Caltrain Chief: We’ll Be Fine If We Don’t Starve on the Way to the Banquet

IMG_2014.jpgSan Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Nat Ford at today’s Caltrain Board meeting. Photo: Michael Rhodes

There’s still no relief in sight for Caltrain, which faces a dire financial situation that could force the agency to cut 50 percent of service by next year.

Even if the train operator pulls a rabbit out of its hat for the coming fiscal year, the budget deficit for the following year will be even worse, forcing it to ultimately come up with a more stable source of funding, instead of relying on major contributions from SamTrans, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

At the Caltrain Board’s first meeting since Executive Director Mike Scanlon dropped the bombshell that his other transit agency, SamTrans, would likely be pulling 70 percent of its contribution to Caltrain, staff presented a budget picture that continues to look catastrophic.

Nat Ford, who heads the SFMTA and also sits on the Caltrain Board, confirmed that his agency would follow suit in pulling an equivalent part of its contribution, as was expected.

Caltrain originally expected to have expenses of about $102.4 million in fiscal year 2011 (FY12), but only $78.9 million in revenue. It’s since identified about $6 million in savings, and will get back $5 million in state transit assistance (STA) funds, which were slashed by the state earlier, leaving a deficit of $12.5 million. In fiscal year 2012 (FY12), the outlook is even bleaker, with just $63.8 million in revenue projected, leaving a $38.9 million deficit.

The agency’s PowerPoint slide with the FY12 figure states ominously, "Unknown if there is a service model that can operate at FY2012 revenue level."

Scanlon acknowledged that Caltrain is the "stepchild" of the other transit agencies, "despite these loving foster parents." He also defended his decision to pull 70 percent of SamTrans’ contribution, casting the move as a matter of self-preservation for the agency. "We need to do something to wean ourselves off of Caltrain," said Scanlon, pointing to a $28.5 million deficit at SamTrans, out of a $135 million budget.

Caltrain has lost $10 million in each of the past three years, and all three of the contributing transit agencies have also lost STA funds, leaving them with less money to send Caltrain’s way. In addition to floating a ballot measure before voters that would create a dedicated revenue stream, Scanlon said the solution lies in electrifying and modernizing the diesel railroad.

"If we do electrification, it cuts our financial problems in half," he said. "It makes for a better business model."

The Caltrain Board will hold public meetings on the proposed cuts before taking action. Reducing service by 50 percent would likely mean eliminating midday, post-peak evening, and weekend service.

Ironically, Caltrain is set to make a massive service cut just a few years before the corridor could get a major upgrade because of the planned high-speed rail line. That would mean electrification of Caltrain and full grade separation along the Peninsula.

Scanlon described the high-speed rail capital improvements as a banquet which Caltrain will only enjoy if it doesn’t die in the meantime. "If we don’t starve along the way, we’ll be fine," he said.

  • What’s funny is that Caltrain is far more useful than SamTrans, more useful than VTA, and more reliable than MUNI. It feels likes it is held together with bubble gum and bailing wire, but it works pretty darn well thank you very much.

  • I think the world would be a better place with one single agency.

    MUNI, Bart, Caltrain, ACE, MST, ferries, etc etc etc. —> BATA (Bay Area Transit Authority)

  • Evan

    I’ve spent most of the last 25 years in Santa Clara county, and I’ve taken Caltrain infinitely more than VTA or Sam Trans. Caltrain should get funds before the always-empty buses of the VTA (at least around here).

  • John well put. Riding it right now.

    Jass, MTC. Can’t get behind your idea one bit.

  • Joseph

    Instead of seeing Caltrain as something from which to be “weaned off”, Samtrans should view it instead as a major trunkline for the entire system.

    Since Caltrain doesn’t have taxing authority as of yet (no ballot measure possible until Nov 2012 according to Green Caltrain blog), are we basically hoping for a cash influx from MTC? Perhaps the three transit agencies can put separate measures on the ballot at the same time?

  • Nick

    Caltrain, in SF at least, is invisible to most residents. There’s never been any marketing campaign to increase ridership that I’ve heard of. The only people who take it seem to live close to it’s path of travel. Could you imagine running any other transit system like that? Everyone knows BART is available if they need it.

  • Jake

    @Nick CalTrain is known by SF residents who have to commute to the South Bay. Unless you’re desperate for a way to get from 4th and King to Potrero Hill, CalTrain isn’t much use to SF residents who don’t commute. (For reducing congestion along the freeways, as well as providing the opportunity for South Bay residents to work in the city and SF residents to work in the South Bay, it’s invaluable.)

  • Caltrain’s problems are mostly self-inflicted. Until Caltrain starts adopting modern operating practices, let’s not shed too many tears over its troubles.

    For example, Caltrain could easily reduce its labor costs in half by doing what every other commuter railroad in the modern world has done: Eliminate most of the conductors. They are already on a POP system, and already have a police force.

    As well, the agency has now gone through two major trainset orders. In both cases, the agency ordered archaic 1950s-style Amtrak trains instead of something faster/cheaper/better. For example: European DMUs, which have virtually same acceleration performance as EMUs Caltrain now says it needs for survival.

