VTA has recently announced that it is spending $61 million to build an additional track and other improvements between San Jose and Morgan Hill for Caltrain.
While spending VTA money to improve Caltrain is wise in general, is it worth it to spend that money south of San Jose?
Today, Caltrain ridership on the Gilroy segment has been significantly reduced from its high back in 2000. The economy, widening on 101, fare increase, and VTA operated express buses have cut much of Caltrain's ridership base. While VTA had projected an increase in train service back in 2000, Caltrain actually cut one of the four round trips so that the equipment can be better utilized for the popular Baby Bullet service.
Based on earlier double tracking south of San Jose completed in 2002/2003, Caltrain has the ability to run 5 round trips. However it is running 3 round trips today. That $61 million might allow Caltrain to run one or two more round trips. However unless VTA has the operating funds and equipment to provide additional service, riders won't see much of the benefits from that expenditure.
One of the reasons Caltrain provides limited service south of San Jose is that the corridor is owned by Union Pacific. The company historically is hostile to passenger rail. UP sees passenger rail, may it be Caltrain, ACE, or Amtrak, as pirates somehow trying to freeload from the company. On the other hand, BNSF, a competing rail company that owns tracks elsewhere in California, sees public agencies as partners.
The other issue that make this expenditure unwise is high speed rail. Although HSRA has chosen Pacheco Pass as its preferred alignment, it still hasn't secured any specific corridor between San Jose and Gilroy. Its earlier assumption of using the UP corridor in the program-level EIR is opposed by UP (as expected) and has been rejected by a judge in a lawsuit brought on by Altamont Pass supporters.
If high speed rail is constructed on any corridor, Caltrain or other high speed rail trains would likely provide commuter service between Gilroy and San Jose on electrified high speed tracks (since Caltrain north of San Jose would've been electrified anyway). If somehow HSRA could secure any rights to use the UP right of way, the operating scenarios (separate HSR/freight tracks) proposed by HSRA would not take advantage of the new track funded by VTA.
As if we don't already know, VTA spends capital money based on the desires from its politically driven staff and consultants. VTA could've spend the money elsewhere along Caltrain and have a greater impact. For example, the Santa Clara Caltrain station is currently a safety hazard (by making people board SF bound trains between the tracks). If the station is rebuilt, ACE could once again serve the station after Caltrain kicked ACE out of that station in 2005.