MILLBRAE -- Politicians amassed on the southbound platform of the Millbrae Caltrain Station on Thursday to celebrate a major milestone toward the transformation of the commuter line from a 20th century relic into a modern, more energy-efficient system.
"We are here to reboot Caltrain," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, after the California Transportation Commission voted earlier in the day to release $39.8 million for work designing a new electronic brain to manage Caltrain's fleet, a critical first step in the roughly $1.5 billion project to overhaul the rail line.
The overall modernization will entail switching Caltrain from diesel to electric power by 2019 between San Francisco and San Jose and replacing all the trains that run along that corridor. It also will prepare the system to handle high-speed rail trains when they arrive sometime in the next decade.
Caltrain backers say electrifying the rail line will make the cash-strapped system solvent, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent and increase service.
"It will be faster, it will be better, it will be safer and it will be cheaper," said Speier, dubbing the planned railway the "Silicon bullet."
The project has the support of both the Sierra Club and labor unions -- the latter drawn by a Bay Area Council Economic Institute estimate that the work will add 9,600 "job-years," which could mean 9,600 jobs that last one year or, more likely in this case, a few thousand jobs that last several years. More trains and faster service will boost ridership by 50 percent, supporters say, relieving congestion along Highway 101 and bolstering the regional economy.
"We cannot continue to sustain the Bay Area with simply looking at cars on 101," said state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.
The $39.8 million in Proposition 1A connectivity funds allocated Thursday will go toward a "communications-based overlay signal system" with "positive train control." In plain English, the $231 million electronic system will enable more trains to operate at higher speeds while maintaining safety. Once completed in 2015, it also will allow crews to perform electrification work without major disruptions to Caltrain's schedule.
The electrification project will be paid for with $706 million in Proposition 1A funds related to high-speed rail that the state Legislature approved in July and $500 million from the federal government, with the rest coming from local and regional sources including Caltrain's three member agencies: San Francisco, the San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.
Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.