Electric Exuberance

A commuter-train experiment in California may have big implications
by | September 2007

Caltrain, the commuter-rail line that runs between San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, is in the midst of a comeback, generated by the success of an unorthodox gamble. Faced with a large deficit in 2005, the system naturally considered reducing service. But it rejected that and decided it could fill its $13.5 million hole by increasing service and thus attracting more riders. The scheme worked, despite some higher fees, as the Bay Area economy rebounded from its dot-com collapse. Now, Caltrain is preparing to do something even more unusual--switch from diesel-powered trains to electric.

Electric commuter rail is common in Europe but unusual in the United States. One of the reasons is that most of our commuter trains share tracks with freight trains. That has led to an insistence from federal regulators on heavy, "crashworthy" vehicles--a standard that electric cars have trouble meeting. Caltrain has the luxury of controlling its own tracks and claims it will fashion strategies to avoid crashes involving its lighter electric trains.

If the Federal Railroad Administration buys this argument, Caltrain should be able to double the number of daily trains that it runs, to nearly 200. The reason, says Jonah Weinberg, a Caltrain spokesman, is that "the new, lighter equipment would allow us to speed up faster and stop faster" between stations. More trains should encourage more ridership, with people able to show up at the station confident that their waiting time will be 10 minutes or less.

Although electric has its advantages, it clearly won't be for everyone. The infrastructure required for running electric trains has greater upfront costs than the infrastructure for diesel trains. That's what they've found out in Denver, where the new FasTracks system will include two lines each of diesel and electric.

Despite the concerns about cost, electric made sense for the lines with more stations, including the ride from downtown out to the airport, says Scott Reed, of the Denver Regional Transit District. The appeal lies not only in faster starting and stopping but also in reduced noise and pollution along the rail lines. Diesel will be used on lines with fewer stations, since it typically can travel at a higher top speed.

"I don't hear a groundswell moving toward electric," says Martin Schroder, senior manager of rail programs for the American Public Transportation Association. "I can't tell you that diesel is going away." But Caltrain's electric experiment, if successful, may lead to a re-examination of commuter-train options in many other places.