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The Magic of Electrified Trains
Electrified Caltrain service will finally demonstrate the benefits of this proven technology to American cities
A remarkable technology is about to make transportation in Silicon Valley much faster, much more convenient, and much more environmentally friendly. I’m speaking, of course, about electrified trains.
Unlike electric cars, autonomous cars or highway expansions, electrified trains can dramatically decrease travel times and increase transportation capacity through dense urban areas. Electrified trains can move more people, more quickly, using less space than any other technology in existence. The disruptors of Silicon Valley are about to find out that this proven transportation technology will actually provide greater benefits than any of the transportation innovations they’ve come up with.
This week, Caltrain, the rail line that goes from San Francisco to San Jose and beyond, revealed its proposed plan for electrified train service beginning in fall 2024. The plan crystalizes the benefits of electrified rail more clearly than any other document I’ve ever seen.
Once the electricity is turned on, Caltrain riders will experience as much as a 25% decrease in travel time, and a 20% increase in service, all with the same number of trains. Those figures will improve even more once the agency gets more trains on the corridor in the coming years, setting the stage for Caltrain to become more like BART, a fast, frequent, urban metro system, than an infrequent peak-hour only commuter rail service.
It’s a wonder Caltrain did not publicize these figures earlier, as it labored to approve, fund, and construct this transformative project. But here we are, and now we can finally speak in concrete terms about the benefits of rail electrification. Other American cities should take note.
Electric trains are superior to diesel trains for several reasons. They can accelerate and decelerate much more quickly, which reduces travel times between stations and allows more trains to be on the line at the same time. They are zero-emissions, so they’re good for the climate and reduce local pollution. They’re quiet, so neighbors won’t be as bothered. And they’re cool as hell, providing a luxurious, high-tech passenger experience.
But the travel time improvements are what makes electrified trains a game changer.
With its current fleet of diesel trains, local Caltrain trains make the trip from San Francisco to San Jose in 100 minutes. Once electrified service begins, trains will make that trip in 75 minutes. Caltrain’s fastest express train currently makes the trip from San Francisco to San Jose in 65 minutes. With electrified service, that will drop down to 59 minutes.
If car manufacturers and highway builders could promise those kinds of travel time savings, don’t you think they would? They don’t because they can’t.
More stations will get more service with this new configuration. Currently, 9 stations see trains every 15 minutes, in each direction, at peak hours. That figure will jump to 16 stations once electrified service begins. All told, electrification will result in a 20% increase in service, and a time savings of 13% for the average passenger — all without increasing the number of trains on the line at all.
Once more trains are delivered in the coming years, express service could get even faster by making fewer stops between San Francisco and San Jose. Additionally, more stations could get more service, bringing frequency at some stations to as high as every ten minutes — much like BART or another metro system.
It’s worth pausing to appreciate these improvements. If car manufacturers and highway builders could promise those kinds of travel time savings, don’t you think they would? They don’t because they can’t. High-tech cars are still cars, taking up the same amount of space, and plying the same routes, with the same speed limits, as they always have. Thanks to the law of induced demand, expanded highways quickly fill up to capacity, nullifying any travel time gains, and often resulting in slower traffic than before.
Travel time is far and away the most important factor that determines how people travel. It goes without saying that electrification will make Caltrain far more competitive with driving. It takes about 50 minutes to drive from downtown San Francisco to downtown San Jose with no traffic. With traffic it can easily take an hour and a half or more.
Caltrain’s electrification project is unique, requiring special waivers from the Federal Railroad Administration for European-style lightweight trains. It was funded in large part by the California High-Speed Rail project, which will eventually share tracks with Caltrain to get to San Francisco. (The essential link between these two projects could have been much more clearly communicated to increase support for CAHSR.)
In the next couple of years, construction is expected to begin on Caltrain and CAHSR’s Downtown Extension, which will bring trains into the heart of San Francisco’s financial district, just a short walk from BART and the Ferry Building. This project will make electrified Caltrain that much more useful. In the more distant future, Bay Area planners are considering extending the Caltrain tracks across the Bay to Oakland, which would provide a direct rail link from Silicon Valley to the East Bay and Sacramento.
Despite its special provenance, Caltrain electrification doesn’t have to remain an anomaly. Most big cities in the U.S. have the existing infrastructure, in the form of their legacy commuter rail systems, to do what Caltrain is doing.
Rail electrification projects have the potential to demonstrate that transit isn’t just about the environment or social equity or economic development, though these things are of course important. In the proper contexts, electrified trains — including subways, regional rail services like Caltrain, and high-speed rail — are actually a superior transportation technology that gets people where they need to go faster than they could otherwise travel. It can improve mobility and make people’s lives demonstrably better.
Maybe Caltrain can finally show the way to San Jose.