Caltrain Electrification Zooms Along in Prop 6’s Shadow

This month began weekend closures as electrification work continues

Poles in the ground at San Bruno station.... tangible evidence of Caltrain's electrification program. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Poles in the ground at San Bruno station.... tangible evidence of Caltrain's electrification program. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Caltrain is back to full service after this weekend’s closure of its four tunnels in San Francisco. The railroad is closing the tunnels–and suspending weekend service to 4th and King Street station–every weekend through the spring, as part of work to repair tracks and add brackets and string wire for the Caltrain electrification project.

On weekends, SamTrans is providing bus bridges between San Francisco, 22nd Street Station, and Bayshore Station. As previously reported, work inside the tunnels and the weekend service disruptions between San Francisco and Bayshore Station are expected to last through March 17 of 2019. There’s one exception: tunnels will be open the first weekend of January.

From Caltrain’s update page about this round of work inside the tunnels:

Crews will perform grouting and drilling work in the tunnels as well as notching work to provide additional clearance for the new electric trains. Crews will also perform potholing work outside of the tunnels. Weekend tunnel work will be around the clock from Friday evening to Monday morning. Weekday work will be from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.

It’s now possible to see the results of the ongoing work, with potholing and foundations for electrical masts going up all along the corridor. The infrastructure is especially visible in areas from South San Francisco to Millbrae (which includes San Bruno, as seen in the lead image, and on other parts of the line, as seen below).

Photo: Sergio Ruiz
Caltrain electrification is really taking shape… a mast and wire seen here between Millbrae and San Bruno. Photo: Sergio Ruiz

Poles and wires are now a common sight between San Bruno and Millbrae, with more going up all the time. The project is moving quickly after a very rocky road to get federal financing in place.

Caltrain’s $1.9 billion electrification project, which includes overhauling the signal and train control systems, installing power substations, putting in poles and stringing overhead wire and buying new, off-the-shelf electric rolling stock, is on schedule to be operational by 2022.

Unfortunately, should Prop. 6 pass next week, Caltrain won’t be able to fully exploit the electrified infrastructure when it’s completed. As previously reported, Seamus Murphy of the San Mateo County Transit District explained that cuts under Prop. 6 would reduce the number of electric trains that Caltrain can buy. The funds that Prop. 6 eliminates “allows us to fully convert the Caltrain system to electric trains, and instead of operating six-car electric trains we could operate seven-car trains,” he said. (For perspective, currently Caltrain runs five or six passenger cars per train).

That’s because Prop. 6 would cancel out $164.5 million in S.B. 1 funds that are part of a package to purchase Caltrain’s fleet of electric multiple unit trains, in addition to providing WiFi, and increasing bike parking at stations, said Dan Lieberman, a spokesman for Caltrain.

That’s yet another reason that all advocates for better transit, including the publishers of Streetsblog, are urging a “no” vote on Prop. 6. “Polling on Proposition 6, which would ax funding for longer electric Caltrain trains (and other essential transit and transportation funding), is mixed and worrisome,” wrote Friends of Caltrain’s Adina Levin, in the Green Caltrain blog.

For more information on Prop. 6, check out the “no” campaign web page.

For more information on the tunnel work, visit

The top half of one of Caltrains new train cars, at the factory in Utah. If Prop. 6 passes, Caltrain won't be able to fully electrify its fleet of trains. Photo: Stadler US
The top half of one of Caltrains new train cars at the factory. If Prop. 6 passes, Caltrain won’t have enough to run full-length trains. Photo: Stadler US
  • robo94117

    It’s shameful that this wasn’t done 20 years ago, along with the downtown extension. This should be prioritized over frivolous and expensive freeway projects.

  • Roland Lebrun

    Fact check:
    1) The factory in the picture is in Switzerland, not Utah.
    2) The 7-car EMUs have 12 (twelve) seats more than a 5-car Bombardier set and approximately 120 seats less than a 6-car (soon to be 7) Bombardier set.

  • Roland Lebrun

    With regards to “$164.5 million in S.B. 1 funds that are part of a package to purchase Caltrain’s fleet of electric multiple unit trains”, things are slightly more complicated than that: (slide 3)

    Specifically, the contract with Stadler includes an option for 96 additional cars with a value of USD 385 million ($4M/unit)

    Caltrain is proposing to purchase an additional 37 units, so the total cost should be $148M, not $183,138,000, so the question is what is going to happen to the additional $35M(?)

  • LazyReader

    For the same 1.9 billion they could have bought an entire electric bus fleet. 2,000 buses, serving a far greater geographic range

  • Bruce

    And stuck in far greater traffic.

