Caltrain Electrification Charges Forward

A construction worker finishing up a electric pole foundation on Caltrain's mainline on the Peninsula. Image: Caltrain
A construction worker finishing up a electric pole foundation on Caltrain's mainline on the Peninsula. Image: Caltrain

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Three-thousand steel poles, ten new electrical power facilities, and enough conduit to span 51 miles of tracks are just part of what’s involved in Caltrain’s $2 billion electrification project. “We’re also going to have to replace 52 trees,” explained Greg Parks, a consultant working with Caltrain, during a presentation Tuesday night at the Mission Creek Senior Community near Caltrain’s King Street terminus in San Francisco. The presentation, which was given to some 30 local residents, gave an update on the project and explained potential construction impacts for people who live along the tracks in San Francisco.

Currently, steel poles are installed along the tracks in San Bruno, Millbrae, and South San Francisco. After large clusters of poles are put in, work trains will go down the tracks at night and string overhead wire, as pictured here:

After the poles are in place, the railroad will string wires over the track. Photo: Caltrain

In the four tunnels that Caltrain runs in through San Francisco, the wire will be attached to beams suspended from the ceiling and sides of the tunnels. In October, the agency will start literally notching the concrete inside the tunnels to hold the beams and anchor bolts. “That will require shutting down rail service north of Bayshore Station and using substitute buses” on the weekends for about six months, said Parks. Work inside the tunnels, and the weekend service disruptions between San Francisco and Bayshore Station, are expected to last through March 17 of 2019. Peak weekday service, fortunately, will continue as normal throughout all phases of the project.

As mentioned, some trees along the route have to go–and many others will have to be pruned–to create a safe zone between trees and the overhead wire, which, once the new electric trains begin testing, will carry 25,000 volts. In San Francisco, there will be 24 trees removed in total, some on the Caltrain right of way, and some on adjoining public property. But thankfully none on private property, explained Parks.


The railroad also has 96 electric trains on order and under construction by Stadler US, based in Salt Lake City. The new rail cars, based on an off-the-shelf, European design, are self-propelled “electric multiple units.” That means each car has its own motive power–just like a BART train. That will make the trains far more reliable, since multiple motors can fail before the train has to be taken out of service. They also will have a much better power-to-weight ratio, which will enable the trains to go from a dead stop to full speed in a fraction of the time it takes Caltrain’s current fleet of diesel-hauled trains. To put that in perspective, a Baby Bullet express train from San Jose to San Francisco that currently takes 60 minutes, will take 45 minutes with the new trains. The extra acceleration will also enable more trains per hour and higher capacity.

The top half of one of Caltrains new train cars, at the factory in Utah. Photo: Stadler US
The top half of one of Caltrains new train cars, at the factory in Utah. Photo: Stadler US

For San Francisco residents near the right of way, the takeaway is the trains will be much quieter–and won’t belch diesel smoke (here’s some video of the same type of EMU’s Caltrain has on order running in Switzerland, to get an idea of what they will look and sound like).

Acceleration will be better, but the top speed of the new electric trains will be limited to 79 mph, which is the same as the current fleet. In addition to electrifying from Gilroy to Tamien, the California High-speed rail project will do additional trackwork–including widening some of the curves, to allow faster speeds. Caltrain will then be able to increase its top speed to over 100 mph. A representative from Balfour Beatty said the electric traction system, poles and wires they are installing are all being designed to facilitate the higher speeds with only minimal modification. For example, on curves the electrical infrastructure will have enough clearance so the tracks can be rejiggered for higher speeds without having to relocate any poles or foundations (although the overhead wire will need some adjustments).

Caltrain representatives said they are building a test track between San Jose and Santa Clara so they can start testing the new EMU trainsets as soon as the first cars arrive, sometime next year. The first electric passenger service on is expected to start in 2022.

One audience member who lives near the Caltrain right of way said she will be happy to see an end to diesel trains belching out black smoke. Another audience member asked when electrified Caltrain will get to downtown San Francisco, into the newly completed Salesforce Transit Center. Caltrain officials explained that’s a separate project, but, as previously reported, the earliest date for that is 2026.

Caltrain has posted more information on the Calmod website, including this time-lapse video of an electrification pole getting installed:

  • LazyReader

    What’s really going on here is Jerry Brown wants his legacy. Running hundreds of miles of rail across California with no regard for fiscal consequences will be his inevitable legacy.

    While Gavin Newsom, who once favored high-speed rail but is ran for governor on an anti-rail platform. For other politicians such as Jerry Brown, there appears to be no cost so high that would lead them to withdraw their support. That’s how well intention programs become cesspools of waste and corruption.

  • 6 months of weekend bus bridges is going to suck….I would be curious to know what other sucky options were considered. Oh well, whatever gets the electric trains here quickest, I guess.

  • nolen777

    Caltrain electrification is valuable independently from HSR. Did you read the article?

  • crazyvag

    This article is about Caltrain. I don’t understand what you’re talking about here.

  • Sean

    See his name?

