Californians For High Speed Rail Writes To Caltrain Re: Electrification

Jun 4th, 2010 | Posted by

Looks like it’s Caltrain day here at the California High Speed Rail Blog. With Caltrain’s fiscal issues getting more attention, their electrification plan is – rightly, as I’ve argued – being touted as a long-term solution to Caltrain’s problems. As such, the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board is moving quickly to finalize its electrification plans, and has mobilized political leaders – including Congresswomen Jackie Speier and Anna Eshoo – to lobby for giving the federal HSR stimulus funds for the San Francisco-San José segment to Caltrain’s electrification project.

However, as Clem and others have consistently pointed out, there are some known incompatibilities between the Caltrain electrification project and the HSR project that could require some of the infrastructure for the Caltrain electrification – including substations – to be ripped out within months of completion. That strikes many as a waste of taxpayer dollars and a stunning example of poor planning.

Caltrain and its allies argue that their plan is compatible with HSR and intended to be the first steps for HSR. We at Californians For High Speed Rail have no reason to doubt that claim. But we would like to see it not only clarified, but set down in writing in the form of a binding Memorandum of Understanding between Caltrain and the California High Speed Rail Authority that ensures full compatibility between the electrification plan and the HSR project.

Those concerns are laid out in the following letter we delivered this week to Caltrain, cc’ing the CHSRA board and a number of other key officials:

CA4HSR Letter to Caltrain – Request for Clarification Re Electrification

Our letter is consistent with the overall CA4HSR goal of building true high speed rail service in California that is not only compatible with, but helps improve, other local rail service. We support Caltrain’s electrification project and agree it is necessary for the survival of the service. But we also believe it can and must be fully compatible with HSR, for the good of Caltrain, residents of the Peninsula (including SF and SJ), and the people of California.

  1. Rafael
    Jun 4th, 2010 at 13:10

    Perhaps killing the present Caltrain organization, which is clinging to its own versions of capital improvement plans, is the only way to get to a point at which wasteful duplication of effort can be avoided.

    Electrification is one example. Signaling (CBOSS vs. ETCS as part of ERTMS) is another. San Bruno is a third. I’m sure Clem and Richard Mlynarik could go on.

    Caltrain needs to rethink its own long-term service model ab initio, in the context of the fiscal realities in the three peninsula counties, its own real-world ridership levels and boarding patterns and, the huge influx of state and federal capital investment related to HSR. This commuter railway’s future isn’t what it used to be.

    Caltrain does need electrification, but it’s not as if its entire fleet of diesel locomotives is about to keel over and die of old age next Tuesday between lunch and tea-time. The wires can wait a few years yet. The short-term objective should be to keep the existing assets in service, at least until HSR construction actually starts. At that point, Caltrain and UPRR will either keep running trains past multiple construction sites or else, shut down service for a few years (possibly permanently in UPRR’s case) such that the corridor remodeling can be executed faster, cheaper and better than would otherwise be the case. There’ll be a lot of additional traffic and other burdens on communities during the construction period anyhow, it’s just a question of how high the burden will be and how long it will have to be borne for. Generally, people tend to prefer more severe disruptions for a shorter period of time, especially if the end result is better at lower cost.

    The appropriate way to help the commuter railroad through the current fiscal crunch is for PCJPB to cut a different deal with CHSRA on the right of way: ask for some cash up front in return for a slightly higher share of the cost of constructing the future DTX tunnel. With this perfectly legal sleight of hand, prop 1A funds for capital investment in HSR would be converted into enough cash on hand to cover the shortfall in Caltrain’s operating expenses for several years. Better still, future Caltrain capex is mortaged for present Caltrain opex, albeit indirectly and in a one-off fashion.

    Caltrain’s capex comes from different sources, including MTC plus $41m out the of the $950m AB3034 sets aside for “HSR feeders”. Caltrain has only applied for $4m of that so far, so reprogram the remaining $37m to CHSRA and get CHSRA to make a $37 million down payment on the right of way ASAP. Hey presto, opex budget hole plugged for the next three years.

    The sums we’re talking about here are not huge, CHSRA could easily justify them even under the heading of “ROW preservation”. AB3034 permits a certain amount for that even before CHSRA is in a position to make any formal application for full corridor development. If Caltrain were to close down before HSR is ready to seal the deal, every NIMBY organization along the peninsula would try to acquire – or get someone else to acquire – at least one section of the ROW to prevent CHSRA from using it.

    Therefore, as a condition for making the aforementioned down payment, CHSRA should receive formal assurances that PCJPB will not offer any land to anyone for e.g. three years without CHSRA’s express permission. By that time at the latest, CHSRA should be in a position to secure prop 1A bond appropriations for the full corridor upgrade from the state legislature.

    John Burrows Reply:

    If we could make Caltrain disappear for several years while HSR is built, that would be great for HSR, and not having to worry about Caltrain during construction would save a ton of money and a lot of time. I have wondered just how Caltrain could be kept running during HSR construction without resorting to magic, but that’s part of the deal as I understand it. Caltrain has been part of the Peninsula for nearly 150 years: In fact Caltrain created the Peninsula.

