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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Caltrain launches major renovations Caltrain launches major renovations (July 10, 2002)

**Electrification of the system is in doubt; key decision set for July 11.

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

The Peninsula railroad has come a long way since the first choo-choo puffed down the Peninsula 139 years ago. This week Caltrain, which now runs 80 trains a day and carried 10 million riders last year, is embarking on its largest-ever improvement project.

The $100 million CTX construction project aims to convert Caltrain into a modern commuter rail system with a new traffic-control system, smoother rails, and "Baby Bullet" express trains that will whisk riders between San Francisco and San Jose past slower local trains in half the time.

However, warning signals are flashing for electrification of the 77-mile line; this is the next key phase of the program to make Caltrain into a thoroughly modern railroad.

The Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which controls Santa Clara County funds for the three-county Joint Powers Board (JPB) that runs Caltrain, is facing a deficit. It has announced it cannot afford its $2.8 million share to complete the environmental impact report on electrifying the 77-mile line.

Peninsula rail officials are scrambling to find the money from other sources, before the JPB makes a budget decision on electrification at its next meeting on Thursday, July 11. (The meeting starts at 10 a.m. at SamTrans headquarters, 1250 San Carlos Ave. in San Carlos.)

While no money had been secured by press time, officials remained determined. "It's going to be solved," said San Mateo Mayor Sue Lempert, San Mateo County's representative on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

The launching of the 22-month CTX construction project June 28 was a gala celebration. "This is a watershed event in Caltrain history. The Baby Bullet of today is the Caltrain of tomorrow," said San Mateo County Supervisor and JPB Chair Mike Nevin at the kickoff event in San Francisco. He, Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, other officials and rail buffs then rode the railroad's first "Baby Bullet" two-level car to South San Francisco.

"This will take 30,000 vehicles a day off 101 and 280, and it will be done in three years," said Sen. Speier, who carried the legislation to fund the $127 million Baby Bullet express service, which is expected to start running trains by the end of next year.

Meanwhile, weekend travelers and residents near some of the construction areas will be inconvenienced over 22 months of construction. Starting July 6, there are no more weekend trains for the duration of the project. Crews will work Thursday nights, and around the clock from 9 p.m. Fridays until 4 a.m. Mondays.

During construction, SamTrans will offer limited-stop bus service -- called RRX -- on weekends between San Francisco and San Jose. It will also run express buses for games at Pacific Bell Park on weekends.

The CTX improvements are fully funded by Sen. Speier's legislation. Starting this week, the first phase will make improvements from San Francisco to Menlo Park. The second phase, which will carry improvements from Palo Alto to San Jose, will go out to bid this summer.

Besides track improvements, new crossovers, and rebuilding some stations, grade crossings, and a bridge, CTX will focus on two major projects necessary for express service:

** A new central traffic control system will allow trains to be switched from track to track from a central location. No longer will conductors have to get out and throw switches by hand, Supervisor Nevin commented.

** Several miles of bypass tracks will be built to allow Baby Bullet express trains to zip by slower local trains, reducing travel time between San Francisco and San Jose to less than an hour. About four miles of passing tracks will be built: in the Brisbane area, in Redwood City between Fifth and Chestnut avenues, and in Santa Clara County.

Sen. Speier sees this project as a precursor to high-speed rail from Southern California. With California population still growing, "We can't continue to grow by growing highways," she said.
Next big thing

If the JPB finds the money to complete the Environmental Impact Report for electrifying Caltrain, electric trains could be running as early as 2006, said JPB member Art Lloyd of Portola Valley.

"We're a third-world country when it comes to public transit," Mr. Lloyd said. "In Europe all trains are electrified. Even the Trans-Siberian Railroad is electrified."

Electric trains are cleaner, quieter, cheaper, and faster than diesel trains, JPB members say. In addition, electrification is necessary if the Peninsula railroad is ever to be extended through a tunnel into downtown San Francisco and the TransBay Terminal, where it can connect with other regional transportation lines. "You couldn't send a diesel locomotive through that tunnel," said Supervisor Nevin.

Nevertheless, the VTA in Santa Clara County has a huge deficit. Hit hard by the Silicon Valley slump, its sales tax revenues are down, and its fares from riders are down, said Public Information Officer John Pilger. The VTA has reduced service, raised fares, and is laying off 10 percent of its staff. Money from its new sales tax, approved in 2000, doesn't come in until 2006.

"We still support electrification in concept. We don't have the funds," Mr. Pilger said.

Supervisor Nevin worries that if Santa Clara County can't come up with the money now, it will have problems down the road when the three counties have to come up with at least part of the $600 million needed to electrify the system.

"It's a cop-out," he said. "We're talking about an EIR. It's a small, small amount of money. This could be an indication of problems we are going to have with Santa Clara County year-in and year-out. San Mateo County can't do it all."

Mr. Lloyd and Menlo Park Mayor Steve Schmidt are worried that Santa Clara County will use its money for BART rather than Caltrain. "The real thing in this pickle is their commitment to BART," said Mr. Schmidt.


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