Caltrain’s Identity Crisis

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.

28 thoughts on “Caltrain’s Identity Crisis

  1. If Santa Clara County and San Jose weren’t so obsessed with an expensive BART extension of questionable value, there might be money to electrify and prop up CalTrain. If you listen to some of the San Jose BART worshipers, they don’t even acknowledge that public San Jose-to-Frisco rail service already exists. They’re hellbent on spending billions for a BART extension to bring people from Fremont and Pleasanton to downtown San Jose, where they probably have no need to go in the first place. Even the federal government has given the San Jose BART extension a very low usefulness rating.

  2. Let Caltrain die! Then let it be resurrected as “BART Peninsula high-speed transit,” in conjunction with planned high-speed rail of course. Just my opinion.

  3. The South Bay, in particular VTA, has huge budget problems because it’s putting so much money away for the BART project (which was approved via referendum twice) and not putting it towards other projects. Caltrain is waiting on HSR to provide funding for electrification and grade separation. As long as those two projects are holding everything else hostage, Caltrain will continue to tread water or worse.

  4. Big BART to the South Bay supporter—mass transit into the downtown core is required if you want additional headquarters down there like Adobe–it is the chicken and egg thing and its a smart thing to do in order to support expected density levels in downtown as the city continues to grow.

    • Big BART to the South Bay supporter—mass transit into the downtown core is required if you want additional headquarters down there like Adobe–it is the chicken and egg thing and its a smart thing to do in order to support expected density levels in downtown as the city continues to grow.

      Also take into account GoA’s that once Diridon is up and running with HSR, the BART to SJ line will get major usage as an East Bay feeder line for the HSR system (at least Hayward south). Couple that with the ballpark and mixed-use development at Diridon and BART to SJ will be then be viewed as the best thing since sliced bread.

  5. Construction of the 1.3 mile extension from the current Townsend station to the new Transbay Terminal should help ridership tremendously. Right now a lot of peninsula residents are reluctant to catch Caltrain into the City, becuase it would mean having to take a shuttle or muni to get into the financial district. Once completed, this extension would solve that problem. The anticipated increase in ridership will have some negative consequences. Stations along the peninsula will probably have to be upgraded to handle the additional passenger load.

  6. have wondered why the CalTrain is necessary from SJ to SF if HSR is built–maybe its frequency that makes the difference but it does seem to be redundant as there are many proposed HSR stations up the peninsula also–

  7. FC, that thinking is precisely the problem with how Caltrain has been viewed; you can’t always have the large people movers also be final destination transport. When you factor the cost of a Caltrain ticket plus the fare for whatever regional agency you depart to, it is not an enticing form of transportation.

    If you compare a trip from Palo Alto to SF on Caltrain and a trip from Fremont to Laney College, the former being 6.50 and the later 4.00, it’s easy to see why BART has more ridership. One gets you to the general area, the other to your destination.

  8. Instead of wasting money on BART, San Jose could link up to BART via express VTA LIght Rail or a CalTrain extension across the Dumbarton bridge. Nah – let’s spend billions on a BART extension instead.. The SFO-BART extension was “railroaded through” and has been a bust. Last I checked, usage was so low that instead of going straight from Millbrae BART to SFO, passengers have to go north to San Bruno first.

  9. @pjk- extending Bart to downtown SJ has passed 2 different times in scco- one for the building of the extension and the second for operating it- each time a super majority of voters- required 2/3 rd’s majority to pass- approved both measures- the voters have spoke and it’s time to follow thru on the voters who have vision to realize the importance of this

  10. BART is sorely needed to the south bay as the 680 and 880 south commutes in the morning are killer. I am lucky as I am the one idiot driving from San Jose to the East Bay for work along 680 and I see how bad it is everyday going the other direction.

    The I-680 South Express Lane I have seen from my rear view mirror passing 84 is anywhere between $4.75 to as high as $6.50 going to Calaveras in the morning. Traffic is even worse between 9am-10am than it is from 8am-9am.

    BART would allow a lot of these people to take public transportation to Berryessa and then hop the light rail the rest of the way.

    Right now these East Bay people are suffering in immense traffic every morning and it is even worse at night as I-680 North is only 3 lanes from Calaveras to I-580.

    BART would allow for far less congestion along at least I-680. I-880 needs it too but at least they have expanded the freeway in both directions to 5-6 lanes at the Alameda/Santa Clara County line.

    People also from the South Bay can then take BART straight to Downtown SF instead of being dropped off at ATT Park which is still a few miles away from where the majority of people work.

    I voted YES on both BART initiatives as Santa Clara County made a huge mistake years ago investing in the Expressway system instead of BART. Asphalt is still relatively cheap but the steel needed to make high speed rail systems are extremely expensive in this day and age.

    Santa Clara County could have had both, a fabulous expressway system and BART but as we all know Government agencies are not always run by the brightest people.

  11. @GoA’s – There are only two planned HSR stations between SF and SJ: Millbrae/SFO and Palo Alto or Redwood City. Palo Alto doesn’t want the station.

    @fc – One of the BayRail advocates pointed out that in the wake of Loma Prieta, Caltrain had a chance to run up the Embarcadero to Market/Mission as the right-of-way was already in place. Some combination of them and SF not wanting to do it caused it to not be built. Muni took it and built the Metro light rail extension. I bet that if Caltrain had the chance to do it again they’d grab the opportunity, which would’ve eventually led to proper modernization of the line due to greater usage.

    @Sid – I take that route too and I often fly by with the top down, shaking my head at the commuters going the other way. BART to San Jose is nice but it doesn’t come close to maximizing its potential because it hits very few large employers along the way and skips the West Valley completely, yet its route is circuitous because they went with the “easy” route of buying UP’s old WP RoW.

