Caltrain Electrification is an Expensive Disaster

Morris Brown

Resident of Menlo Park and Founder of DERAIL, a grassroots effort against the California high-speed rail project


The Bay Area Commuter line, Caltrain, with a refusal by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to give her signature to its grant application, has been denied a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) $647 million full funding grant agreement (FFGA).

The FTA Grant was to partially fund a $2 billon project to electrify Caltrain’s tracks with the objective to provide more passenger capacity and greater efficiency.  The project has doubled in cost in the last 5 years, and the denial of the FTA grant has invoked invectives and disgust from many in the Transportation community.

A recent editorial from the Sacramento Bee with the title “House Republicans launch a petty attack on a smart rail project” sums up the advocates position.

A response just obtained from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of the FTA reveals deception has been promoted by Caltrain to gain approval of the grant.

To be approved for a FFGA grant to partially fund the project, the law requires the FTA confirm the project will yield, when completed,  at least a 10% increase in seated passenger capacity from current existing conditions. The EXCEL application spread sheet obtained through the FOIA, indeed shows the seated capacity gained by electrification is 10 percent.

What this EXCEL spread sheet does not correctly reveal, is the current existing seated passenger capacity of the train.

Last summer Caltrain obtained and put into service some used passenger cars.  The application spread sheet fails to include this additional existing seated capacity which is currently provided by these cars. Instead it uses seated capacity that existed before these extra cars were put into service.

When the extra existing capacity from these cars is input, the resulting seated capacity increase after electrification is only 1 percent.  Using the correct values for current capacity, the application fails to meet the law demanded increase from existing seated capacity. This FFGA should have never proceeded further. (The used passenger cars that were acquired cost only about $15 million).

This is not a smart project as trumpeted by the Sac Bee editorial.  Spending $2 billion to provide almost no capacity increase is pure folly.

At the recent April 6th Caltrain Board meeting, public comment from  Roland Lebrun, and Charles Voltz illustrate the situation.

In addition, the project cedes 40 percent of the capacity of the 2 track Bay Area Peninsula corridor to the High Speed Rail (HSR) project. Longer term, this spells doom for Caltrain capacity expansion. Caltrain from its own projections, will need to accommodate 100,000 to 110,000 passengers in the not distant future.  The electrification project claims this is possible, but this is only possible when substituting “standees” for “seated passengers”.  In the future 40 percent of the passengers would need to be standing rather than seated. The FTA grant rules only permit capacity calculations to be valid for “seated” passengers!

Instead of “bad-mouthing” the California Federal House GOP delegation and Secretary Chao for denying this funding, the delegation should be congratulated.

Caltrain needs a complete “reset” on its plans. The current project is a very expensive disaster.

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