Community input for Caltrain corridor freight deal?

An important next step in the deal for Union Pacific to pull out of providing freight service on the Peninsula corridor is a Request for Proposals for a Short Line operator to carry freight instead of UP.  A switch to a short line operator could potentially offer big benefits to freight customers, Peninsula communities, and Caltrain’s capital budget, but it depends on what the terms are for the company replacing Union Pacific.

Caltrain and local communities could stand to save very large amounts of money and have more appealing grade separation designs if the operator that is selected could run equipment that could take slightly higher grades.  For example, such a shift would change the price tag of a trenched grade separation through three crossings in Palo Alto from an estimated $Billion to $500 Million.

Also, local freight customers would welcome a freight operator that provided better local customer service.  According to Greg Greenway of the Peninsula Freight Users Group, the customers for the freight services, the reason the group was initially formed was to seek a Short Haul freight operator instead of Union Pacific.  The $20Billion freight carrier with over 30,000 miles of rail lines across the Western United States understandably has provided minimal attention to the small freight market on the Peninsula corridor.

The deal calls for Union Pacific to select a Short Line operator, and for Caltrain to approve the selection.  Key terms affecting the types of equipment and the local service will be covered in the bid solicitation.  So an important question is whether Caltrain will take this opportunity to solicit and consider the input of stakeholders including local communities and freight customers.

The deal also raises other questions for the long term. The deal requires that Caltrain agree to “never” electrify UP’s Main Track 1 from Santa Clara to the a spot south of Tamien on the land Caltrain owns. In the long run, will this pose constraints on passenger service?  Also, the deal has UP turning over freight and intercity rights from Santa Clara to San Francisco. This leaves UP with the intercity rights south of Santa Clara, including the segment from Tamien to Santa Clara with plentiful and growing rail service from Caltrain, ACE, Capitol Corridor, and eventually High Speed Rail, raising more logical capacity questions in the long term.

In the shorter term, the deal requires Caltrain to continue to ensure that freight trains using freight’s Positive Train Control technology be able to function on Caltrain’s lines north of Santa Clara, and that the Positive Train Control technology used by Caltrain trains can cooperate with freight trains on UP-owned lines to Gilroy.  This leaves Caltrain on the hook for freight interoperability with its troubled CBOSS train control project.