  • Roger R. That’s not Utah? I was just looking over the Caltrain photos and in one shot the car is on a flat bed that’s clearly built to US standards. Why do you say the other photo is in Switzerland?

  • Brian Peoples

    waste of money. Spend it on buses and infrastructure that improves traffic flow…

  • 94103er

    Do you take the bus? I do. Try taking the 49 or one of those unglamorous workhorse buses along potholed messes of streets like Mission.

    Buses are not and never will be equivalent to rail.

  • Edward

    Brian is a person from Santa Cruz who has a lifetime allergy to anything with a rail. I think he even has difficulties in his local watering hole.

  • crazyvag

    But they also have significantly more space for standees, enable transition to high platforms with provisions for doors on two levels, and significantly higher acceleration to enable more frequent service.

    It’s true that the Swiss design is not as space efficient, but part of that is also due to many locomotion parts that are now distributed along the cars.

  • crazyvag

    Your comment is completely unrelated that you’re either very uninformed or trolling.

  • Roland Lebrun

    The picture in the original blog post shows the KISS FACTORY in Alterheim while the picture you posted shows a fully assembled Caltrain shell shipped from the east coast to the Salt Lake ASSEMBLY FACILITY (Caltrain KISS carshells are fully assembled and painted in Switzerland prior to shipping).

  • Roland Lebrun

    They would have even more room for standees once they remove another 20 seats per railcar to open the other set of doors which fortunately will never happen (the stupid “high platforms for high speed rail” died over a year ago).

    With regards to your second point, Bombardier, Hitachi and others have figured out how to distribute components throughout their trainsets without encroaching on passenger space.

  • Roland Lebrun goes from Diridon to TRANSBAY in one hour and five minutes for half the cost of a Baby Bullet to 4th & King.

  • Roland Lebrun

    These 2 slides highlight the extent of the impending catastrophe (the existing 5-car trains have 650 seats and the 6-car trains have 760). Please note that these passenger counts were inexplicably taken during the low season (February) (slides 15 and 16)

  • Brian Peoples

    94103er – I have owned a bus company. I have written a State bill on giving commuters tax credits. I have been involved in transportation for over 20 years. The fact is, what makes a train desirable over a bus is it doesn’t have to sit in traffic like a bus – it has its own dedicated path. So the argument is about using the corridor. Rubber-wheels on asphalt work fine on the Coastal Corridor. We do not need fixed rails.

  • crazyvag

    Weren’t passenger counts always taken in February for as long as we can remember? I’m not sure why, maybe they wanted counts that are not skewed by baseball games or holidays? As long as they consistent and compareble across years that’s enough for planning since ridership totals can be adjusted for peak summer months. I agree that a high season month would be better, but there also might be challenges in maintaining accuracy on a peak train.

    Regardless, the new trains have automatic passenger counters, so there’ll be better data in the future.

  • crazyvag

    I agree with you. Stadler does have one of the less efficient layouts, but we also have to accept that transition to level boarding will come at costs of seats. Given all the prior drama, I’m happy that HSR and Caltrain came to an agreement on a way to share platforms with level boarding. And trains that will be purchased in 2050 will have more seats because by then, we’re likely to have level boarding and everyone will figure out how to pack equipment better.

  • davravidumn

    Brian Peoples: Rubber wheels on asphalt are not and never will be as efficient as steel wheels on rail.

  • davravidumn

    Roland Lebrun: High-speed rail will cut SJ-SF bus travel time in half. Or better.

  • davravidumn

    robo94117: Amen to that!

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    Waste of money? Running dirty slow and stupid diesel locomotives is a waste of money. The cost savings of operating electric locomotives pays for itself in less than 5 years. The entire trans-siberian railroad that crosses 13 times zones is electric, because electric locomotives are way way way faster, cleaner, more efficient, quieter, and much cheaper to operate. The Caltrain Diesel locomotives are expensive dinosaurs the spew more pollution up and down people’s back yards than 2 coal burning power plants. Toxic soot is clearly visible near every Caltrain overpass, and you can smell the stench of these things minutes after a train has passed.

    And yet you think retiring these dirty dinosaurs and replacing them with something that’s cleaner cheaper and faster to operate is a waste of money? Caltrain does improve traffic flow; carrying more people each day than 2 lanes of I-280. WIth electric conversion they’ll be able to increase their capacity 4x for the same budget because the electric trains are cheaper to run and they accelerate much faster.

