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The Green Caltrain blog is sponsored by BayRail Alliance, an all-volunteer non-profit organization supporting green rail transit in the Bay Area. This blog and BayRail have no affiliation with Caltrain.

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High Speed Rail considers paying for Caltrain compatibility, capacity, level boarding

This afternoon, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee (Wiener, Kim and Cohen) received an overview of the ongoing efforts between Caltrain and High Speed Rail to solve compatibility problems that could place longterm limits on the service provided by the “blended system.”

Encouraged by stakeholders at the corridor, city, state and federal level, Caltrain and High Speed Rail have recently started to work together on potential solutions for platform compatibility that could maximize the amount of service to the Transbay terminal (see diagram below), and reduce cost of planned shared stations at Millbrae and Diridon.

Advantages of platform compatibility for Transbay service

Advantages of platform compatibility for Transbay service

Until recently, Caltrain had been considering 25″ platforms, which are more common for local service, while High Speed Rail had been planning on ~50″ platforms, which are more common for high-speed long-distance service.  High Speed Rail claims that the high platforms are required to support the speed needed for the service, and therefore the search for compatibility solutions focused on enabling Caltrain to use higher platforms, while still providing the capacity needed for peak hour commute service.

At the meeting, Supervisors Wiener and Cohen expressed frustration that it had taken until recently to make progress on compatibility, and gratitude that progress was eventually being made.

Dave Couch of Caltrain presented potential solutions that had been considered (see below), including current thinking about a potential workable solution. Caltrain could buy a set of electric rail cars with two sets of doors.  Caltrain would use both doors during a migration period. Once all of the low platforms were replaced, Caltrain would close up the low doors. This solution would provide Caltrain with the train design that would provide needed capacity and service (bi-level cars that fit more passengers, fast-accelerating electric multiple units supporting speed on a corridor with many stations).

However, even with this approach Caltrain faces challenges with migrating to a compatible system.   The initial plan for electrification provided funding to replace only 75% of the diesel cars – the remaining 25% would remain in service, and would be replaced later on.   However, once the first platforms are upgraded to 50″, the old low-platform diesel trains couldn’t be used.  Not to mention, in order to migrate, the platforms would need to be changed, and there is no funding to change the platforms.

Caltrain compatibility choices

Caltrain compatibility choices

Ben Tripousis of High Speed Rail followed with potential solutions to these funding challenges – he announced that High Speed Rail was considering contributing funding to the replacement of the full diesel fleet, and funding for platform changes, in order to achieve compatibility for the corridor, which would help Caltrain performance and cost-effectiveness in the short to medium term and High Speed Rail compatibility in the long term.

Supervisor Jane Kim reinforced the need to fund compatibility solutions, from the San Francisco perspective. “Achieving compatibility would raise Caltrain costs upfront, while providing greater value over time. The regional bodies will need to work together to raise the funding to achieve the value.”

More work will be needed to vet the various options.  Caltrain and High Speed Rail will present options with tradeoffs for the consideration of boards (Caltrain, HSR, Transbay) and other funding partners. Decisions are expected to be made in the spring, including an updated funding agreement to pay for the solution.

Compatibility timeline

Compatibility timeline



Caltrain customer confusion – holiday shopping schedule

On Black Friday, we heard several reports of Caltrain customer confusion, with people who didn’t know that Caltrain was running a Saturday schedule.   On Friday, BART and SamTrans were running regular weekday schedules.

Did you do any of your holiday visiting, errands and shopping via transit?  I took Caltrain to a Thanksgiving dinner and carpooled home – I regularly find the early closing Sunday schedule for holidays to be a pain for holiday travel – do you? Share your holiday transit stories and schedule wishes in comments. 

FTA planner: blended station designs may benefit Bay Area

Transbay may not be the only blended station in the Peninsula corridor that would benefit from a more efficient and effective use of space, according to Eric Eidlin of the Federal Transit Administration, at a recent presentation at the 2014 Rail~Volution conference covering research on European High Speed Rail systems supported by the German Marshall Fund (GMF). Based on his research, which will also be published soon in report form, Eidlin concludes that not only is it feasible to create compact, combined stations, but these stations can become popular destinations that generate economic value for host cities and agencies.

