A Milestone for CalTrain and High-Speed Rail

Hillsdale Station
The view from newly opened Hillsdale station in San Mateo, CA.

The view from newly opened Hillsdale station in San Mateo, CA.

Silicon Valley’s commuter-rail service, Caltrain, is in the midst of a transformation that will make it the gold standard of U.S. commuter rail.

Service will be expanded so that trains depart every 15 minutes throughout the day. The project includes electrified tracks, renovated stations, and state-of-the-art trains that run up to 110 mph.

It will be the first U.S. system that’s on par with European regional express networks, which several agencies have proposed. And it’s being made possible by California’s high-speed rail project.

The new Hillsdale station with a grade-separated crossing that opened this week in San Mateo (20 miles south of San Francisco) is the latest milestone in the transformation. Two more grade-separated crossings in San Mateo will open later this year. Nearly $98 million of the project’s $206 million cost came from funds approved for California’s high-speed rail project.

The Caltrain main line runs about 50 miles, from San Francisco to San Jose (with rush-hour service extending to Gilroy). Ridership on Caltrain has more than tripled since 2004. It’s expected to double again when the system transformation is complete next year.

Fast, frequent service is vital

Fast, frequent service is the foundation for any transit system’s success. More options and excellent service draw more riders. Riders increase revenues. Revenues drive more investments. Investments equal better service. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Some cities try to save their transit systems by cutting service. Caltrain is taking the opposite approach. By doubling down on fast trains and frequent service, it’s demonstrating what world-class commuter rail can be. Electrified tracks will allow for an increase in top speeds—from 79 to 110 mph. And the system’s new, electrified trains will stop and start much faster than older diesel units.

By offering fast trips and frequent service—not only during rush hours, but all day long—Caltrain’s transformation will result in more riders, more revenues, and a continually improving system.

Caltrain's modernization efforts are made possible through funds approved for California’s high-speed rail project.

Caltrain’s modernization efforts are made possible through funds approved for California’s high-speed rail project.

Caltrain’s modernization efforts are made possible through funds approved for California’s high-speed rail project.

Three more takeaways from Caltrain

Caltrain’s example illustrates at least three more key lessons.

First, high-speed rail drives investments and improvements across an entire transportation system. Caltrain and HSR trains will share some of the same tracks. They’re being planned together. And Caltrain’s transformation is funded with $714 million from the California High Speed Rail Authority. They’re inseparable in every way.

Second, a well-planned transportation system is game-changing—but it doesn’t happen overnight. Caltrain’s project is the result of California’s decision to make big investments in rail starting in the early 1990s. This level of success requires both a long-term commitment and a big-picture vision. The sooner you start, the better.

Third, we can slash carbon emissions while also dramatically boosting the quality of life in California—and across America. California’s new trains will run on renewable energy, and they’ll have the carrying capacity of 12 highway lines—while taking up the space of just two.

In other words, high-speed rail is a near-term investment that delivers high-impact results—for all transportation modes and systems—over both the short run and the long run.

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