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Electrification Questions and Answers

Q: What is Caltrain electrification and why is it a good idea?
A: Caltrain proposes to electrify its line using overhead catenary wire, similar to that used for Amtrak's Boston-Washington Corridor and light rail systems in many cities. Electrification would eliminate diesel locomotives, which would speed up trains, and cut noise and diesel fumes. Instead of diesel-pulled trains, trains would consist of self-propelled Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) trains, or electric locomotives pulling unpowered railcars similar to the present trains.

In addition to cutting noise and pollution, electrification would reduce Caltrain's operating costs, and improve its reliability and overall efficiency.

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Q: Is electrification happening instead of extending the train to downtown San Francisco?
A: Electrification is not a substitute for the downtown San Francisco extension. In fact, it is a prerequisite. If and when the downtown San Francisco extension is completed, environmental regulations require electric, rather than diesel trains (with their accompanying exhaust) in the final one mile tunnel to the downtown station. The downtown San Francisco station, connecting Caltrain, BART and dozens of bus lines from all over the region, seems to be getting back on track. Caltrain electrification can only help the process, while delivering better service to all riders all along the line.

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Q: How much will electrifying Caltrain cost?
A: Although a precise answer cannot be given until all studies are completed, to electrify the 50 miles from San Francisco to San Jose will cost somewhere between $100 million and $150 million, or $2 million per mile of double track line. This estimate is based on the recently completed electrification of the high speed Amtrak line from Boston into Connecticut and other projects around the world. Costs include erecting the poles and stringing the wires, building electrical substations and connecting them to the power grid, as well as other costs, like making sure the electrification doesn't interfere with train signals and building guards on overbridges to keep people away from the power wires.

The costs of electrifying the additional 27 miles to Gilroy are harder to estimate, since the tracks themselves are not owned by Caltrain and it is not known whether one track or two tracks would be provided. It may cost as much as $60 million.

In addition to just providing the wiring to power the trains, Caltrain will need to purchase electric trains. There are two ways this can be done. One possibility is that Caltrain could completely replace its locomotives and its antique fleet of passenger cars with high-performance "Electric Multiple Unit" trains (EMUs). These are, like BART's, self-propelled trains without separate locomotives. The other option is to replace the existing diesel locomotives with electric locomotives. Since modern electric locomotives are much more reliable, 19 or 20 electric locomotives could do the work of Caltrain's 23 diesels.

Electric locomotives recently purchased by New Jersey Transit and Amtrak cost around $6.2 million each. Replacing Caltrain's locomotives would cost about $125 million, and selling the existing diesels might gain $30 million or so, for a net of approximately $90 million. EMU cars purchased by the Long Island Rail Road have cost about $2.3 million each, so replacing Caltrain's passenger fleet would cost around $250 million, minus $30 for diesel locomotive sales, minus perhaps $70 million for passenger car sales, for a total of around $150 million.

So putting these numbers together, we can arrive at figures anywhere between $200 million and $350 million to transform either 50 or 77 miles of Caltrain into a modern, high-performance, quiet system, or around $4 million per mile.

Just for comparison, building just 8.7 miles of BART to Millbrae is estimated to cost over $200 million per mile.

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Q: Why not replace Caltrain with BART? Won't that cost the same as electrifying Caltrain?
A: Electrification of Caltrain will cost around one-fortieth what a BART extension would cost on a per-mile basis. This is because BART extensions are totally new infrastructure and must be completely grade separated using subway and aerial alignments, plus street underpasses and overpasses in places. These as well as elaborate station facilities also must be constructed before BART trains can carry any passengers.

Caltrain will require improved stations and other upgrades in addition to electrification in order to match BART's capacity. However, the complete cost of upgrading Caltrain is still a fraction of that for extending BART to replace Caltrain. Grade separations of street intersections are desirable, but not mandatory, for rapid-transit level serivce envisioned for upgraded Caltrain.

