Caltrain electrification & Alternative Compliance

On the weekend of June 8 and 9, 2024, Caltrain suspended diesel passenger trains to allow testing of new electric trains on the corridor. While the testing of electric trains have been conducted for many months, seeing many of them in simulated operation during daytime is eye opening. The trains are quiet; start fast and stop fast. The riding experience should be transformative when these trains are to be fully rolled out in September. The operating plan for September is to only have electric trains serving all trips between San Francisco and San Jose, and diesel locomotive haul trains would provide service between Gilroy and San Jose, where the trains operate on Union Pacific owned tracks that aren’t electrified. Arguably, Caltrain will have the most advanced passenger train sets in North America.

Test EMU departing Burlingame

It was a long journey from more than 40 years ago when the State of California decided to save the commuter rail service operated by Southern Pacific Railroad. Southern Pacific, like other privately owned transit providers, was losing money on transit operation and wanted to discontinue the passenger service and solely focus on freight business. Unlike the previous decades, where governments mostly let passenger rail die in favor of buses and automobiles, the governments stepped in and took over when cities were suffering from air pollution and drivers were dealing with high gas prices.

We have the Southern Pacific, and it seems to me in these days, it’s highly inefficient to allow our present system to disintegrate, to fall apart and die and try to build up something new because of the costs that are involved. A lot of people bemoan the loss of the old trolley car system that used to run all around San Jose. I like to see us not let the Southern Pacific die also.

Emily Lyon, Mayor of Mountain View, testified in a 1977 Assembly Transportation Committee hearing in San Jose on the future of transit on peninsula corridor.

At the time Caltrans took over the commuter rail operation as an interim caretaker, BART was a relatively new and advanced system, Muni was completing conversion to Muni Metro system, and Santa Clara County was starting to build its own light rail. There was a question over the future of peninsula rail line and how it should fit in with the rest of the rail systems since they were all owned and operated by separate jurisdictions with their own expansion priorities.

Nonetheless, Caltrans and other rail supporters saw the peninsula line had high untapped ridership potential that needed public investments. In particular is the extension of the SF terminal from 4th & King to Transbay Terminal (now Salesforce Transit Center), and, to support underground train operation to the new terminal, electrification of the corridor.

1975 The feasibility of upgrading peninsula passenger rail service : Final Report

Electric train design dilemma

Since early 80s, studies for electrification considered electric multiple units and electric locomotives. While equipment choices existed for the locomotive option (basically whatever it was used in the Northeast Corridor), the EMU choice wasn’t clear cut. There was no off-the-shelf equipment that would be FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) compliant and satisfy Caltrain’s other requirements:

  • Compatible with mainline 25kv AC used by high speed rail
  • Bi-level (to maintain train length and avoid platform extensions)

The two main advantages with the E-60 option are cost and availability. The locomotives are surplus and may be purchased for significantly less than the other locomotive options. They also are available for immediate possession, as they have been constructed and now are in storage…

…Other disadvantages with the locomotive are more subjective. The locomotive is not a sleek, modern, and
technologically advanced machine. It has a dated appearance and uses old analog electronics. From a marketing and public acceptance perspective this may need to be considered.

2000 Caltrain internal study of rolling stock options, which included 2nd hand infamous GE E-60 locomotives from Mexico.

While Metra Electric and South Shore Line in Chicago operate double deck EMUs (same Gallery cars as Caltrain). Their standard is 1500v DC. FRA compliant AC EMUs exist in the East Coast, but only single deck with high floor. Bi-level AC EMUs exist in Europe but they were not FRA compliant. Because FRA required high buff strength, traditional American trains tend to be heavier and bulkier (and ugly). If Caltrain had to adhere to the traditional FRA standard and use bi-level cars, it would require risky new design.

Passenger rail in the US falls under two major categories: “railroad” and “rail transit.” Railroad means lines that are connected to the national network, and subject to FRA jurisdiction. Examples include commuter rail and intercity rail (Amtrak). Rail transit means lines that are segregated from the national network, and not subject to FRA. Those include light rail systems, streetcars, and rapid transit. Laws discourage interconnection and mixing of two different types of trains, but may provide waivers when they do, subject to various conditions.

Some light rail systems share tracks with freight trains on what used to be a mainline railroad right of way. Since light rail trains are not FRA compliant, a waiver from FRA would be required along with temporal separation, a time period where the tracks would be used by freight trains without the presence of light rail, usually during the overnight hours. While this may seem simple, many areas are reluctant to have freight service only during overnight hours due to impacts on freight train customers and noise impacts on residents.

