Grand Jury Report On Caltrain ElectrificationBy Grand Jury
Significant concerns regarding electrification of Caltrain have not yet been answered. Missing is whether a clear need exists. Without an obvious driving factor, county taxpayers are left with a list of "improvements" to the present rail system to justify a high level of spending. Primary among these are quieter trains, minimally decreased travel times, environmentally cleaner propulsion, and more trains per day. Presently, the benefits may not warrant the spending by the Joint Powers Board of $376 million on electrification of which $125 million would come from San Mateo County.
Before significant electrification upgrades to Caltrain are made, a long-term decision by San Mateo County officials on BART should occur and be communicated to San Mateo County residents. It would be irresponsible for county officials to continue spending large sums on Caltrain electrification, then ask county taxpayers to pay even larger sums of money for BART extensions on the Peninsula.
The San Francisco Bay Area has a reputation for its natural beauty. When electrification is complete, there will be a major change in the landscape. Prevalent along the Caltrain corridor will be thousands of 20-foot tall towers and overhanging electric lines - a great change from the view today. Placement of the required power sub-stations is an additional concern for San Mateo County residents. With stage three alerts and rolling power outages becoming commonplace, questions need to be raised and answered on future power sources.
Additional disclosure on the overall project is needed for public awareness and acceptance. We encourage these disclosures to include reasons for implementation, real project costs, future transit systems (BART), and scenic impact to the Peninsula. Additional disclosures on financial responsibility with other counties need to be spelled out.
A cautionary note is necessary. The grand jury's intention and charge is to exercise review of this project. Our concern is tax dollars being spent on a project that may be replaced by a different system soon after completion.
The Caltrain system operates from San Francisco to Gilroy. As of November 2000, Caltrain operates 78 runs weekdays on its system. Through its network of stations, Caltrain connects directly with the San Francisco Municipal Railway, SamTrans buses, and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority buses and light rail. With completion of the inter-modal station in Millbrae, Caltrain will also have a direct link with BART. Current travel times from San Francisco to San Jose range from 125 to 144 minutes. The Gilroy to San Jose trip takes approximately 45 minutes.
The Joint Powers Board (JPB) is the Caltrain managing board of directors. The JPB consists of nine members. There are three members each from San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. At its May 1999 meeting, the JPB unanimously approved a plan that calls for major rehabilitation and electrification of the commuter rail line. The cornerstone of the $862 million Rapid Rail plan is the rehabilitation of the system's infrastructure, accompanied by the electrification of the 77-mile line.
There are significant benefits of electrification. Among these are quieter train operation and elimination of "tailpipe" exhaust. Even though fossil fuels may be used to generate the electricity used to power electric trains, power plants may be more environmentally friendly than diesel locomotives.
Reduced travel time will result from faster acceleration and deceleration capabilities of the electric trains. Estimates for time saved is in the five to seven minute range for a San Jose to San Francisco trip. This would mean a 5.5% - 8% time saving for a 90- minute trip. Reduction of travel times may lead to increased ridership, a major goal of Caltrain, by improving the experience for the riders. Additionally, this may allow for more train trips per day, providing greater convenience for passengers.
Caltrain electrification would not preclude use of diesel-powered locomotives on the same tracks. This added flexibility could be useful if the area encounters any long-term problems with electric power supply or costs. The Union Pacific freight service that runs on the Caltrain tracks could continue unchanged. This "dual mode" capability would enable the Caltrain line to accommodate additional transit capabilities, such as a Dumbarton corridor passenger service which is not targeted to be an electric system.
The estimated cost of electrification from San Francisco to the Tamien Station in San Jose is $324 million according to Caltrans. This figure, which includes rolling stock, is approximately ten years old. The grand jury expects the updated figures will be significantly higher. The cost of electrification from San Jose to Gilroy is $52 million. The total cost is $376 million. San Mateo County has already approved funding (approximately $125 million) for this program. San Francisco County voters have passed an advisory measure which indicates approval of Caltrain electrification; however, the source for funding has not yet been identified. Santa Clara County voters approved a measure in November 2000 which included approval and funding of Caltrain electrification.
