Eyes on the Rails: Caltrain’s First Electric Train Arrives

But it's not the shiny new train you thought it would be

There are two old Amtrak AEM-7 electric locomotives sitting in the Oakland yard. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
There are two old Amtrak AEM-7 electric locomotives sitting in the Oakland yard. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

No fanfare, and no big announcement, but Caltrain recently took a nifty little step forward in its electrification project, and it has to do with the old locomotives (seen above) parked in Oakland behind a big barbed wire fence. The locomotive in the middle (and you can see the nose of a second one to the right) is called an AEM-7. These belong to Caltrain, and are waiting to be delivered by Amtrak to Caltrain’s yard in San Francisco, via San Jose, which is currently the only way to get a train between Oakland and San Francisco (but that’s for another story).

Wait a second, you may be saying–isn’t Caltrain ordering brand new self-propelled “electric multiple unit” (EMU) trains for its fleet, not old rusty locomotives?

Indeed it is. The EMUs are currently being produced by Stadler US in Utah, as seen below:

A Caltrain EMU under construction. Photo: Caltrain's Twitter
A Caltrain EMU under construction. Photo: Caltrain’s Twitter

But Caltrain is also in the process of installing an overhead electrification system–and they need a way to test it. Imagine if Caltrain trotted out one of its shiny new EMUs, turned it on, and fried its electrical components because of a flaw in the overhead wire? Or what if they were running it down the line and snagged a pantograph (the overhead collector device that makes contact with the wire, as seen in the image below) and tore it off? Either would be an expensive fiasco.

Meanwhile, Amtrak has retired its fleet of 65 AEM-7 locomotives from the Northeast Corridor. So Caltrain picked up the two AEM-7 junkers for about $600,000, including rehab, shipping them from Delaware, and training staff to operate them. New EMUs cost about $6.25 million each. So, obviously, better to risk damage to a used, bargain AEM-7 than a brand new EMU.

“We purchased them in order to test the overhead catenary system–which will be necessary even after the launch of the electrified fleet, in case of any adjustments or repairs we make to the system. It’s much easier to test with a single loco than an entire train set,” explained Dan Lieberman, a spokesperson for Caltrain. “They should be functional, but we did budget for repairs just in case they need a little TLC after their long road trip.”

AEM-7s were, until recently, a mainstay on the Northeast corridor train line between Boston, New York, and Washington, where they regularly hauled trainloads of Metroliner passengers at 125 mph.

An AE-7 back in its glory days, here seen in New Jersey pulling a Metroliner between NYC and DC
An AEM-7 back in its glory days, here seen in New Jersey pulling a Metroliner between NYC and DC

Here’s a bit more perspective on why Caltrain’s electrification project is so important: AEM-7s, which were first built in 1978, can produce 7,000 horsepower. Caltrain’s newest diesel locomotives, built in about 2003, generate half that much, and can just about squeak over 100 mph–if conditions are perfect and there’s miles of space to accelerate. Of course, they also belch diesel pollution.

A rail fan named Mike Armstrong shot the video below, which explains a bit more about how the elderly locomotives will fit into Caltrain’s electrification plans. It also has lots of pretty shots of the locomotives traveling across the country on their way to Oakland, accompanying an Amtrak passenger train.

Caltrain has no plans to use the aged locomotives to pull trains with passengers. As Lieberman explained, Caltrain will keep some diesels in reserve to use for rescues, in case a problem arises with the electric system. “If an electric train set has a problem, we wouldn’t want to send an electric loco out. . . just for it to get stranded as well,” he said.

There are two old Amtrak AEM-7 electric locomotives sitting in the Oakland yard. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Another view of the two old Amtrak AEM-7 electric locomotives sitting in the Oakland yard (shot through a small gap in the fence). Those are standard Amtrak diesels in the foreground, AEM-7s behind them. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
  • Kieran

    Actually this is a good move by Caltrain. It keeps those 2 old electric locos for testing out the overhead wire. Plus, they will keep a few emergency present day Caltrain diesel rescue locos so they can be prepared for any potential problems with the electrified Caltrain train sets, hence towing them back to the train yard. I’m pleasantly surprised Caltrain’s showing this foresight. At any length, this might be more successful than more people, myself included, thought at first.

