay off the interest & principal needed to build the system, and a money pit to operate. Meanwhile spending on a per pupil basis continues to drop, and more and more vital social services are being cut.

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Posted by coooper
a resident of another community
on Mar 29, 2012 at 11:27 am

I thought it was supposed to cost only $1 billion for electrification? And now it's $1.5B? And High-Speed Rail was supposed to give us electric Caltrain, but now our local taxes have to pay for $750 million of it?

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Posted by neighbor
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 29, 2012 at 11:40 am

My concern is that, in everyone's excitement to see a possible solution, some important things have been overlooked regarding this MOU. Am absolutely in favor of electrification of CalTrain, but the 4-track issue MUST be resolved before we buy into the plan. Addressing the issue of grade separation is also essential -- if the plan (not disclosed) is to put in berms and elevated tracks, we are back to square one. This would be DISASTROUS to the community.

As to the argument that local communities are supposed to sacrifice for the "greater good": who decides what the greater good actually entails? Those not affected by the changes? There are multiple communities with many thousands of taxpayers objecting to the potential life-altering plans. Seems a bit lopsided if there concerns are plowed under for the "greater good". Is the greater good more debt for Californians? Is the greater good a plan that exaggerates ridership, grossly underestimates costs, and inflates job potential? The concerns are legitimate; they shouldn't be dismissed by referring to them as NIMYisms.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 29, 2012 at 12:32 pm

@ Old Steve and others:

If you have lived here long enough to remember, then you must at least give acknowledgment to the biggest/loudest/well-funded voice against Peninsula BART was the owner of the Hillsdale Shopping Center.

He was against the project because he saw BART as a huge threat against people spending money at his center - instead they would all run up to Union Square to shop. He clearly had no idea what was going to happen at Stanford Shopping Center - which eventually ate up all of his affluent customers anyway.

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Posted by Old Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Mar 29, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Hillsdale Management certainly held that view, but elected supervisors in San Mateo and Santa Clara made the decision without public input.


All of the issues you have raised have been studied to death. Trust in the HSR folks is so low that folks like you want to see all the T's crossed and I's dotted before any real work can get done. Having been involved in Airports and other big projects, that approach only leads to slipping schedules and escalating costs. Those factors then lead to the project being killed, which is what many folks want anyway. I am just tired of folks in certain zip codes saying that "this must be done to our complete satisfaction" but without any delays or cost increases. Since no one has signed a construction contract, that is not a reasonable approach. We here on the Peninsula have made the perfect into the enemy of the "better than we have" to protect our local interest. No different than Hillsdale discouraging BART fifty years ago.

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Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm

It looks like people have taken the bait. The bagatelle of CalTrain electrification does not make HSR any less of a bad idea than it is without CalTrain electrification. If you have to accept HSR as a means of getting CalTrain electrified, it is indeed a deal with the devil.

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Posted by Depressed
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 29, 2012 at 6:21 pm

It is so depressing to read this board. I might just stop visiting PaloAltoOnline. It is full of conservative, old fogies who are against any change, no matter how much the change is needed.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 29, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Conservative old fogies? You're talking about "liberal" Palo Alto, right? This is the town of "trust no one in an elected or appointed government position". Hardly conservative if you think of it that way.

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Posted by Old Steve
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Mar 29, 2012 at 6:44 pm

Larry Cohn:

So when Caltrain shuts down because the cost of diesel makes it unsustainable, will you be satisfied that all those riders are back in their cars? HSR is not the devil if they will never have the money to do what you fear. If we electrify Caltrain it can continue to operate. The passing track gets built someday, grade separations get built in some fashion. Until those things are done, HSR can't operate above 79 mph on the Peninsula anyway. Once those conditions are met and HSR has trains and more tracks to somewhere, running HSR on the Peninsula, becomes regulatory rather than construction. By the way, this 2+ track system does not require lane reductions in your precious Alma Street, since the station will likely be in Mountain View. If you want the studies updated to reflect all that, Congress will take back the Fed money next year and nothing gets built. Happy??

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2012 at 7:42 pm

If I recall correctly, Caltrain's original plans for electrification included grade separation at all crossings. This article doesn't mention grade separations, but they are essential if Caltrain is to run more frequent trains without seriously disrupting local traffic. Of course, just because the article doesn't mention it doesn't mean that it is not in the plan. Does anyone know if this agreement includes the cost of grade separations at all current at-grade crossings?

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Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2012 at 8:16 pm

Issues specific to the peninsula aside, for the entire state of California HSR will be a huge money sink. It is not economically viable no matter how much they grease the skids with things like CalTrain electrification.

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Posted by Depressed
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 29, 2012 at 8:34 pm

@ Crescent Park Dad

"trust no one in an elected or appointed government position"

This is exactly at the core of conservative views! That's what the Republican party is all about, getting rid of government.

And it meshes with the refusal to evolve and adopt modern, public, transportation systems.

Conservative through and through.

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Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2012 at 9:11 pm

@Depressed - Many have an expectation that our elected officials would obey the terms of the bond measure that was passed for High Speed Rail. The fact that they are not is why the electorate doesn't trust government or elected officals to oversee the government.

