The Loma Prietan - November/December 2011

Caltrain: Tracks, Level; Funding, Rollercoaster

by Adina Levin

Caltrain operations are smooth: it runs at or near capacity during rush hour and does well at the farebox.  Its finances are a train wreck: it has to funding mechanism and must go, hat in hand, every year to other transit agencies. Photo: Lawrence Knutsson
Caltrain operations are smooth: it runs at or near capacity during rush hour and does well at the farebox. Its finances are a train wreck: it has to funding mechanism and must go, hat in hand, every year to other transit agencies. Photo: Lawrence Knutsson

Last year massive community support from the Chapter and its allies helped keep Caltrain running, with emergency funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and other one-time sources. But the three-county agreement among San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara County transit agencies that pays for Caltrain is still not working. Any time one of the counties has a financial problem, it can choose to reduce its payment to Caltrain, triggering another crisis.

Caltrain is one of the most cost-effective services of its kind in the US. The portion of its operating costs recovered from the farebox is near the top of its class, ridership is at record levels, and the system is at full capacity at rush hour. But Caltrain has no dedicated funding for the fraction of its costs not covered by fares, causing a rollercoaster of repeated financial crises.

To get Caltrain on stable financial footing it needs a dedicated funding source. Decision-makers are weighing the pros and cons of a variety of options at the county, three-county, or regional level. The likely scenario is a 2012 ballot measure to fund Caltrain in the future. If you want to keep the Peninsula’s transit backbone running, this is a ballot measure you’ll need to pay attention to.

Paying for Electrification

Meanwhile, Caltrain has for years had plans to electrify its system, enabling it to run more trains, run them faster, serve more stations, and carry more riders. One possibility is that the High Speed Rail (HSR) development could help with that. However, the first version of the HSR plan, calling for a four-track, elevated system the full length of the Peninsula, met significant opposition. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian, and Assembly Member Rich Gordon have proposed a more modest system blending HSR and Caltrain operations, which is more likely to be accepted by the local community.

This summer Caltrain conducted a capacity analysis that showed that a blended Caltrain/HSR system is feasible. At rush hour, a blended system could accommodate six Caltrain trains plus two to four HSR trains per hour. By comparison, the Paris-London high speed train runs twice per hour at rush hour, as does Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor among Boston, New York, and DC. Based on a new HSR business plan expected to be delivered as we go to press, the California legislature and the governor will decide whether to fund HSR.

If the HSR project or the blended project moves ahead, this could eventually help Caltrain modernize and carry more passengers. If not, the region will need to decide on other funding to electrify Caltrain and help it meet increased ridership demand and help the region reduce greenhouse gases.

Adina Levin is a software engineer, co-founder of Friends of Caltrain and the Drive Less Challenge.