Caltrain Modernization to Serve Our Communities

By Kevin Gardiner, Principal Planner + Urban Designer at M-Group

As a member of the Caltrain Citizens’ Advisory Committee (CAC), I am a fan and advocate of transit, particularly Caltrain. Given the choice of taking the train or battling 101 to get to the office, the train is the clear choice. I can catch up on work, read a book, even meet some people from time to time. As a transit system, Caltrain seems to be particularly well regarded by its riders, so much so that the system is experiencing its highest level of ridership in its history.

Caltrain has been in the news a lot lately, particularly as it relates to the state’s proposed High Speed Rail (HSR) system. The initial plans and design for HSR project was for a full four-track system, with two tracks for Caltrain and two tracks for High Speed Rail. It would be fully grade-separated between San Jose and San Francisco, meaning no more driving across rail tracks or waiting for trains to pass. However the proposal caused great concern with local communities because of the potential impacts of a widened rail corridor, as well as the potential design of raised aerial structures. People feared that buildings would need to be condemned to accommodate a widened corridor, and that the aerial structure would be unsightly and divide communities.

Given the concerns over the impacts of the HSR project on Peninsula communities, a group of elected officials and community members suggested an alternative approach that would combine the HSR and Caltrain systems together on the same tracks. The project would maximize the use of existing tracks and have less impact on local communities than the original four-track proposal. This alternative has been named the “blended system.”

Recently our committee was provided an update from Caltrain staff on the blended system. Caltrain studied the blended system approach to see if it was viable and found it could be operated in the corridor with a variety of service levels. Using the existing track alignment, the blended system could support six Caltrain trains and two HSR trains per hour in each direction without passing tracks. This works out to about one additional Caltrain train in each direction, or 20 percent more capacity. Given that Caltrain is already experiencing record ridership and is reaching capacity in some of its peak-period trains, this is a significant increase. Capacity and ridership could grow from 45,000 to 70,000 passengers per day.

There could be even more capacity if “passing tracks” were added. A passing track would be a third track extending over a limited portion of the rail line that would allow one train to stop and be overtaken by another (such as a HSR train overtaking a Caltrain). Caltrain already has a few segments with passing tracks for its “Baby Bullet” service. A blended system with passing tracks could support six Caltrain trains and four HSR trains per hour per direction. The location that was looked at for passing tracks was between Hayward Park and Redwood City. Other locations will be looked at for additional phases.

Once these findings were reviewed, Caltrain staff was asked to look at a number of different service considerations. Staff is testing service to the Transbay Terminal, the addition of rail at the Dumbarton Bridge, and what capacity could be achieved if Baby Bullet service is operated.

The other study being done is the grade crossing and traffic analysis. This is an assessment of all the at-grade crossings that exist along the corridor to determine what impact additional train service would have on the amount of time crossing gates would be down and the potential impacts on local traffic. HSR trains would operate at 79 to 110 miles per hour, whereas Caltrain currently operates at 79 miles per hour. Caltrain staff feels there is an opportunity to increase speeds with electrification. There is a Federal requirement for full grade separation when speeds exceed 125 miles per hour, but those speeds are not proposed for HSR on the Peninsula.

The blended system alternatives would feed into the California High Speed Rail Authority’s (CHSRA) environmental process moving forward. Caltrain has told the CHSRA it is against the four-track proposal on the corridor because of the potential impacts it would have on local communities, and it is only willing to embrace a blended system approach that is primarily two-tracks in the corridor.

The CHSRA Business Plan includes the blended system concept and also discusses early investment in existing rail systems. CHSRA is revising their Business Plan and revisions include a more clearly defined set of early investment options that would exist for the Bay Area section.

In terms of funding, the CHSRA has informed Caltrain staff there is potentially up to $1 billion in Proposition 1A funding that could be utilized in Northern California by the year 2020.  These funds must be matched dollar-for-dollar with local, regional or non-Proposition 1A State or Federal money. Specific improvements for the region include electrification of the Caltrain system, an advanced signal system, and the purchase of electric trains.

Key projects in the additional investment include:

  • The downtown San Francisco extension
  • HSR and Caltrain system integration
  • Infrastructure upgrade
  • Station upgrades
  • Rail crossing upgrades
  • Passing tracks
  • Storage/maintenance facility

The exciting this is that Riders could see an electrified Caltrain system as soon as 2019. Trains will be faster, cleaner, and quieter, with more frequent service to more stations. Caltrain would be able to expand its capacity to serve its growing demand - allowing it to better serve the local communities and letting more people avoid the traffic congestion on Highway 101.