Caltrain Electrification Q&A

Answers from Pensinsula Rail 2000, the Caltrain riders' group.

Q: How much will electrifying Caltrain cost?

A: A precise answer cannot be given until all studies are completed, but based on the recently completed electrification of the high speed Amtrak line from Boston into Connecticut and other projects around the world, it will cost approximately 2 million dollars per mile of double track line. This cost includes erecting the poles and stringing the wires, building electrical substations and connecting them to the power grid, as well as some other items, like making sure the electrification doesn't interfere with train signals and building guards on overbridges to keep people away from the power wires.

So to electrify the 50 miles from San Francisco to San Jose will cost somewhere between $100 million and $150 million. The costs of electrifying the additional 27 miles to Gilroy are harder to estimate, since the tracks themselves are not owned by Caltrain and it is not known whether one track or two tracks would provided. It may cost as much as $60 million.

In addition to just providing the wiring to power the trains, Caltrain will need to purchase electric trains. There are two ways this can be done. One possibility is that Caltrain could completely replace its locomotives and its antique fleet of passenger cars with high-performance "Electric Multiple Unit" trains. These are, like BART's, self-propelled trains without separate locomotives. The other option is to replace the existing diesel locomotives with electric locomotives. Since modern electric locomotives are very much more reliable, 19 or 20 electric locomotives could do the work of Caltrain's 23 diesels.

Electric locomotives recently bought by New Jersey Transit and Amtrak have cost around $6.2 million each, so replacing Caltrain's locomotives would cost about $125 million, while selling the existing diesels might realize $30 million or so, for a net cost of approximately $90 million. EMU cars purchased by the Long Island Rail Road have cost about $2.3 million each, so replacing Caltrain's passenger fleet would cost around $250 million, minus $30 for diesel locomotive sales, minus perhaps $70 million for passenger car sales, for a total of around $150 million.

So putting these numbers together, we can arrive at figures anywhere between $200 million and $350 million to transform either 50 or 77 miles of Caltrain into a modern, high-performance, quiet system, or around $4 million per mile. Just for comparison, building just 8.7 miles of BART to Millbrae is costing over $200 million per mile.

Q: How much travel time will be saved by electrifying Caltrain?

A: This is another question to which it is hard to provide a simple answer, because so much depends on what sort of train service is provided (a train which stops at every station, an express which makes only two stops between San Jose and San Francisco?) and on the progress of other track and signal upgrades which are happening along the Caltrain line.

But to reduce it to a single number, a 1998 Caltrain upgrade study showed that an electric all-stops local train might be 12 minutes faster, or about 13%, in a trip between San Francisco and San Jose. As Caltrain track rehabilitation proceeds, the electric trains will have a bigger advantage as they are to reach higher top speed faster, becoming over 16 minutes faster.

Q: How much quieter would electrified Caltrain be?

A: Electric trains are very much quieter than Caltrain's old diesels. Measurements done for a 1992 Caltrain electrification report show that the noise from the locomotive, measured 100 feet from the tracks, drops from 87dBA for a diesel to 69dBA for an electric locomotive, nearly a fourfold reduction in engine noise.

Q: Why not replace Caltrain with BART? Won't it cost the same as electrifying Caltrain?

A: BART is astronomically more expensive than Caltrain. Recent BART extensions are costing over $200 million per mile. By contrast, the all-in costs for electrifying the existing Caltrain line, enabling it to provide service which is both faster and roomier than BART's, is between $4 million and $5 million per mile, or about one fortieth the cost! To replace the entire Caltrain line with BART could cost as much as ten billion dollars ($10,000 million) and would take from fifteen to twenty years to fund and construct and there could be no Caltrain service while the replacement was undertaken. In contrast, an upgraded Caltrain could provide as good or better level of service, be ready to run in just in three years, cost a tiny fraction of BART, and happen while existing diesel Caltrain continued to carry more and more passengers.

In the end we have to remember that the point is to carry passengers and to provide a good level of service. BART isn't the only way of doing this, as the hundreds of more Caltrain-like electric railroads in places like Japan and Switzerland show, and in fact it is by far the most costly and slowest way of delivering real improvements quickly. We should focus on ends, not means.

Q: Is electrification happening instead of extending to downtown San Francisco?

A: No, though electrification is a prerequisite. If and when the downtown San Francisco extension is completed, electric trains will be required in order to run in the final one mile tunnel to the downtown station. The downtown San Francisco station, connecting Caltrain, BART and dozens of bus lines from all over the region, seems to be getting back on track. Caltrain electrification can only help the process, while delivering better service to all riders all along the line.

Q: Santa Clara County's Measure A (SJ Mayor Gonzales' BART tax) has some money for electrifying Caltrain. Shouldn't I vote for it?

A: No! Absolutely not! If passed, the single 22 mile BART extension project alone will almost certainly gobble up the entire sales tax budget, based on the historical record of all BART extensions costing more than twice their initial budget estimates. Just as money and the political push for Caltrain improvements in San Mateo has been diverted to BART for the last ten years, the $425 million (out of $6,000 million) promised for Caltrain will be gobbled up by BART cost overruns.

A better idea than relying on empty promises made in haste and behind closed doors is to use the next two or four years to craft a more responsible, more realistic and more democratic funding strategy which addresses all of Santa Clara County's transit needs. This isn't the right plan, and it isn't the one which will deliver Caltrain improvements.

