Caltrain rethinks relationship with high-speed rail

Agency considers other ways to electrify trains, close structural budget deficit

A recent decision to start California's high-speed-rail line in Central Valley has prompted Caltrain to reconsider its seven-year-old partnership with the agency overseeing the controversial rail project, Caltrain officials said at a Town Hall meeting in Palo Alto Tuesday morning (May 17).

Santa Clara Supervisor Liz Kniss, who sits on Caltrain's governing board, hosted the meeting in Palo Alto City Hall to update the community about Caltrain's ongoing financial struggles and its efforts to electrify the financially troubled train system. But the discussion also touched on California's controversial high-speed-rail project, a sore subject in Palo Alto and around the Peninsula.

The high-speed-rail line is slated to stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and to pass through the Peninsula along the Caltrain corridor. In 2004, four years before California voters approved a $9 billion bond for the new rail line, the rail authority and Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which oversees Caltrain, entered into an agreement to work together on the new rail line. The parties amended the agreement in 2009, after the bond's passage.

The arrangement seemed like a win-win situation. The rail authority needed Caltrain's right-of-way to make the system work, while Caltrain officials saw the rail project as a possible way to electrify the popular but cash-strapped system. But with high-speed rail facing its own financial challenges, as well as increasing skepticism from Peninsula residents, Caltrain is giving this partnership a second thought.

At Tuesday's meeting, several audience members questioned Caltrain's partnership with the rail authority and encouraged the JPB to take a more assertive stance. Palo Alto resident Hinda Sack said Caltrain should have a greater say in its partnership with the rail authority.

Kniss, a former Palo Alto mayor, said the relationship between the agencies has always been tentative and subject to changes.

"It's like many arrangements," Kniss said. "I'd call it, maybe they were in the engagement phase.

"Caltrain got the ring but never got a wedding band."

Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, said his agency entered into a partnership with the rail authority because it felt the high-speed-rail project could help it achieve the ultimate goal of electrifying the Caltrain system, a goal that he and Kniss say is necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the popular commuter service.

He also said Caltrain has been "rethinking our relationship with high-speed rail" since the rail authority approved a plan to start the line in Central Valley. The plan has prompted many legislators, watchdogs and concerned citizens to wonder whether the Peninsula segment will ever get built. On the bright side, the plan created a welcome reprieve for many Peninsula officials, including the Palo Alto City Council, who felt the project is moving too fast and in the wrong direction.

"I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the money went to Central Valley and we had ourselves a little more time to reach these decisions and think about what we can do," Simon told the audience Tuesday morning.

Some on the Peninsula still hope the high-speed-rail line and Caltrain can work together. Last month, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, proposed a plan in which high-speed rail and Caltrain would "blend" on the Peninsula. The plan calls for an electrified Caltrain system that would serve high-speed-rail passengers on the San Jose-to-San Francisco segment of the line.

The plan met a cool reception at the most recent meeting of the rail authority's board of directors. Several members, including board Chair Curt Pringle, suggested that the proposal could be little more than an attempt by Peninsula legislators to take money from the high-speed rail and use it for Caltrain's needs.

For Caltrain, the uncertainty over the Peninsula segment means it has to look for other ways to raise the roughly $1.5 billion needed to electrify the system. The three partnering agencies have already set aside $269 million for the project and expect to receive about $350 million more in grants. Even so, Caltrain is still looking for about $640 million to make electrification possible, said Marian Lee, Caltrain's executive officer for planning and development.

The capital project is one of two major funding challenges the agency is wrestling with. Caltrain, which has no permanent, dedicated funding sources, is facing a structural budget gap of about $30 million. The shortfall can be attributed largely to decreases in voluntary contributions from the three partner agencies that support the commuter service -- the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Simon and Kniss said Tuesday that switching Caltrain from diesel to electricity would reduce emissions by 90 percent as well as cut down noise. The agency also hopes to install "positive train controls" -- a GPS-based signal system that will allow Caltrain to run more trains and further boost its ridership.

Caltrain has already completed a draft Environmental Impact Report for the electrification project and hopes to certify the state-mandated document this summer.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by keithw
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on May 18, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Is this a tiny ray or reality in the unrealistic, over-optimistic and wrong-headed plans for high-speed rail? Or is it just that their plans are so laughable that no one can take them seriously?

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on May 18, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Mucking about in the Chaotic Mud of Caltrain/High-Speed Rail

Dealing with the never-ending travails of Caltrain and its ambiguous relationship with High-Speed Rail is a task I take on with reluctance. It's a distraction from the mega-billion dollar high-speed rail project in California which requires full daily attention.

