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Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss Leads Discussion on Caltrain Electrification

Santa Clara County supervisor sparks discussion on the benefits and challenges of electrifying the commuter rail system at a Palo Alto Town Hall meeting.

Since the 1980s, local governments and transportation advocates have argued for Caltrain’s electrification, stating it will give the commuter rail speedier service and reduce emissions.

At a Palo Alto Town Hall meeting Tuesday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss led a new discussion on the old topic. She explored the benefits through 2035 of converting the cash-strapped trains, which currently run on a combination of diesel fuel and electricity. Over 30 people from throughout the Peninsula poured into the City Council chambers for the morning meeting.

“The twenty-first century Caltrain will have much more frequent, active service,” said Kniss, who also sits on the Board of Directors at Caltrain. “But we still have to address the structural deficit and find a more permanent source of funding.”  

The entire project is about $600 million short of funding, but Kniss argued it would make up its costs by 2035 through lower operating costs and increased ridership. There would be a total of 114 trains versus the 98 now, yet net operating costs are expected to dwindle from the current $39 million to $23 million, said Kniss.

Switching from diesel to electric, she said, could reduce air pollution by up to 90 percent, as well as lower operating costs, and reduce the noise from other trains. The electrified trains are also expected to reduce energy consumption by 46 percent and noise vibration by 81 percent.

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Power Board has been in debate for years over electrifying the Caltrain system. The electrified trains would span from San Francisco to San Jose Diridion Station, a 55 mile stretch. There would be upwards of six trains an hour during peak hours.

Some audience members raised concerns that the speedier service would also have safety impacts. There have also been aesthetic concerns raised by the project, said Marian Lee, the Executive Officer of Planning and Development for the City of Palo Alto.

“Some folks feel the lines at the top would be an eyesore,” she said. The poles that host those lines would furthermore be an expensive undertalking at $780 million.

While the entire project has struggled to gain momentum due to a lack of funds, some are hopeful that it will gain fiscal support from the High-Speed Rail project. In April, state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D-Menlo Park) suggested combining the High-Speed Rail with Caltrain. They would spend $1.5 billion to electrify two Caltrain tracks, rather than the $6.1 billion to build new tracks between San Francisco and San Jose.

“If we want electrification to happen, we have to realize that High-Speed Rail is beneficial to the Peninsula,” said local David Irwin of the Sierra Club after the meeting.

Overall, Irwin said electrification fits nicely into California’s aim to use 33 percent renewable energy by 2020. “It should be a no-brainer,” he said.

commuter May 18, 2011 at 06:10 PM
Just do it. The sooner the better. If necessary, I'm willing to put up with HSR to get Caltrain electrified.
Reality Check May 18, 2011 at 07:14 PM
Caltrain electrification is long overdue. Plans to electrify Caltrain stretch back to the early 1990s, when Caltrans (who at that time provided the administrative staff and was the "inspiration" for the renaming of Southern Pacific Railroad's Peninsula Commute Service to "CalTrain") commissioned the first formal Caltrain electrification study.
Irvin Dawid May 20, 2011 at 01:57 PM
Kudos to Supervisor Kniss for calling this meeting. The three meeting presentations are available on her website: http://www.lizkniss.org/portal/site/d5/ (Click on Caltrain)

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