Riders Feel Railroaded by Caltrain Fare Hikes

Caltrain at Palo Alto Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Caltrain at Palo Alto Station. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Public transportation becomes less accessible for low-income Peninsula residents and workers this year with fare increases for both Caltrain and SamTrans buses. Caltrain tickets go up by fifty cents on February 28 while SamTrans bus tickets were raised by 25 cents on January 10. Unlike Muni, neither agency offers discounted tickets to transfer between buses or between the train and buses, and neither offers a discount for low-income residents or students.

“I’m a longtime Caltrain rider… but with the fare increase I might be considering other transportation alternatives,” said Sunnyvale resident Dora Tello at the December 3 Board meeting where the fare hike proposal was considered. “Please do not raise fares.”

“By raising the prices we will be excluding people,” said San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen, the lone Caltrain Board member who voted against the proposal.

Caltrain officials estimate the fare increases will bring in $8 million more per year, which they say is needed to keep up with rising costs. While Caltrain has long maintained that electrification of the passenger rail service would reduce costs by switching from diesel fuel, its operating budget is projected to rise from $128 million today to $182 million by 2021, when the new electric trains begin running. However, there will be a concurrent increase in service, capacity, speed and, presumably, riders–so the increased costs should be offset by more revenue from ticket sales. In the railroad industry this is known as the “sparks effect.”

Either way, “Everybody isn’t going to get everything they want,” stated San Mateo County Supervisor and then Caltrain Board Chair Adrienne Tissier in response to complaints that ticket prices are already too expensive. “We all have to do our fair share to keep the train alive.”

“I’m going to support the increase,” said Board member and San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros at the meeting. “I’ve seen us come way too often to the budget discussion where we’ve had to look at cutting service.”

But transit advocates have long noted that the agency’s Go Pass program, which sells all-zone, unlimited-ride tickets to large employers, provides far too steep of a discount, ignoring a major revenue source. Go Passes are sold for $190 per year per eligible participant, usually employees who work at least 20 hours per week. To participate, companies must purchase passes for all eligible employees, whether or not they ride Caltrain to work.

Stanford University, for example, receives a discount of over 50 percent for the Caltrain passes it provides its employees as part of their compensation packages. About 25 percent of the university’s workers use Caltrain, which means Stanford purchases four passes for every one that actually gets used, or $760 per year per Caltrain commuter. Without the Go Pass program, the university would be paying either $1,512 per year (two zones) or $2,148 (three zones) for most of their workers. Over 100 organizations (mostly private companies) participate in the Go Passes program.

A comprehensive fare study later this year will “review the fare structure and pricing system-wide, including the cost of a monthly pass and GoPass, as well as the potential for income-based fare discounts,” according to the agency’s December staff report [PDF]. Demand for riding Caltrain is at an all-time high, and free transit passes are an increasingly coveted perk for tech workers.

  • murphstahoe

    “neither agency offers discounted tickets to transfer between buses or between the train and buses,”

    A 2 zone caltrain pass is good for travel on SamTrans or VTA

  • murphstahoe

    The simple answer is this.

    10 years ago, Caltrain’s fare recovery was X
    Today, Caltrain’s fare recovery is Y

    Y >> X

    Ergo – the riders are paying more percentage of operating costs than they used to. The failure is not on the riders, who have supported the train. The failure is on Caltrain staff.

  • baklazhan

    I don’t see how that follows… it could be just that the other funding sources haven’t increased as fast as expenses.

  • gb52

    Caltrain fares are pricey compared to alternatives and yes the prices for GO passes could be increased to some extent, but in the end, what we want are more people on transit, and keeping it available to everyone that wants or needs to ride it. Congestion pricing on highways, or tolling would substantially level the playing field, but beyond that, Caltrain needs a dedicated funding source.

    It would be AMAZING if some of the world’s largest tech companies would pitch in and invest in public infrastructure and offset some of the impacts they have on their surrounding communities. No, they dont have to do it, but COULD they? Imagine what kinds of change we could all share. We could have a model for transportation and land use planning from SF to SJ and beyond.

  • thielges

    Well big companies have invested in transportation though it is in the form of private white buses. Those funds could be diverted to public transportation but in doing so they would lose the other whitebus perks like door-to-door service, breakfast, and wifi. So there is not much motivation to move away from the whitebus solution.

  • thielges

    One problem with this fare increase is that it is per-ticket instead of distance based. That disproportionately affects short distance riders.

    A lower per-zone increase would be more fair and generate the same amount of revenue. Caltrain has implemented per-zone increases before so there’s no operational barrier. Better still go to a per-mile fare like BART and many other commuter rail operators offer.

  • mx

    I agree, but aren’t these some of the same companies that are buying GoPasses for all their employees (including those who will never use Caltrain), which both encourages them to take transit (because it’s essentially free to them) and provides a stable funding source for Caltrain? Read that list of GoPass participants and the vast majority are tech companies large and small. If the GoPass is underpriced, then that should be addressed, but you can’t say companies aren’t supporting transit when they’re buying such a huge number of transit passes.

  • mx

    One thing not mentioned here is that Caltrain is already over capacity during the weekday rush hour period. The Board can raise fares substantially as long as demand for seats exceeds supply.

  • murphstahoe

    Simple: Ridership has tripled, and fares have already risen.

  • murphstahoe

    This is a public entity that isn’t focused on optimizing profits. Otherwise, the proper strategy would be to shut the railroad down – I don’t think Caltrain could be profitable even if it shut down the route south of Mountain View and only ran SF->Millbrae->PA->MV expresses and only at rush hour.

    “Society” accrues value from each additional person who takes Caltrain instead of another mode. Any strategy that intentionally tries to reduce ridership instead of trying to figure out how to maximize ridership given operational constraints, is a failure.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I’m curious how you think this would work in practice? Google just rolls up to Caltrain and offers to … electrify it? Or what?

