On Caltrain’s ‘Downward Path’ With High-Speed Rail

Morris Brown
Founder of DERAIL, a grassroots effort against the California high-speed rail Project

A look at history reveals the downward path which Caltrain is now headed since its involvement with the California high-speed rail. (HSR).

The passing of the high-speed rail act bond issue (Proposition 1A) in November 2008 had the full support of Caltrain, perhaps with good reason. Looking back, HSR would be allowed use of Caltrain’s corridor. The arrangement then was there would be funding from HSR to have Caltrain’s corridor from the San Francisco Transbay Terminal (TBT) to San Jose fully electrified and fully grade-separated. There also would be funds to expand the corridor to a full four-track corridor, with HSR and Caltrain each having its own set of tracks.

Indeed this plan seemed a very desirable improvement for Caltrain’s operations. But my my, how this dream plan has now changed.

Political opposition to a four-track, raised track bed along the Peninsula, along with (perhaps more importantly) the lack of funds to build the original plan, has resulted in the new scheme, labeled the “blended plan,” as sponsored by U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, state Sen. Joe Simitian, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon.

The “blended plan” is a two-track corridor, with a few “passing tracks” along the corridor. HSR and Caltrain will need to share these tracks.

The plan has been under heavy criticism from, along with others, former High-Speed Rail Authority board chair Quentin Kopp, as well as HSR authority director Lynn Schenk, both of whom do not consider this arrangement as being real high-speed rail.

Indeed, Proposition 1A mandates the HSR tracks be fully independent and not shared (see the Proposition 1A provision mandating that HSR trains be able to pass at full speed through stations). The “blended plan” really is illegal under the terms of Proposition 1A, and should not have even been proposed.

Due to political opposition, until these last few days the HSR authority had not been pursuing activity in Northern California. However, at its last board meeting, the board acted to restart activity in Northern California. It proposes to hire new consultants and draft a new EIR for the region, with the “blended plan” being the center of attention along the Caltrain corridor. The estimated cost for these studies is $36 million.

Why Caltrain has not resisted the “blended plan” shows just how weak its leadership has been, and what a very bad deal the present situation really presents.

Caltrain, rather than getting a fully grade-separated, electrified four-track corridor, without sharing of tracks, and running all the way to the TBT, Caltrain has agreed to share its tracks with HSR, which within a few years will prove grossly inadequate to handle the traffic being generated. Rather than getting a corridor all the way to the TBT, it will stop at 4th and King, requiring, as now, that passengers find other transportation or walk to their offices in the center of San Francisco.

And finally for allowing all of this to happen, Caltrain will net about $750 million for its electrification project, which currently still leaves the project at least $400 million underfunded. Caltrain will not get grade separations along the corridor, with this plan.

All and all it is a terrible deal for Caltrain, and looking back on what was promised back in 2008 only makes it look worse.

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