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Caltrain or not, high-speed rail chugs ahead

(The following story by Mike Rosenberg appeared on the San Mateo County Times website on April 5, 2010.)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — With or without Caltrain, the California High-Speed Rail Authority still plans to run its bullet trains between San Jose and San Francisco, state planners said Monday.

Rail authority Deputy Director Jeff Barker said although there are plenty of benefits to sharing the corridor with Caltrain, the state can still build its high-speed railroad should Caltrain shut down or drastically cut its operations, as officials warned last week.

"It's not something that would make our system not viable," Barker said of the possibility of Caltrain closing. "Even if Caltrain didn't exist today, we'd still be planning high-speed rail that goes to San Francisco. And it's still one we're mandated to build."

For two years, Caltrain and the rail authority planned to share electrified tracks from San Francisco to San Jose, likely with two new tracks accommodating the bullet trains. But Caltrain officials said Thursday the agency has gone broke, will likely cut its service drastically in the next 15 months and may not survive to see the high-speed trains' arrival later this decade.

Barker said while it's logical to share railroad corridors that already exist — such as Caltrain and the Los Angeles Metrolink system — high-speed rail also will build new tracks in places such as the Central Valley.

In the case of the Bay Area, Barker said it would be theoretically possible to upgrade the existing Caltrain corridor and use it for high-speed trains if Caltrain folds. Such a scenario could prevent the expansion of the corridor, thereby eliminating the possibility of property-taking, which has contributed heavily to concerns over the project among Peninsula communities.

But the authority has yet to study that option and likely will not research it unless Caltrain officials make it clear they plan to close the agency, Barker said. He did say, however, that the rail authority could not step in and run a local service on its own.

He said the point of high-speed rail is to take passengers quickly from one metropolitan area to another, which in the case of California means connecting the Bay Area to Los Angeles. If the bullet trains were to stop at several stations from San Francisco to San Jose — Caltrain stops at 19 stations each weekday — the trip to Southern California would take too long and cease to be competitive with air travel.

Although Caltrain's demise would not stop high-speed rail, Barker said the rail system would benefit from local commuter service. Someone visiting Stanford from Southern California, for instance, would be more likely to take the bullet train to the Bay Area if she knew she could transfer to Caltrain and ride to Palo Alto.

After being briefed on the news Monday by Caltrain officials, Barker theorized as a "knee-jerk reaction" that a private operator might be able to take over Caltrain's operations. But Caltrain gets only 40 percent of its money from riders and relies heavily on government subsidies to survive, and officials there have deemed the business model unsustainable.

High-speed rail board member Rod Diridon, of San Jose, floated the possibility on Friday that the rail authority could essentially take over Caltrain. Diridon said it might make sense to study the option, whereby the two rail systems would be separate but both owned and operated by the state.

But Diridon was worried it would eliminate local control of the commuter system and might not make sense financially for the state.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

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