SPUR Talk: The Future of Rail in Northern California

Electrification, unified services, Dumbarton and a Second Transbay crossing--can such big goals be realized?

A Siemens-built electric train. Could trains such as this become commonplace one day in Northern California? Photo: Wikiwand
A Siemens-built electric train. Could trains such as this become commonplace one day in Northern California? Photo: Wikiwand

Services at least every half hour that are closely coordinated, using faster, electrified light-weight passenger cars–these are all on deck for a newly envisioned integrated service that will encompass Amtraks’ Capitol Corridors, San Joaquin trains, the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) and even Caltrain in the future. “The California State Rail plan from 2018 envisions a vastly improved Altamont Corridor,” said Dan Leavitt with the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, part of a consortium of agencies looking at improved rail service between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. “We’re looking at increase frequencies and to go from Altamont across a future Dumbarton rail connection to a future Transbay station.”

ACE service is currently rush-hour, peak direction only. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
ACE service is currently rush-hour, peak direction only. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

That and many other short and long-range goals were outlined at a talk at SPUR’s San Jose location Wednesday afternoon. There will be incremental steps to improve the region’s many rail corridors, many of which have rush-hour only service. The ACE train, for example, which runs between Stockton and San Jose, currently has only four trains a day–and all run only in the peak rush-hour direction. “Most of the line is single track,” said Leavitt, explaining that ridership, despite the service limitations, has more than doubled in the last few years. “We’re at 1.5 million riders a year now, getting close to being at capacity in terms of seating… we would run more trains if we could.”

A breakdown of all the services slated for improvement under the state rail plan. Image: ACE
A breakdown of all the services slated for improvement under the state rail plan. Image: ACE

A project is now underway to extend the service to Modesto and Merced, where passengers will be able to continue to Bakersfield on the under-construction high-speed rail tracks. They’re now planning for tunnels under the Altamont Pass and Niles Canyon to enable 60 minute express runs from Stockton to San Jose. “It would be mostly grade separated, electrified, separated from freight, and capable of 125 mph,” he said. To put that in perspective, ACE currently takes over two hours.  Of course, that’s also years–and about $6 billion–off in the future. In the meantime, the agency is hoping to start Saturday service as early as next month, soon followed by seven-day-a-week service after that. And using funds granted from gas taxes, they will extend ACE to Sacramento and add stations, as shown in the map below.

A map of planned ACE service to Sacramento. Image: Valley Rail Authority
A map of planned ACE service to Sacramento. Image: Valley Rail Authority

Meanwhile, Rob Padgette of the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which operates Amtrak services between Sacramento and San Jose via Oakland, talked about a plan to shave 13 minutes off of the current run. They plan is to shift passenger service from tracks that run through Niles to existing tracks along the coast. “This will provide a really direct service to San Jose. It also unlocks tons of opportunities… we will be able to add a second track to dramatically expand our service,” he explained. That will mean shifting freight service off of the coastal tracks and onto the Niles alignment. It means Capitol Corridor trains will no longer serve Fremont and Hayward stations, which are two of their least utilized anyway. Instead, the idea is to create a single large, inter-modal station to serve the two cities, but much closer to the coast, with connecting bus services across the Dumbarton bridge to the Peninsula. “This will open up a whole new market,” he explained. They’re hoping to start construction by 2024, with funding coming from Regional Measure 3 and the gas tax, among other sources.

This will help them address surging ridership in the South Bay, which has been steadily increasing. The chart below lays it out:

Chart: Capitol Corridor
Chart: Capitol Corridor

The new alignment will also set them up for projects a bit further out on the horizon, including a restored Dumbarton rail crossing, so Capitol Corridor and/or ACE trains might one day go directly to East Palo Alto and Redwood City.

