Caltrain negotiates to loosen March 1 deadline, local leaders stand up for blended schedule

At Thursday’s Local Policymaker Working Group, Caltrain government affairs staffer Casey Fromson said that the agency was negotiating with its contractors to extend the March 1 deadline locking in the offers to electrify the line and purchase electric rail cars. If the deadline isn’t modified, Caltrain would need to renegotiate the prices and terms, putting the project at risk.

As readers likely know, the project is under pressure because Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao deferred approving the high-ranked project to wait for the Trump Administration budget.

The Local Policy Maker Working Group is a body with representatives from all of the cities on the Caltrain line that weighs in on topics relating to Caltrain modernization and the blended system with high speed rail. Live tweets from the meeting are storified here.

Thursday’s meeting was hosted by the High Speed Rail Authority, with CHSRA CEO Jeff Morales in town and presiding.  Morales declared his strong support for Caltrain electrification and expressed confidence that the threatened projects would continue; “big projects survive many near-death experiences.” The authority showed a video illustrating how 80% of the 1000 construction jobs in the Central Valley are held by local workers, reducing unemployment in the area. On Friday, Governor Jerry Brown proposed the High Speed Rail project – along with flood protection and highway projects in the Central Valley as infrastructure projects for President Trump’s budget, countering California’s Central Valley reps efforts to harm High Speed Rail.

Also at the meeting, local policymakers asked multiple questions about the potential impact of passing track choices being considered in the planning for high speed rail on the quality of service for Caltrain customers.   According to the most recent studies from the High Speed Rail Authority, the worse-performing options would result in Caltrain trips to be 6-7 minutes slower on average, as Caltrain would have trains have to sit on the sidelines waiting for fast trains to pass. The published reports didn’t yet show the impact of the passing track choices on train bunching – which would make passengers wait for an extended period for trains, and would make gate downtime nearly continuous when bunched trains pass at-grade crossings one after another.

High Speed Rail representatives said that the studies about bunching would be released, and the data about the options would be widely disseminated for public feedback before the authority is scheduled to select a “preferred alternative” this coming summer.  Thankfully, the latest presentation from the High Speed Rail Authority no longer described the version with no passing tracks, which would degrade Caltrain service and cross-town travel, as the alternative with “lower impact.”  If you happen to attend any of the upcoming neighborhood meetings in Santa Clara or San Jose (see slides), please watch to see if the presentation is consistent.

Local leaders also remained interested in getting updated information about the process for Union Pacific to solicit a short-haul freight operator for the Peninsula Corridor – in particular, for the ability to require the operator to tolerate a slightly steeper grade, which could reduce the cost and improve design options for grade separations.  Greg Greenway, the head of the Peninsula Freight Users’ Group representing the Peninsula’s freight shippers, urged Caltrain – which needs to give its approval of the choice – to use its influence and require a public process for topics including the grade. The topic will  be on the agenda of a future LPMWG meeting.  We hope that this will publicly considered by the Caltrain board as well.