Caltrain Riders Try to Prevent Dramatic Service Cuts as New Blog Launches

294690855_854dcfa3b6.jpgDeep cuts could leave Caltrain closing its gates much earlier every day. Flickr photo: prawnpie

At Streetsblog, we’ve covered a lot of transit cuts over the past year, from Muni to AC Transit to SamTrans. But none of those agencies has seen cuts quite as devastating as what appears to be on the way at Caltrain, where all weekday off-peak and weekend service is potentially on the chopping block.

Not surprisingly, Caltrain riders are upset, including many of Streetsblog’s readers. Soren Peterson, a Caltrain commuter who lives in San Francisco, said the cuts would force him to drive a lot more.

"I live in Potrero Hill and commute to Palo Alto for work," explained Peterson. "Although I try to be out by the last limited train of the evening, this is not always possible and as a result I occasionally depend on one of the evening trains."

Those evening trains could soon be gone, according to Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon. At the Caltrain Board of Directors meeting last Thursday, Scanlon announced that the agency is broke, and may need to wipe out fifty percent of its service. That’s in part because the state has pulled $30 million in funding from the agency in the past three years, but it’s also because Caltrain relies on unstable local funding sources.

The three local transit agencies that contribute money to Caltrain — Muni, VTA, and SamTrans — are all financially strapped themselves this year, and Scanlon, who also manages SamTrans, said he’ll be asking his other agency to reduce its contribution to Caltrain by 70 percent. If that happens, the SFMTA and the VTA would likely follow suit, leaving Caltrain with a $30 million deficit — nearly a third of its $97 million budget.

"We’ve just begun working on this budget and we wanted to come out early because we are partners, and let our partners know that SamTrans was seriously considering reducing their contribution," said SamTrans spokesperson Christine Dunn.

Caltrain would preserve its commuter-hour service, but riders would be left in the lurch if they ever needed to return home early or late. "I already have to come in a bit earlier then I’d like because of the schedule (either I’m 30-40 minutes early or I’m 30-40 minutes late,) so any tweaking could mean an even longer day," said Caltrain commuter (and prolific Streetsblog commenter) Mike Sonn.

"We won’t be buying a car, so if the cuts are bad enough I’ll probably have to explore SamTrans options or find someone to car pool with," he added.

Sonn and Peterson both said they’re looking for ways to productively voice their concerns about the cuts. One way to do that is by contacting local elected officials, which are listed on the BayRail Alliance’s website.

Caltrain has a complex governance structure that doesn’t answer to any elected official directly, but BayRail Alliance President Andy Chow said it’s time to look at changing that.

"For now, we are trying to find out the situation so that we can determine the necessary action," he said. "So far Caltrain hasn’t declared a fiscal emergency or scheduled public meetings to reduce service. I believe that some type of legislative change in Sacramento is necessary, and that we will need to show our support for it."

One of the best courses of action may be to simply keep riding Caltrain, said Chow. "The more riders use the service, the less likely the elected officials would want to eliminate it."

BayRail Alliance has also set up a new blog called Green Caltrain to follow the most recent developments. One of its most recent post looks at the specter of turning Caltrain into a commuter-only rail system, as well as exploring Caltrain’s funding situation. Another dissects "anti-Caltrain arguments."

The blog’s authors hope it will provide resources for constructively responding to the challenges facing Caltrain.

For their part, Caltrain supporters are looking for direction on how to try to stop the cuts.

"I’m definitely thinking about contacting elected officials (to tell them how important Caltrain is for my mobility and thus, how important it is to me that there be some sort of political support for a dedicated funding source)," said Peterson. "But I’m unclear of what would be the best use of my time."

Caltrain must balance its budget by June 1 of next year, but cuts could come as soon as this fall. One clear way to make your voice heard is to attend the next Caltrain Board of Directors meeting, on May 6 at the SamTrans Administrative Offices, 1250 San Carlos Ave., in San Carlos. The meeting is at 10 a.m.

  • Nick

    I don’t understand why cutting transit is politically acceptable. It’s as close to a necessity as you can get. How outraged would people be if they decided to have “service cuts” for water or electricity?

    On a related note, I found an old MUNI fast pass from 2001. The adult fare was $35 and it had a MUNI, BART, and Caltrain logo on the front. Anyone know what the discount was with Caltrain and what year they halted it?

  • BCon

    This would be horrible. I regularly use CalTrain on weekends to see family in Santa Cruz, taking it from San Francisco to San Jose, then either taking the Highway 17 Express Bus from San Jose Diridon Station to Santa Cruz, or having my mom drive over the hill to pick me up.

    If they stop weekend service, I’ll be forced to rent or borrow a car every time I want to go down there (or take a 3+ hour Greyhound bus ride, yuck!).

