Does electrifying Caltrain really help high-speed rail?

Will these spiffy high-speed rail trains come into SF or just our normal Caltrains?

Mayor Ed Lee and other regional political and transportation officials are celebrating this week's agreement to take bond money approved by state voters for the California High-Speed Rail Project and apply it to electrifying the Caltrain's tracks up the peninsula, which has long been a goal for that troubled transit agency. Electrification will lower operating costs, reduce noise, and be better for the environment.

“Electrifying Caltrain as an early investment and extending Caltrain into the heart of downtown San Francisco at the new Transbay Transit Center are essential for the success of high speed rail and the future economic growth of our region,” Lee said in a prepared statement released yesterday.

Yet his office didn't respond to questions about how the new agreement – which will apply $700 million in high-speed rail bond money from Prop. 1A to the $1.5 million electrification project, arguing it lays the foundation for high-speed trains to come later – will help the Transbay Terminal. That project needs to come up with the more than $2 billion for the 1.2-mile tunnel from the current Caltrain station at 4th and King streets to bring the trains downtown. The mayor's press release argued only that it would “provide the momentum upon which to build the Downtown Extension to the Transbay Transit Center.”

Transbay Terminal Joint Powers Authority spokesperson Adam Alberti called the latest agreement “a big deal for transportation” and told us, “The MOU agrees that the early investment of Prop 1A funds should be placed on the electrification of Caltrain.” Even though it doesn't give money directly to Transbay Terminal, Alberti said it advances a project in which that station is the designated terminus and it frees up future transportation funding for the needed tunnel.

But Quentin Kopp, who launched the high-speed rail project as a state legislator in the '90s and until recently served on the project's board, said this latest agreement doesn't help Transbay Terminal (which he has derided as little more than a real-estate deal) and it represents a violation of Prop. 1A and other high-speed rail provisions.

“Here's a pot of money and everybody wants to steal from it,” said Kopp, who has criticized recent changes in the high-speed rail plan, such as San Francisco-bound passengers having to transfer to Caltrain in San Jose rather than coming directly into San Francisco and how Caltrain's tracks limit how many trains can run per hour, hurting the overall project's financials. “It's hardly the project that was envisioned.”

As we reported in January, the high-speed rail project has been working to overcome doubts and attacks by fiscally conservative politicians here, in Sacramento, and in Washington DC. And this latest agreement helps overcomes Caltrain's deep fiscal problems and the opposition of many peninsula politicians and neighborhood groups to creating a larger and more robust high-speed rail line up the peninsula.

5 PM UPDATE: Lee Press Secretary Christine Falvey just responded to my inquiry and said, "The region is pursuing funding the $1.5 billion Downtown Extension through a combination of additional sources, including New Starts, and we expect to announce additional good news on this front soon." It's unclear why there is a discrepancy between Alberti's figures and Falvey's. Lee has pledged to make a priority of ensuring the train extension to Transbay Terminal gets built.


Um, do you think its feasible to drive a train through a tunnel when it is burning fossil fuels? Do you think its not going to KILL everyone on board by asphyxiation?
If the train is ever going to go beyond its current terminus in mission bay and downtown to the transbay terminal, then it absolutely must be electrified.

And while they are building tunnels for Caltrain, you dont think they can build tunnels for HSR?

These are not difficult concepts to grasp.

Posted by Not Greg on Mar. 23, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

They have these things called fans and vents. It's really new technology - i think the Victorians invented them.

HSR needs much bigger clearances than the existing CalTrain right-of-way, so it's a red herring that electrifying a suburban railroad will help HSR.

The CalTrain rollick stock is hopelessly over-engineered for what is basically a bus that stops every couple of miles. And CalTrain still makes a loss.

Personally, I'd replace the whole thing with BART - faster, cleaner, and more convenient.

HSR? Probably never happening anyway.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 23, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

Diesel trains can't serve a underground stop like the Transbay Terminal. Trains don't just get by briefly but stay there for a while as people get on and off the trains. Electrification will help HSR because HSR will use the Caltrain tracks and wires to get to SF. If there were to be new passing tracks in place, it would be built along side to what would be existing.

If Caltrain were somehow an over glorified bus service, then all other rail, including BART are also as well. All transit, including BART, also makes a loss.

There's no way and no point of replacing Caltrain. If somehow there ought to be one system, just merge the agencies and keep the trains the same.