    There is http://ww2.kqed.org/news/2016/01/07/facebook-donates-1-million-for-study-to-ease-dumbarton-traffic for what that’s worth.

  • tiabgood

    In 2010, the state reduced it’s assistance to Caltrain by about $10mil. So comparing now to 10 years ago is not fair. Maybe now to 5 years ago.

  • mx

    I agree and do think maximizing ridership is the right strategy. My point was that Caltrain can effectively raise fares without a serious impact on ridership numbers because it is already over capacity at peak.

  • murphstahoe

    When Steve Jobs was in front of the Cupertino City Council speaking about the spaceship project, someone asked him “what’s in this for Cupertino”. He simply replied “We pay a lot of taxes”.

    Why is Google or Apple more responsible for building train infrastructure than say, McDonalds, which has dozens of franchises along the Caltrain corridor?

  • RichLL

    Why is it a “failure” that the riders are funding a greater proportion of the operating costs? The “ideal” transit system is surely one that doesn’t require huge subsidies forever, like SF Muni.

    Do you know what the fare recovery rate currently is for CalTrain?

  • RichLL

    Presumably the pass has to be made cheap because the competition is a free shuttle bus.

    And if many employees are buying the pass and then not using it, isn’t that free revenue for CalTrain?

  • murphstahoe

    Great. Let’s not subsidize any transportation. Triple the gas tax, pronto. Then add a surcharge to oil companies who do extraction in countries we have subsidized via wars. Or was that whole Iraq thing really about building democracy?

    It is economically sound to subsidize transit because we get cost savings on the back end – US-101 is currently gridlocked during peak rush. Expanding the width of that freeway would be prohibitively expensive given that there are very expensive, developed, chunks of land fronting it. As is, the Bay Area loses who knows how much productivity due to congestion on that freeway. Caltrain helps to mitigate that, and has a huge positive ROI to the taxpayer even though it’s subsidized. The same holds true for MUNI – without MUNI downtown SF would crater – workers could not get to work and we’d have to replace office space with parking garages.

    Caltrain is currently in the range of 60% return of operating costs. Which is excellent for mass transit systems.

  • murphstahoe

    The employees who get the pass and don’t use it is free revenue, but the employees who get a pass and do use it are getting a 90% discount. It’s $190 per year. A monthly pass for the most common trip – SF to Palo Alto is $179 per *month*

    The pass has to be made cheap because companies are making the decision to buy them for the whole company when some riders won’t use them. My firm looked at it, but we have a huge population that lives in Fremont/Milpitas. So instead we just give $100 in commuter checks to any employee who wants them. Nets out cheaper and benefits our ACE/Amtrak riding population.

  • farazs

    I think Caltrain doesn’t publicise this as they should. Its buried too deep within their web-site. I only found out incidentally, when I had a flat on my bike.

  • jonobate

    As well as this issue, this fare hike has caused a lot of discontent because it’s a large hike all in one go. Muni and BART both raise fares using formulas based on inflation and the Bay Area cost of living index, which results in frequent small fare increase rather than occasional large fare increases.

    The larger problem is that Caltrain has no certainty over it’s revenue sources due to it being funded by three separate transit agencies, and is very bad at controlling costs due to excessive reliance on outside contractors for engineering work. At some point the Bay Area needs to step up and turn Caltrain into a real transit agency operated along the same lines as BART, or even operated as part of BART.

  • RichLL

    The idea of subsidies for transit is fairly well established. But that said it is seen more as a necessity than a goal. In an ideal world, transit would pay for itself. The reality is that it rarely does, but that doesn’t mean that where possible we shouldn’t try and minimize the subsidies.

    In practice only a handful of cities around the world have self-funding transit, and they are all in Asia. But London’s tube system manages over 90%. Berlin and Amsterdam have over 70%.

    While our very own BART manages about 68%.

    The 60% number you cite for CalTrain is not especially high in that context. It just looks high compared with SFMuni’s miserable 23% or so.

  • murphstahoe

    London’s tube is competing with auto traffic that has had part of its subsidy removed by adding congestion pricing. Clearly SF should adopt the same policy

  • farazs

    > The 60% number you cite for CalTrain is not especially
    > high in that context.
    Well its still better than driving (< 50%)! This, in spite of getting a pittance of the subsidy pie (millions vs. billions).

  • Affen_Theater

    Best kept secret ever!

    A 2-or-more-zone monthly gets you all of SamTrans and VTA for free!

    But zilch with SF Muni.

  • baklazhan

    Lack of congestion pricing is one factor. Mandated and low-cost parking is another. Density limitations, both inside and around SF. The fact that Bart maintains large parking lots at many stations is a prime example of how the subsidized transit system is itself subsidizing automobile travel!

  • Use the congestion pricing to fund Caltrain, problem greatly reduced.

  • Jimbo

    they should charge double for taking a bike and keep fares the same for those not taking up extra space with bikes

  • RichLL

    Parking at BART stations is not free. Whether it pays for itself is another matter, but that is a matter of charging the right amount.

    Many BART stations are in spread-out suburban areas where, realistically, most BART riders are going to have to drive to the station. At least they aren’t driving into the city, so should we not be encouraging them to use BART by giving them a place to leave their car?

  • baklazhan

    Right… the idea is “we’re going to be subsidizing these drivers either way, so it’s better to subsidize them by creating a train system that caters to them than to build more bridges, freeways and parking structures.”

    Problem is you end up with a mediocre and expensive transit system.

  • Andy Chow

    There’s strong commute ridership from San Jose in the morning. Sure the ridership is not a lot on the southbound morning trains south of Mountain View, but these when trains turnaround at San Jose, people are waiting on the platform to board.


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