Caltrain’s Amazing Waiver With the FRA

Caltrain commuter rail already provides a critical link in the San Francisco Bay Area by connecting San Jose, San Francisco and many transit-hungry towns on the peninsula. With bare-bones hourly service outside of commute hours, Caltrain still attracts around 38,000 riders per day, nearly as many as BART’s Fremont Line across the bay. In this context, the news of the Federal Railroad Administration granting Caltrain a waiver to operate non-FRA compliant electric multiple unit (EMU) trains on its line is brilliant news. For the first time in the history of the United States, modern, metro-like rolling stock will be allowed to operate alongside heavier diesel passenger units and even limited freight trains. Caltrain is a great laboratory for the FRA to test its newfound flexibility because Caltrain is one of the few commuter rail lines in the United States that could justify operation at near-metro frequencies. Also, Caltrain owns the tracks and right of way from San Jose to San Francisco and limits freight operations to hours when the passenger trains are not running. With this waiver, the electrification of Caltrain has a full green light in the regulatory sense. Unfortunately, funding for the project and Caltrain in it’s current iteration is paltry. Following is a short history of Caltrain and an explanation of its structural deficiencies that have decimated its budget and could drastically reduce service.

Passanger service along Caltrain’s current right of way has been continuously operating since the 19th century. The Southern Pacific Railroad ran commuter service itself until the 1980’s when the operation ceased to be profitable. The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) began to subsidize the operation, still run by SP. Finally in 1985, CalTrans fully assumed control of the commuter railroad, purchased new locomotives and rolling stock and branded the operation as Caltrain. The current governance of Caltrain was established in 1987 when the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB) was formed, composed of representatives from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties. Unlike BART, the PCJPB lacks powers of taxation in its jurisdiction and is relies solely on contributions from member transit agencies, SamTrans, SCVTA and SFMTA. All three of these agencies are faced with massive funding shortfalls for their own bus and rail operations and have threatened to massively reduce subsidies for Caltrain. SamTrans has threatened to reduce its contribution by 23 million dollars. Such a reduction would cut all non-peak trains, including all trains on weekends. It is difficult to describe how tragic such a reduction would be.

To reduce operation costs and overhead the electrification of Caltrain is a necessity. The cost of running heavy, FRA-compliant, diesel locomotive hauled trains at 10 minute headways, as Caltrain currently does during peak hours, is astronomical. The bottom line with this FRA waiver is that Caltrain has received the first green light of many that will be crucial toward saving comprehensive service on the line. In the end, electrification and new rolling stock will be the saving grace of Caltrain. Who knows, with BART purchasing rolling stock soon we could see a unified look for rapid transit in the Bay Area with a joint purchase.


About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on May 31, 2010, in Metro Rail, San Francisco Bay Area and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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