  • Mike

    BCon, I have done the same thing. I used to over the hill about every 6-8 weeks. A lot of people thought I was crazy, but I’d rather let someone else deal with Highway 17 and relax with a good book.

    I face the same issues as others mentioned in the story. I am not going to be in a position where I have to tell my boss that I can’t stay an extra 15 minutes to finish something just because I’m in danger of missing the last train of the night. I want to do something, but I feel pretty helpless.

    And what about Sharks fans and Giants fans? Don’t those events produce lots of ticket sales for Caltrain? Would we rather see them on the road after drinking beer all night?

  • Mike

    I ought to order up my history from TransLink. I think CalTrain would be surprised at how often I use the train off-peak. They will lose my peak business revenue because they cut all the off-peak service.

  • Chris Kidd

    Soren Peterson of Oakland? I think I went to high school with that guy.

  • Soren

    Hey Chris. Same Soren.

  • Soren

    such a small world!

  • I also live in Potrero and take the train to Palo Alto. This would devastate my lifestyle, where I’m able to avoid owning a car (though I still borrow often) thanks to Caltrain. I reguarly use weekend, midday and night service, and this would really make things tough.

  • 2010 Rider

    Green Question: How many pounds of CO2 does cutting Caltrain put into the atmosphere? Less trains = more cars on the road. I think the BAQMD should throw their weight on this issue (they are on everything else!)

  • Sorry I didn’t have too much insight to add, but I’m not really sure what is going to be cut. Losing mid-day service will mean that if I have an apt or am flying out in the afternoon, I’ll have to take the entire day off. But will bullets be cut back because all those fill stations will lose regular service? If that is the case, then getting to work on time is going to be that much more difficult.

    I know someone who works in San Jose and either Caltrains/drives a couple times a week so I could (in theory) hop in with him. But since that only solves 3/5th of the problem, I don’t know what other options I have. I’m sure SamTrans will be a slow boat so maybe I can BART to Milbrae and bike the rest of the way (or just bike the whole thing).

    But I think Caltrain should at least consider special shuttle service for Sharks/Giants games. Maybe the teams need to help chip in on the cost of running those special trains (even right now).

    But I think the Bay Area has a growing stigma that transit is only a commuter service (and BART isn’t doing anyone any favors in this regard). Caltrain is a vital link.

  • Ralph Durham

    I think it is time to force an EIR for the cuts. After all we have EIRs for new projects which add traffic, congestion, and perhaps pollution. Not to mention the need for new parking becaseu all other alternatives(?) are stripped to teh bone or don’t function across 3 counties and several cities. Cutting CAl Train will do all three.

    Why don’t we have one regional transit organization for the whole bay area. Instead we have a bunch of petty fiefdoms doing their own thing and gobbling up administration costs. Time for a change.

  • Ralph, I agree that admin costs are way out of hand, but do you think the MTC would be doing a better job if they were in charge?

    I also agree that just declaring a fiscal emergency shouldn’t allow these agencies to just bypass EIRs for cuts. The only time you need cuts are during a fiscal emergency so I’d like to know if an EIR has ever been done for cutting service. Did the TEP have an EIR done for the proposed cuts in that study? But those were suppose to be offset by adding more service to main routes. So does that even count?

  • Richard peterson

    the electrification for caltrain has been delayed for now, well they’ll mind as delay untill they get the California High speed Rail built, and when they do, then caltrain can have their grade separation and electrification but the solution for caltrain is to elliminate the Baby bullet express service and leave it for the high speed train, and beside the town such as Dumbartion needs the caltrain so it would cross the dumbartion rail bridge and head for the town on the other side of the bay, hopfully caltrain would hold on until the construction of the High speed rail system gets underway.

  • We are looking at 6-8 yrs for HSR to roll through. I think Caltrain needs to put something on the ballot now to get some source of dedicated funding. As long as the state is cutting STA funds, then VTA/MTA/SamTrans are going to continue to cut their contribution to Caltrain.

    Is there any word on if the JPB can do this?

  • New blog? Green Caltrain has been around for two years now. I’m confused…

  • Richard, I thought that name sounded familiar. That blog has been defunct for about a year now though.

    Plus, I don’t think Green Caltrain really fits with what BayRail Alliance is trying to convey. But a simple google search probably would have taken that name off the list pretty quick.

    Either way, BayRail’s site looks pretty informative and I look forward to reading it.

  • Ralph, this might be of interest to our admin discussion:

    Comment: Someone should look into BART taking over the Caltrain tracks.