Posted by Andy Chow on Mar. 26, 2012 @ 11:04 am

use diesel trains, without a problem. Most of the many rail terminii in London, for instance. You just ventilate.

BART is the only Bay Area standard. The other services are an assortment of incompatible modalities with funding issues.

And that, more generally, is the problem in the Bay Area. It's not deemed a unifed community but rather an incompatible collection of villages, each with their own fiefdom. How can you build a real transit system for a megalopilis that doesn't even consider itself a single entity?

It's hopeless.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

London Termini that run Diesel trains are above ground and open to the air. Typically their roofs are very high above the platforms, e.g. Paddington Station:

What would be the net difference between BART and an electrified Caltrain running an intensive schedule, except in name?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 27, 2012 @ 9:43 am

And BART is compatible with the entire Bay Area system.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 27, 2012 @ 10:49 am

HSR and the Transbay Terminal are both vehicles for transporting public dollars into private pockets. They take our need and desire to build transportation projects and extort up the price.

SPUR has development designs on the air rights to the 4th and King Caltrain yard that involve--wait for it--signature towers. Does anyone from SPUR ever register as a lobbyist with the Ethics Commission?

CalTrain is a toy trainset, 20K riders per day, like the 22 Fillmore but expensive. Convert the SP ROW to electrified BART and hook it up at San Jose.

Better yet, find $150b and build this:

Posted by marcos on Mar. 23, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

He's right here. Scrap CalTrain and replace with BART, which at least has a decent source of funding but, even so, has the ebst collection and self-funding rate of any Bay Area transit syste,

We also have two many separate transit systems. BART works also because it is a true Bay Area wide system - nothing else is.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 7:38 am

a) Marcus, check your figures. Caltrain has twice that many daily riders. More than any of the Muni Metro lines except the N Judah. Still not a large sum, but certainly more than you claim.

b) Greg, think deeper. BART has a dedicated funding source, yes, but this wouldn't automatically extend to Caltrain were BART to absorb it. BART gets its funding from sales taxes in its three member counties (SF, Alameda, CC), subsidy from SamTrans, and of course, fares (there's a few other smaller sources, such as parking). If BART absorbed Caltrain, it wouldn't make any more money appear. It would just make BART less able to pay for its service, by giving it more of a burden without any more financial support.* BART and Caltrain have similar farebox recovery ratios.

If, on the other hand, you're proposing that San Mateo and Santa Clara join the BART District by paying the BART tax, well, they'd have to vote for that. Then you'd have the added bureaucracy of deciding what to do with SF's current BART tax + Caltrain subsidy via Muni. Would it keep paying both, even if the other member counties weren't? And anyway, why can't they just vote on a Caltrain tax?

c) I really hope that you're only proposing changing management of the system, and not outright running BART trains on Caltrain tracks. This is impossible because of incompatible gauges. And the cost of making the gauges compatible, and of grade-separating the entire Peninsula corridor, would be astronomical. And it would also preclude high speed rail from running on the corridor, as it uses the same gauge as Caltrain.

*In case this isn't clear, here's a simplification that might explain it better. Imagine that BART's total budget is $100, and that it receives $55 in fares, $40 in taxes from its member counties, and $5 from SamTrans. Meanwhile, Caltrain's budget is $100, and it receives $40 in fares, and $20 from each of its related agencies (VTA, SamTrans and Muni). If BART takes over Caltrain, it now has a budget of $200, receives $95 in fares, and retains its original $45 in funds from taxes+SamTrans. That leaves it $60 short. In order for it to keep a balanced budget, it would have to continue to collect the money Caltrain receives from VTA, SamTrans and Muni. You haven't saved any money, you've just shuffled money from one agency into another. Service is still just at risk as it was before if SamTrans says it can't afford all of these subsidies.

Posted by Grego on Mar. 26, 2012 @ 10:50 am

CalTrain is a toy trainset, 20K riders per day, like the 22 Fillmore but expensive. Convert the SP ROW to electrified BART and hook it up at San Jose.

Caltrain has a 40% farebox recovery. The 22 Fillmore substantially lower.

The costs to convert to BART rails would take centuries to recoup, if you include the number of years in which we would have no service while they rip up the rails.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

God. More adventures from the sexually promiscuous misanthrope.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 23, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

None of the sustainable transportation agenda can move forward without rapid, reliable public transit options that cover both the first and last miles and the regional trips. People are going to be depending on their cars so long as it takes 3hr round trip to take transit. Punishing people for not taking transit when transit means a commute time equivalent to 40% of their work day as unpaid work-related time cannot be justified, that adds fuel to the fire of falling wages.