  • I was under the impression DMUs couldn’t run on the tracks because heavy freight runs on the line also.

  • JohnB


    DMU’s run alongside freight and alos mid-speed passenger traffic in Europe. I can’t see why that wouldn’t be the case here. The CalTrain rolling stock is innappropriate for a service thats tops every couple of miles, but seems to work well in any event, as various others have noted.

    It’s too abd if we cut the one service (along with BART) that actually works well and that people like and use

  • Evan

    In regards to the comment about POP, I wonder if that would be successful. Just about everyone on Caltrain has a ticket (in my experience riding daily, at least 95-97% of riders have tickets). That’s a pretty incredible number considering you can’t buy tickets on the train.

    That percentage would surely fall if they got rid of the conductors. My guess is, it would fall by more than the collective cost of the conductor’s salaries. However, I’m sure police would be better at writing tickets, which never seems to happen on Caltrain. I think I’ve seen one ticket in the past 6 months.

    So…hmm…my guess is that it would be a draw. I don’t see that saving massive amounts of money. But it’s certainly worth investigating.

  • Evan

    Sorry, one more thought. Isn’t Caltrain run by Amtrak? Is it possible Caltrain could see more Amtrak dollars as a funding source?

  • The conductors are contracted through Amtrak. I’m sure what else is Amtrak.

  • Andy Chow

    Caltrain’s problem is certainly no more self inflicted than Muni. Caltrain also is operated by unionized crews with work rules. Caltrain can’t simply cut down the crew size unilaterally. What Caltrain does not have is fixed wages written into the City Charter.

    European DMU (ala Sprinter in Oceanside/Escondido) require FRA waiver and temporal separation from freight trains. One or two car DMU trains aren’t sufficient for peak hour loads.

    As for dedicated funding, it would be more politically appealing if some of that funding would support express bus and community shuttles (including Muni in San Francisco) in addition to Caltrain. It is obvious that Caltrain is not accessible from various parts of the three county region and that they can be better served with more bus/shuttle service.

  • NBP

    The FRA really needs to lighten up (no pun intended). It’s not a safety hazard to operate light-weight rail equipment (diesel or electric) on Caltrain tracks that are only used by heavy freight trains when Caltrain is not operating. Otherwise, Caltrain costs will continue to rise as the cost of fuel goes up and heavy antiquated equipment breaks down more often.

    This is really, really serious. Caltrain is the ONLY contiguous raipid transit between San Francisco and San Jose. The livability of the peninsula is dependent on Caltrain’s survival.

    Future High-Speed rail is also dependent on the partnership between Caltrain and High-Speed Rail. Without Caltrain, there is no service coordination plan, further fuel desires to jettison High-Speed Rail.

    I cannot imagine life on the peninsula rail corridor, my home for nearly 14 years, without Caltrain.

  • Without Caltrain, I’d need to decide: move to the peninsula, get a job in San Francisco or East Bay, or move out of the area. No way I’m going to tolerate doing the 101/280 thing. Not an option.

    The best way to help Caltrain would be to increase regional gas taxes. We already see in the Gulf there are huge hidden subsidies for auto infrastructure, not as if the explicit subsidies aren’t enough. If nothing else, regional taxes would increase demand for and support of regional rail. And it would work for drivers as well, as congestion would be reduced due to a “pruning” of unnecessary car trips.

  • JohnB, I agree. It is stupid that in Europe they run DMUs and heavy freight on the same rail. FRA is just a stick in the mud. I’m not even sure what their reason is besides stupidity.

    I’m with djconnel: I’m not moving to the peninsula, not sure I could find a job in SF or the EB, so I’m left with either a long bike ride or leaving the bay area.

    The problem with raising the regional gas tax to help Caltrain is that the MTC would have to administer the funds so I doubt Caltrain would get any more then crumbs. The writing on the wall has been there for some time and the JPB should have been working to give itself the power to raise funds.

  • “European DMU require FRA waiver and temporal separation from freight trains.”

    Guess what: European EMU also requires waiver, which Caltrain is only now in the process of obtaining. Imagine where we would be if Caltrain had competent staff, and started work on getting the waiver 15 years ago.

    “One or two car DMU trains aren’t sufficient for peak hour loads.”

    So, double the frequency. Or run three or four car trains. My God, this isn’t rocket science.

    At this point, bankruptcy may be the best outcome for Caltrain. It leaves open possibility of firing the entire staff, and replacing with actual professionals.

  • Drunk, I didn’t know that. But yeah, why wasn’t this in the works years ago. I think everything the MTC touches (which is every bay area transit agency) is turned to stupid.

    I didn’t get where “one or two car DMU trains” came from. Who said that would be the case? Why not continue to run 4-5 cars like they do now?

  • Andy Chow

    Caltrain has been planning electrification for more than 10 years. Caltrain had a option to keep the FRA requirement by buying compliant electric locomotives (common in the East Coast).

