It’s a Go for Caltrain Electrification

This Swiss electric train is close to what will one day run on Caltrain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

This morning, during its regular meeting in San Carlos, the nine-member Caltrain board voted unanimously to dedicate $1.25 billion towards electrifying Caltrain. If all goes according to plan, electric services will begin in 2020.

“The total program is $2 billion. That includes money for the advanced signal system, which we’re already installing today,” said Jayme Ackemann, spokeswoman for Caltrain. “But the $1.25 billion is the lion’s share for electrification.”

Included in the contract is an order for 96 rail vehicles, with an option to buy an additional 20. And “we are considering an additional purchase of more electric vehicles,” added Ackemann.

According to the Caltrain staff report issued during the meeting, the new electric multiple unit (EMU) trains will be built by Stadler, a Swiss company, and stringing the overhead wire and additional infrastructure for the electrification of the tracks will be done by the British firm Balfour Beatty.

The advocacy group Friends of Caltrain, explained it this way in a release sent out before the vote:

The Caltrain board will make a momentous decision to put money down for electric trains and electrification construction. The decisions are limited pending confirmation of major elements of funding from High-Speed Rail and the federal government later this year. Preliminary commitments of $41 million would start the train car purchase and $108 million would start the construction purchase.

But the Board is taking a bit of a risk awarding these contracts, as explained in the San Mateo Daily Journal:

The costly modernization project’s funding draws from a patchwork of local, regional, state and federal sources. However, not all of the money is in hand — its plans include relying on $713 million from high-speed rail and nearly $647 million in federal funds that have yet to be awarded.

But Caltrain officials expressed confidence things will line up in the near future after receiving support from federal transportation officials as well as the Obama administration. A local legislator also recently proposed a bill to unencumber high-speed rail funds to support projects such as Caltrain’s electrification.

The newspaper also reports that the contacts are limited in scope, in case things don’t pan out with the rest of the funding.

This video from Caltrain, meanwhile, explains the modernization and electrification plan the board approved:


“When you look back to 2004 with the Baby Bullet…when you look at it today, it was absolutely the right thing to do,” said Adrienee Tissier, Supervisor for district 5 of San Mateo County and a member of the Caltrain Board, before the vote. “Our ridership is up over 240 percent. Our revenue is up 360 percent. That’s huge, but it took risk and change for those things to happen. Today is another one of those days where it’s time to make that change, to make that shift so we can once again increase our ridership, increase our revenue and make for a much smoother rail system.”

What will it mean for commutes between San Francisco and the South Bay? In a previous post, Caltrain official Casey Fromson said because of the improved acceleration, a trip that diesel baby bullets do in 60 minutes will take 45 with a train of EMUs. Electric trains are also quieter, more reliable and non-polluting.

Electrification is also an essential step towards fulfilling the California High-Speed Rail plan, revised in February of this year. HSR trains need electrification so they can share Caltrain’s tracks to get from San Jose to San Francisco.

Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy Director for SPUR, spoke during the public comment period of the board meeting. “I’m here to express our support for awarding electrification contracts,” she said. “Now we’re looking forward to having a larger conversation about how to make Caltrain a frequent, reliable, convenient service for all the people in this corridor and how it can best function together with High-Speed Rail.”

EMU, meanwhile, is a catchall-term referring to any electrically powered trains that are self-propelled (requiring no locomotive to pull or push them), powered by motors mounted on or adjacent to the wheels. Caltrain decided on EMU technology because each car has its own motor, providing better acceleration than a normal locomotive-hauled train. EMU acceleration remains consistent regardless of the length of the train, which makes it more efficient to provide shorter trains for late-night service. It also increases reliability because a number of the motors can fail without significantly impacting the train’s performance. BART trains are EMUs. So are all subway systems, although the term EMU is usually only used when speaking about commuter and intercity trains.

From a passenger perspective, that means electrifying Caltrain and switching to EMU technology should make the services operate and feel like BART. As SPUR’s Amin put it in an earlier conversation with Streetsblog, “People say they prefer BART to Caltrain, but that’s because they know Caltrain as it is now, not what it can be when it’s modernized.”

Questions remain, however, about finding funds to connect Caltrain from its current San Francisco station at King Street, to the new Transbay terminal in downtown. However, since electrification is a key step to running trains to Transbay’s underground station platforms, this is also a major step towards that goal.

  • murphstahoe

    stop telling me to build a nuclear weapon at home, you nazi!