Even further out: the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority is working with BART and others on developing plans for a second Transbay crossing between Oakland and San Francisco. “The idea is that this would be a shared use, BART plus standard gauge facility that could provide a single-seat ride from Sacramento to San Francisco–and it could help Caltrain and others take advantage of this,” he explained. Such a long tunnel will require electrified service of course, but Padgette said he’s hopeful that too is coming–and that California’s commitment to renewable energies makes that almost inevitable for passenger rail and perhaps even one day for freight carriers.

(A second tube–and the redundancy it would provide–is sorely needed. As Streetsblog writes this, word just came down that Transbay service is currently suspended due to a gas leak near the West Oakland side of the tunnel.)

With so many railroads and operating agencies, who would ultimately run the new services? The hope is to make that transparent to the user. “The California State Rail Plan is an operator-neutral plan,” said Padgette. “But the idea is we’d have a much higher level of service throughout the region.”

Dan and Rob at Wednesday's SPUR talk in San Jose. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Dan Leavitt and Rob Padgette at Wednesday’s SPUR talk in San Jose. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    The problem is these agencies simply don’t know how to build. Caltrain is apparently erecting fewer than 2 electric poles per day … and they have 2250 left to go. Why don’t they just have more crews working on the job? I assure you that Swiss train in your photo wasn’t built one pole at a time by three guys. They do it with hundreds and hundreds of people on one job and lots of heavy equipment, because they value the public’s time. Until our agencies learn to build, we’re screwed, and unfortunately they probably cannot learn it on the job. We need to fire everyone and import foreign project managers.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Rob Padgette of the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which operates Amtrak services between Sacramento and San Jose via Oakland, talked about a plan to shave 13 minutes off of the current run.

    This plan by the Capital Corridor is idiotic. It would cost $200 million, all to save a whopping 13 minutes, while adding just a couple new train slots. Even with the time savings, it will still be considerably slower than the BART-SJ extension.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Only the price tag is stupid. There’s nothing fundamentally erroneous about two parallel railroads separated by a few miles.

  • Swiss train, Chinese train, etc. All are leaps and bounds better than anything this country has to offer, not just in the Bay Area. However, you’d think the tech capital (I’ve heard it called that) would be way ahead in transit development and cutting edge technologies than say other cities. But, no. Worse, in fact. If you think erecting poles for future electrification is painful to watch, just look at any of the many escalators out of service in the BART system and see how quickly they are fixed.

    To the editor: there’s nothing “free” in Freemont. Please correct.

  • And how many hundreds of millions will be spent on BRT in the city that will do very little to speed up commutes on Geary and Van Ness?

  • Roger R.

    It’s a screen grab from a Capitol Corridor presentation. I can let them know though.

  • crazyvag

    Some people complain that congestion slows down transit too much and then hera are these comments that speeding up transit and insulating it from cars are a waste of money.

    Well, which is it guys?

  • Alex

    It will be interesting to see who does end up offering service under the bay. As the article states, the tunnel will probably be electrified, meaning that any agency using it will need electric or dual mode locomotives. Based on current projects, it seems like Caltrain will be most fit to provide service under the bay utilizing the second Transbay tube. It would be nice if we could electrify all the way up to Sacramento but that would be decades away.

  • backup

    Mark, Something to keep in mind, China and the Swiss don’t have to deal with land owners as we do here in CA. There is a very long and expensive process to procure land from it’s owners who are not interested in putting it up for sale. Cost of labor in China… need I say more? there’s quite a bit of expertise that goes into high-speed and that’s a whole other animal.

  • John French

    Even before a new tube is built it should be possible to ride across the bay by transferring to BART at Millbrae (today) or Transbay/Montgomery (…some day… maybe?) and then to trains to points North at Richmond, or points South at Coliseum.

    That the BART system is technologically incompatible with mainline rail is irrelevant. There’s no reason they couldn’t operate under the same ticketing system and have coordinated transfers. Much of the plan could be achieved without any construction at all, just better coordination between agencies.

