Guest opinion: Caltrain can survive without high-speed rail
Caltrain has two alternatives: One involves introducing high-speed rail to the Peninsula, which most residents have now learned is a very bad idea, and very bad fiscal policy for the entire state. The other alternative involves saving Caltrain and removing the risk of high-speed rail from the Peninsula Caltrain corridor.
In the first alternative, Caltrain says that it wants electrification and argues that this is its only salvation; more on that later. What we do know is that electrification will cost close to $1 billion, a lot of money for the Peninsula. Caltrain has formed a "sort of" marriage with high-speed rail, having entered into what is called a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the California High-Speed Rail Authority. In essence, Caltrain, which owns the Caltrain corridor/right-of-way, would grant high-speed rail the right to run its trains from San Jose to San Francisco. In return, high-speed rail will pay for the $1 billion cost of electrification. Nothing is final; no contracts are signed; but that is in the winds.
In the second alternative, Caltrain has the legal right to tell high-speed rail to "take a hike." Caltrain owns the corridor and they can allow, or refuse to allow, HSR on the corridor. Most Peninsula residents have "wised up" since the 2008 election; they now realize two things, one micro, and one macro: The micro is that high-speed rail will do untold aesthetic, economic, and environmental damage to our prized Peninsula towns and cities; the macro is that estimates now say this project could cost up to $240 billion! How in the world could the state of California ever afford that? The carrying costs would eat up half the annual state budget. Is high-speed rail truly the top priority in these times?
We now know that we actually do not want high-speed rail on the Peninsula. Therefore, let's make a deal with Caltrain: First, Caltrain will promptly dissolve the "marriage" with high-speed rail, canceling the MOU and telling the High Speed Rail Authority that they will not be allowed to run high-speed trains up the corridor. Second, Caltrain will continue with its present service, which gets you where you want to go. Third, with regard to the Caltrain annual operating deficit, we have to understand that all rail systems run at a deficit; it's in the nature of the beast. So we will support a campaign to raise the needed funds to subsidize Caltrain operations.
If the second alternative is adopted, it means that the Caltrain system will continue to operate just like it is presently with no huge capital expenditures to "improve" the system. Of course, in addition, Caltrain should at least "try" to operate on a leaner basis, perhaps reducing the CEO's $400,000-plus salary and taking the low bid operator, instead of, in these times, hiring someone who is $20 million more expensive than the next bid (which they just did). Come on: let's have a few reforms; we're ready for it.
In addition, there is nothing terribly wrong with the present diesel system, other than the fact that it is an aging fleet. Did you know that there is something called a "DMU" (diesel multiple unit)? It is a single car, operated by diesel, with an electric motor inside. That one car serves as the locomotive itself; it's self-propelled. It can fill itself with passengers and sail up to San Francisco during non-rush hours; at times other than rush hours, you can have two or three cars, and so on. It gives you great flexibility (the scheduling flexibility prized by Caltrain). It could enable you to send a car every 15 minutes if desired.
Caltrain says it must have electrification and "EMUs" (electric multiple units). But these are just like diesel DMUs; the only difference is that they start up a little faster; so from Menlo Park to San Francisco, you will probably get there a few minutes faster. Is that worth a billion dollars for the electrification expense, and the loss of thousands of trees on the Peninsula to electrify the corridor?
It's time for Caltrain to wise up. We will support the operating subsidy request, but Caltrain will have to maintain its historic role and physical footprint, because we do not want to destroy what we have worked so hard to build and maintain on our Peninsula. There is plenty of room for a deal. Many of us are ready; but is Caltrain? Let's hope so.
James R. Janz served from 2000 to 2008 on the Atherton City Council, including two terms as mayor. He is a founding member of the Atherton Rail Committee, and currently serves as board president of the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail (CC-HSR). Michael J. Brady is an attorney, mediator, and arbitrator located in Redwood City, and a board member CC-HSR. The opinions expressed are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of CC-HSR.