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Caltrain and Altamont Commuter Express

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Caltrain train between Belmont and San Carlos with F40PH-2C no. 921 leading. Photo by Jean-Pierre Vergez, August 2002.

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Caltrain

Caltrain, the operator of the San Francisco Peninsula Commute Service, runs a commuter rail line which is one of the longest-running commuter operations in the United States. Passenger service on the Peninsula corridor began on Oct. 18, 1863 under the authority of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad Company. In 1870, the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad Company was acquired by the firm that was consolidated eventually into the Southern Pacific Railroad. SP double-tracked the line in 1904, opened the Bayshore Cutoff (replacing the original line through the streets of San Francisco), and operated passenger service in the corridor successfully until after World War II. Steam locomotives provided the motive power on most trains until January 1957, making SP one of the last operators of steam commuter trains in the United States.

Changing commuting patterns impacted Southern Pacific along with private carriers all over the country, and after protracted struggles with the state Public Utilities Commission over fares and service levels, SP petitioned to abandon passenger service in 1977. The three Peninsula counties served by the Peninsula Commute Service--San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara--stepped into the breach with a partial subsidy of commuter tickets, that helped reverse a long pattern of declining ridership and set the stage for state sponsorship of the Peninsula Commute in 1980.

From 1980 until mid-year 1992, Caltrans contracted with SP to provide passenger service in the corridor, sharing operating subsidies with San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The state assumed sole responsibility for station acquisitions and other capital improvements until the service resulted in formation of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board in 1987. The JPB agreed to assume operating responsibilities for Caltrain effective July 1, 1992, and to shoulder 100 percent of the operating subsidy a year later. In the meantime, by 1985, new EMD F40PH-2 locomotives and stainless-steel gallery cars built by Nippon-Sharyo and assembled in San Francisco were acquired, replacing the celebrated "Harrimans" dating back to the 1920s as well as a first generation of gallery cars. Operation is now entirely push-pull, with the locomotive always on the south (San Jose) end.

In December 1991, the JPB purchased the rail right of way from San Francisco to San Jose from. The JPB secured trackage rights to Gilroy for another $4 million, with an option to acquire half the right of way in the future. SP (now Union Pacific) retains rights to operate freight service in the corridor.

Amtrak, the national rail corporation, replaced SP as the system operator on July 1, 1992. Originally a three-year agreement with two one-year options, the contract has since been extended several times, with the current contract lasting through 2006.

In 2002, Caltrain began a major upgrade of its trackway, installing many high-speed switches, passing sidings and concrete ties, in anticipation of the startup of its now-successful "Baby Bullet" rush-hour expresses, which stop only at selected stations and allow for a trip time from San Francisco to San Jose in under an hour. More new equipment--this time the familiar "lozenge" triple-deck coaches found on numerous commuter operations such as Metrolink in Los Angeles and GO Transit in Toronto--was acquired for this service, beginning in mid-2004. Current service level calls for 48 trains in each direction on weekdays--the most intense frequency ever! The newer Bombardier equipment has plug-in connections for laptops. Hourly local service operates on weekends and major holidays. Fares are distance-based, with monthly commuter passes available. In a recent departure from the traditional American practice of conductors selling fares on-board, Caltrain converted to a proof-of-payment system, and tickets must be purchased before boarding the train.

On December 16, 1994, Caltrain made history of another kind, when it placed historic ex-SP P-8 4-6-2 steam locomotive 2472 on the point of its 7:00pm regular commuter train! This was the first time steam had ever pulled an American commuter train since 1960, when the Grand Trunk ended steam operations out of Detroit. The 1921-built steamer, a veteran of the SP commuter service through January 1957, handled the trip with ease and on time. (A regular diesel was tucked behind the 2472 to provide head-end power to the gallery cars.) Caltrain now frequently contracts with Golden Gate Railroad Museum, the owner of the engine, to use 2472 to pull special trains such as the annual Santa trains.

Long-term plans for Caltrain call for electrification of the line and extension to a new underground San Francisco terminal, which will also serve proposed high-speed TGV-type statewide passenger trains between San Francisco, the Central Valley, and Los Angeles.

