Caltrain Summit: Grassroots Effort To Save Commuter Rail Service

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There was a groundswell of support to save Caltrain at the Friends of Caltrain Summit Saturday, an event that brought a standing room only crowd to the auditorium at the SamTrans building in San Carlos. Friends of Caltrain is a grassroots effort attempting to stop Caltrain from cutting evening, midday, weekend, and Gilroy service.

The summit was an early step in a long process to keep Caltrain financially viable. Long-term funding for the railroad may take years to secure, but in the short term, Friends of Caltrain is urging people to take action by writing their representatives to prevent drastic cuts in Caltrain service. 

Yoriko Kishomoto, former mayor of Palo Alto, kicked off the summit by outlining the dire financial state of Caltrain. Caltrain is facing a $30 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2012. To close that gap, Caltrain will need to reduce its service from 86 trains per day to 48 trains per day, shrinking the operation to commute periods only. Even with only 48 weekday trains, Caltrain still projects a budget deficit of $4.7 million, but the agency thinks it can find that money somehow.

The Friends of Caltrain organizers emphasized that service cuts are not a done deal. Time is very short, but the attention that is being brought to bear on the issue may have an impact on monies that could be used to shore up the railroad, at least in the short term.

Longer term, the overriding consensus at the meeting centered on the importance of a dedicated funding source for Caltrain. Caltrain, the only transit agency in the Bay Area without a steady funding source, relies on funding from transit agencies in the three counties Caltrain serves. These partner transit agencies are facing difficult financial times themselves, and have cut their support for Caltrain.

Representative Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo), was a keynote speaker, and she expressed her support for finding ways to keep the commuter rail line afloat, including the possibility of implementing new taxes to raise money for Caltrain. She emphasized that easy answers don’t exist, but she said, “We owe it to our kids to preserve and grow this transit system.”

There were two panel discussions to ready participants the main focus of the event, breakout sessions to collect ideas from the community. Panelists told the history of Caltrain and it continues to be a vital transportation system for Bay Area commerce and communities.

Chuck Harvey, executive director of Caltrain operations, explained that Caltrain operates more efficiently that many peer transit agencies. All public transit is subsidized, but Caltrain farebox recovery is 47 percent, better than all other Bay Area transit agencies except BART.

Generally speaking, those who commute by car may not understand the benefits they receive from Caltrain. If Caltrain were to stop operating, there would be an additional 300 million annual passenger miles on Bay Area roads, according to Harvey. Congestion on highways 101 and 280 would noticeably increase.

Terry Nagel, mayor of Burlingame, said that “Washington DC is laughing at us, because all the cities do is bicker.” She said we need to consolidate our political power, because otherwise it will be ‘divide and conquer’.

San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, the chair of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board that runs Caltrain, said he will be “Caltrain’s biggest cheerleader in San Francisco.” He said that many San Franciscans don’t care about Caltrain, but they don’t realize how much more traffic congestion and pressure on parking spaces there would be in San Francisco without Caltrain.

A member of the audience expressed concern that cutting Caltrain service would have a negative impact on transit providers up and down the Peninsula, because Caltrain delivers many passengers to Muni, SamTrans, and VTA buses. Elsbernd agreed that the demise of Caltrain could be the start of a death spiral for other transit operators as well.

Rebecca Long, senior analyst at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), said the MTC has the authority to place on the ballot a gas tax up to 10 cents per gallon, but it would need a two-thirds majority to pass. She noted that should such a measure be approved, the funds would be distributed to various things, not just Caltrain.

A presentation from the BIKES ONboard team of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition showed that Caltrain could earn $1 million more in ticket revenue annually by replacing empty seats with bike racks to meet demand.

For the afternoon session, the attendees split into breakout groups to brainstorm ideas to help save the railroad.

The finance breakout group came up with short-term and long-term solutions. Short-term solutions included temporarily redirecting money from the Dumbarton rail project to Caltrain, charging more for parking, and adding onboard bike capacity to increase ridership and ticket revenue.

The proposed long-term financial solutions included levying a gas tax, and increasing ridership through service improvements such as WiFi onboard trains and coordinating schedules with other transit agencies to improve connectivity.

The messaging break out group developed myriad messages that emphasize the value of Caltrain to the Bay Area. Caltrain saves money overall for the public, because driving is heavily subsidized. The group also noted that riding Caltrain is less stressful than driving and is a more environmentally friendly way to commute.

A third breakout group focused on how to expand outreach to let people know about Caltrain’s impending financial collapse. The group suggested targeting outreach to chambers of commerce and developers of transit-oriented development, as well as organizations for the elderly, current Caltrain commuters, students, and the media.

A fourth group considered long-term vision for Caltrain. They proposed to connect transit region-wide, as well as to control costs and increase ridership to raise revenue. Electrification of Caltrain is in the works, but it was suggested that hybrid diesel multi-units might be an interim option to avoid the expense of overhead wires.

“The turnout [for the summit] shows that people in the Caltrain corridor are committed to protecting this important resource.  The vision of walkable, bikeable, sustainable communities is only possible if we keep and improve transit,” said Adina Levin, one of the organizers of the summit.

The Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board will hold its monthly meeting at 10am, Thursday, February 3 at 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos.

  • triple0

    I just took a lovely long weekend ride to Pigeon Point Hostel, then on to Santa Cruz with a few friends — we hopped on the bus in Santa Cruz and seamlessly rode to CalTrain and took the train back to our respective houses in SF & the East Bay on Sunday night. Without weekend service, CalTrain this trip wouldn’t have been possible.

