No Way to Run a Railroad

ScotRail (Scotland’s railway) has come into some stick from customers for habitual poor service, especially since the franchise was taken over by Abelio three years ago. But things have improved immeasurably since ScotRail was formed over 20 yeas ago, with new trains, refurbished stations and a revamp Waverley.

Contrast this with the CalTrain system, serving the most advanced conurbation in the world—Silicon Valley, California. The 50-mile line runs from a terminus in the SOMA district of San Francisco to the heart of San Jose. It connects with the BART subway system near San Francisco airport, San Jose’s VTA (Valley Transit Authority) trams at Mountain View, and with Amtrack’s long-distance trains at San Jose.


In contrast to East Lothian’s ScotRail service to seven stations, serving 0.1m people, the CalTrain corridor offers 24 stations, to 1.94m living in one of the priciest stretches of real estate in the world. Massive commuting patterns to tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook and Intel, as well as a financial services hub has flooded the two freeways (101 and 280) that run parallel between the two terminal cities. The total annual ridership is only 554,000—the same as the station at North Berwick (pop. 7,250) sees in a year.

CalTrain is in a $2.5bn (£2bn) infrastructure upgrade funded by the State of California and not Southern Pacific Railroad, who owns the tracks. This is six times the £294m cost of 30 miles and seven stations of the Borders Railway from scratch. So farCalTrain has spent much on modernising stations and elevating track to eliminate level crossings.

But all this investment has resulted in little improvement to services. Outside of commuter times, all trains stop at all stations, meaning a 1 hour 35 minute journey end-to-end—no faster than 40 years ago. The trains themselves are still 40-year-old diesel-drawn sets of six double-decker carriages. Multiple places where parallel track would allow fast trains are not utilised.

Although the plan envisages electrification, this will be hindered by 15 level crossings that snarl up local traffic as trains pass and the lack of integrated ticketing with BART, San Francisco’s MUNI and San Jose’s VTA makes the same un-joined-up thinking that Scotland suffers from. Far smarter would have been to extend BART on the SP tracks, where it would connect with the East Bay BART line extension to San Jose.. It is a duplicate spend as foolish as Edinburgh trams taking three times as long as trains between Waverley and Edinburgh Gateway—except wasting three times as much publuc money.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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