Electrification would require building thousands of 20-foot tall towers along the 77-mile right of way for over-head electric wires.At this time the JPB has two plans to choose from: the first, direct center feed, has five substations, four switching stations, and one parallel station; the second, autotransformer feed, has two substations, one switching station, 12 parallel stations, and two parallel aerial feeders.
There are a number of other proposals to upgrade Caltrain service. The "baby bullet" train, at a cost of $127 million, would add a third rail for portions of the Caltrain line, thus enabling express service (45 minutes from San Francisco to San Jose). State Senators Byron Sher and Jackie Speier have requested funding for this project and Governor Davis has included it in his transportation expenditure plan. This is but one example of what can be done to increase train speed and potential ridership for a reduced cost.
The proposed San Francisco downtown extension would be an underground extension of Caltrain into downtown San Francisco. This requires electrification, as safety guidelines prohibit use of diesel trains in underground tunnels.
Several county agencies are involved with Caltrain electrification. The JPB has included Caltrain electrification as part of the Rapid Rail Program. The Rapid Rail Program currently has $862 million planned for capital spending, with $376 million of this earmarked for Caltrain electrification.
C/CAG, the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County, is charged with the responsibility of drafting the Countywide Transportation Plan (CTP). The CTP is a comprehensive transportation plan for San Mateo County for the ten year period from 2000 - 2010. The CTP estimates Caltrain weekday ridership will grow from 32,513 in 2000 to 44,950 in 2010. This would represent a 30% growth over this ten year span. This growth would also see the number of weekday trains rise from 78 today to about 86 in 2010.
The grand jury finds the combined benefits of Caltrain electrification offer much that is positive. It is not immediately evident that the benefits of electrification of the Caltrain system justify spending $376 million by the JPB. Presumably, San Mateo County's share of this would be one-third or roughly $125 million. However, the current cost estimates will require periodic updates to the public.
Before moving forward with any electrification plans, San Mateo County must make a clear, long-term decision on BART. If BART is to extend further into San Mateo County than Millbrae in the next 25 years, then an electric Caltrain system would not be in service long enough to reap major benefits. San Mateo County officials should make their BART intentions clear.
Since diesel locomotives cannot be used in the planned underground extension of Caltrain, electrification could also be evaluated as an enabler of the San Francisco downtown extension. The value of this extension versus the cost of electrifying the entire Caltrain line is questionable. The CTP estimates the San Francisco downtown extension will add about 7,500 new riders. The extension itself will cost about $800 million and require $376 million for electrification. Looking at costs only, this is a very poor cost-benefit ratio.
There are several concerns associated with Caltrain electrification. The location of the electric sub-stations will be of concern to those who live along Caltrain. Public involvement is required to minimize the impact of sub-station locations.
Another concern is ongoing safety of pedestrians and cars near the Caltrain line. Faster train acceleration results in reduced travel time for train passengers. However, it adds to the current safety concerns. While electrification is not the only Caltrain proposal that may have safety implications, it clearly will exacerbate safety concerns in and around this system. These concerns need to be addressed for the construction phases of this project as well.
The Joint Powers Board should fully disclose details of the electrification project to the public, including schedules, budgets, funding sources, and tax implications of this project for the citizens of San Mateo County. Ongoing communication of any changes to the plan is required to maintain a level of credibility with county residents.
The Joint Powers Board should insure firm, enforceable funding contracts with other counties before proceeding. San Mateo County should not be burdened with having to pay more than one-third of the capital costs.
The Joint Powers Board should make county residents aware of changes to the landscape that will result from this project, i.e., poles, wires, fences, and power substations. This would include involving the public in determining power sub-station locations and public discussion of safety measures that are permanent or provided during the construction phase.
Copyright ©2001 County of San Mateo. Published 05/16/2001.