High Speed Rail and CalTrain: Good for Each Other

Article published in January 1997

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The proposed high speed rail line between San Francisco and Southern California would use the CalTrain line to reach San Francisco. CalTrain could benefit through capital improvements included in the project.

This article describes the effects high speed rail might have on the Peninsula and CalTrain. It is based on the widely accepted views and predictions of those most knowledgeable about high speed rail and CalTrain. Specific implementation details of high speed rail on the Peninsula have yet to be developed and released. Plans are still in the early stages. No one can predict how likely they will come to fruition or how long before a high speed train will carry its first passenger. This event is probably a minimum of ten years in the future.

The route currently favored by the California Intercity High Speed Rail Commission would enter the Bay Area from the east via Pleasanton and Fremont, then cross the Dumbarton rail bridge and follow the CalTrain line from Redwood City north, with stops at Redwood City, SFO airport and downtown San Francisco. From Fremont a line would branch south to San Jose and probably use the CalTrain line between Santa Clara and San Jose.

High speed rail would benefit CalTrain.
For decades CalTrain has been in need of capital improvements such as electrification, a downtown San Francisco extension, and track and signaling improvements. Plans for these or major frequency increases have failed to gain momentum due to CalTrain's position in the political landscape of the Bay Area's many counties and transit agencies. This pattern of neglect could continue as BART, a system with far greater ridership and political clout than CalTrain, undergoes massive capital expansion. This could change before a decision is made to build high speed rail. However, in view of CalTrain's current situation, any prospect of major capital improvement can only help.

High speed rail would not impede CalTrain service increases. The current right-of-way would be adequate for more frequent CalTrain plus high speed rail.
Even CalTrain's current technology permits operating trains of about the same speed at less than five minute headways. A wider right-of-way would not be needed. The two existing tracks, plus signaling and related improvements are more than adequate for CalTrain every 15 minutes plus half-hourly high speed trains. For this many trains, there is no frequency at which more than two tracks is an absolute requirement. With the track and signal upgrades, high speed rail and CalTrain would operate at comparable speeds where they share tracks. It has never been proposed that trains run at top cruising speed (150-200 mph) along the Peninsula or in other urban areas. The under-three-hour projected running time between Los Angeles and the Bay Area assumes slower speeds in urban areas. Adding one or two additional tracks in combination with state-of-the-art signaling technology will not only allow faster trains to pass slower ones, but also for faster or more frequent high speed rail service. Such technology permits high speed service at three-minute intervals.

High speed rail would be safe.
The project would most likely include funding for full grade separation in urban areas. If any grade crossings remained, train speeds would be appropriately restricted. Special technology has been developed which nearly eliminates the risk of collisions by automatically stopping high speed trains. (This was recently developed in Sweden.) In France high speed rail has been in operation for 15 years without a single fatality.

High speed rail would mean more frequent trains, but trains would be quieter than today's CalTrain.
Electrically powered high speed trains would be quieter than today's diesel CalTrains. Also in all likelihood, CalTrain would be electrified, making it quieter as well. New track would use continuous welded rail (which is jointless), and would dramatically reduce noise and vibration associated with jointed rail still found along most of the CalTrain line.

Much information on the California High Speed Rail Study may be obtained from the web pages of the California Intercity High Speed Rail Commission.

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Last updated: November 18, 1997

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