Caltrain eyes spiffy coaches 

While detailing Peninsula trains with mag wheels isn’t part of the plan, Caltrain is moving ahead with plans to buy more of the high-end coaches favored by passengers for quieter rides, spacious seating and electrical outlets for computer use.

The commuter train agency plans to spend an estimated $20 million to purchase eight new Bombardier rail cars by 2009, with an option for two more. Eight new cars would bring Caltrain’s Bombardier fleet to 25, still a fraction of its 110 passenger cars, Caltrain spokeswoman Janet McGovern said Tuesday.

The new coaches are part of Caltrain’s plan to lengthen trains, for the first time, from five cars to six to deal with overcrowding, McGovern said. A sixth car on trains will add approximately 800 seats per hour during the peak rush hour, she added.

"Our maximum peak loads now are at about 80 percent to 101 percent capacity, February records show," McGovern said. And with the more popular summer travel season approaching, she expects those numbers to increase.

One supporter of longer trains is Jed Beach, a Palo Alto software engineer and regular Caltrain passenger, who has seen more people standing recently during rush hour.

"I definitely have noticed it getting a bit more crowded in the last few months," Beach said.

If more coaches means more Bombardier cars, then Leonard Flaherty, a banker who commuters from Millbrae to San Francisco during the workweek, is also in favor of the plan.

"Caltrain’s older galley cars are noisy, bumpy and crowded," he said. Many commuters choose Baby Bullet trains, not only because they’re faster but because they’re more comfortable, Flaherty said.

Besides adding more capacity and improving the ride, at least two of the new coaches would act as spares in case of a breakdown or general maintenance, McGovern said.

As for resolving the immediate crowding issues, there isn’t much the agency can do until the cars are built and delivered in early 2009, McGovern said.

Caltrain board members are scheduled to vote today on whether to approve the $20 million loan request to pay for the new cars, officials said.

Repaying the loan isn’t likely to prove easy for the agency, which estimates it has a $5.3 structural deficit going into the budget season.

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