New Director Gets First-Hand Account of Day-to-Day Operations and Challenges Facing Caltrain

By Will Reisman, @WillReisman

Caltrain board member Rose Guilbault inspects the Caltrain maintenance facility in San Jose.

Caltrain board member Rose Guilbault inspects the Caltrain maintenance facility in San Jose.

With record ridership numbers straining the system, an ambitious modernization program planned for the next five years and a series of infrastructure improvement projects currently in the works, Caltrain faces a set of issues and challenges that are completely unique to the150 year-old Peninsula rail system.

New Caltrain Board member Rose Guilbault took a first-hand look at these issues during a recent tour of the rail agency’s facilities. Guilbault, who has served on the SamTrans Board of Directors for eight years, was appointed to the Caltrain board in May. As part of her introduction to the agency, she received a guided tutorial on the system’s operations from Caltrain’s Deputy CEO, Chuck Harvey.

Guilbault and Harvey’s day began on the #215 which picked them up at the San Carlos Station at 7:24 a.m.  Traveling on the morning northbound train provided the new Director with a glimpse into the ongoing capacity issues confronting the agency. As the train stopped at various stations on its way to San Francisco, it became increasingly crowded, forcing passengers to stand in the aisles, as every seat onboard was taken.

“More and more people are using mass transportation as their way to commute, so it wasn’t a total surprise that capacity problems are an issue at Caltrain,” said Guilbault, who was born in the Mexican state of Sonora and raised in California’s Salinas Valley. “But I didn’t quite know the crowding problem was as acute as it is here. It’s good to know that so many people are using the system, but this is obviously going to be an issue we’ll have to deal with.”

During the ride up, Harvey explained the benefits of the Caltrain Modernization Program, a $1.5 billion effort that includes the installation of a fiber-optic communications system and the electrification of the entire train system. Once it’s completed in 2019, Caltrain will have cleaner, quieter and more-efficient trains that will be able to slow down and speed up quicker than its current diesel fleet, allowing the agency to provide more daily trips and carry more passengers. However, while that project is underway, Caltrain is working to address its near term capacity issues.  The agency wants to lengthen trains, if negotiations are successful to purchase additional cars.  Caltrain also hopes to add new trains to the schedule in the coming year. After a brief layover at the San Francisco Caltrain Station, Guilbault continued her journey on #324 riding next to the engineer in what’s known as “the head-end” or the locomotive.  Sitting near the engineer at the very front of the train provided Guilbault with a distinct perspective of the Caltrain right-of-way. During the hour-long trip, Harvey pointed out the various bridges, structures and street crossings in store for infrastructure improvements.

“Obviously, it was a kick getting to ride in the front of the train,” said Guilbault, a Burlingame resident. “And riding with Chuck allowed me to see just how complex our system is, and what needs to be done on a daily basis to maintain it.”

Caltrain board member Rose Guilbault prepares to board a locomotive in San Francisco.

Caltrain board member Rose Guilbault prepares to board a locomotive in San Francisco.

In San Jose, Guilbault and Harvey met up with Stephen Coleman, Caltrain’s Manager of Rail Equipment Maintenance at the agency’s Centralized Equipment Maintenance and Operations Facility (CEMOF). The $140 million facility was opened in 2007, and it allows Caltrain to service, maintain, clean and rehabilitate all of its train cars. Before the facility was built, Caltrain was forced to outsource much of its train rehabilitation work, a lengthy and inefficient process. Coleman gave the duo a tour of the facility, showing them the many daily operations that maintenance workers carry out to ensure that the system remains reliable and dependable.

The tour also included a stop at Caltrain’s Central Control Facility (CCF), the nerve center for the agency’s operations. Employees at the facility dutifully follow digital maps of the entire Caltrain rail network, directing and managing traffic on the busy right-of-way. Caltrain allows freight trains and other rail systems, like Amtrak, ACE and Capital Corridor, to use its trackway. The system is further complicated by running through many urban and suburban centers, making service delivery a delicate balancing act.

After meeting various employees at CCF and CEMOF, Guilbault eventually made her way back to Caltrain’s administrative headquarters in San Carlos. She left feeling impressed at the effort that goes into making the train system run.

“What really stood out to me was the amazing enthusiasm that our workers put out to make sure things run top-notch,” said Guilbault. “I could see it’s a real tough job, but the dedication and commitment they showed really impressed me.”

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