Modernization: Electrifying the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley Rail Corridor

April 21, 2016
Increased capacity and improved service will help Caltrain meet increasing ridership demand and alleviate local and regional traffic congestion.

Over the last decade, the Caltrain corridor between San Francisco and San Jose has become the most economically productive area in the state. This growth continues to create new jobs, inspire innovation and help drive the national economy, but it also brings significant local and regional challenges.

The ability of the region’s transportation infrastructure to keep pace with job and population growth continues to be one of the biggest concerns for sustained economic growth and competitiveness in the Bay Area. By providing a reliable daily commute alternative to avoid the congested Interstate 280 and 101 highways, Caltrain has become one of the Bay Area’s fastest growing transit systems serving employees at some of the tech world’s most high-profile companies.

After years of record-setting ridership growth, demand for Caltrain’s service has outgrown the system’s existing infrastructure. Without an investment in system performance and capacity, Caltrain will not be able to meet the continuing demands of Bay Area commuters. The Caltrain Modernization Program (CalMod) is the rail agency’s solution to this issue.


The $1.7 billion electrification project has been a part of Caltrain’s long-term vision for several years and is reflected in Caltrain’s strategic plans. The CalMod Program will electrify and upgrade the performance, operating efficiency, capacity, safety and reliability of Caltrain's commuter rail service. An electrified Caltrain will also better address Peninsula commuters’ vision of an environmentally friendly service. The Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project (PCEP) is scheduled to be operational in 2020.

"Modernizing Caltrain is a priority because we need an improved rail system that will help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and serve our growing ridership," said Jim Hartnett, executive director, Caltrain. “Not only will the electrification project reduce diesel emissions in this corridor by 96 percent by 2040, but it will also allow Caltrain to provide additional service to more stations, increasing ridership and providing faster service in Silicon Valley from San Francisco to San Jose.

In addition to electrification of the existing Caltrain corridor, the CalMod Program includes: installation of a communications-based overlay signal system positive train control (CBOSS PTC), which is an advanced signal system that includes federally mandated safety improvements; and the replacement of Caltrain’s diesel trains with new high-performance electric trains called electric multiple units (EMUs) that will increase service up to six Caltrain trains per peak hour per direction.

Electrified trains can accelerate and decelerate more quickly than diesel-powered trains, allowing Caltrain to run more efficiently. In addition, because of their performance advantages, electrified trains will allow more frequent and faster service to more riders.

"The need for faster, more reliable passenger rail service for the Caltrain corridor is more evident than ever," said Perry Woodward, chair of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain. "Caltrain has enjoyed five years of consecutive monthly ridership increases, surpassing more than 60,000 average weekday riders. The increased ridership and improved performance from electrification are critical for Caltrain to sustain its services."

The advanced signal system is currently in construction and scheduled to be operational in 2016. In January 2015, the environmental process was completed on the PCEP (electrification and new electric trains), which was a major milestone in the railroad’s efforts to improve its commuter rail service.

When the corridor is electrified, Caltrain will have a “mixed fleet” of diesel and electric trains. The CalMod Program will replace approximately 75 percent of the diesel fleet with electric trains. Full fleet conversion will occur as funding is identified and the remaining diesel trains reach the end of their service life. The new EMUs will continue to operate up to today’s maximum operating speed of 79 mph.

Modernization will allow Caltrain to operate quieter, cleaner, more frequent and/or faster train service to more riders. Increased capacity and improved service will help Caltrain meet increasing ridership demand and alleviate local and regional traffic congestion. Modernization will increase ridership and fare revenue, and reduce operating costs associated with replacing diesel fuel with electricity.


A 2013 Bay Area Council Economic Institute study found the project would generate $2.5 billion in economic benefits and support almost 10,000 jobs. The CalMod Program will help prepare the corridor to eventually accommodate California’s statewide high-speed rail service, which is planned for 2029. Caltrain and high-speed rail will primarily share Caltrain’s existing tracks, operating on a blended system.
Caltrain, along with local stakeholders and the California High Speed Rail Authority, is currently working to define what additional system upgrades will be required to support blended Caltrain and High Speed Rail service. The California High Speed Rail Authority is expected to kick-off the environmental review of the Blended System Project in 2016.

The $1.7 billion Caltrain Modernization Program is funded through a 9-party agreement that leverages local, regional and federal funding to match $705 million in voter-approved high-speed rail bond revenues. The partners include the California High Speed Rail Authority, Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, San Francisco County Transportation Authority, San Mateo County Transportation Authority, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, city of San Jose, city and County of San Francisco and Transbay Joint Powers Authority.


While Caltrain continues to work with its funding partners on the additional funding commitments, the agency received good news in February.

On February 9, United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that President Obama is recommending that $125 million be included in the fiscal year 2017 federal budget to advance the Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project (PCEP). The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) also announced that the project receive nearly $73 million in prior year funding.

PCEP is the first project in California to be included in the project development phase of FTA’s Core Capacity Program. The funding announcement signals significant progress toward a full-funding grant agreement between Caltrain and FTA. The administration’s request for $125 million in funding for fiscal year 2017 will require congressional approval.

"Caltrain is the backbone of a mass transit system serving one of the nation's most economically productive corridors," said Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council. "Investing in the modernization and electrification of this vital transit system linking San Francisco, Silicon Valley and San Jose has been one our top priorities and a top priority for this region. The funding President Obama has proposed will help move this important project forward and create a cleaner, faster rail system to meet the needs of a growing region and a growing economy for many decades to come. Giving us even more bang for the buck, it will help lay the foundation for the arrival of high-speed rail and its contributions to our state and national transportation network."

The FTA’s Core Capacity Grant Program is designed to provide targeted capital investments in transit systems that are at or will be over capacity within 5 years. The Core Capacity Program is an ideal match for the PCEP because the project will help Caltrain accommodate more riders. Today, most of Caltrain’s rush hour trains are running at more than 100 percent capacity.

Upcoming Steps

Currently Caltrain is focused on the contracts and procurement of the design-build electrification infrastructure, and the electric vehicles. Caltrain is in the middle of a best and final offer negotiations process for the electrification infrastructure contract and proposals on the electric vehicles request were due in March. Caltrain is currently scheduled to award the contracts in 2016.

Tasha Bartholomew is communications officer for Caltrain.