The centrality of the sustainable transportation agenda is making transit attractive and competitive with private auto use. Until that happens, the anti-car agenda does more damage to the sustainable transportation agenda than doing nothing.

The first and last mile transit is only well developed in San Francisco. In the rest of the inner bay ring region, AC Transit, SamTrans and Valley Transit, have much less dense coverage.

With multiple dispersed job and housing clusters, no amount of SPUR metropoling of San Francisco into the dominant job/housing cluster is going to change that. With job livespans of 18-36 months, people are going to be changing jobs to anywhere in the bay area several times over the time they live here. Transit has to be designed that will deliver that kind of rapid reliable mobility, at least within the inner ring off development first, then land use can be zoned to handle that.

Note: the Central Subway does not provide sufficient rapid, reliable and most importantly, sustainable and usable mobility to justify the designs that developers led by Brown and Pak have for the "Central Corridor" along 4th Street. What we're seeing here is an investment of a few billions of public dollars into a subway that has been "value engineered" to the extent that its usable livespan is measured in a couple of decades. That will sour voters on more subways but will give away development rights to connected builders while doing nothing to improve mobility via public transit.

Also, the MTA TEP is holding workshops on proposed rapid improvements to several lines:

Posted by marcos on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 8:19 am

prove to be very popular with both commuters and visitors. This is particularly true if the TransBay extension never happens.

But I'd still much rather see BART extended. How about BART out under Geary to the ocean to replace the most-used bus line in the city - the 38?

Or BART under Van Ness?

Plus loop BART from Fremont to San Jose and then back up to SF along CalTrain's ROW?

Posted by Greg on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 8:42 am

I supported the Central Subway against all transit advocates when it cost 1/3 and performed 3x what the build out option will deliver. The sad thing is that to make the Central Subway workable will cost another $300m or so and that ain't gonna happen.

SF needs to figure out how to rustle up $20b for a subway network that provides for both rapid replacement of key radial lines (38, 5, 71, 9) as well as for the broad swath community lines like the 22, 33 and 44. Gimme a 55 that gets you from Land's End to Candlestick and we're in business. With that kind of network, you can rapidly run errands as well as get into downtown in 20 min run time from almost anywhere.

Either that or get serious about Transit First on surface lines which will mean eliminating private autos and parking on transit streets redirecting them onto non-transit streets and replacing parking there too. Zurich made that jump from failed subway plans to transit first on surface streets with regional coordination. As one born in NYC, I'm partial to subways, as they work so well in NYC and Mexico City.

It would be as expensive politically to reclaim surface streetscape as it would be to secure the capital to build subways. Ideally, the DPW and MTA would partner to develop TBM technology in-house so that we could buy the equipment up front and begin tunneling and just not stop without having to go through the corrupt rigamarole of doling out contracts to the connected firms.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 9:08 am

where most of us needs cars to get places where transit does not go, or where it is safe, slow and unreliable.

Trains are better than streetcars and streetcars are better than buses. It's the bus system that really disgraces Muni. CS makes sense because it puts transit underground where it belongs - every major city has a real subway system except for SF but for BART.

But if your policy is predicated on the demise of cars, better to wait 100 years. Not in any of our lifetimes.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 9:35 am

My policy is predicated on the rise of transit which, like NYC and London, will make private autos less of a necessity. The only good thing about the Central Subway is that it moves transit underground. The bad things about the Central Subway are that it does not connect to much in a way that makes anyone want to use it and it is not engineered to withstand the pressures of growth. The net costs of this particular subway project are greater than the net benefits.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 9:54 am

My policy seeks to provide transit that fits the way the city is.

Big difference in approach.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 9:57 am

"The way the city is" is not working. Something has to change. Either make with the bucks for a real, integrated, rapid reliable subway system or do what Zurich did, which was adapt the streetscape so that transit can fit the City. Either one will work, but the key has to be the commitment to investment in rapid, reliable transit either cashwise or streetscapewise.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 10:23 am

But only because it is fairly car-friendly, at least outside of the extreme NW corner. I agree with you that we need a proper subway system, and BART represents the only viable prototype for that.

But I do not support turning the city upside-down just to set up some experimental version of a medievil european city here.