    As the Germans say, “Organisation vor Elektronik vor Beton” – organisation before electronics before concrete.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Normally I might agree, but the only destination “separated by a few miles” would be the proposed Newark station — waaay out by the salt ponds.

  • This is a problem with infrastructure build in America in general, not just CA. It really comes down to the mindset that the auto is supreme and transit is inferior.

  • relentlesscactus

    What are you talking about? 13 minutes shaved off a schedule is HUGE. And the Capitol Corridor is MUCH faster than BART. You are acting as if you are a drunk engineer of something.

  • crazyvag

    Caltrain electrification is split into 4 projects, of those 4, only 2 are in progress. Pace will pick up once all 4 sections are working at full speed. If you pay attention, you’ll observe that utilities are being rerouted along Alma on the east side of tracks.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    When you figure in the headways, BART is a lot faster. If you are at Oakland JLS at 08:55 you won’t get to San Jose until 15:18. BART will save you about five and a half hours there.

  • relentlesscactus

    OK, that’s one way to look at it . . .

  • relentlesscactus


    Why don’t they just have more crews working on the job?
    — It’s called “keeping the dream alive”, when there really isn’t any money.

  • You won’t find any bus line in the world that spends more money to move more people at a slower average speed than Muni. Operating slow and inefficient bus service is extremely costly. On long and constantly packed bus lines like the 49, speeding up the average speed by just a couple minutes is equal to removing an entire bus from service without affecting the capacity.

    BRT will drastically speed up people’s commutes because those buses are currently spending more time not moving people then they are moving people. Buses always should have right of way. It doesn’t make any sense to spend the insane amounts of money we’re spending to run glacially slow and inefficient bus service. A bus packed with 70+ people should never have to yield to a few dozen drivers blocking their way.

    The fact that some people are actually arguing to keep Muni buses running slow and inefficient is mind boggling.

  • Cutting 26 minutes off your commute each day is significant. That’s about 1/10 the cost of Caltrain’s electrification project.

    If you read a little further, you’d learn Capitol Corridor isn’t just doing this to speed up service and add a few more trains per day; it’s the start of something bigger:

    “This will provide a really direct service to San Jose. It also unlocks tons of opportunities… we will be able to add a second track to dramatically expand our service,”

    It doesn’t seem as shortsighted as you suggested.

  • Another SPUR discussion. Yawn.

    In the 19 years I’ve been in SF, I’ve seen very little accomplished, much less planned. Just talk.

  • Kieran

    Your opening sentence in your post is extremely true. To your valid point on how slow the 49 is, I think that while the 49 needs to be and can be sped up some, the only way this BRT thing will truly succeed is if the 49 gets complete priority over all other traffic on Van Ness ave.

    Here’s an idea I’ve had for years to speed up the 49 in the Inner Mission which will in turn speed up both the 14 local and Rapid lines. Say you’re on the 49 going southbound toward City College. Instead of the bus turning right onto Mission st at the South Van Ness/Mission st intersections, the 49 would stay on South Van Ness, then taking Howard st all the way to 26th st.

    The 49 would turn right on 26th and then left onto Mission to continue south to City College. 49s headed north toward Aquatic Park would zig zag along 25th st en route to South Van Ness with a right onto 25th and left onto South Van Ness.

    It’d stop every 2 blocks along South Van Ness. That way both BART stations which are on even numbered streets will be served. South Van Ness already has trolleycoach wire in place and is bigger than Mission which means it can handle more traffic. The only infrastructure needed are a handful of Muni bus shelters at the even numbered intersections, starting at 14th st and ending at 26th st.

  • Duncan

    Not sure where you get this. JLS departs at 8:52, arrives San Jose at 10:13.

  • Duncan

    It sounds like it’s going to be built up pretty heavily long before the station is built. (Assuming I have this right.) https://www.eastbaytimes.com/2012/11/09/newark-rezones-land-for-housing-in-one-of-east-bays-many-transit-oriented-developments/

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