Electrification misconceptions

Although I agree with Randal O’Toole that BART to San Jose is a bad project, there’s no comparison between BART and the Caltrain electrification.

He wrote on the Antiplanner blog:

What is the point of that? Electric trains go no faster, carry no more riders, and consume as much energy as Diesel trains.

His assertion that electric trains are as fast as diesel trains just isn’t true. Electric trains accelerate and brake much quicker than diesel trains. You can feel the difference when you ride on a Caltrain pulling out of a station versus riding on BART and light rail. I felt the difference between Caltrain and the electrified trains (NJ Transit, SEPTA) on the East Coast.

The benefits coming from improved acceleration and braking add up during the course of the day. With the electric multiple units as proposed by Caltrain, a trip with 15 stops between San Jose and San Francisco will be 10 minutes faster than diesel trains. While a 10 minute saving may not mean much for some passengers, there is systemwide significance:

  • Trains would be turned around quicker, improving overall productivity by squeezing more trips from the same equipment and crew. Caltrain pays the crew by the hours, so there’s an financial incentive to improve productivity.
  • More trips means more riders and revenue by offering passengers more choices.
  • Trains would be able to make more local stops for the same travel time. The success of the Baby Bullet meant that some stations receive hourly service during the peak hours, and it couldn’t take advantage of the ridership and the available parking at those stations. Even though Caltrain is better off today in terms of ridership and fare revenue for not serving those station more often, Caltrain needs to tap into these market to further enhance ridership.

His other assertion about energy use doesn’t hold water either. According to Caltrain electrification EIR:

The Electrification Program Alternative would consume substantially less, or around 230 billion BTUs in 2008 and 310 billion BTUs in 2020 – only one-third of the energy consumption needs of the No-Electrification Alternative.

There’s still a reduction in energy use even when the energy to produce diesel and electricity is accounted for.

Caltrain’s ridership is already maxing out a few years after the start of the Baby Bullet. The double digit ridership increases a year ago is now narrowing to about 5 to 6%. Parking is full at many Baby Bullet stations such as Mountain View, Hillsdale and Sunnyvale. Electrification is necessary to increase train service, serve more stations, and keep operating cost under control.