Recent BART extensions are estimated to cost over $200 million per mile. To replace the entire Caltrain line with BART could cost as much as ten billion dollars ($10,000 million, for 50 miles at $200 million per mile) and would take from thirty to fifty years to fund and construct. Caltrain service would be truncated or eliminated while the replacement was undertaken.

By contrast, the total costs for electrifying the existing Caltrain line, enabling it to provide service both faster and more luxurious than BART's, is between $4 million and $5 million per mile, or about one-fortieth the cost. Here are some additional considerations about Caltrain and BART:

  • Standard rail technology used by Caltrain is most desirable for the Peninsula because tracks can be shared by future Dumbarton rail service, ACE service from Pleasanton/Stockton, and high speed rail between downtown San Francisco, SFO airport, and Los Angeles. BART lines cannot accommodate any of these trains due to BART's unique track gauge and proprietary train control system.

  • BART trains have less seating capacity due to their single level design, resulting in sardine-can like conditions on many rush hour trains. The existing line through San Francisco already is near capacity.

  • BART lacks the ability to run express trains that skip stations, unlike Caltrain which offers express service during the peak period. Caltrain has plans to run an all day express service that is twice as fast as local service, cutting the travel time to 40-50 minutes between San Francisco and San Jose.

  • BART's astronomical cost results in much longer construction times, delaying needed congestion relief. Upgrading Caltrain can be accomplished faster and for much less cost, and it can continue to carry passengers while being upgraded.
In the end we have to remember that the point is to carry passengers and to provide a good level of service. BART isn't the only way of doing this. Caltrain uses standard railway technology similar to electric railroads in Europe, Japan and other parts of the world, and is much cheaper than BART. BART's technology is similar to that used in subway systems in densely developed urban areas of the world. BART technology works well in such settings, but is very inefficient in providing transit in suburban areas like the Peninsula and South Bay where standard rail lines already exist.

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Q: How much travel time will be saved by electrifying Caltrain?
A: Several estimates have been made, using different assumptions and operating scenarios. The 1998 Caltrain Rapid Rail study determined that an electric all-stops local train would be 12 minutes, or about 13% faster than the current schedule, in a trip between San Francisco and San Jose. This time savings results largely from the faster braking and acceleration of electric engines, rather than the top speed between stations. This is especially true with local Caltrains making frequent stops. The amount of time saved depends greatly on the type of train schedule (local, semi-express, or express) and on the progress of other track and signal upgrades which are happening along the Caltrain line. As Caltrain track rehabilitation proceeds, the electric trains will have a bigger advantage as they will reach top speed faster, becoming over 16 minutes faster.

Faster running times are only one of several advantages of electrification. Additional advantages such as the elimination of diesel fumes, less noise, lower operating costs, and improved reliability sometimes have been overlooked by critics of electrification.

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Q: How much quieter would an electrified Caltrain be?
A: Engine noise would be reduced to be one fourth of what it is now. Measurements done for a 1992 Caltrain electrification report show that the noise from the locomotive, measured 100 feet from the tracks, drops from 87 decibels for a diesel to 69 decibels for an electric locomotive, a nearly fourfold reduction (remember that decibels are a logarithmic scale, with sound levels doubled for every increment of ten decibels).

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Q: Wouldn't Caltrain be more reliable without overhead wires to break down?
A: Presently locomotive breakdowns are a fact of life for regular Caltrain riders, but these would be greatly reduced with electrification.

Modern electric trains have a fantastic reliability record. Manufacturers have been supplying guarantees that their electric locomotives will run at least 300,000 miles between in-service breakdowns. On Caltrain, that would mean five years between breakdowns, not the several breakdowns a month we now experience.

The overhead wiring itself is very robust. Regular automated inspections will ensure that that it stays where it should be, and that preventative maintenance is performed where necessary.

