After several months of blustering and delays, the Federal Transit Administration has finally signed off on the full $647 million in federal funding needed to electrify California’s Caltrain commuter rail system.
The move comes several anxious months after the new administration indicated it would scuttle previous funding agreements for public transportation projects across the country as a way to punish cities that have so thoroughly rejected the new president. The funding was originally completely left out of the earliest budget proposals announced by the White House, but hope returned two weeks ago when a preliminary congressional plan seemed to walk back the de-funding talk. That budget contained partial funding commitments for urban transportation initiatives, including $100 million for Caltrain electrification.
After weeks of outspoken criticism from California’s political leadership and pleas from transportation activists, news this week of full funding for the project was widely seen as a welcome political victory. In a statement celebrating the new funding agreement, Jim Hartnett, CEO of Caltrain touted the economic development potential for the project, Mass Transit reports, saying that Caltrain Electrification will ease congestion in “one of the country’s most economically productive regions” while also “creating almost 10,000 American jobs in the process.”
Caltrain, a regional commuter rail network that serves the Bay Area and its environs, is in the midst of converting its diesel-powered train fleet into an electrically-powered one. Train electrification produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than diesel power—especially when the energy used to power the trains is generated through renewable means—and has also been recently touted as a vehicle for so-called solutionary rail reforms. Solutionary rail approaches combine sustainable electrical grid modernization initiatives with high-speed rail expansion to multiply the environmental benefit of train networks.
Although electrified railways are the norm in countries with advanced train networks, only about 1% of rails in the US are electrified.
In California, the move is a necessary precursor to the state’s forthcoming High Speed Rail network. Electrification will require that Caltrain purchase new locomotives and the organization is currently soliciting input on forthcoming train graphics. Caltrain is currently working on the designs for the electrification improvements and is expected to begin construction sometime this year, with a project completion deadline of 2020 or 2021. For more information on the Peninsula Corridor Electrification project, see the Caltrain website.