Correcting the Record: Caltrain Electrification Actually Decreases Peninsula Congestion

By Jayme Ackemann, @JaymeAckemann

The overwhelming majority of Peninsula commuters will benefit from the electrification of Caltrain, whether they travel by private vehicle or by commuter train because not only will electrified service offer more options for rail customers but it will improve congestion on many major arterials and at many grade-level crossings, benefits that are within reach following the Board’s action earlier this week.

On January 8, Caltrain’s Board of Directors approved the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the rail agency’s electrification project, marking a historic step forward in an undertaking that will upgrade the performance, operating efficiency, capacity, safety and reliability of the train system.

Overall, every major corridor and arterial along the Caltrain right-of-way, including Highway 101, Interstate 280, State Route 92, State Route 84 and El Camino Real—will see traffic levels improve because of electrification. The project will allow the rail system to carry 110,000 passengers daily by 2040—nearly doubling current ridership levels—making it possible for more commuters to travel by train instead of car. Electrification is projected to reduce 619,000 vehicle miles travelled (VMT) each day in the Bay Area and every city along the 50-mile rail corridor will see reduction in traffic levels.

Yet just like any other major infrastructure project, there will be some unavoidable impacts associated with Caltrain electrification. Because service will be increased to six trains per hour, traffic at a handful of local intersections near the rail corridor could be busier

Unfortunately, recent coverage of the project has focused on these intersections in an attempt to somehow convince the public that taking more people out of their cars, and expanding ridership on public transit will in some way make traffic worse. In reality, the opposite is true, and it isn’t hard to understand. Caltrain’s service today can’t keep pace with ridership demand. But electrification will bring more trains and increased service frequency, which equals more riders, and more riders means less drivers and less drivers means less traffic.

Caltrain electrification will improve traffic levels in the Bay Area, but reducing congestion is only one of the benefits of modernizing the rail system. Electrification will help reduce the system’s carbon emissions by 97 percent, decrease noise pollution levels and pave the way for a high-speed train service in the region. Electrification is part of the Caltrain Modernization Program, which also includes the installation of fiber-optic cables along the right-of-way. That communications system will eliminate the risk of train-to-train collisions, speeding mishaps and derailments.  And most importantly, Caltrain electrification allows the rail system to provide more service to more riders at more stations, something it is critically in need of as demands for capacity far outstrip available service during the peak commute hours.

Automobile traffic levels in the Bay Area are reaching unsustainable levels. In an effort to address that situation, Caltrain is modernizing its rail system—providing a safe, reliable, and environmentally-friendly alternative to driving. Both drivers and public transportation passengers will benefit from this project.

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