    The irony is, say it IS effective and works..It still won’t be bringing passengers to the Transbay Terminal til about the 2040s since it’d still be turning around at the 4th/King Caltrain Depot. Side note, the pic of the new Caltrain unit in the Stadler US factory in Utah looks real good.

  • DrunkEngineer

    $600,000 for equipment that will never be used, other than a one-time smoke-test. J.F.C. what a bunch of clowns.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    100% correct.

    Of course half a million for trash (that will cost money to dispose of!) is nothing compared to the fact that Caltrain is paying nearly TWICE the going rate for its too-few too-low-capacity non-level-boarding too-narrow too-few-seats trains, nor compared to the fact that the same Caltrain perma-temp consultants who are paying half a million for a multimeter are the same assholes who wasted over a quarter of a billion tax dollars on their own 100%$ failed signalling system.

    But the foamers love it!

    Choo choo!

    More money for Caltrain! Anybody who suggests more money isn’t the answer obviously loves cars.

  • What’s sad is it would be smarter to buy all the aem7 trains and use them here in California

  • sf in sf

    What makes you think the downtown extension has over 20 years to go?

  • Kieran

    Yea I’d like to see that happen as well, come to think of it. They’d do pretty nicely here..

  • Kieran

    Oh, just a hunch. Partly due to the fact that the long-proposed but never built DTX tunnel that should’ve been built over a decade ago STILL ain’t built yet. It would’ve began roughly before the present day Caltrain Depot at 4th/King, going under Townsend, turning left on 2nd and turning right on Minna, terminating underneath the Transbay Terminal with a state of the art terminal with 3 or 4 platforms.

    Also, I read an Examiner article published early in the year that showed a lone construction worker standing at where the Caltrain/high speed rail terminal(at least til it connects hopefully to a 2nd Transbay Tube but that’s a whole nother thread) should’ve BEEN fully constructed by now. Instead of any infrastructure at all, it was completely barren. No track/overhead wire/platforms/elevators/escalators, etc

    Then you factor in how atrociously America handles transit overall, I think about 2 more decades is a good estimate at this point in time. Though I truly hope I get proven wrong because Caltrain and high speed rail are long overdue at the Transbay Terminal.

  • HannahInManoa

    I hope they save one “Toaster” for the California State Railroad Museum and keep one on the property for fan trips. Railfans will come out west just to hear and see a “Volvo” again, you bet.

  • zoom314

    It’s better to risk $600,000.00 than $6,000,000.00, the AEM-7 is a Test Mule, a stunt double while Catenary is strung up.

    If you want to risk a brand new loco, you front the money and if something fries the loco, there goes your money… Poof!

  • zoom314

    Money for such projects like the the Gateway Tunnel in NY/NJ is being held up by the trump administration, previously it was House and Senate Republicans denying such funds…

    A lone worker is not representative and is a photo op for propaganda…

    Should have been? Ever hear of funding holdups and due process, Environmental Impact Statement blockades?
    Chao is doing the blockade stick for Her hubby Sen Mitch McConnell(R-KY)…

  • sf in sf

    As far as I know, the buildout of tracks and platforms in Transbay/Salesforce Terminal was always planned to happen in conjunction with DTX, so I don’t think it’s some kind of setback or scandal that those levels of the building are empty.

    I seem to recall reading 2026 somewhere as an estimate for DTX. To me, that’s already much too slow. I’m hopeful activist energy can get the project expedited, which could include a campaign for state legislation to speed this critical project through the EIR process among other things.

  • Negin

    Also their old diesels will be used to haul trains south of the Tamien station to Gilroy since the electrification ends at Tamien.

  • Kieran

    About the lone worker, my point is that there should’ve been a fully constructed train terminal around him in that photo, not a barren wasteland. It’s pathetic that a simple project like that for a tunnel(that easily would’ve helped 2 train systems take a helluva lot of passengers to Transbay Terminal) which wouldn’t have been more than 1.5 miles long still isn’t done over a decade after it was proposed.

