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High-Speed Rail Plan Electrifies Caltrain

Local elected officials score rare victory in new business plan.

Say what you will about by the California High-Speed Rail Authority—that it’s still too expensive and risky, perhaps—but for , the new proposed design offers a rare victory.

Rather than leaving open the option of an aerial high-speed track up the Peninsula, as some previous design alternatives had called for, the new draft plan explicitly calls for .

Under the new “phased implementation” timeline, the rail authority would focus on building a “Bay to Basin” section connecting San Jose to the San Fernando Valley before creating a "blended" system with Caltrain.

These initial trains would at first link up Caltrain and other existing commuter rail systems, allowing riders to travel between San Francisco and Los Angeles by making a few station transfers.

After that 410-mile section is complete, and if the Authority can raise the money, they would then upgrade Caltrain and build new dedicated lines in Southern California in order to allow high-speed trains to travel all the way to and from San Francisco and Los Angeles.

California State Senator Joe Simitian said this represents an important change from previous plans.

“On a local level, the thing that is most significant is that essentially they’ve adopted a blended approach, which is what ,” said Simitian.

By the time the Authority is ready to electrify Caltrain in 2026, it will have already spent an estimated $40.8 to $48.3 billion on the Bay to Basin section. Creating the blended system with Caltrain and extending dedicated lines to LA and Anaheim would then add an additional $22.3 to 28.5 billion to the price tag and be completed, they say, by 2033.

The phased implementation, in which the system is built in segments, is a more flexible approach than previously proposed and would allow the Authority to raise capital for each new segment after proving that they can build and operate smaller pieces of the system.

For Caltrain, which is administered by the Peninsula Joint Powers Board and has , an upgraded system could be the difference between life and death.

California Assemblyman Rich Gordon, who along with Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) and Simitian pressured the Authority to adopt a blended system on the Peninsula, said that his skepticism over the viability and cost of the Authority’s new plan is tempered by the value it offers regional transit.

“You’ve hit on the kernal of my quandary,” he said. “While I’m skeptical particularly of us borrowing to achieve [high-speed rail] at the moment, I’m also very aware that the future of our regional rail on the Peninsula in many ways is linked to high-speed rail’s success."

Gordon said Caltrain could benefit with additional passing tracks, grade separation and electrification.

Waiting until 2033 to see that happen, however, means Caltrain will need to figure out how to stay solvent in the meantime.

“It’s difficult for us to imagine how to wait that long,” said Gordon. “I know that there are efforts under way, including efforts being taken by MTC, in order to secure operational funding.”

Caltrain currently runs on two tracks with some four-track sections, and is the only transit agency in California operating without a dedicated source of state funding, instead relying on local transit agencies and fare box returns. As budget cuts have forced transit agencies to cut payments, .

Regardless, the promise of an electrified future may breath life into efforts by Friends of Caltrain and other advocates to keep trains running in the meantime.

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Gordon will be chairing an oversight hearing in Palo Alto Council Chambers on November 15, 2011 at 1:30 p.m., where California High Speed Rail Authority officials will answer questions about the new draft business plan.

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