Caltrain Modernisation

Before visiting Silicon Valley, I assumed the place to be very high-tech. When I finally went there, I discovered a very different reality: the San Francisco airport felt old, with carpets that smell like they had seen Ronald Reagan, the movie they used to play at the custom harked from the same period. Same-wise, riding Caltrain, the train that links San Francisco to San José, felt like a throwback to the 70s, a sense of dereliction at odds with the idea that this was literally one of the richest places on earth, and the epicentre of high-tech.

In the last years, there has been an ongoing project to modernise Caltrain, in particular to electrify the line and replace the old diesel trains with modern Electrical-Multiple-Units (EMUs). The project is part of the ill-fated California High-Speed Rail project, and had its share of trials and political fights.

What is interesting is that project is a big deal in Silicon Valley, but compared to other projects, it is pretty minor. At the core, we are talking about electrifying around 80 km of double track, equipping it with positive train control, adding some grade separation to enhance safety and running 16 6-car Stadler Kiss EMUs on it, with an estimated cost of 1.9 Billion US dollars.

The Bay Area has a population of around 8 millions, so basically the same as the whole of Switzerland, The GDP per capita is at 75K$/year, where Switzerland has 82K$/year, so they are similar. The bay area is much smaller than Switzerland, with a surface of 17’870 km² compared to 41’285 km². The length of the Caltrain line is roughly equal to the diameter of the Zürich S-Bahn network. So it makes sense to compare projects in these two areas.

The first thing to note is that the primary goal of Calmod is to bring the track to a state which Swiss tracks had since World-War II. After the coal shortages of World-War I, the Swiss government had pushed for electrification. EMUs were used around Zürich for local service since 1968, with the introduction of the RABDe 12/12. The first Stadler KISS were put into service on the Zürich S-Bahn network in 2011, 10 years before they will see service in California. All this to say that this project is far from revolutionary, these things has been done before, elsewhere.

The second thing to note, is that while the Calmod project is probably quite expensive given its low complexity, the overall budget is not that ambitious: The Brüttener tunnel project close to Zürich, has a budget of 2.8 Billion Swiss Francs, but here we are talking about a new, 9 km long tunnel, and not just grade separation, but bridges and tunnels to allow trains to switch between tracks without crossing the opposing one. The end goal is also more ambitious as it is to have four, high speed tracks between Zürich and Winterthur. The project should finish in 2035, probably before the California high-speed train project sees the day.

One thing that I found bizarre is even though Caltrain received money from the high-speed train project, and they are doing significant work in many stations, they have not raised the platform height of the various stations. Instead the new trains have two sets of doors, with the higher ones blocked by seats in the initial service. This feels like a ugly hack and bad planing.

Edit Stadler has some interesting slides about the Caltrain rolling stock.

Calmod logo, Public Domain.

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