    No thank you. Caltrain is doing just fine if the funding is available. Currently, Caltrain and SamTrans share the same administrative staff. The same customer service representatives, human resources staff, etc work for both SamTrans and Caltrain. Only the operating and maintenance employees are separated. By operating this way, both agencies have a lower overhead and run more efficiently.

  • Michael Rhodes

    @Richard Masoner: BayRail Alliance has branded this the “new” Green Caltrain blog.

  • @Michael, cool. Sounds like one of them was writing the wordpress version.

  • Kathy

    Speaking from experience as a driver, nearly no one rides samtrans buses — there’s a small contingency of folks in SM County who ride express lines to SF or take the snail routes 391 & 392 along ECR to SF & back. For the most part, samtrans annually racks up hundreds of hours of empty buses and layovers and unused routes costing tens of thousands of dollars which could be better spent on caltrain. What a waste.

  • Kathy, do you know why it is a waste? How about the sprawl that is the peninsula? Low density lends itself to poor transit, especially in areas that are often built for cars making being a pedestrian often dangerous. I walk downtown Redwood City everyday, and let me tell you that once out of the core it is wide streets and fast moving traffic.

    There are many people who depend on transit in San Mateo county, but the schedules are often so poor with routes just along the main corridors that it doesn’t meet the needs of people who would use it.

    And, at least in Redwood City, there is a move to have infill downtown and around transit hubs (which I guess is really only the Caltrain station for now). I think density will come to parts of the peninsula but with much gnashing of teeth.

  • Ryan

    @mikesonn: quite the contrary, the peninsula is actually prime for transit culture as it is a narrow and long corridor, bound by mtns to west and the bay to the east. Caltrain runs through virtually every downtown and parallel to the El Camino, a corridor that has been designated for TOD (ie bay meadows).

    SamTrams is dreadful yes, but Caltrain is great and many more people would take it if the schedule were better at off-peak times.

    Maybe we really shpuld just give up on this mess of transit networks and merge some services. Caltrain should just be replaced with BART which is atleast dependable and has a simple schedule.

  • Ryan, read some of the posts that have been put up on the myths of replacing Caltrain with BART. It isn’t feasible and it should actually be the other way around – Caltrain replacing BART.

    And yes, there is a nice set up for transit, but in practice a big portion of that stretch along ECR and the Caltrain is just a big parking lot. I do think that one thing the peninsula has going for it is multiple distinct town centers. Bay Meadows is great in theory, but it’ll have so much parking and be close to 101 that it’ll end up being a wash.

    Also, once you get about 3 blocks off of ECR (not in the town centers), it is car dependent sprawl. Plus, there are plenty of people living up in those bounding mnts. Hillsborough has no sidewalks!

  • Andy Chow

    The reason that we need to dissect the myths is that ideas like replace Caltrain with BART simply do not address the root of the problem, which is the lack of funding.

    Like I mentioned on that post, people in BART counties pay more taxes to BART. The 20 minute headway on nights and weekends do not come free.

    Caltrain can run more frequently if we are willing to provide more funding for it. If BART were to replace Caltrain, you have to spend billions to replace the tracks and stations that you’ve spent millions on, and you still have to spend millions more in operating cost for the 20 minute headway. I’ll rather spend a fraction of that for better train service today than to spend more to get it 20 years later.

  • HF

    A message to Stanford, Google, Sharks, Giants, Apple, etc, and all the other money-oozing companies (and why not individuals too) who have been so marvelously inoculated from the Great California Budget Crisis of 2009–20???: lend a transit agency a dime. The first train on the Central Pacific Railroad was called the Gov. Stanford way back when. I wouldn’t be opposed to some tactfully named trains darting up and down the peninsula in exchange for some benefactors (as it is, I can’t ever remember the numbers by which the trains are identified). Oh, would you look at the time. 11:30pm? No problemo. I can still catch the Eric Schmidt Local.

  • Andy, I still haven’t seen an answer to my question so maybe you might know – does the Joint Powers Board have the authority to put collect revenue? If so, do they also have the authority to put a revenue generating proposal on the ballot?

  • Andy Chow

    Joint powers authorities (which is what JPB is) have no taxing power. JPB basically needs to become a special district to have that authority, which needs to be established by the state legislature.

  • Andy, thanks. I thought that is what I read over on Eric’s Transbay Blog, but wasn’t sure. I guess I should include that in my letter.

    So JPB has the power to control monies given them by VTA, MTA, and SamTrans only?

  • Andy Chow

    JPB is consisted of members from VTA, MTA, and SamTrans, so the three agencies are consulted on the Caltrain budget, and generally all three counties make the same adjustment in their subsidies.

  • Manuel

    Maybe need to sell tickets like the old days. When you expand your service so much you end up having to cut some. This is not a bus system or Bart, so run it like it need to be run.


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