The Save Caltrain Summit, held in San Carlos and sponsored by Friends of Caltrain, just wrapped up. I’d like to say I came out of it the session hopeful, but I can’t. Yes, this session and the many town halls to come were prompted by service cuts amidst the ongoing transit fiscal crunch. Moving forward, Caltrain’s problems are more linked to what it really is and how it wants to be perceived.
A few years back, Caltrain ran nearly 100 trains up and down the Peninsula every weekday, including every 30 minutes during middays. Right now it runs 86 trains on weekdays, and this summer will run 48 per weekday (commute hours only) unless Jerry Brown gives the transit agency a $30 million gift.
Amidst all of the debate over electrification, grade separations, and degrading service was a specific question: What kind of service does Caltrain want to run? Does it aspire to be a rapid metro service like BART or a much simpler commuter train?
Obviously, that’s a question easily answered in good times. In lean times, not so much. Should Caltrain roll back its service to commuter only, the perception of it as infrequent – and therefore inferior – will only grow. Ridership will decline dramatically as the agency finds itself in a funding death spiral.
Should austerity prevail long term and limit Caltrain to only commuter service, it won’t just affect a San Jose A’s team as well as the Giants. While it would be easy to get to an A’s game on Caltrain, getting back home would be an entirely different kettle of fish.
The problems Caltrain faces are severe enough that it is fielding bids for outside companies to run its operations. It’s quite possible that at some point in the near future, BART could run Caltrain just as it does Capitol Corridor. Clem Tillier, who runs the Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog, thinks Caltrain trains with BART livery and logos wouldn’t be a bad thing, as it could at reduce some of the bureaucratic overhead and lead to better synchronization of the services. It would also be a step toward unification of all of the disparate transit agencies into one, which would help riders. BART is set to startup its own commuter eBART service, a DMU service which will run from Pittsburg/Baypoint to Antioch.
Frankly, I think it’d be a great idea to bring all heavy rail service (BART/Caltrain/Capitol Corridor/ACE) under a single body with one brand, while the individual bus/light rail services act as “last mile” customers/partners. Each of the rail agencies is tied to a separate joint powers agreement between counties, creating a huge amount of overlap and waste. Caltrain’s dependence on other agencies and not a separate operating subsidy makes it a candidate for merging with BART.
Does Caltrain have to be killed to save it? In one sense, yes. Due to the dire situation Caltrain faces, it may be time for someone else to take the controls. As gas heads back to $4/gallon and the roads start to get clogged due to the Bay Area’s growth, citizens need solutions that work. As Caltrain is reorganized, residents can create the proper framework by which Peninsula rail will operate for the rest of the century.
My dad moved the family from San Francisco to Sunnyvale in December 1979, when I was 4. My mom still loved the City after the move, so she would take my brother and me to SF to visit relatives or go to Chinatown regularly. She didn’t even get a driver’s license until the mid 80’s and was terribly afraid of driving on freeways. Back in the 80’s the change to Caltrain wasn’t yet complete so we called it Southern Pacific, after the old rail company that was contracted to operate the service. Caltrain grew and gained a foothold in the community. The trains even inspired the design of what would be HP Pavilion. Caltrain may be the Peninsula’s rail service, but that identity does nothing for it outside of the Bay Area. Let’s cast aside the perverse tribalism we’ve created in our transit world, and let’s get going.