Caltrain Electrification Groundbreaking

Politicians, Advocates, Business and Labor Leaders do Victory Lap at Millbrae Caltrain

All photos Streetsblog/Rudick
All photos Streetsblog/Rudick

“Some people hate trains,” joked Governor Jerry Brown, at this morning’s groundbreaking ceremony for the Caltrain electrification and modernization project, at the Millbrae Caltrain station. The audience of business leaders, well-known politicians, Caltrain staffers, high-speed rail people, and many others involved in the project laughed. “I didn’t say the majority!”

Brown recalled riding the Daylight train, a passenger train that ran between northern and southern California, when he was a boy. “In 1943 I vowed we would electrify Caltrain and have high-speed rail,” he said, eliciting more laughter from the crowd.

But then his tone turned serious and he thanked everyone for the hard work they did in advocating for Caltrain electrification, which was very nearly killed by the Trump Administration just a few months ago. And he looked forward to continued progress in transportation. “A country is great when it can get together and build things.”

“We had a three-word slogan under Barack Obama,” said Nancy Pelosi. “Build, build, build! It’s about economics, vitality, sustainability and it’s about quality of life.” She paused for the noise of a passing diesel Caltrain locomotive, a sound that won’t be heard in a few years. “It’s about a foundation for the future.”


But Pelosi, along with others at the groundbreaking, bemoaned the “fight that shouldn’t have been,” with the Trump Administration to get $647 million in federal matching funds for a project that was approved before he took office. Fortunately, Elaine Chao, Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, finally signed the Federal Full Funding Grant Agreement, after a massive lobbying effort. “It was teamwork first and foremost,” said Carl Guardino, head of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. He helped put together a letter signed by 130 CEO’s in Silicon Valley in support of the project. “Signed by the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, right down the line of the world’s most iconic companies, and startups.”

That letter, combined with intense lobbying in Washington, finally got the funding cleared. In other words, this was one groundbreaking ceremony where the participants had truly earned their slice of cake. The cake, by the way, was in the shape and livery of one of Caltrain’s new electric trains–someone had stuck in a makeshift pantograph (the collector that sticks out of the top of electric trains and makes contact with the overhead wire to bring current to the engines) made out of a paperclip. “It has to be accurate,” joked one person waiting for a slice of cake.


“This is a long awaited and exciting day to finally move forward on Caltrain modernization,” said State Senator Scott Wiener. “So many people have worked so hard.”

State Senator Scott Wiener and Mayor Ed Lee's transportation director, Gillian Gillett.
State Senator Scott Wiener and Mayor Ed Lee’s transportation director, Gillian Gillett.

Indeed, but there’s still lots of political and advocacy work to be done. As San Francisco’s Mayor Lee said “Let’s get all the way to Transbay Terminal. Let’s finish the job!”

Extending to Transbay and finishing High-Speed Rail aren’t the only additional jobs involved in modernizing the region’s rail system. There’s also lots of work to do in terms of land use. That’s screamingly apparent around the Millbrae Caltrain station, surrounded by strip malls, parking lots, and ‘Level of Service’ designed intersections that are wide and hostile to pedestrians. Land use around that station is the antithesis of how land should be used around a transportation hub. There’s little indication, so far, that anything is really going to be done about it.

Millbrae Station is surrounded by a built environment that is downright hostile to anyone not driving a car and must be changed if rail improvements are going to reach their full potential
Millbrae Station is surrounded by a built environment that is downright hostile to anyone not driving a car and must be changed if rail improvements are going to reach their full potential

But today was a day of celebration for the start of a project some 20 years in the making. “You have to pay tribute,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo. “I salute all of you.”

The first electric trains set should be delivered in 2019, and the first electric service will start carrying passengers in early 2021.

  • Maurice

    I agree that the pedestrian environment around that station is appalling. I rode BART down to Have dinner with a friend across El Camino Real from the station. I had a very long wait, and then a terrifying walk across all those roadways, all while cars zipped by at 40 miles per hour.

  • Andy Chow

    Let’s not forget the citizen advocates that got the ball rolling almost 2 decades ago. Margaret Okuzumi, former BayRail Alliance Executive Director, wrote: “But if it were not for the organizing that I did in 1999 to help swing the vote on the JPB 5-4 in April 1999 to keep electrification a priority, and the enormous investment of time, money and effort I put into organizing advocacy for electrification for a decade after that (countless hours organizing riders to testify at public meetings in 3 counties and before several government agencies from San Francisco to San Jose and numerous lobby trips to Washington DC and Sacramento) we wouldn’t have been here today.”

    And of course we cannot forget Caltrain staffers like Bob Doty who got the work going and persuaded the FRA to allow Caltrain to use European style EMUs rather than heavy FRA compliant EMUs or locomotives.

    The grassroots activism that got the ball rolling in the 90s, the staff got the work going, the power brokers in DC got the deal sealed, and here we are.

  • thielges

    I was under the impression that this project was shovel ready when the funding request for federal matching funds was stalled by the USDOT. That’s why Caltrain had to cough up another $20M to keep the contractors on retainer during the stall.

    Why did it take so long between when the funds were released many weeks ago and the actual project beginning? I would have thought that the contractors we were paying $20M to sit on the bench would have had their shovels in the ground as soon as the ink on the USDOT check dried. What was Caltrain waiting for in the interim?

  • Eric Johnson

    Two days in a row, the blog features a picture of Scott Wiener. How I long for the old days.

  • Roger R.

    It’s just a ceremony. Prelim work has been underway for a while.

  • SF

    And I have no doubt that instead of a prevailing wage, those workers will be more numerous than the job requires, get paid vastly more than many American workers capable for the job, and will soon be feather-bedding with over-time and cost-overruns. And I am a left-wing progressive!

  • Installing overhead pantograph wiring for trains travelling at 80mph+ requires precision work by people who know WTF their doing. Here’s one of my favorite destruction videos that shows what happens to a train pantaograph when the overhead wires aren’t absolutely perfect.

  • SF

    Oh, Jeez, all engineering work should be done carefully, but, please, spare us these ‘pre-excuses’ for cost-overruns, featherbedding, overtime, and excessive wages. Precision work requires precision engineering and precision specifications; if it requires the manual workers to deliver the micrometer tolerances, it is mis-designed. One of the main reasons our infrastructure is crumbling is not our workers’ precision or lack of it, but the excessive costs of public-works construction.

    The British had *steam* trains over 120 mph in the 1930s, the French over 180 mph in 1970s (I worked on one in ’78 — M.S., Mech. En., MIT), and the French/Spanish/Chinese travelling at speeds well over 200 mph in the 2000s. And we’re terrified, by a video, of the precision needed for 80 mph in 2020? That’s just like giving up.


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