The Tragedy of Caltrain: Doomed Because of its Faustian Bargain

By Mike Brady
April 4, 2017

On the peninsula, between San Jose and San Francisco, Caltrain has been campaigning for some time for “electrification” of its system, arguing that switching from diesel to electric is the only way to modernize its system.

On the merits, this is a foolish argument:  Modern Tier 4 diesel systems offer a sound alternative, and would cost only one quarter as much as the electrification project. Locomotives meeting EPA’s Tier 4 specifications emit 85% less particulate matter and Nitrous Oxide than earlier diesel trains. Recently, Metrolink, a commuter railroad in Southern California announced that it was converting its fleet to Tier 4 diesel.  If Tier 4 is good enough for Metrolink – a much larger system – why not Caltrain?

Electrification of the Caltrain corridor is currently costed at $2.2 billion; diesel would cost approximately $500 million.  The downside:  you would get to San Francisco for dinner and a show about 3 minutes later than on an electric train!  Is that “sacrifice” worth more than $1.5 billion in additional costs, given our scarce financial resources and our many other public needs?

Just a few months ago, the Federal Railroad Administration announced a regulatory reform that will allow US railroads to run much lighter trains than previously permitted.  This will improve acceleration, speed, and reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions further (similar to the vaunted lightweight European and Japanese High-Speed Rail trains).  Few people know about this.  The fact is that Caltrain has actively suppressed all studies of modern Tier 4 diesel as a viable and cheaper alternative. Now, let’s analyze the brief story of why that has all occurred.

Caltrain demands electrification because it has made a “Faustian Bargain” with the High Speed Rail Authority.  Caltrain has agreed to be a partner with the Authority in bringing statewide HSR to the peninsula along its 52-mile corridor.  Caltrain has entered an agreement with the HSR Authority providing that if the Authority will give Caltrain $600 million from the HSR Prop 1A bond fund, Caltrain will turn over control of the corridor to the Authority, give it a “possessory” interest, and allow it to run HSR trains on Caltrain tracks.

The first effect of all this was to damage Caltrain’s chances of getting a $647 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA); Caltrain had to represent that its application to the FTA had nothing to do with HSR and that Caltrain was a standalone local commuter operation.  But Congress did not buy that in light of the extensive relationships between Caltrain and HSR – and especially in light of the agreement mentioned above as well as the use of bond money given to Caltrain by HSR, when that money must be used only for HSR purposes.  Congress has been on record since 2014 as saying that there will be no more federal money for California HSR (because of the incompetence of the HSR Authority in running the project).  So, Caltrain’s gamesmanship did not work, and the grant has been withheld.

Also, the key evidence that Caltrain has to provide to get FTA funding is to show that the grant is needed by Caltrain to “increase” Caltrain’s “capacity.”  This means the ability to carry more passengers, with Caltrain claiming that it is currently “maxed out” carrying 60,000 passengers/day, and needs FTA financial help to allow at least 100,000 passengers/day.  That’s a pretty key argument!  But Caltrain made a Faustian bargain which dooms its ability to achieve such capacity.  Why?  Because it has now agreed to share the tracks with HSR, and the HSR trains will displace Caltrain commuter trains, making it impossible for Caltrain to increase capacity.

This is the Faustian bargain: Faust made a bargain with the devil; he received short term selfish benefits, but doomed his life over the long term.  Caltrain has done the same, and the key proof that it had to make to the FTA can never exist or be achieved.  These choices were made by Caltrain itself.  Had it chosen Tier 4 diesel, and divorced itself from the HSR project, it could have added capacity and saved billions.  If this makes statewide HSR impossible, so be it.  it has collapsed in popularity and support among the voters (and, secretly, among the legislators) anyway.

It is not too late; if Caltrain made the wise choices, then maybe, just maybe, it could get its grant and move ahead to a promising and hopefully profitable future.  Maybe it’s time for a bargain with the angels, and not the devil!