For Caltrain, More Hard Work to Come

At BATWG’s January 19, 2023, meeting, Clem Tillier was our Special Guest. Mr. Tillier, despite having a full-time hi-tech job, through his volunteer efforts has also managed to become very knowledgeable about the Caltrain operation and its developmental needs. At our meeting he made a number of observations as to what lies ahead for Caltrain. He emphasized the importance of the Caltrain Joint Powers Board (JPB) and staff to begin adapting to Caltrain’s pending new operational and fiscal conditions sooner rather than later.

Caltrain’s nineteen Stadler train sets, each consisting of six EMU’s, will soon begin arriving. While converting from diesel to electric operation may sound like a straightforward transition, it’s not, especially in a time of severe budgetary constraints.

Read more here

Caltrain, like other transit properties, has suffered a major loss in ridership because of COVID and in its aftermath it is far from certain that ridership will ever return to pre-COVID levels. Yet with Caltrain ridership currently at 25% of its pre-COVID level it appears that the Caltrain Joint Powers Board’s (JPB’s) plans to continue operating its trains at pre-COVID levels or higher. Thanks to the State and federal subventions already pledged and the $108 million in annual operating funds expected from the Caltrain bond issue (Measure RR voter-approved in 2022), it is estimated that Caltrain can continue to operate at this high level of service through FY 2025.

After that it’s frankly a crapshoot.

As to what it would take to keep Caltrain from having to shut down or drastically curtail its operation because of a lack of funding, BATWG has identified the following  as of prime importance.

The Existing Diesel Operation:
To avoid unnecessary Caltrain operational costs it is essential that all diesel operations end as soon as the new EMU service is up and running. The 30 miles of Caltrain service between San Jose’s Diridon Station and Gilroy have not been electrified. So, to avoid requiring riders from Gilroy bound for points north of San Jose to transfer in San Jose from their diesel trains to the EMU’s, some have suggested maintaining Caltrain diesel service as well as electrified service, a very expensive and impractical idea. To avoid having to maintain two rail modes, the Joint Powers Authority is seeking approval from the FRA and FTA to extend EMU service to Gilroy, using auxiliary batteries. Whether or not adding batteries to some of the EMU’s is cost-effective remains in doubt and is not supported by Mr. Tillier.

If for some reason a battery-powered service between San Jose and Gilroy were not possible or was found to be impractical, there is another way of getting Caltrain out of the diesel rail business. The 138-mile Capitol Corridor passenger rail line (also diesel-powered) currently operates between the Sacramento area and San Jose’s Diridon Station. This existing diesel service could be extended south of the Station to pick up riders between Gilroy and San Jose. It would be logical for the State of California to take on this additional assignment, especially since a future line between Gilroy and Salinas in Monterey County is in the planning stages. This would require a formal agreement among the affected public agencies, as well as with Union Pacific.

As indicated, in view of Caltrain’s pending fiscal problems it is of overriding importance that Caltrain serve becomes all-electric as soon as possible to avoid two sets of trained on-car personnel, two sets of train mechanics, two separate maintenance facilities and two separate lines of maintenance equipment and parts.

Platform Heights:

Low Platform Loading

Level Platform loading

Today the platforms are only 8 inches above the rails, , meaning that regular riders use stairs to enter and depart the trains, and that handicapped riders use a slow-moving special elevator for access. With all-EMU service it would be possible to streamline the operation by going to level boarding, with platforms either 22 inches above the rails or, to be compatible with future HSR, 51 inches above the rails. Level boarding would mean faster boarding, improved passenger safety, fewer EMU’s needed and improved operating productivity. However, so long as low-platform diesel trains continue to operate on the line, all trains including the EMU’s would need to continue to operate in the low platform mode. The JPB has already committed millions of extra dollars to equip its new incoming fleet of electric Stadler trains with the ability to operate with either 51-inch level boarding platforms or 22-inch level boarding platforms. Reliable Caltrain sources indicate that the intent is to convert to level boarding as soon as possible.

Other Cost-Cutting Measures:
In addition to reducing the level of service to be more in line with Caltrain’s greatly reduced ridership, phasing out Caltrain’s diesel service, and converting to level boarding, there are a number of other steps that could be taken to reduce operating costs.  Given the fact that a continuation of the federal and State bailouts that are currently sustaining the operation are by no means assured, it is incumbent on the JPB and Caltrain staff to move decisively to adapt to the new ridership and fiscal conditions.  Unless this happens the chances of Caltrain avoiding the spiraling deficits and ridership drops that could lead to a complete shutdown of the system do not look good.

One thought on “For Caltrain, More Hard Work to Come

  1. It would seem to me to make sense to haul Stadtler cars by diesel between San Jose and Gilroy, postponing need for electrification for the handful of Gilroy trains, not using more cars than if it were electrified, avoiding need to transfer, offering amenities of the new cars, etc.


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