  • murphstahoe

    He’s a trolltivist

  • RichLL

    Wait, so seeking to limit how many miles Americans can fly is like the zoning rules for constructing nuclear reactors?

  • RichLL

    Judging by your prolific posting activity across dozens of websites, I’d say you have the tiara for trolling, at least on the west coast.

  • JustJake

    And you sound like a lobbyist for rail/transit, who is lacking in objectivity, context and any semblance of respect for viewpoints that don’t coincide with your agenda. You are dismissed..

  • Wells

    Even your attempt to be conciliatory is rudely contrarian, Rich. And you’re certainly not ‘acting’ on behalf of the majority who rightly believe global warming leads to disastrous climate change that must be addressed; nor on behalf of those who, like me believe that actions taken would lead to better lives and livelihoods with – believe it or not – a lower cost of living. Just stop leading with your smart ass side and you may thereby conduct meaningful discussions.

  • RichLL

    I never said we should do nothing about global warming. What I said is that your idea of somehow limiting how much people can fly is not a viable or practical solution.

    There are other things we can do. Check out the specs of the new Boeing 787 and Airbus 350 aircraft – they are 25% more fuel efficient than older planes.

    Or Leonardo DiCaprio could stop attending global warming conventions in his private jet

  • Richard Gadsden

    One of the ways we’ve been speeding things up has been sacking Balfour Beatty! Carillion have replaced them and accelerated a number of projects.

  • Wells

    Using DiCaprio as a stereotype environmentalist is taken from the rightwing playbook as is your opinion of activists as ideologues. The impression your writing gives is that of an intolerant hothead Talk Radio fanatic, making it difficult to believe you’re actually a democrat.

    The Boeing 787 has important advantages over the Airbus 350 to consider, particularly passenger capacity. The 350 has more than twice the capacity, assuming the demand for ‘excessive’ air travel should be met. The 787 meets a lesser demand that could be considered a ‘necessary’ amount to maintain when the full costs of air travel inevitably increases air fare tickets.

    This discussion is about the high-speed rail project. While I’m not a fan of 200mph systems, the US should have more reliable passenger-rail service as a ‘fundamental’ travel mode, particularly because of how they affect station area economies. 200mph systems bypass smaller communities which then do not gain the economic benefit. Moreover, the system planned is based on the notion that travel SF-to-LA should be as convenient as say LA-to-SD.

    Air travel is a luxury and a sign of cowardice. We’re so sick of the schitzophrenic communities that chaotic traffic creates, we resort to distant vacations (no less overrun with traffic) rather than vacation closer to home.

  • RichLL

    DiCaprio isn’t a stereotype but he is a hypocrite, flying around the world in his private jet claiming that we should reduce emissions. An easy target perhaps but not an invalid one.

    The A350 doesn’t have “twice the capacity” but it is larger. But that misses the point. Both the A-380 and the B- 747 carry more souls, as does the B-777 and the A-330, but use more fuel per passenger-mile. The 350 and 787 are more green-friendly, if you will.

    Air travel is growing massively in Asia so it really doesn’t matter if you and I decide to take a bus 5,000 miles. That genie is out of the bottle and, frankly, your rather precious pining about it has zero effect. People want to travel.

    But if you really want to engage a “war on planes” then you should at least support HSR

  • Wells

    Nevermind Rich. Your argumentative and insulting contentiousness means very little. Maybe you should take up a way more fun hobby like restoring a classic automobile. Some day I’m gonna do a Ford Model A.

  • City Resident

    Various county measures (San Mateo County Measure A in 1988 and Santa Clara County Measure A in 2000) and Regional Measure 2 in 2004 set aside revenue from sales tax and toll increases for the Dumbarton Rail Corridor (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumbarton_Rail_Corridor). Alameda County’s Measure B1 in 2012 passed by nearly, but just under, 2/3’s of the electorate (and this would have restored funding for this rail corridor). In this regard, voters have weighed in on and supported Dumbarton passenger rail.

  • We desperately need this on Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line here in SoCal, especially the waiver. I’ll go out on a limb and assume that other Stadler products like the FLIRT3 have similar safety ratings as the KISS, so it would be beyond great to be able to operate a fleet of the hybrid model of those vehicles on the Redlands Rail and Metrolink mainline.

  • Richard Gadsden

    If they’re EMUs, then the two lengths should perform very similarly anyway, as you add more motors when you add more cars.

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