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Should Caltrain Add Bathrooms On-Board or at Its Stations?

The great controversy roils on. Photo: Yelp/Michael W.
Bathrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are currently available on all Caltrain trains. Photo: yelp/Michael W.

On-board restrooms could be cut from Caltrain's electric trains after the agency's Board of Directors rejected a proposal to include one bathroom on every six-car train last month. The agency is exploring the costs of adding bathrooms, and while some riders say they're crucial, there's little support from board members or disability advocates.

The Americans with Disabilities Act "is a very important part of this," said Tom Nolan, a Caltrain board member and chair of the SFMTA Board, at the July meeting. "If somebody's in a wheelchair in the back of the train and they have to go through five cars, that's not really equal access."

Malia Cohen, also a Caltrain board member and San Francisco supervisor, agreed with Nolan, noting that Carla Johnson, director of the SF Mayor's Office on Disability, favors adding bathrooms at stations -- which are currently scarce -- rather than on trains.

"If there are bathrooms on the train, then we want the passengers with mobility issues to have the convenience of using those bathrooms just like everybody else," Johnson told Streetsblog. "If some passengers can only travel between train cars with a lift, then it actually makes more sense to have the bathrooms at the stations so that everyone has equal access."

"I think that it's not uncommon for trains of this kind that are doing relatively short regional trips to not have bathrooms, because it is a rather dramatic loss of seats," said Ash Karla, a Caltrain board member who sits on the San Jose City Council.

But many Caltrain riders, and Caltrain's Citizen's Advisory Committee (CAC), disagree. The CAC resolved in June that keeping one restroom on six-car electric trains would be worth the loss of space for eight seats or 16 standees. They would be "most beneficial during unexpected situations/emergencies," stated a CAC resolution. The San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities also sent a letter [PDF] of support.

Transit advocacy group Friends of Caltrain posted an online petition to save on-board bathrooms in early July that has gathered over 300 signatures so far.

Menlo Park Transportation Commissioner Bianca Walser signed the petition. "I have two small kids who love to ride Caltrain, but can't be expected to hold it until we get to our destination," she wrote in a comment with her signature. "Bathrooms are something everyone needs!"

Friends of Caltrain listed more reasons in a blog post:

Elderly riders and people with health conditions need bathroom access. Pregnant women need bathroom access. Parents travelling with children need bathrooms. People take Caltrain for sports events, concerts, parades and fireworks shows, where they can drink and enjoy without having to drive. People who have been drinking [alcohol] need access to bathrooms, or may relieve themselves on the train without the benefit of a bathroom.

"If you're not going to have bathrooms on the train, then you should have a bathroom at every station," Jim Bigelow, a member of the Chamber of Commerce for Redwood City and San Mateo County, told the Caltrain board. "You should look and see what the cost is to add bathrooms at all the stations versus having one on each train set."

The agency has not yet reported the costs of installing new bathrooms at its stations, but Caltrain Modernization Program Executive Officer Marion Lee said that the cost of on-board bathrooms is expected to be minor. "Yes, it will cost more, but it's one bathroom per six cars and we're procuring 90-something cars, so it will not be that significant," said Lee.

The Caltrain Board is expected to review the bids from electric train manufacturers at its monthly meeting in November.

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