So, let's say certain basic things right up front.

Caltrain does not need electrification. That's merely posturing. Regardless of what they say, it will not solve their operating deficit problem. Furthermore, it reflects the misconception that Caltrain sustains in its vision of its business model.

Caltrain believes it is in the railroad business. Adding more bells and whistles to their trains, such as electrification, etc. will give them fancier, more up-to-date trains, but will not address the key problem of ridership and commuter rail access.

What they fail to grasp is that they are actually in the public mass transit commuter business, regardless of the technology, which is merely the Means, not the End. Their mission is a public utility service dedicated to moving the most people possible.

They confuse that with being in the railroad business, as if the trains are what their purpose for existence is. It's not; it's the people they move that justifies their existence. And they could and should be much better at it.

Caltrain is merely one element and should be an integrated element of a Bay Area wide commuter transit service. It is now only an unintegrated component of the Bay Area public transit service that fails to be a fully coordinated network.

For example, it competes with, rather than being tightly connected and integrated with, BART. Caltrain has not solved the first and last mile problem for its customers. One small step in that direction, for example, is being highly receptive to bike riders and their bikes; not hostile. That change is taking place and is to be commended. In addition, every train station needs adequate parking.

Those who persist in thinking that driving or Caltrain use is an either/or proposition don't grasp the realities of how most people commute. All transit is multi-modal. Caltrain should facilitate that.

Caltrain should be working like crazy to connect all of its train stations, converting them to "transit stations," where other modalities like buses and shuttles bring train riders to and from their origination point. What Caltrain fails to do is integrate itself into a much larger arterial network of multi-modal transit that spreads, like a web, all over the Bay Area.

Caltrain reeks of mis-management and should, as an ambiguously multi-layered organization, be terminated. But there must be a Peninsula Commuter Rail component closely coupled with the Bay Area transit network. And that's where all the current discussions fail. They don't address the problem at its source.

All the so-called "Friends of Caltrain" want to do is to put Caltrain on a money IV drip so that it can continue in its catatonic state of suspended animation. That's no solution to either its structural operating fund deficiencies, or its capital improvement upgrades. Electrification sounds so progressive and innovative, but the substantive upgrades are less a hardware problem than a systems integration problem.

Indeed, DEMUs can solve the rolling stock upgrades at far lower costs and can be gradually integrated in more cost-effective ways. We've discussed this previously. Let's put that another way, the fallacy in the reasoning about Caltrain's salvation is that there is too much focus on capital development investment and not enough on systems integration. What Caltrain is unable to do is subordinate itself into a larger, comprehensive transit Bay Area wide network. It's not a Peninsula problem; it's a Bay Area problem.

Now, back to the major concerns about high-speed rail. If that issue goes away, Caltrain's problem will be much easier to understand and resolve.

Like this comment
Posted by Will B
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on May 18, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Martin E. you are mistaken that Caltrain doesn't need electrification. Bottom line is the bottom line Martin and electrifying the system will not only reduce noise and pollution along the line, (where do you live Martin?) but will also help the "blend" proposal with HSR that was submitted by local rail officials and Simitian, Eshoo, et al. Thank goodness they gave the money to the valley, let them deal with the mess and mayhaps we will learn what works and what doesn't. And Martin, don't stick your head in the ground and hope HSR will go ain't going nowhere but forward, for better of for worse. Oh, and making Caltrain stations "transit stations" and putting more "buses and shuttles" on the road...You are joking aren't you??? Like we more diesel exhausted on the roads.

Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of another community
on May 18, 2011 at 6:59 pm

I agree with your thoughts on the last mile problem, but I disagree with your analysis. The Caltrain web site lists dozens of shuttles, and Caltrain helps pay for some of them. I agree that there should be more shuttles and transit connections, but it makes more sense to me for VTA and SamTrans (bus operators) to provide that instead of Caltrain. They are supporting Caltrain financially, so why not support it with shuttles. They are doing so to a certain extent, but should do more. One of BART's biggest flaws is that the system was designed for riders to drive to stations surrounded by massive parking lots. Caltrain isn't nearly as bad, but I don't think it is fair to put all the burden and blame on them for not doing better.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Couple brings Chinese zongzi to Mountain View
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 5,694 views

Summer Cooking Classes - Free!
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 1,590 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 6 comments | 1,248 views

More Bad News: Downtown Parking Will Get Much Worse
By Dana Hendrickson | 11 comments | 1,124 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 988 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More