Caltrain looks to revolutionize rails 

Two years after re-creating commuter train service with the Baby Bullet, Caltrain is again pushing for change — this time with the even bigger ambition of remaking urban train systems throughout the country.

Under a proposal unveiled Thursday, Caltrain would lead the way to becoming the first commuter train operator in the nation to run lightweight, all-electric trains on the same tracks as conventional passenger and freight trains, according to Bob Doty, Caltrain director of rail transportation. The only catch: convincing regulators that it’s the wave of the future and Silicon Valley is the place to prove it.

Currently, state regulations prevent the two types of trains from operating on the same track at the same time, for safety reasons, Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg said.

But technology already in use across the country, including at BART, that tracks and automatically shuts down trains that run traffic signals or threaten to collide make the regulations obsolete, according to Doty.

That is why, beginning today, Doty is in Washington, D.C., to begin laying the groundwork for a coalition with national train advocate organizations interested in changing the regulations. He also intends to test the waters with regulators, including the Federal Railroad Administration, Doty said Thursday.

"We want to create the new model for domestic railroads," Doty told Caltrain board members at their regular meeting Thursday.

Lightweight, individually motorized train cars, which are also known as electrical multiple units, are more expensive upfront, but offer major long-term advantages over electric engines with pull cars — the other option being considered as Caltrain prepares to go electric by 2014, Doty said.

EMUs could shave 10 minutes off the 96-minute trip from San Francisco to San Jose, resulting in more trains at peak times. In addition, train lengths could be increased to accommodate more passengers, Weinberg said.

Instead of handling a maximum 16,000 passengers during peak times with electric engines, as many as 20,000 could be accommodated using EMUs, nearly doubling the current annual weekday ridership, officials said.

"Essentially, you can carry more people at less cost," Doty said. It’s a model he’s familiar with, having successfully implemented Baby Bullet service in the summer of 2004, resulting in double digit increases inridership and nearly doubling annual revenue since that time.

EMUs — with estimated capital costs of more than $3 billion over 20 years — could also save millions on diesel fuel costs, train upkeep and track maintenance over electric engines, officials said.

Board members agreed the regulations should be updated in light of the available technology, saying the United States is a third world country when it comes to public transportation.

"We really don't have a choice, as I see it," said Caltrain board member and San Jose City Councilman Forrest Williams, citing environmental and energy concerns.

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