San Francisco & Silicon Valley

Electrifying Caltrain
New catenary poles that will hold up the electric wires are in place at San Bruno. This project would not have occurred without high-speed rail funding.

Caltrain—the commuter rail system that serves San Jose, the Silicon Valley, and San Francisco—is being modernized.  It will be the first in the country to use European concepts and safety standards. 

The upgrades are designed to both improve commuter rail service and be integral part of linking San Francisco and Los Angeles in less than 3 hours.

Overhead wires are being added to power new electric trains and the top speed will be raised from 79 mph to 110 mph.

Trains will depart every 15 minutes throughout the day.

When completed, it will have the capacity of 12 highway lanes, in the space of just two.

Even without its impact on the high-speed rail system, Caltrain’s innovations and upgrades make it one of the most important transportation projects now underway in the U.S. The innovations include:

  1. High-capacity, modern, electrified trainsets that start and stop faster and reduce harmful emissions.
  2. Fifty-one miles of electrified tracks that accommodate high-speed trains, in addition to local and express commuter trains.
  3. A coordinated schedule that creates effortless connections between the systems and maximizes ridership.
  4. New platforms that allow level boarding, which is more convenient for all passengers and is critically important for the elderly and people with strollers and luggage.

These and other improvements will make Caltrain the first truly modern passenger rail line in the U.S. 

Ridership on Caltrain—which is already among the most heavily used rail lines in the nation—is expected to nearly double after the project’s projected completion in 2021.

Ridership has nearly tripled since 2004. The modernization project will meet the high ridership demand and ease congestion throughout the region.

Additional funds are needed to separate highway/railroad crossings to make the system safer and more reliable.

Lessons for Other Projects

Caltrain’s project offers lessons that are directly relevant to other transportation projects across the country.

One is the critical importance of investing in new, modern trainsets. Electric trains, which will replace Caltrain’s current diesel trains, can accelerate and decelerate faster than existing diesel locomotives, so they provide faster, more frequent service.

Electric trainsets also produce less noise and air pollution than diesel locomotives, and they will lower Caltrain’s fuel costs while increasing revenue (due to an increase in ridership). Caltrain expects electrification to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 176,000 metric tons annually by 2040.

Another lesson is the importance of leadership, collaboration, and resourcefulness in moving a project forward.

For example, Caltrain nearly scaled back its service in 2011 due to a budget crisis. At that point, it also hadn’t yet identified funding for electrification. Simultaneously, the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) faced opposition in planning a route from San Jose to San Francisco.

In response, U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian, and Assemblymember Rich Gordon crafted a compromise proposal: Caltrain electrification would be partially funded with money for high-speed rail; in return, high-speed trains could share the tracks. Caltrain studied and accepted the plan.

A variety of agencies are funding the $1.9 billion project.

The Federal Transit Administration’s Core Capacity grant will contribute $647 million. Another $600 million comes from Proposition 1A, which authorized the construction of high-speed rail; and $113 million comes from California’s cap and trade carbon-cutting program.

Other funders include the California Department of Transportation, California High-Speed Rail Authority, Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the city and county of San Francisco, SamTrans, and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.