Shared platforms for more efficient rail connections

Caltrain and High Speed Rail have recently been working together to identify rail car designs that will provide the greatest level of combined rail service into the space-constrained Transbay terminal by enabling interoperable platforms.

This represents a change from an earlier design for Transbay and other California High Speed Rail stations that had dedicated platforms separated from local and other regional service.  Eidlin’s research shows how other parts of the world are able to create integrated platforms, providing faster and more efficient passenger transfers among long-distance, regional, and local transit.  The possibility of quick and easy connections, as well as the possibility of creating high-speed rail stations that are destinations within urban neighborhoods, are competitive advantages for high speed rail compared to air travel, but only if these advantages are recognized and stations are designed to make the most of them.

In his Rail~Volution presentation, Eidlin reports that “the experience of French and German stations suggests that it is possible to accommodate high speed trains at conventional rail platforms.”    “The image below of Berlin’s Main Station, which was completed in 2006, clearly demonstrates the close integration of rail modes, showing three distinct rail services running parallel in the same corridor and arriving at the same station with shared platforms.

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 10.11.40 AM.png

Blended service at Berlin Main Station.  High speed train docked at platform (front) with regional train (middle) and S-Bahn commuter (rear).  Source: user Ralf Reineke.

European stations have compatible platforms that are able to accommodate more rail service and a greater variety of modes than is currently contemplated for California High Speed Rail.  Lyon Part-Dieu, the most important rail station in France for train connections, “accommodates hundreds of high speed, regional, and conventional trains in just one single-level rail yard with eleven parallel platforms tracks.”   The Lyon station supports more than twice the number of trains that are expected to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2029, the estimated opening year of HSR operations between the two cities.

In addition to providing a superior customer experience, European blended stations with shared platforms are cheaper to construct, within smaller station footprints, requiring less real estate and fewer building materials.

Based on these examples, Eidlin recommends that the High Speed Rail Authority work with Caltrain and other regional services to consider opportunities for greater integration at San Jose Diridon, Millbrae, and Los Angeles Union Station.  Unfortunately, the HSR platform configurations that have been publicly released for Diridon Station and LA Union Station all show HSR platforms separate from conventional tracks.  These designs, however, were created before “blended system” concepts were introduced in the 2012 business plan, whereby High Speed Rail shares infrastructure with regional rail services, a plan with a lower price tag that helped garner legislative approval.    The good news is that Eidlin reports that the California High Speed Rail Authority is now willing to explore opportunities for more integrated station design, according to Michelle Boehm, Southern California Regional Director for CAHSRA.

Designs for tight transfers to local transit

In addition to “parallel integration” with regional and commuter rail services at shared platforms, German stations also provide “stacked” integration with local subways, buses, and light rail.


Seamless transfer between streetcar (below) and intercity rail (above) in Erfurt.  Photo: Eric Eidlin.

Eidlin describes the integration with local transit at Erfurt, Germany: “…at Erfurt Main Station, streetcars—the dominant mode of public transit in Erfurt—run directly underneath and perpendicular to the rail platforms.  Streetcar passengers step off the streetcar onto the sidewalk and go up one level to the rail platforms via escalators.  This transfer takes about 30 seconds.  The directness of this connection makes streetcars a convenient means of getting to the station.  The entire streetcar system also runs on ten-minute headways or better, so passengers never need to wait very long for their streetcar.”

Eidlin notes that  from an economic development perspective, smaller footprints for rail yards, platforms, and other track infrastructure may also allow for greater private-sector development opportunities in and around the station.  In Europe, High Speed stations, like the station shown below in Leipzig, are often destination malls.  Destination stations with retail and entertainment attractions can help meet the economic development goals of host cities including San Jose and Millbrae, while potentially providing opportunities to finance some of the transportation infrastructure.