    Yea, I know Trump’s withholding plenty of transportation $, plus all the other bureaucratic crap that comes along with it, such as all these hold-ups you correctly cited. Hence why I admitted that America usually doesn’t do transit good, instead making dumb decisions on a very consistent basis.

    There’s endless delays to simple and effective transit projects, which is really sad. Occam’s Razor sadly almost never gets followed by American transit agencies(except for a few smart transit agencies like Tri-Met in Portland)..Well, not for the past few decades at the very least..

  • Kieran

    You have a good point there. Until the high speed rail connects to the Gilroy section, that’ll most likely be the case.

  • Kieran

    Yea I have read a few articles made in about 2016 that did predict the DTX would be done by around 2026 or so. I easily agree that the DTX should be expedited by as many people/agencies as possible.

    Though for the life of me, I can’t find some of the articles I read over 8 years that talked about and emphasized the DTX being built basically before 2020. If I can find them at some point, I’ll shoot the links to you.

    Interestingly, I did find the wiki link of the DTX, which does include a lot of fascinating Southern Pacific history, among other things.

  • DrunkEngineer

    No locomotive is going to get fried. There is a huge industry of companies and products for doing line testing. They use the latest digital equipment, that can tell you almost anything about the OCS and whether it is operating within spec.

  • artnouveau

    I completely agree. Look at the number of electrified railroads built in the U.S. since the introduction of BART electrified heavy-rail in Sept. 1972.

    San Diego Trolley in 1981. The portion of the NEC between north of New York and Boston. The seemingly countless electrified light-rail transit systems. The Baltimore subway, completed in 1983. Electrified streetcar systems in Seattle, Portland, El Paso, Detroit, Cincinnati, Tucson, Charlotte, Kansas City (MO), Kenosha (WI), and on and on the list goes. I don’t recall there ever being a need for a test locomotive (new or used) on any of these pikes. All met spec. with no problems as far as I know.

    However, what I do recollect is that shortly after Amtrak’s “Acela” trains arrived on NEC property, they developed problems with the yaw dampers, but that problem was relatively quickly addressed.

    I am confident the Caltrain electric multiple unit trainsets will perform flawlessly as will the catenary structure that will supply electricity to them.

    Rocket science this is not.

  • Dave C

    Actually there are 12 more of the AEM-7AC’s available for lease, they could be coupled together with a diesel locomotive and run all the way from Gilroy up to the King St station. That is 7000/10,000HP while running under the wire and 3000HP when on diesel only.

    All that has to happen is CalTrain become interested

  • Affen_Theater

    SJ-Gilroy electrification hinges on a favorable outcome of ongoing negotiations between HSRA & UP, the ROW owner … and then for somebody to come up with an estimated $3b (Caltrain & HSRA don’t have it) to build and electrify 2 additional tracks paralleling UP’s nominally single-track line — which is to remain unelectrified since UP (thus far, anway) adamantly refuses to operate under wires. And if HSRA ever wisely decides to switch back to planning to enter the Bay Area via the ultra-congested Altamont/Dumbarton corridor, you can forget about HSRA ever kicking in for construction.

    In other words … don’t hold your breath!

  • Kieran

    Yea that sadly sounds like typical American ways of handling things regarding transportation in terms of UP’s attitude about not wanting to operate under overhead wires. To me, UP might as well phase in electric locomotives being that electric rail vehicles can accelerate/decelerate quicker and safer than diesels, then the obvious no pollution factor..

    I dunno how likely it is that the high speed rail route plan switches back to the Altamont corridor but at any rate, that $3billion you mentioned has almost no chance of appearing.

  • Richard

    They’ll be able to get some of that back selling them on to the next railroad looking to electrify(possibly Metrolink). Even if it’s just to the scrapyard, they will be worth something.

  • Cliff Bargar

    I don’t know if buying the AEM-7’s was a good idea or not but repairing one of the new EMUs certainly would not cost nearly as much as buying it new

  • Claude

    You should have read the article. The AEMs will be used for testing whenever any work is done on the lines. I expect them to be busy for a few years as they tweak the system.
    What they don’t mention, but I suspect, is that the traction will also be used on the MOW train, instead of feeding the expensive diesels.


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