SAN CARLOS — In its crusade to create a 21st-century railroad, Caltrain has been singing the body electric for nearly a year now: Ditching diesel locomotives for an electric train system would raise revenue and passenger loads while reducing operating costs and running times.

For the Peninsula's commuter rail line, it's all pretty exciting stuff. But before Caltrain leapfrogs from 20th-century commuter rail to rapid transit lines of the future, there are some hurdles to clear.

This month, the agency presented perhaps the most significant one to its board of directors.

Caltrain wants to dump its steel cars for swift, lightweight ones.

However, current federal and state regulations prevent such lightweight electric multiple units (EMUs) from sharing the tracks with the kinds of freight behemoths run by Union Pacific.

In essence, it's a safety issue. For the Federal Railroad Administration, safety means segregating the lightweight trains Caltrain wants to adopt from the heavy freight carriers.

Sure, the precautions seem sensible.

But Caltrain is arguing that the rules are an archaic throwback hampering growth on the rails for a new century, and a multitude of rail agencies andadvocates are singing the same tune.

"There clearly has to be some delineation between freight and passenger services ...


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but just to discourage the whole thing entirely is a mistake," said Richard Silver, executive director of the Rail Passengers Association of California.

"Planes crash, automobiles have accidents, ships sink — these things happen," said Silver. "We want all things to be safe — but sometimes you go to the point of ridiculousness for safety."

Caltrain has decided to convince the Federal Railroad Administration and state agencies that there is room on the tracks for both trains.

"This is a big move — out on the front lines and out on a limb," said Caltrain board member Art Lloyd, adding that a Caltrain victory could make great strides in modernizing the country's commuter rail industry.

One of the reasons Caltrain wants lightweight EMUs is that they could carry passengers from San Jose to San Francisco 10 minutes faster than diesel locomotives and open up the rails for more trains during peak commute hours. Also, lightweight EMUs would allow for easy increases of train lengths, raising maximum capacity from 16,000 to 20,000 passengers.

Although the lightweight EMUs lack sufficient "buffer strength" to withstand an impact from a freight train in a collision, Caltrain is arguing that new technology should switch the emphasis to crash prevention.

"The old system was focused on the effect on the vehicles when they hit each other, whereas now we're going to focus on missing each other," said Bob Doty, director of rail operations for Caltrain.

With the advent of new technology called "positive train control," conductors could speed up or slow down many miles in advance, while trains that run traffic signals would automatically shut down. The FRA should take a cue from the Federal Aviation Administration, said Doty, explaining that "planes would have bumpers" if the law of the skies was similar to the present regulations for trains.

Fortunately, he said, the FRA is not only flexible but eager to hear solutions for a the problem of "shared use" of the rails — a problem which many say has held back the modernization of commuter trains across the nation.

Caltrain has allotted two years to convince the FRA and other state regulatory bodies that modern technology creates enough of a "buffer zone" between the lightweight EMUs and heavy freights. If the lobbying effort fails in the short term, Caltrain will chug onward toward its electric future; however, the rails may look a little different.

Instead of using EMUs, each able to generate its own propulsion, the agency would begin purchasing electric locomotives to haul heavier passenger cars down the rails. Such a possibility would still outpace the current diesel operation by five minutes. But EMUs would add another two and a half minutes of savings, and the weightier cars would take a heavier toll on the rails. 

Meanwhile, Silver, of the California Rail Passengers Association, is betting that Caltrain will manage to convince the regulatory authorities that light-weight EMUs can share the way with the heavier freights.

"(Caltrain CEO Mike) Scanlon and his staff are tenacious as hell," said Silver. "If it can be done, they will do it."