  • p_chazz

    Will the Fourth Street Caltrain Station be retained after Caltrain begins service to the Salesforce Transit Center in 2026? If not, it seems like a waste to electrify the Fourth Street Station in 2022 only to rip it all out in 2026. Might as well wait on this project and do it all at once. But I suppose that it pencils out if you consider the economies that will be realized in fuel cost, reduction in air pollution, etc.

  • Mike

    Great to hear of the progress. This project has so many benefits: significantly faster commutes for tens of thousands of people each day, cleaner air, less noise pollution, increased capacity along the line, and more jobs created in multiple states throughout the US. Given the amount of economic activity that happens along the peninsula from SF to San Jose (the two cities rank #1 and #2 in the country), this project is a hugely wise investment.

  • Cliff Bargar

    Caltrain doesn’t have plans to eliminate service to 4th St.

    Even if they were, are you suggesting Caltrain not bother with electrification until there’s a plan for DTX? Or that somehow the busiest station should be excluded from electrification? Where do you want electric trains to terminate?

  • thielges

    It could have been worse. All weekend service was canceled for 18+ months while the baby bullet tracks were built. That was a hassle though the result was worth it.

  • crazyvag

    When electric service finally arrives, will Caltrain use the time savings to shorten the baby bullet trip time, or keep the run time same and simply add more stops?

  • theqin

    I don’t think Caltrain has put out any official statements, but from piecing together various documents that have published it seems like they prefer to add more stops.

    Personally I hope they shorten the trip time.

  • Bruce

    My impression was they would shorten the trip time and add one additional train per hour during the peak commute. I don’t think they could add capacity if they added more stops to the Baby Bullet.

  • Bruce

    4th & King station will be relocated underground as part of DTX.

  • theqin

    My understanding was that the main increase in capacity is due to signaling improvements (positive train control) which allows them to run trains closer together and thus increasing the number of trains per hour.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Adding and removing sections of overhead wiring doesn’t take that much effort. The fuel savings alone (at least 400 gallons of fuel for every caltrain trip) from just a week of electric train service will more than likely pay for the relatively short pantagraph lines over the 4th street station. Until funding has been figured out, running rail into the Transit Center remains a pipe dream. Delaying electrification doesn’t make any financial sense because the costs of continuing to run expensive, dirty, slow and stupid diesel locomotives is probably a magnitude more expensive than setting up temporary pantagraph lines over a terminal station.

  • Bruce

    A lot of it comes from the fact that EMUs can accelerate and decelerate much faster at stops than diesel-hauled trains.

  • Patrick Devine

    I’d also add “decrepit”. Those trains belong in the Railway Museum in Sacramento.

  • Greg Tingey

    He’s talking about rehtuglican envy & spite agaiinst public transport users, actually

  • Roger R.

    Actually, there was a museum rep at the meeting (I think it was Sac, but maybe a different one). At least some of the trains are already spoken for. And yes, they already belong in a museum.

  • Keep the Caltrain/HSR terminal at 4th/Townsend at grade and give air rights for development like many other systems across the globe do. Connect the station with the TTC and Market St. subway via an automated people mover. An underground people mover would cost billions less than DTX. An elevated people mover even less, not to mention the stunning views of the city from above the street. (Dealing with crossing under/over the freeway might be a design concern but not impossible.) This would also eliminate the need for Caltrain/HSR trains to navigate two hairpin curves to get to the TTC.

  • p_chazz

    I was thinking that the electrification should possibly wait until 2026 to avoid the expense of having to electrify the 4th Street station and then to rip it all out once the DTX is built, but as others have pointed out, there would be substantial cost benefits from electrification that would far outweigh the expense.

  • Cliff Bargar

    Yeah, the big selling point of electrification is that it’s the basic physics of the trains, not positive train control, that allows them to fit an extra train per hour in each direction

  • Cliff Bargar

    They seem to still be figuring it out as part of the business plan effort. It’ll likely be a mix of both

  • Cliff Bargar

    Yeah, that plus I’d be pleasantly surprised if DTX opened in 2026

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    That would create a cluster jam as thousands of people get off a train at once all try to board a people mover that can hold a few hundred people at most. It would be like Embarcadero bart/Muni after a ballgame happening dozens of times every single day. Most of the costs of DTX aren’t going to magically go away if they decide to use a low capacity people mover instead of high capacity heavy rail tracks.

    It’s totally nuts that they haven’t figured out how to make all trains terminate at the new transbay terminal. Caltrain Depot was never meant to be an actual transit hub, it was originally designed as a rail depot. It’s a terrible by every measurable standard of what a transit hub should be. The entire Caltrain Depot lot should be completely obliterated! Move everything to the new expensive transbay terminal that was actually meant to be a train station.

  • Andy Chow

    Caltrain isn’t going 100% electric. Diesel trains may be used for the Baby Bullet exclusively because there would be fewer stops and less acceleration and de-acceleration required, and time saving would be minimal if any. Electric trains may be used for limited stop and local trains but have larger reduction in travel time. So the gap between diesel Baby Bullet and electric locals would likely be less. People therefore may be more spread out onto other trains and even out the loads.

  • Bernard Finucane

    Welcome to the 20th century, California!


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