Will Caltrain Electrification Win Out Despite the California GOP?

Commuters in San Jose lining up to board Caltrain. The modernization project is expected to help the railroad carry 40,000 more passengers in the years ahead. Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr
Commuters in San Jose lining up to board Caltrain. The modernization project is expected to help the railroad carry 40,000 more passengers in the years ahead. Photo: Richard Masoner/Flickr

The electrification of commuter rail service between San Jose and San Francisco was all but ready to begin construction when Donald Trump’s transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, pulled the rug out from under the project earlier this month.

Chao delayed signing a $637 million federal grant agreement, responding to Republican state lawmakers looking to kill the tangentially related California High-Speed Rail project. The delay isn’t a minor inconvenience — with contract deadlines looming, it could hike costs and kill the badly needed modernization of regional rail in one of the country’s fastest-growing job markets.

A cheaper alternative, switching to electric locomotives, is no substitute for full electrification, which not only enables faster acceleration but is also essential for the transition to level boarding, notes Adina Levin at Green Caltrain.

Local officials are trying to adjust on the fly to salvage the project, Levin reports:

At Thursday’s Local Policymaker Working Group, Caltrain government affairs staffer Casey Fromson said that the agency was negotiating with its contractors to extend the March 1 deadline locking in the offers to electrify the line and purchase electric rail cars. If the deadline isn’t modified, Caltrain would need to renegotiate the prices and terms, putting the project at risk.

As readers likely know, the project is under pressure because Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao deferred approving the high-ranked project to wait for the Trump Administration budget. [Editor’s note: A budget outline is expected to be released today and include broad cuts to make way for increased military spending.]

The Local Policy Maker Working Group is a body with representatives from all of the cities on the Caltrain line that weighs in on topics relating to Caltrain modernization and the blended system with high speed rail. Live tweets from the meeting are storified here.

Thursday’s meeting was hosted by the High Speed Rail Authority, with CHSRA CEO Jeff Morales in town and presiding. Morales declared his strong support for Caltrain electrification and expressed confidence that the threatened projects would continue; “big projects survive many near-death experiences.” The authority showed a video illustrating how 80% of the 1000 construction jobs in the Central Valley are held by local workers, reducing unemployment in the area. On Friday, Governor Jerry Brown proposed the High Speed Rail project — along with flood protection and highway projects in the Central Valley as infrastructure projects for President Trump’s budget, countering California’s Central Valley reps efforts to harm High Speed Rail.

Streetsblog San Francisco reports a petition is circulating to save Caltrain funds. Meanwhile, Streetsblog California says the reporting that set off this controversy — an L.A. Times story about CAHSR — was “irresponsible.”

  • Aubrey

    When CalTrain took HSR money to electrify, they ceased being “tangentially related”

  • LoudRambler

    Point is, Caltrain is funded mostly by Feds – in addition to now suspended 649 million grant, there’s another grant for 329 million under another program – with the rest of the funding predominantly coming under High Speed Rail financing: 600 million in high speed rail bonds, with another 150 million under other HSR financing. If for some reason HSR folds, then there’s not enough committed money to complete anything, and Feds are already on hook for 1 billion.

    The local governments provided 250 million, which is not nearly enough to guarantee anything.

    https://www.transit.dot.gov/sites/fta.dot.gov/files/docs/CA%20San%20Carlos%20Caltrain%20Peninsula%20Corridor%20Electrification%20Project%20Profile.pdf

    Note that Bay area is already a very rich beneficiary of federal transit funding with other projects:

    https://www.transit.dot.gov/funding/grant-programs/capital-investments/current-cig-projects

  • omaryak

    Well yeah good point: they will be using the same corridor, so death to Caltrain electrification is death to high-speed rail to SF.

  • John Murphy

    The Federal Government is already a very rich beneficiary of Bay Area tax dollars. Santa Clara County has the 14th highest per capita income in the US as of 2012, and the area has seen a big increase in incomes since (it was 23rd in 2010!) San Mateo County was 24th in 2010.

    It would stand to reason that if the Caltrain corridor sends a lot of money to Washington, that big chunks would come back.

  • How is HSR folding when they haven’t even started using the bond funds yet and still have access to cap-and-trade revenues?

  • No, it only delays high-speed rail to SF until a later date.

  • What they honestly should do is delay the rolling stock, which is about as much as the grant, then issue the green light to the hardscape improvements. It’s way easier to buy trains later than to start building stuff and if absolutely necessary, they can start small and just order a few electric locomotives, perhaps even just lease some from another operator elsewhere in the country.

  • Osman Hossain

    The Caltrain I want the past Railroad Crossing Signals Back.

  • Petra

    If you want CalTrain electrification, completely separate the project from CaHSR (and kill the latter crap ASAP.)

  • Petra

    100% agree.

  • Claude

    Too late. They already have the funds for San Jose to Bakersfield , they’ve signed the contracts and construction is well under way.
    And when the trains start running and it proves wildly successful it will be impossible to stop construction all the way to LA and San Diego.
    Unless Americans are as inept as the libertarian right depicts us and we have the one and only HSR project in the world that actually fails. But I believe in America.

  • Claude

    It just means the trains stop in San Jose for a few years and passengers transfer to Caltrain. It doesn’t achieve the Right’s dream of forcing people to drive cars along the over-crowded corridor.

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