The costs of electrifying Caltrain means that the 20,000 riders will each get subsidized $7,000 - $8,000 per year. Think of all the kids whose education could be improved with that money, or how many of those who need medical insurance that could be helped.

Why are you so against education, and against helping those in need?

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 29, 2012 at 11:26 pm

Explain to me why every elected official from PA is a Democrat if the town is as conservative as you claim?

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2012 at 9:13 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

1. I have previously explained how electrification can go ahead with zero up front public dollars - let PG&E build and maintain the electrification, recovering the investment by a HP/HR charge.
2. Palo Alto could close the three Northern crossings with little disruption to traffic. Charleston would be the only retained surface crossing until an overhead structure would replace it.
3. Any subsidy to Caltrain should come from the businesses benefiting from it. The general public does not pay for elevators in a building.

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Posted by Robert
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 30, 2012 at 11:43 am

@ Larry Cohn.

How right you are. Everyone wants to see CalTrain survive. That's clear. This shared belief is followed by two Kierkegaardian leaps of faith: first, that CalTrain must be electrified if it is to survive (color me skeptical on that claim); and, second, re where the money for electrification would come from, that it could/would come partly from the deceptive bond issue that barely passed (52-48). This line of thinking virtually amounts to claiming that we've got to accept HSR because it's the only viable major source of money for CalTrain electrification, which is allegedly the only way to save CalTrain. Frankly, I would prefer that we have a separate Peninsula bond issue for electrifying CalTrain instead of the electrification of CalTrain being the camel's nose under the tent leading to HSR being tolerated on the Peninsula. Given the limits on HSR speed on the Peninsula, the time saved between San Jose and SF will be only a few minutes more than with electrified CalTrain. Electrifying CalTrain and building HSR need to be UNCOUPLED rather than joined at the hip as they are now viewed. It's absolutely appalling that California go $100+ billion dollars more into debt when our schools are starved, our teachers are grossly underpaid, and the rest of our infrastructure is in such pathetic condition. This boondoggle will prove to be an ALBATROSS of epic dimensions.

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Posted by Adina
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 30, 2012 at 2:21 pm

One clarification about the concerns expressed that the grade separations aren't specified yet. This is actually a good thing.

Caltrain is in the middle of a 2-year process of defining what the blended system will be. The first step was a capacity analysis to show that it was basically feasible.

The next step, which is in progress, involves analyzing all of the 40 at-grade crossings, for the impact on gate downtime and traffic impact. Caltrain will also propose various schedule options, and present the impact on ridership, revenue, and cost.

With this information, Caltrain will work with the community to make decisions about what grade separations to plan and what sort of schedule to provide.

So, it wouldn't make sense to call for specific grade separations yet, because Caltrain hasn't figured it out yet, and hasn't done the community outreach to make the decisions.

One big change here is that Caltrain is the lead agency for the electrification project, as MTC Chair and Caltrain board chair Adrienne Tissier clarified at the MTC meeting Wednesday. Caltrain has the responsibility to work with the community on these decisions - not MTC and not HSRA.

Since the blended system proposal was put forward last April, Caltrain has been conducting methodical community outreach on the blended system, under the leadership of Marian Lee. Based on my observation, they have been taking community feedback into account as they provide information and decide what to do next.

Based on the published plan, there will be opportunity for community input and discussion about the needs for grade separations and other design and schedule topics over the next 18 months.

Another note about gate downtime and traffic - because the electric trains accelerate faster and the train control system is more precise, Caltrain estimates that gate downtime for the same schedule will be reduced, and it may even be possible to add some more trains without increasing overall gate downtime.

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Posted by Arthur Lewellan
a resident of Escondido School
on Mar 30, 2012 at 8:38 pm

High-speed rail is a good idea, but the 135mph Talgo XXI Hybrid trainset is a better fit than 200mph Acela all-electric. Eliminating electrification through rural areas reduces cost about 30%. Along the peninsula, the Talgo XXI raises a pantograph to overhead wire. Heavy freight rail is compatable and the cost/benefit is further shared. The trip time between Los Angeles and the Bay Area is a mere 1 hour longer as the "average speed" of the two trainsets is 100mph & 135mph. Further electrification eventually along practical stretches of track is possible.

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Posted by Midtown Guy
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm

I seem to remember the passage of an earlier, Santa Clara County
added sales tax that was supposed to go towards electrifying
CalTrain. Am I wrong? Does anyone remember? If, so, where has
that reevenue gone??

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Posted by Larry Cohn
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 31, 2012 at 11:52 pm

It is indeed a leap of faith that electrifying CalTrain is an urgent need. It is true that electrification would eliminate the need for diesel locomotives, yet the energy to power electric trains has to come from somewhere. The question is whether diesel or electric trains are more energy efficient. I don't know the answer to that.

The ability to run more trains per day has been claimed as a benefit of electrification. It will cost more to run more trains per day due to added operating personnel and maintenance. Unless there is a corresponding increase in ridership, the added cost of operating more trains per day will drive CalTrain further into the red.

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

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