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Caltrain hopes for boost from high-speed rail

(The following story by Michael Cabanatuan appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle website on April 28, 2010.)

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. Caltrain, the Peninsula's beleaguered commuter railroad, needs a jolt of electricity to assure its long-term survival, the transit system's executives have concluded, and it needs the assistance of high-speed rail to deliver the power.

Financial projections released by Caltrain show that converting the diesel-powered railroad to one that runs on electricity delivered through overhead wires would reverse its fortunes by drawing more riders and reducing fuel costs. Faster trains would lead to a 49 percent increase in revenue, the projections concluded, while expenses would remain stable.

"It's the ballgame," said Mark Simon, a Caltrain spokesman. "We've maximized out the way we run Caltrain, and the only way it's going to survive is if we change the way we run it - if we electrify it."

The struggling economy, falling ridership and likelihood of decreased funding from all three of the transit agencies that support the commuter rail service - the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Mateo County Transit District and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority - already threaten to create a $30 million budget gap that could force the elimination of midday, night and weekend trains. Unlike other transit agencies, Caltrain lacks its own dedicated funding source, and relies on the voluntary contributions of the partners.

"When times were good, when ridership was increasing and sales taxes were rising, we could patch together our budget," said Christine Dunn, a Caltrain spokeswoman. "Now, with decreases in ridership and decreases in funding from the partners, we can't."

But down the line, the financial picture looks even more dire. Without electrification, Caltrain's operating deficit at the current service level would plunge the agency $61 million into the red by 2019, according to projections. But with a modernized electric railroad, the deficit would be about $27 million - still difficult but manageable, authorities say. By 2035, the projections show, the railroad would have a $14 million deficit.

"Electrification doesn't solve the problem," said Michael Scanlon, chief executive officer for Caltrain, "but it cuts it in half."

Caltrain has eyed electrification for decades, and planned for it since 1999. But the estimated $1.3 billion cost of a project that includes installing electrical supply and a whole new fleet of lighter, faster trains has precluded it from proceeding.

"Here enters the high-speed rail opportunity," said Scanlon.

Because the high-speed rail system would use the Caltrain right of way to zip between San Francisco and San Jose, it would need to install the electrical infrastructure to power the trains. According to Caltrain, the High Speed Rail Authority would cover $516 million of the $785 million cost of installing the power infrastructure.

"We don't have the funds to electrify Caltrain without high-speed rail," said Dunn.

Some high-speed rail critics on the Peninsula, where some cities and residents want to derail the fast train project or make sure it's placed underground, have said they doubt Caltrain's dire financial projections, and figure it's a ploy to push high-speed rail.

Sarah Armstrong, of the citizens group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design, won't go that far. But she said her group, which advocates community involvement in high-speed rail and Caltrain planning, thinks it's important to look at the two rail operations and their needs separately.

Scanlon insists Caltrain is not trying to fool anybody.

"I certainly understand that people are skeptical," he said. "But we're just trying to keep a struggling railroad in service."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

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