    It’s really a shame that CalTrain staff are only thinking in terms of commuting; imagine if a car-dominated transportation system was only limited to work-related trips like this — there would be outrage all over the media.

  • Caltrain is more than a commuter service, and as long as the suburbanites only look at transit that way, we’ll never create a true alternative to driving cars. SamTrans as is is only good in the morning and the evening – try doing your errands or go places later at night on the system, it simply doesn’t work. Making Caltrain more like that will ensure that it fails.

  • I was on the same ride as triple0. just to piggyback on his/her comment — if we lose weekend caltrain service, then all of a sudden the less dense, less-transit oriented east bay will all of a sudden be a much better transit corridor on the weekends. some of us will continue to do trips like this, even if the service were cut, but it would be perverse–one would literally need to take the capitol corridor train to the colisseum or jack london and transfer to bart to get to the city. this would be a crazy situation for the relatively dense, narrow peninsula corridor.


  • Caltrain *did* drop weekend service from the middle of 2002 to the middle of 2004, so somebody should have some memories of what the impact was at that time…

  • John Murphy

    Eric – that sucked – but remember we knew we were getting something, baby bullet service – out of it. And there was a bus bridge in place running what is now the bullet schedule. What we are going to get if they do the cuts… is nothing.

  • If Caltrain cuts service, especially on weekends for those going to the Giants games, it will be disastrous. I wonder how much the SF Giants management and AT&T Park people are going to get involved in this matter as the cuts would threaten the income for the team & stadium, and a way for nearby parking lots to raise prices to rip-off fans.

  • At the October meeting, I pointed out that it was silly that while you can buy a parking pass with your Giants ticket, you can’t buy a Caltrain ticket with your Giants ticket. Sorting this out would have multiple positive outcomes.

    1) Great cross-marketing for Caltrain done by the Giants
    2) More train riders to game = less congestion, parking woes, drunk drivers
    3) Giants can sell more beer to non-drivers at $9 a pop!
    4) Caltrain often waves on Giants fans without tickets as there are 2 ticket machines for 100’s of Giants fans. Or they refuse boarding, at which point people drive.

    Chuck Harvey mentioned this later on the meeting – it’s pretty rare that some random piece of public comment results in any mention, so I’m optimistic. The Giants have a definite stake in this.

    If I ran the world, the Giants would just raise tickets by $2 each and make a Giants ticket POP for free MUNI/BART/Caltrain inbound until the game ends and free outbound after the game starts. Distribute the proceeds across the agencies.

  • This theory about “proceeds” associated with massively subsidized service provided to the SF Giants, Inc, is an interesting one.

    A couple quick questions:
    If it’s so profitable, how come Caltrain doesn’t run even more trains to serve this lucrative market? (Could it have to do something with running an empty train with 5(!!!!!!!) or so crew members empty to SF in order to carry the sports fans the other way?)

    If it’s so good for the agencies and the city, how come Muni’s streetcar service service goes utterly catatonic, even more than the usual catastrophe, ever time there’s a ball game when streetcars and operators are reallocated from the entire rest of the system to sub-3mph baseball subsidy? $2 a round trip (if they collected it) from the patrons doesn’t come remotely close to covering it.

    Transit doesn’t need the Giants; the Giants, Inc, in their “privately funded” stadium, need and demand and receive transit.

    I’d wager that BART, that has huge amounts of spare capacity and runs about twice as much off-peak service as can be justified, is the only agency that comes remotely close to making anything off the Giants. And there’s no way in hell BARTD is ever going to share a penny of its revenue with anybody else.

    The Giants are a masssive side-show. If you don’t understand this you’re just not doing basic financial arithmetic.

    Caltrain is a basket case because it is run according to 19th century regulations, with 19th century levels of efficiency, and out of control, worse even than BART, levels of over-staffing and out of control capital costs and a grotesquely incompetent staff than only spends its “scarce” capital funds on sub-moronic screwups that only make service worse.

    The agency needs to die, and all of its employees to be out on the streets, for the sake of anybody who cares about public transportation. It really is that bad.

  • Richard –

    Some people go to work. Some people go out to eat. Some people go to watch baseball. Given the crowds for the Worlds Series parade – more than a few. You will have a very hard time voting the Giants out of town. So we need transit to support the baseball team, just like we need it to support anything else that people like. The Giants make a lot of money, and the complaints are few, because this is a democracy.

    Pass me the Bread, let’s go to the Circus!

  • I agree that Caltrain is missing huge opportunities to focus on increasing ridership rather than cutting service, but Richard does bring up a more fundamental point about the perverse incentives subsidized transit agencies face: if you’re so inefficient that you lose money on every trip, why would you make any effort to be entrepreneurial about providing more trips to special events just to lose more money on them?

    Now, if we made our long-term goal leveling the playing field by eliminating auto subsidies rather than increasing transit subsidies, you could once again see America filled with successful, popular transit systems operating at a profit. With their incentives suddenly flipped so that they make more money by providing more trips, you would see complete reversal in behavior: they would be falling over each other to provide the best service to special events that could draw them thousands of fare-paying customers, and going out of their way to make sure they grew their share by providing the fastest, most reliable, comfortable, and affordable service to attract and retain customers.

    Basically the exact opposite of what you see in systems that lose money on a large portion of their tips and rate riders as their least important stakeholder.


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