    Non-compliant DMU is not an option since they won’t run as fast as EMUs and cannot operate underground into downtown San Francisco. Since Caltrain is applying for a waiver anyway, it makes sense that they apply a waiver to run EMU (compatible to HSR and Transbay) and not DMU.

    It is not like Caltrain can run DMUs for a few years and then change to EMUs. Caltrain would have to stick with DMUs for decades if it pursues this path, yet the vision for Caltrain is much bigger than what it is running today, you can’t compare that to SMART or Sprinter.

  • Andy Chow

    We have to realize that this Caltrain crisis is triggered by SamTrans, which has a huge debt burden because of the BART SFO extension. Nearly half of SamTrans tax revenue goes to pay debt service (BART and other projects). If SamTrans can receive some kind of temporary relief on the debt service, it can help maintain Caltrain service until it can get a dedicated revenue.

    MTC needs to hear that message.

  • Andy, ok. I guess I’m not up on it as much as I thought. EMU sounds much more familiar. Probably should just shut up and let the people who know what they are talking about discuss it.

    And in a way BART is sinking Caltrain, how fitting.

  • The problem with reducing the conductor staff has nothing to do with fares. When the train breaks down, the conductors go out and fix the thing. The most frequent situation is when they have to hit the air brakes.

    Additionally, they are the first to go deal with fatalities.

    98% of the time they don’t need 2 conductors. The other 2% of the time is not predictable.

  • andrew

    Switching to DMUs won’t solve the problem of losing more than $10M a year in operating funds. The answer is more revenue one way or the other – and you have to think that fares will be the way, since service cuts like this are just not acceptable.

  • SB83

    San Francisco could challenge San Mateo and San Jose to step up to the plate by dedicating our SB83 revenue towards Caltrain. No Caltrain equals no HSR.
    Would help Muni, too.

  • “It is not like Caltrain can run DMUs for a few years and then change to EMUs. Caltrain would have to stick with DMUs for decades if it pursues this path.”

    Well, yes, at this point the horses have fled the barn. Too late to throw the door shut now. The time to have purchased DMUs would have been 1.5 decades ago, when Caltrain did a 100% fleet replacement. Not to mention level boarding, PTC, etc. Instead we are stuck with _very_ inefficient operation, despite hundreds of millions spent on capital “improvements”.

    “The problem with reducing the conductor staff has nothing to do with fares. When the train breaks down, the conductors go out and fix the thing.”

    Which begs the question why staff purchased unreliable rolling stock in the first place.

  • Alex

    Name one agency that’s purchased infallible rolling stock. Just one. From what I can tell, Caltrain has a pretty good reputation for reliability (suicide by train aside). Some of this is helped by running such infrequent service along a simpler route, sure. But compared to the other rail around here, mechanical problems with Caltrain make the news. Problems with MUNI or BART do not.

  • Ok, let’s compare with BART: BART does not carry extra personnel on trains just for the purpose of fixing mechanical problems or collecting tickets.

    The only reason to retain Caltrain conductor positions would be to ensure historical authenticity with 1950s commuter railroad practices. Most customers would prefer to do away with historical anachronisms if it means preserving service.

  • Andy Chow

    BART does have extra personnel to enforce fare policy, which is at every station rather than on the trains.

    If Caltrain or any other agency can ignore regulations and labor agreements, most of the transit agencies will not be in trouble (either they can cut the benefits/retirement, or just contract out the whole operation) and the HSR will be much easier to plan.

    Complaining about regulations (and it is not just you that do this) and past actions won’t help solve the problem.

  • “mechanical problems with Caltrain make the news. Problems with MUNI or BART do not”

    Not even close to true. Aside from the big station fire in Hayward that disrupted BART for months, there are FREQUENT BART mechancicals. Just do a twitter search. Ditto for MUNI, primarily in the tunnel.

  • Alex

    @murph That was almost entirely my point. Mechanical problems with BART or MUNI are hardly headline news. They’re too frequent. Likewise problems with the Underground in London are rarely news (but info about them is readily available at the TfL site). I don’t need to search for the info, I’m subscribed to the BART notifications (something the SFMTA would do if they weren’t so vehemently anti-rider).

    Problems with Caltrain are comparatively rare, and tend to make the headlines.

    @Drunk BART has staff floating around to cover mechanical problems as well. It’s hardly unusual to see some guy fiddling with the electronics on a BART car or running wires from one to another. Altho, FWIW, the operators do quite a lot of triage.

    In contrast, MUNI does not have staff floating around. Response time is pretty lousy, and mechanical disruptions turn into big events pretty quickly.

  • Andy Chow

    BART and Caltrain all have mechanical issues. It is not unusual to see 20 minute delays on Caltrain because of mechanical or signal failures. It is just that Caltrain does not have a formal delay notification system so minor delays are not tracked.

    I have been on a completely dark BART train and missed my connection with Caltrain:

    So if I am traveling from the East Bay to the Peninsula, I now always get off BART at Powell and walk to Caltrain, rather than taking it to Millbrae. The #11 line on 4th Street is more reliable.


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