  12. We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to let CalTrain – which already links the Bay Area’s two largest cities today – die so we can have an overpriced and likely-to-be-underutilized BART extension in 20 years. Apparently, the answer is yes.

  13. re: People also from the South Bay can then take BART straight to Downtown SF instead of being dropped off at ATT Park which is still a few miles away from where the majority of people work.

    There are shuttles and buses that take 5 minutes to get from the CalTrain station in Frisco to the core downtown. Costs a whole $2. It takes about 10 minutes to walk from CalTrain to Moscone Center. Now, thanks to BART tunnelvision, we may not even have CalTrain anymore. I guess that works for workers in 20 years who might have BART access. Tough luck for San Joseans taking CalTrain to Frisco today.

    I remember reading about how the transit geniuses expected CalTrain riders to abandon CalTrain at Millbrae so they can take BART right to the “downtown.” Guess what? They’re staying on CalTrain all the way to Frisco. Commuters have already shown they don’t need a direct rail link to the downtown area – CalTrain and a shuttle works just fine.

  14. @ML- Bringing BART to Berryessa at the minimum would at least allow people to hop onto Light Rail which does take people to all the main business areas in the South Bay.

    Also it would allow South Bay people to get to the East Bay when needed. (I.E. Warriors games at Oracle Arena or dare I say it A’s and/or Raiders games at the Coliseum).

    It is a good move to have BART to San Jose as that is where a majority of people head for work in the morning. That and it would finally connect the South Bay to the rest of the Bay Area with one transit line.

    CalTrain is nice because it goes to San Francisco and all but that is where it ends. BART would connect SF/Oak/SJ all in one centralized system.

    That is the thinking that got the 2/3 vote to pass on 2 different occasions as getting 66% on anything is almost impossible in this day and age. SVLG was very instrumental is getting it passed as right now the freeways are way to clogged.

    Guys like you and I are lucky we “reverse” commute but we are in the minority by far. I

  15. I’m with pjk on this- A modernized Cal-Train would be more practical than an overpriced BART system that will benefit mostly east bay residents comming into Santa Clara county for work .. if eastbay people are suffering so much in traffic, let THEM pay for BART into Santa Clara county. The Cal-Train Metro East concept does t sound too bad.

  16. I’m wondering why San Joseans need to solve the East Bay’s traffic problems on 680 and 880. Let the East Bay folks build a San Jose BART extension if they want one, instead of devastating San Jose’s current rail option (CalTrain). Looks to me like San Jose officials believe they’re just not “with it” without BART access. Frisco and Oakland have it so we should have it too, I guess. And the San Jose Mercury News? Wouldn’t be surprised if its big BART support is all about helping Mercury News writers and editors get from their homes in Frisco to Mercury News offices on Brokaw. CalTrain is useless for that.

  17. My apologies as the BART to VTA Light Rail option transfer would be in Milpitas and not Berryessa.

    @Larry E- I am sure the East Bay people would pay for BART to come to San Jose but the problem is it is out of their counties and therefore out of their scope to pay for it.

    Interesting how 70% or so of people in the South Bay are willing to pitch in public money for this. That makes you part of the minority.

  18. Thank you, Larry.

  19. re: Interesting how 70% or so of people in the South Bay are willing to pitch in public money for this. That makes you part of the minority.

    …And the minority once believed the world was flat and that witches were not infesting Salem, Mass.

  20. once believed the world was NOT flat (obviously)

  21. @ sid- maybe the 70% of people that voted for BART weren’t aware of the options. But yeah, you’re right. I’m dffinately in the minority and I voted no on BART twice. I just think there are better options out there that include improving the light rail system and electrifying cal-train

  22. …Just spent $3.22 per gallon of gas at the “discount” station. And that’s likely to be much higher soon in the wake of this Egyptian mess. So what are we doing? We’re trashing our CalTrain service and putting more people back on the highways so we can have an underutilized, overpriced BART extension in 20 years. Is anybody home?…

  23. @Larry E and pjk–east bay folks are paying for Bart—its the Warm Springs extension currently underway and the segment to bring it to soco border–without this having been approved the continuation to Berryessa and onto downtown SJ could not happen–the voters in 2 different counties overwhelming support this—and note that it was never at the expense of Cal Train—CalTrain is closely tied to the HSR—and there were significant funds in the HSR lanugage that would allow the electrification of CalTrain—

    To ignore the suburban communities of the east bay thinking that only those on the peninsula travel into SJ for work is pretty ridiculous—

  24. let’s not forget that part of the whole BART to scco measure was to include a people mover into SJC. That was one of the selling points of that measure. of course we all know that won’t happen anytime soon. so why not take that money to improve cal-train (because most of the jobs are located along the penninsula corridor into SF) and imrove the light rail system( run a line through the 87 into sjc and bypass DTSJ into NSJ) so that the system will move quicker and be more efficient. At the same time speed up the the trip through DTSJ and connect VTA light rail into warm springs so eastbay folks can get a transfer from Bart into vta and get into scco for work or whatever. there are so many options, it’s not black and white.

  25. It sounds like you guys need a regional (multi-county) agency in charge of transit. Here in MSP, the Met Council runs all the buses, LRT and commuter train (Northstar Line). They have taxing authority across seven counties, allowing them to plan and operate a truly regional system (that, admittedly has a lot of catching up to do)

  26. Larry, I do agree that VTA needs to “close” the loops it has with the end points in Mountain View/Campbell and Alum Rock/Capitol and Santa Teresa.

  27. So now the geniuses of the Caltrain board are discussing which seven of 10 stations they will terminate service too, including a few stations where tons of money was spent on modernizing/parking/mode synergy like Sunnyvale, Lawrence, and Mountain View. And on top of the closings, they want to raise fares as well.

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