    I do not think that Caltrain is going to fold. It may get blended into HSR, but whatever our commuter rail service ends up being called, it would be best to keep it running.

    rafael Reply:

    A substitute service, albeit with sharply reduced capacity, could be implemented using a fleet of leased buses plus lanes on selected roads that are temporarily dedicated to this plus construction traffic. If the bus route is extended to downtown SF (temporary Transbay Terminal) on one end and to SJ State University via SJ city hall on the other, that would partially compensate for the lower line haul time of buses. Also, any given bus in this concept would serve just a small subset of stops.

    VTA’s Bus Rapid Transit plans include a route between Palo Alto and San Jose along El Camino Real, which could dovetail with this temporary substitute service.

    Victor Reply:

    No, No, No, Los Angeles went down the Bus route, Now Los Angeles is rebuilding their Trains, I say Merge Caltrain with HSR, Then You get Caltrain ROW for HSR along with Caltrain and then Caltrain can be a small source of possible revenue once electrified. If Caltrain disappears the nimbys will try to buy up the former Caltrain ROW and HSR does not need that happening.

    Oh and Temporary could wind up being something that runs for 30 years or so, No Thanks.

    Rafael Reply:

    Now there’s an idea. Perhaps PCJPB would like nothing better than to shutter the Caltrain organization and require the future HSR operator to deliver a TBD level of strictly regional service for a suitably long period (30 years?) as a condition for taking over the entire ROW, including the legacy obligations to UPRR. In effect, the HSR operator would be legally obliged to implement, market, operate and cross-subsidize a brand-new regional service in the peninsula. Stations served only by this regional service would not count toward the 24 station limit, since they would fall under the heading of “ROW acquisition”.

    The construct would remove an irksome line item from the budgets of cash-strapped county transportation agencies for several decades, while maintaining a useful level of regional service. Instead, a statewide railway that actually turns an operating profit would take on the responsibility.

    This would be a radical concept, especially since many peninsula residents are wary of handing over control of “their” railway to anyone, especially to a state agency with a PR problem and little expertise in day-to-day operations. Basically, CHSRA has Bob Doty working for them part-time.

    Somehow, I don’t think this has a snowball’s chance in hell, politically speaking. I’m pretty sure CHSRA wouldn’t be too keen on such terms and conditions from PCJPB, either. But then, beggars can’t be choosers. On the other hand, if PCJPB were to sweeten the pot by committing a certain amount of capital investment – as opposed to operating subsidy – dollars to the corridor, CHSRA could claim that as matching non-state investment to help free up prop 1A funds.

    dejv Reply:

    Caltrain’s 20+ m wide ROW is spacious enough to support continuous single-track traffic through whole construction period save for few weekend or night closures to realign switches.

  2. Matthew Melzer
    Jun 4th, 2010 at 14:57

    This letter affirms my CA4HSR dues as money well spent. I hope many others will support their yeoman’s work. Politicians and technocrats alike need to see that the public is concerned about resolving issues such as proper Caltrain-CAHSR integration that are essential to CAHSR’s success.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    Thanks! We really appreciate the compliments and, of course, your support.

    YesonHSR Reply:

    There is alot of work yet done..and I will support CA4HSR again this year

  3. Samsonian
    Jun 4th, 2010 at 16:40

    It’s a good letter, that hits a number of major problems that have been discussed on Clem’s blog. I hope it does some good, but I suspect it won’t though.

    What amazes me is that CalTrain just isn’t looking out for its own, and its riders’ interests here. CalTrain appears to be willingly participating in its own destruction. What kind of organization is this? And it’s taking individual advocates volunteering a lot of their own time to show how they’re doing it wrong, and how they could do it right. And yet, it feels like we’re talking to a brick wall.

    I sincerely hope they come to their sense.

  4. D. P. Lubic
    Jun 4th, 2010 at 18:00

    Something to help provide motivation for HSR, and Caltran, too:

    rafael Reply:

    That headline is utterly misleading. It isn’t BP that’s calling for a hike in US fuel taxes. Rather, it is the owner of that particular blog, one A. Siegel. He’s arguing that the BP oil spill “calls for” – as in, “requires” – such a policy change, as it represents one of many externalities of oil production.

    I happen to agree with him, but there’s no indication that BP does. Of course not, that would depress demand for their primary bulk product.

  5. YesonHSR
    Jun 5th, 2010 at 13:30

    Off topic..has anyone elese looked at the LA-Anaheim shared track report..has lots of interesting proposal like an at grade LAUS and and main yard in Anaheim will just a small staging yard near LAUS.
    The report is in the June board meeting minutes in the libary

  6. anonymouse
    Jun 6th, 2010 at 08:49

    Off topic, but guys, can you get someone to proofread that before sending it off to Important Government Officials? It’s a bit painful to read with all the mistakes, and embarrassing that this is what gets sent to important people who make decisions and think the lot of us a bunch of cranks who can barely put a coherent sentence together.

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