Due to long term advocacy for electrification and downtown SF extension, the Caltrain Joint Powers Board, which took control of the rail line in 1992, and member agencies always expressed support for both projects. However for many years, electrification has been on the backburner, due to lack of funding and other priorities (first to improve tracks and platforms, and later to implement the Baby Bullet program), and didn’t go beyond the initial study. The first draft EIR on electrification was released in 2004 but wasn’t certified when planners couldn’t identify full funding for the project, so the decision on electric train design was deferred. Meanwhile Caltrain purchased more diesel locomotives and bi-level trailer cars to support introduction of express Baby Bullet service.

This EMU mock up photo was used by electrification advocates and eventually Caltrain to show what could look like.

When the stars align

2008 was the year that Caltrain got serious in pursuing electrification. Several things happened.

With the success of Baby Bullet and rapid ridership increase, Caltrain staff saw electrification as the next logical step to increase capacity on corridor. Bob Doty, Director of Rail Transportation at Caltrain at the time, made a case on September 4 to the board that the agency should use European style trainsets through use of FRA waiver & a new train control overlay.

A little over a week after that presentation, an unfortunate head on train crash, caused by a human error, occurred on the Metrolink system in Chatsworth. The crash prompted Congress to make positive train control a legal mandate. Caltrain’s plan for new train control overlay would be able to satisfy that requirement.

Later in November, voters in California approved Prop. 1A – High Speed Rail bond. The passage of the bond not only affirmed that Caltrain corridor will be a part of the statewide high speed rail system, funding will also be made available to electrify Caltrain, among other improvements along the corridor, to support high speed trains.

The new Obama Administration was very much supportive of high speed rail, along with other transit projects, as a way to provide economic stimulus in the midst of Great Recession. While most projects, including Caltrain electrification, wasn’t shovel ready, one of the related projects, the reconstruction of Transbay Terminal, received additional federal stimulus funding to construct an underground train box. That site was designated as the northern terminus of the high speed rail system.

In the meantime, the Obama Administration also began efforts to reform FRA crashworthiness regulations to support newer European style rolling stock that Caltrain and other transit agencies were seeking, along with high speed rail trainsets. The end result was a new FRA rule on Alternative Compliance in 2018. Instead of issuing waivers for each agency, the new standard would uniformly apply for those who want to purchase modern trainsets. Alternative Compliance allows for lighter weight trains with Crash Energy Management to operate on the same track along with traditional equipment without temporal separation. The rest of railroad regulations (like crew qualifications, size, emergency exits) still apply. Caltrain’s electric trains now meet the Alternative Compliance standard.

Pre and post Alternative Compliance

At least one new system that I know of that opened in the last decade that has considered using lighter weight vehicles, but opted to go full compliance. In 2009, SMART in the North Bay chose to go with full complaint DMUs because lighter weight vehicles would require a waiver and temporal separation from freight trains. They determined that running freight trains during overnight hours would be unacceptable. If the FRA Alternative Compliance rule were to be in effect then, SMART might have chosen lighter weight vehicles for better performance and lower platforms. Before new rules were adopted, some rail car builders marketed their fully compliant DMUs as the better option. Years prior, TriMet in Portland, Oregon ordered fully compliant DMUs for the WES line from Colorado Railcar, but that boutique railcar maker had gone bankrupt during vehicles’ production, and the transit agency had to essentially take over the company so that vehicles could be delivered.

Since adoption of new rules, two recent DMU lines opened using lighter weight DMUs: TexRail and Metrolink Arrow. Those lines use Stadler FLIRT trainsets and share tracks with traditional locomotive hauled passenger trains at various locations. With the Arrow line, a longer, lower level platform was built in Downtown Redlands for peak period locomotive hauled trains offering direct service to Downtown Los Angeles.

Caltrain so far is the only agency to have Alternative Compliant trains to replace existing locomotive hauled trains. It also, unlike the two new lines, serves a very established corridor with commuter demand in both directions. Caltrain electrification would also for the first time to establish a full electric rail link around the San Francisco Bay.

Back in 2004, I witnessed the Baby Bullet service being a game changer resulting in rapid ridership increases for many years before COVID. We will have to see whether electrification will speed up post-pandemic ridership recovery. Many have fairly suggested that ridership is no longer just traditional peak hour downtown commuters, but ridership for different purposes spread throughout the day, similar to rapid transit systems. A study in 1975 already presented a long term scenario where Caltrain could become a BART-like service with frequent and fast trains, but not something that could be realistically funded at that time. With the completion of this project and a new train schedule planned for September, Caltrain will have the state of the art trains to support a type of service that, for the last 4 decades, seemed out of reach.

Conversion to full transit service would have considerable growth and development impact on the train corridor…

…The conversion would for all practical purposes close the option of extending BART. It would provide integration with the regional transport system and supply a service level comparable to BART.

1975 – The feasibility of upgrading peninsula passenger rail service : Final Report