As Caltrain celebrates 150 years of continuous passenger rail service between San Francisco and San Jose this year, transit planners are finally preparing to modernize the service by converting from diesel to electric trains. This transition, which Caltrain aims to complete by 2019, will reduce travel times for passengers because electric trains can accelerate and decelerate much more quickly. A typical all-stops local train trip from San Francisco would be reduced from about 90 minutes to 80 minutes.
Caltrain has long promoted electrification of the passenger rail line because electric trains are cheaper to operate and maintain — and because faster service will attract more riders and bring in more revenue. But one very important technical detail was missing from the agency’s plans until recently: Level boarding.
Currently, passengers need 55 seconds at each station, on average, to get on and off the newer two-step Bombardier train cars. The electric trains set to be purchased in 2015 will also include two steps unless the platforms at all 25 stations between San Francisco and Tamien in San Jose (the section planned to be electrified) are re-constructed 17 inches higher than they are today.
Level platforms would allow large groups and passengers with bulky items such as bicycles, strollers, suitcases, and wheelchairs to board more quickly. That would save at least 15 seconds per station, shaving an additional five minutes from the all-stops San Francisco-to-San Jose trip.
“Level boarding is just faster,” said Clem Tillier, editor of the Caltrain High Speed Rail Compatibility blog. ”On the basis of trip time, level boarding is at least 50 percent as effective [as electrification] and it will be far cheaper.”