You're putting the cart before the horse in seeking to turn the city upside-down just to create a transit nirvana. Transit has to fit the people and the city, not vice versa. And what works for the Swiss and the Danes won't work for Californians.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 11:40 am

Population and economic pressures are too high for the current setup to be sustainable and viable over time, gridlock will ensue, it is just a matter of time, especially as developers do to the west side what they've done to the east side via rezoning.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

Sounds like you're just on an anti-car gig.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

Eventualities are anti-car, I'm pro-transit, giving San Franciscans choices between private autos and rapid reliable transit to get to and from work and run errands.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

That would explain your viewpoint and, to an extent, invalidates it.

Posted by Greg on Mar. 25, 2012 @ 8:51 am

Science and reality clearly hold a classically liberal bias.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 25, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

And to bring it back to CalTrain, if population increases, then people are going to need to be able to take transit as an option to get to dispersed job clusters. The first and last mile problem of that require rapid solutions, be they expensive and buried or less expensive and disruptive on the surface.

The regional road system is already over capacity at peak hours.

Posted by marcos on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

Would YOU take it? WHO do you think WILL take it?

Posted by Guest on Mar. 26, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

What do you think about an intermodal solution like:

Posted by Guest on Mar. 25, 2012 @ 5:24 am

I hope HSR doesn't strain the State's resources and crimp important programs like free needles for junkies or worse free condoms for all of our UC students.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 8:58 am
Posted by Guest on Mar. 24, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

By the time Californians get over whining, arguing, being underhanded and corrupt, and actually build anything that people can use, 30 nations will have built similar systems, for far less, more logically, and safer design. I bet we will have not 1 but many crashes like China, but not a fall -- with automobiles at high speed, because we will cut corners to bring the price down, then some contractor with politicians' help will take a cut, making it just as expensive but hazardous. Yes, thats how things are done here in California. Taiwan learned the hard way, tried to cut the cost, did things piecemeal, finally after 10 years of haggle, made a wise a turnkey elevated Japanese system (though still european signaling) but atleast majority of the system was Japanese. Why Japanese is important? Because of their safety record, their similar geology, their expertise at integration, and the fact they elevate systems so automobiles will cannot collide. Caltrain, Metrolink, Amtrak all are just automobile collision machines...I hate to think Id be in something like that at high speed.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 25, 2012 @ 1:14 am

Oh and common sense plz -- if $100 bil is too much to swallow, build something successful and right, it doesn't have to be "big". It can always be expanded when it become popular. SD-Riverside-LA-SF-Sac is too much, it should be like LA-Santa Ana-San Diego only or SJ-Oak-Sac only. Fresno-Madera is utter sillyness. Grab the areas with no competition, for those routes at 200 mph and air doesn't make sense for that short distance. When that pays itself off and turns a profit, link up the two systems.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 25, 2012 @ 1:29 am

Common sense plz -- if $100 bil is too much to swallow, build something successful and right, it doesn't have to be "big". It can always be expanded when it become popular. SD-Riverside-LA-SF-Sac is too much, it should be like LA-Santa Ana-San Diego only and/or SJ-Oak-Sac only. Fresno-Madera is utter sillyness. Grab the areas with NO competition, for those routes at 200 mph and air doesn't make sense for that short distance. When that pays itself off and turns a profit, link up the two systems.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 25, 2012 @ 1:30 am

HSR as the jetblue of the rails.
Who the hell wants to go san jose to OAK?
San Jose to SF maybe

Posted by Greg on Mar. 25, 2012 @ 8:16 am

What are your feelings about an intermodal solution like That would solve the first and last leg issues commonly associated with rail.

Posted by Guest on Mar. 25, 2012 @ 5:26 am

Changing stations in San Jose? I don't like it.

Posted by David on Mar. 26, 2012 @ 2:04 am

How are we going to move people in the Bay Area, it seems we fight projects every step of the way. The projects costs go up and up, when the final costs come in, guess what it takes money away and time for other projects. HSR should be looked at, the idea of spending a 100 billion dollars is alot, how can we build it for less, get more bang for your dollars. Should we allow the state to take land to build rental space around stations, put up some parking lots and charge to park, add a hotel or two. Build stations that have stores, offices and uses.

I grew up here in the Bay Area, it seems nothing gets done without a fight. Foothill Freeway, Southern Crossing Bridge, 380, 480, Iron Horse Light Rail line, Central Subway, Willow Freeway, route 13, Bay Bridge, etc

Posted by garrett on Mar. 27, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

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