Written by Alec MacDonald Thursday, 31 May 2012 16:58
The price of gasoline always grabs headlines, and lately the news has been alarming for drivers on a tight budget. Especially for anyone whose vehicle is a locomotive.
Like most everybody else whose tank needs filling, Caltrain feels the pinch at the pump. Fuel costs have actually been a long-held motivation for managers of the railway system to drop diesel and go electric.
Not only would the move help cut operational expenses, it would theoretically generate more revenue by increasing ridership capacity. Weighing less than their diesel counterparts, electric trains can travel at faster speeds and stop more quickly. And of course, they run much cleaner.
Marian Lee, director of the Caltrain Modernization Program, outlined these details in a May 12 presentation to the League of Women Voters of Palo Alto, one of countless stakeholder groups along the railway corridor with keen interest in the topic.
“It’s embedded in the board policy,” she remarked of the potential change. “It’s reflected in the 1999 strategic plan, as well as the 2004 strategic plan that says the Caltrain board is committed to electrifying the system. The trouble we’ve always had is that we couldn’t find the money.”
Lee revealed that the necessary investment would be $1.5 billion — a seemingly unattainable amount for a transit system whose board members have declared multiple fiscal emergencies in recent years. However, she said a partnership with the California High-Speed Rail Authority stands to resolve this problem — if the fledgling state agency can overcome its own financial difficulties.
The Rail Authority will soon know whether it has the money to remain viable, as the Legislature has a July 1 deadline for appropriating nearly $3 billion in bond funds required for the agency to continue pursuing its proposed 800-mile high-speed train project. If lawmakers decide to release the funds — no sure thing with the state budget currently in shambles — then Caltrain may also be in luck.
Although the Rail Authority intends to begin construction of its project in the Central Valley, it plans to eventually run its electric-powered trains all the way up to San Francisco by merging into the Caltrain corridor at San Jose. After much discussion about what this merger might look like, the two parties arrived at an agreement to use the same electrified system, a scenario which computer simulations demonstrated would be feasible.
Lee said that Caltrain officials told the Rail Authority, “We’ll prep the foundation, get it electrified, and while you’re building in the Central Valley, we’ll run electrified Caltrain commuter service, and when you get here we’ll share our tracks with you.”
The Rail Authority has committed to help pay for this setup with $600 million from Proposition 1A, the 2008 ballot measure that allocated nearly $10 billion for the high-speed train project. The remaining amount for Caltrain system electrification will be covered by the federal government and local sources, as stipulated in a memorandum of understanding encompassing nine partners.
According to Lee, this memorandum will be meaningless if the Legislature withholds bond funds from the Rail Authority this summer. Otherwise, “if we are able to proceed, our goal is to have an electrified Caltrain system by 2019,” she said.