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Q: California is suffering an electricity shortage. Won't electric Caltrain experience power outages?
A: Caltrain, like BART, may be designated a priority power customer, one of the last to lose power during rolling blackouts. Secondly, Caltrain in effect will be building its own mini power distribution system. Under such systems, a local power outage in one area can be compensated by other sources along the Caltrain line. Thirdly, Caltrain may be able to directly buy power from a reliable source, perhaps Hetch Hetchy. Finally, it's likely that during the five years it takes to electrify Caltrain, California's power crisis will be over. A number of new power plants are likely to be built to meet capacity (not including the Metcalf/Calpine San Jose project, whose future is uncertain).

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Q: Why not use ground-level third rail?
A: Ground-level high voltage rail poses a greater danger to people than overhead wires. While overhead electric wires are safely out of harm's way, a "hot" 600 to 1000 volt energized rail at ground level is a major safety hazard. A system using third rail must be completely separated from human contact, which means many hundreds of millions of dollars of cost to completely fence off the line and to remove all road crossings. With overhead electrified rail, communities have the option to remove road crossings as traffic levels and available money warrant.

Another disadvantage is that third rail systems can only provide a limited amount of power. Propelling trains at high speed requires a lot of power, and the higher voltages carried by overhead lines make it easier to provide faster Caltrain (and future high speed rail) service. Overhead wire is the first choice for all new railroad electrification projects around the world, with the exception of some subway systems.

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Q: I saw overhead electric wires along railroads in New Jersey 30 years ago. How does Caltrain consider this "state of the art"?
A: Just as the basic shape of a wheel hasn't changed in thousands of years, or the bicycle hasn't evolved very much in a hundred years, some ideas are fundamentally sound, and benefit mostly from refinements and incremental improvements rather than wholesale replacement. The most modern and efficient railroads in the world, including the bullet trains of Japan and the TGV trains of France, all run underneath overhead wires whose basic design, if not their sophisticated engineering, would be familiar to an engineer from the 1920s. What has changed is that the system has become more reliable, able to accommodate more powerful and far faster trains, and has become less visually intrusive as slim, free-standing steel masts have replaced the overhead gantries which supported wires in the early systems.

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Q: Won't the overhead wires be an ugly visual intrusion?
A: The wires over the Caltrain line actually will be no more intrusive than hundreds of power, telephone and cable wires over our streets already. Modern rail overhead wiring consists of steel poles every 100 feet or so, with three wires hanging between them for each track. Viewed from the side, adjacent to the line, it is scarcely visible. Caltrain's wires will be very similar to wires which power VTA's light rail lines, including the line from Mountain View station to Tasman/I-880 in Milpitas.

The photo below taken in Switzerland is an example what what hundreds of electrified rail lines criss-crossing Europe look like.

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Q: Won't high voltage lines be unsafe?
A: No more dangerous than any existing power line.
  • The wires which power the trains will be over twenty feet in the air, well above the tracks. The poles which hold the wires up do not have any sort of ladders or hand-holds.

  • The wires and supports will be inspected regularly to ensure reliable train operation.

  • Remember that since nobody should be walking along railroad tracks anyway, Caltrain electrification wires will be more removed from people than most street power wiring.

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Q: Won't high voltage lines fall over in an earthquake?
A: No, not before most everything else has collapsed! The electric wires themselves are compatively light-weight, and the suspension system itself is inherently flexible. A greater problem for Caltrain than falling overhead is that a large earthquake may misalign the tracks. Railroad overhead wiring is at least as robust as any other overhead powerline.

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Q: Caltrain electrification was first proposed decades ago. Why does it take so long to get anything done?
A: Public pressure to deliver real, cost-effective transportation improvements in a timely fashion, like major upgrades to Caltrain, is a big part of it. If your elected representatives know that you expect results, they'll be under pressure to make their staff perform.

Join other Caltrain riders in the effort to improve Caltrain! Become a member of Peninsula Rail 2000. With your help, we will continue our successful advocacy efforts on behalf of Caltrain riders.

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Thanks to Richard Mlynarik for much of the content in this Q and A page.
Last updated: June 25, 2001
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