More value from the blended system

 Once Caltrain and High Speed Rail agreed to create a “blended system” to provide cost-effective, lower impact electric rail service between San Francisco and San Jose with long-distance service to LA, the agencies and the region took on a responsibility to use the shared space more efficiently.

This blending can create opportunities for a better passenger experience with closer connections, lower station construction costs, and better economic development outcomes for cities.  Achieving the benefits of more compact, blended stations will require the High Speed Rail Authority, along with partner agencies and host cities to re-think the large, less-integrated, more costly stations that were proposed in the first-generation station designs.  Although building blended stations may be cheaper in monetary terms, it requires challenging coordination among numerous transportation agencies as well as the host city.  The Bay Area, which is home to 27 separate transit agencies, is not yet been known for excellence in providing integrated transit service. But the prospect of rail stations as destinations fostering local economic development, providing integrated transportation services that maximize ridership and reduce traffic, parking, and greenhouse gas emissions, can motivate everyone to work together, along with the attention of state and federal investors who want to see the best value for the substantial investments.

December community meetings, BART to Silicon Valley

For those interested in the project to connect BART to Caltrain at Diridon, and the other stations that might or might not get build as part of the plan (Alum Rock, Santa Clara, Downtown San Jose), VTA has confirmed three meeting dates and times have been confirmed during early December.

Monday, December 1, 2014, 6:30pm
School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza
1700 Alum Rock Ave, San Jose

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 6:30 pm
VTA Customer Service Center
55 West Santa Clara Street, San Jose

Tuesday, December 9, 2014, 6:30 pm
Santa Clara University, Locatelli Hall – Bldg. 710
500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA

Should SamTrans run Caltrain? Key contract requirement has expired

The SamTrans board is starting the process to appoint the new CEO for SamTrans and Caltrain. However, the provision requiring SamTrans to run Caltrain has a time condition which has expired.  Should SamTrans continue to run Caltrain, given transportation needs nearly 20 years after the current structure was created?

SamTrans’ responsibility to run Caltrain is granted according to a provision in the  Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Agreement that was signed in 1996, creating Caltrain in its current form, following San Mateo County’s purchase of the right of way (ROW) from the state.  The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB) was created to govern Caltrain, and SamTrans was designated as the agency that would manage the Caltrain service.

The JPA states in section 6B, “SamTrans hereby is appointed as Managing Agency for the duration of the term, provided, however, that the JPB may replace SamTrans as the Managing Agency upon one (1) year’s prior written notice given at the end of any fiscal year after SamTrans has been fully repaid monies advanced by it to cover the ROW purchase price.”

As part of the temporary resolution to Caltrain’s 2011 fiscal crisis brokered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties finally paid back their portion of the right of way purchase.  So, with one year’s written notice, the Caltrain board now has the right to swap out SamTrans as the managing agency, in which case Caltrain and SamTrans would need different leadership.

Meanwhile, content in SamTrans’ strategic plan suggests that the agency might not mind being rid of its Caltrain obligations.  On page 9 of the Draft Strategic Plan, SamTrans takes credit for reducing its contribution to Caltrain by $39,400,000 between 2009 and 2014.

Conditions have changed substantially since San Mateo County rescued the Peninsula Corridor rail line.   Facing declining ridership Southern Pacific once considered replacing the ailing rail service with vanpool shuttles.


When SamTrans took over the rail service, average weekday ridership was 64,000, and Caltrain ridership was only 26,000.  Today, Caltrain’s average weekday ridership is about 60,000, and SamTrans average weekday ridership has declined to about 40,000.

Caltrain is in the process of a major electrification project which will help it carry more riders.  Given ridership increases, Caltrain needs to do capacity planning and implement incremental improvements to be able to keep up with demand. Over the next decade, Caltrain will have increasing demands to provide integrated service with BART, when BART connects to Caltrain at Diridon station in San Jose, and with High Speed Rail, when the services connect at Diridon and Transbay.

Leading Caltrain through the upcoming transition period will be a big job, and a different job from the priorities of SamTrans.   Should the agencies continue to be coupled?  Should the same executive be responsible for managing both services?

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