  • Brian Peoples

    Ziggy Tomcich – so your saying Caltrain has provided a ROI document that has payback in less than 5 years? If so, great. Definitely upgrade. I suspect it doesn’t exist – it is just a feel good moment. But – I may wrong. Now I do believe they should remove old polluting engines with modern engines – but they will likely remain diesel. I think the cost of electrification is not justified operationally – nor “return on reducing pollution” – in other words – reducing pollution is more effective in other investments.

  • Brian Peoples

    davravidumn – agree – but it only makes a difference if you are travelling fast and long distances. For Caltrains, it makes since to have metal-wheels on rails….

  • Roland Lebrun
  • Roland Lebrun

    The “busines case” for Stadler disappeared at the same time as this crazy requiremnent for two sets of doors at different heights.

    With regards to high speed rail, the fastest wheels on steel train in the World is the TGV duplex, a double-decker fully compatible with Caltrain’s proposed level-boarding platforms.

  • crazyvag

    Total random thought, but assuming there’s equipment available, is there a reason why Caltrain couldn’t run a train 366B that departs 5 mins after 366?
    There’s proven demand for that service, so It would visit the same stops. That would also ensure it doesn’t catch up to first train, but still close enough to ensure to not slow down following service. Of course, this would only work for baby bullets that don’t pass a local at Lawrence or Bayshore.

  • thielges

    Hundreds or rail lines have converted to electric. They didn’t convert just for the fun of it, they did it to reduce costs and improve service. I don’t understand why you would think that Caltrain’s situation is different from other railways.

  • Brian Peoples

    thielges – show the ROI. I believe it is to save the earth and not cost effective…

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    The diesel dinosaures Caltrain is currently running were designed for huge freight trains, not short passenger trains. Electric trains, aside from being much cleaner do offer faster acceleration and huge fuel, maintenance and logistics savings. Once Caltrain is electrified, they’ll be able to run 12 trains an hour on those tracks, and it will generate less noise and less pollution and cost less to operate (excluding crew costs) then the expensive dinosaures Caltrain is currently using. There’s lots of detailed tech info about Caltrain and HSR at the caltrain compatibility blog, which is great reading if you’re into such things, even a sample hourly schedule of what electrified train service can provide:

  • Brian Peoples

    Ziggy Tomcich – thanks – sounds like good things. I am sure we didn’t need to electrify it to achieve many of those benefits – new diesel engines would be fine. Don’t get me started on California HSR boondoggle. What a waste of time and money. The problem with HSR is we are spending billions on a commute from LA to SF. Much more effective to spend billions on local traffic problems.

  • Roger R.

    Okay. I took out Utah from the caption.

  • Roland Lebrun

    This is incorrect:

    1) Grade separation is required to run more than 6 trains/hour (NOTHING to do with electrification). Example in point: access to UCSF via 16th Street, hence the so-called “Pennyslvania Avenue” extension.

    2) This may come as BIG surprise but Caltrain are projecting substantially higher operating expenses after electrification.

  • Roland Lebrun
  • Roland Lebrun

    How about clearly stating that this is the Altenrhein factory in Switzerland?
    “On 5 September 2018 the first bodyshells for the first CalTrain KISS EMU arrived from Switzerland (Altenrhein) at Stadler’s new Salt Lake City works for a final assembly.”

    Here is a picture of the first two cars arriving at the Utah “final assembly” works (the Caltrain paint scheme is clearly visible under the shrink wrap).

  • Roland Lebrun

    You are on the right track (pun intended). The issue is with gate downtimes making it impossible to operate more than 6 trains/hour during peak until the Peninsula is fully grade-separated (30+years @ +/- $10B).$!26Traffic+Analysis-Final.pdf

    There are (at least) two potential solutions:
    1) Incentivize off-peak travel
    2) Double the length of Baby Bullet station platforms to 1,400 feet to double train capacity during peak for less than the cost of a single grade separation.

    Caltrain’s “solution” is to eliminate the “artificial” demand introduced by the Baby Bullet service:

  • Roland Lebrun

    Stadler do build fine trains but “Stadler” and “efficient layout” is an oxymoron: as you can see from the attached snapshot, 6-car EMUs have approximately 300 fewer seats (473) than a 6-car Bombardier (760)

    Please note the atrocious bike capacity (64 bikes/train, NOT 72!) (page 15)

  • Brian Peoples

    Roland Lebrun – thank you. Honestly, I don’t pay too much attention to Caltrain debate — I am Executive Director of and we are battling the “Train People” who are trying to shove a boondoggle train in our Santa Cruz community. This is good information.

  • Neil.C

    Rest of the developed world has mostly electrified trains, we are the odd one out, even Australia has a ton of them at least on their commuter systems.


A rendering of the Transbay terminal with Caltrain and HSR. Image: Transbay Authority

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