(Some info gleaned from Caltrain's official site.)

Route Map

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Altamont Commuter Express

The Altamont Commuter Express, or ACERail, began service on October 19, 1998, from San Jose to Stockton, serving 9 cities in three California counties. This quickly became a relaxing alternative to the grinding peak-hour drive on Interstate 580 across Altamont Pass, with over a thousand road-weary employees living in the bedroom communities of Pleasanton, Livermore, Tracy, Manteca and Stockton who worked in Silicon Valley flocking to the attractive periwinkle-and-blue trains.

The line passes through scenic Niles Canyon and over Altamont Pass along a storied route made famous by the Western Pacific's fabulous California Zephyr, one of the finest cruise trains in the world, which unfortunately was discontinued in March 1970. The advent of ACERail marked the first time this route had been used for regularly scheduled passenger trains since that time.

In 1989, passenger rail service across the Altamont was considered only a pipe dream that might be worth discussing in twenty years. However, that same year, the San Joaquin Council of Governments, the Stockton Chamber of Commerce and the Building Industry Association of the Delta began the development of a 20-year transportation plan for a future sales tax vote in San Joaquin County. Measure K, the half-cent sales tax for transportation was strongly supported by voters in 1990, and the number one project identified for funding was Altamont passenger rail service. In 1995, the seven cities served by the Union Pacific's ex-WP rail line and the county of San Joaquin formed a joint powers agreement that created the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission to implement the rail plan, and to explore agreements with the counties of Santa Clara and Alameda. This created a five-member board of directors appointed by the San Joaquin Council of Governments. To date, through Measure K, some $40 million for this nationally acclaimed commuter rail service has been raised. Additional funding is provided by Alameda and Santa Clara Counties.

In May 1997, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC), the Alameda Congestion Management Agency (ACCMA), and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) executed an agreement to create the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) Joint Powers Authority (JPA).

The JPA agreement stipulates the SJRRC as the managing agency for the ACE service. SJRRC issued a contract for operations and maintenance of equipment to Herzog Transit Services, Inc. Service became operational on October 19, 1998. Service was initially two westbound morning trains and two eastbound evening trains. On March 5th, 2001 a third ACE train was inaugurated, easing the problem of overcrowding which the service experienced in the months prior to its launch.

Each morning, beginning as early as 4:20am, the three trains depart Stockton for San Jose approximately an hour and 5-15 minutes apart. The evening commute out of San Jose Diridon Station consists of trains departing hourly from 3:35pm to 5:35pm. Stops are made in Stockton, at the old SP station; Lathrop/Manteca; Tracy; Vasco (serving Lawrence Livermore lab); Livermore; Pleasanton; Fremont (Centerville); Great America; Santa Clara (shared with Caltrain); and San Jose Diridon. There is no weekend, holiday, or reverse-commute service. Fares are distance-based, and monthly commutation passes are available. Proof-of-payment is required; conductors do not sell tickets on board the train.

The coaches are of the Bombardier "lozenge" 3-level design familiar to riders in many cities in the U. S. and Canada. There are currently 20 coaches--9 cab cars and 11 regular coaches. Five locomotives built by EMD are on hand to propel the trains, with the engine most of the time on the west (San Jose) end. All coaches are set up to allow laptop connections, and a new Wi-Fi service has been installed.

Future plans call for addition of a fourth train, which would expand SJRRC territory into Modesto. However, since Union Pacific owns the tracks upon which ACE trains ride, UP has been balking in moves to expedite the added service. In addition, UP has been experiencing much freight train congestion on the route, which frequently delays morning commuter trains. The SJRRC is looking at the possibility of reactivating the abandoned, but largely intact, paralleling ex-Southern Pacific right-of-way over Altamont Pass as a means of mitigating this congestion problem. In addition, a possible station at Union City, adjacent to BART, may be built.

(The ACERail site contributed much information for this article.)


Photo Gallery


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Links

Official Site - Caltrain

Official Site - Altamont Commuter Express

Page Credits

By Peter Ehrlich.









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