For more information see and Image of an electric Swiss Federal Railways train the the countryside

Q: Won't the overhead wires be an ugly visual intrusion?

A: No, the wires over the Caltrain line will actually be less intrusive than the hundreds of power, telephone and cable wires over our streets already. Modern rail overhead wiring involves a steel pole every 100 feet or so, with three wires hanging between them. From the side, adjacent to the line, it is scarcely visible. Caltrain's wires won't be very much different from the wires which power VTA's Light Rail line from Mountain View station to Great America.

Q: Won't overhead wires and electromagnetic fields cause health problems?

A: No scientific research has ever revealed any definitive links between electromagnetic fields and any health problem. The highest magnetic fields, directly above transformers inside the trains themselves, amount to less than the earth's natural magnetic field, and drop off very rapidly with distance from the tracks, and contemporary railroad electrification design, using "autotransformer" systems, is designed so that wires with opposite phases lie near to each other, their EMF fields nearly cancelling.

Q: Won't it be unsafe to have high voltage lines all over the place?

A: No more dangerous than any existing power line. The wires which power the trains will be over twenty feet in their air, well above the tracks. The poles which hold the wires up do not have and sort of ladders or handholds. The wires and supports will be inspected regularly to ensure reliable train operation. And remember that since nobody should be walking along railroad tracks anyway, Caltrain electrification wires will be more removed from people than most street power wiring.

Q: Why not use ground-level third rail?

A: Third rail, like that used by BART, has a large number of disadvantages and is generally only used for urban subways. The main disadvantage is the huge safety problem: while overhead electric wires are safety out of harm's way, a 600 to 1000 volt energized rail at ground level is a major safety hazard. This means that a system using third rail must be completely separated from the possibility of human contact, which means many hundreds of millions of dollars of cost to completely fence off the line and to remove all road crossings immediately. By contrast, the road crossings of an overhead electrified system can be removed a few at a time as traffic levels and available money warrant. Another disadvantage is that third rail systems can only provide a limited amount of power. Propelling trains at high speed requires a lot of power, and the higher voltages carried by overhead lines make it easier to provide faster Caltrain (and future high speed rail) service. Overhead wire is that choice for all new railroad electrification projects around the world, with the exception of some subway systems.

Q: I saw stuff like what Caltrain is proposing 30 years ago in New Jersey. What do they mean when they say it is "state of the art"?

A: Just as the basic shape of a wheel hasn't changed in thousands of years, or the bicycle hasn't evolved very much in a hundred years, some ideas are fundamentally sound, and benefit mostly from refinements and incremental improvements rather than wholesale replacement. The most modern and efficient railroads in the world, including the bullet trains of Japan and the TGV trains of France, all run underneath overhead wires whose basic design, if not their sophisticated engineering, would be familiar to an engineer from the 1920s. What has changed is that the system has become more reliable, able to accommodate more powerful and far faster trains, and has become less visually intrusive as slim, free-standing steel masts have replaced the overhead gantries which supported wires in the early systems.

Q: Won't everything fall over in earthquakes?

A: No, not before most everything else has collapsed! The electric wires themselves are comparatively light-weight, and the suspension system itself is inherently flexible. A greater problem for Caltrain than falling overhead is that a large earthquake may misalign the tracks. Railroad overhead wiring is at least as robust as any other overhead powerline.

Q: Wouldn't Caltrain be more reliable without overhead wires to break down?

A: Firstly, ask yourself how could Caltrain possible be any more unreliable than it already is? Locomotive breakdowns are a fact of life for any regular rider.

Secondly, modern electric trains have a fantastic reliability record. Manufacturers have been supplying guarantees that their electric locomotives will run at least 300,000 miles between in-service breakdowns. On Caltrain, that would mean five years between breakdowns, not the several breakdowns a month we now experience!

The overhead wiring itself is very robust. Regular automated inspections will ensure that that it stays where it should be, and that preventative maintenance is performed where necessary.

Q:California doesn't have enough electricity. Won't Caltrain be browned out all the time?

A: There are several answers. The first is that Caltrain, like BART, may be designated a priority power customer, one of the last to lose power when too many residential air conditioners overwhelm the region's power facilities. The second is that Caltrain will be in effect building a mini distribution system itself, so that a failure of power in, say, San Francisco, will not affect the whole line. The last is that Caltrain may be able to directly buy power from a reliable source (perhaps Hetch Hetchy.)

Remember also that in the end all power has to come from somewhere. The crude oil which powers Caltrain's inefficient diesels could be firing an electric power station to supply more energy to electric trains instead.

Q: Why does it take so long to get anything done?

A1: Expletive deleted!

A2: Public pressure to deliver real, cost-effective transportation improvements in a timely fashion, like major upgrades to Caltrain, is a big part of it. If your elected representatives know that you expect results, they'll be under pressure to make their staff perform.

Image of Silicon Valley Express EMU at San Antonio Station, courtesy of Clem Tillier
How an electrified Caltrain could look, operating only a few years from now, if a real commitment is made to improving transit service along the San Francisco Peninsula.

For more information, visit Peninsula Rail 2000's web site at

Richard Mlynarik
Last modified: Fri Sep 15 12:41:18 Pacific Daylight Time 2000