Uncertainties mount for struggling Caltrain

Friends of Caltrain group seeks public input Saturday to keep and modernize the Peninsula rail line

Facing the looming possibility that Caltrain could go bankrupt if other means of financing are not found, Friends of Caltrain -- a grassroots group of riders, neighborhood groups, environmentalists and employers -- will hold a community meeting Saturday, Jan. 29, in support of the Peninsula's beleaguered rail line.

Caltrain is facing a $30 million deficit on a $100 million budget in the coming fiscal year. The rail line could cut all service except for peak commuter hours as early as July if additional funding is not found, ending non-peak weekday service, weekend and special-events service. Seven stations would be closed and service south of San Jose would end, according to Sean Elsbernd, chair of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain. He gave the dire prediction at a Silicon Valley Leadership Group summit held at Stanford University on Jan. 21. He is also scheduled to speak at Saturday's event in San Carlos.

Currently, three transit agencies partially fund the rail service. Forty percent of Caltrain's operating budget comes from San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA). Budget cuts and reduced state funding of those agencies have led them to slash their subsidies of Caltrain, according to rail officials.

Fare revenues account for another 43 percent of funding. The remainder comes from a variety of sources that varies from year to year, according to Christine Dunn, Caltrain spokesperson.

Friends of Caltrain wants the rail line to be financed independently and also modernized.

If Caltrain were to shut down entirely or drastically cut service, Friends of Caltrain maintains that the Peninsula would become more congested and polluted, with more than 12 million riders annually getting back in their cars and onto Bay Area freeways. U.S. Highway 101 would need the equivalent of three more lanes of traffic in each direction, said former Palo Alto mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who is spearheading the group.

"There is no room to expand 101. Caltrain is essential to the Peninsula's quality of life, our commute alternatives, avoiding freeway gridlock and our economic vitality. The three counties must come together to work on solutions," she said.

Friends members say a dedicated, permanent source of operating funds for Caltrain is needed whether or not a statewide high-speed rail line is built on the Peninsula.

Caltrain should be supported because it is one of the best-performing of the Peninsula's public-transportation alternatives, supporters say. Ridership is up -- currently serving 40,000 passengers daily -- according to a report by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which oversees regional transportation.

Caltrain operations bring in three times the fare revenue per dollar of operating cost of SamTrans and four times that of VTA, according to Friends of Caltrain.

But SamTrans has announced a $10 million reduction to its Caltrain subsidy, citing falling revenues and reduced state funding. Caltrain officials said they expect the other agencies will follow with reduced allocations.

Speakers at the Jan. 21 Silicon Valley Leadership Group summit suggested various ways funding could be established for Caltrain and the agency could be modernized. Ideas included reorganizing and merging the three transit agencies into a regional organization to redistribute funds, creating a dedicated high-occupancy/toll lane on Highway 101, adding local traffic-impact fees on new construction, approving new taxes and extending bridge-toll congestion pricing to all Bay Area bridges.

Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel has joined the effort to support Caltrain.

"Caltrain is a vital link in our communities that should not have to beg each year for funding from the three counties it serves. Our rescue plan for Caltrain should be part of a larger transportation vision for the Peninsula based on strong community input and projected future needs," she said.

Other supporting organizations include the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, Rail Passenger Association of California, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens' Committee, Palo Alto Community Environmental Action Partnership (CEAP), BayRail Alliance, Sustainable San Mateo County and Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.

The Save Our Caltrain meeting will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at SamTrans Headquarters Auditorium, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos. It will feature U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) and Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, as keynote speakers.

Panel discussions include how Caltrain's current economic model was established; the history and evolution of the rail line; and possible sustainable-funding models. Public input and brainstorming sessions will be part of the day's agenda.

Registration is free but organizers request an RSVP at


Posted by Lean Caltrain, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2011 at 4:00 pm

A $30M budget cut is the best thing that can happen to Caltrain, it will be a forcing factor.
Caltrain is suffering from chronic inefficiencies in the way it is run
Outside of peak hours, Caltrain runs nearly empty. Late night trains runs up and down the peninsula with a handful of people on board.
We need efficient public transportation and that is not Caltrain.
Caltrain is a temporary solution, unsafe, inefficient and unreliable that should not get permanent funding or we will stand very little chance to get something better in the future.
Short term solution: Cut Caltrain diesel trains to peak hours only
Long term: Electrify, let BART take over and save on operating costs.

Posted by let it die, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 27, 2011 at 4:22 pm

the staff is only occasionally cheerful and helpful; as often, surly and dictatorial. the main body of the staff is just punching the clock. that's what is to be had, when Amtrak negotiates the contract, and CalTrain management has zero input.

labor and fuel are by far the largest system costs. electrification (to get a handle on the fuel costs... maybe...), and letting the system go bankrupt (to definitely get a handle on the labor costs) would go a long way toward maximizing the value of the service for the fares paid.

I like Kishimoto, but her estimates of impact on US-101 sound inflated to me, if there are only 40,000 riders daily. If CalTrain fails, not close to all of them will turn to private auto -- esp. with $5/gal gas on the horizon for 2012.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Lean Caltrain said: "Outside of peak hours, Caltrain runs nearly empty. Late night trains runs up and down the peninsula with a handful of people on board."
This is because Caltrain cannot adjust the length of its trains to meet demand -- all of the switching to do this is more time consuming than it's worth. Electrification will solve this, assuming it happens in time for Caltrain's rolling stock replacement (otherwise, EMUs might not be feasible for interim needs).

"We need efficient public transportation and that is not Caltrain."
Caltrain's farebox recovery ratio is the 2nd best of any Bay Area transit agency. Its administrative overhead costs (as a percentage of overall costs) are among the lowest of any Bay Area transit agency.

"Long term: Electrify, let BART take over and save on operating costs."
BART is too expensive to build, too expensive to operate, and is based on 40 year old technology. Web Link
Its 2003 extension to Millbrae is generally regarded as a costly failure -- in fact, this headline sums it up pretty well: Web Link.

Posted by rename Caltrain, a resident of another community
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Paint a blue stripe down the site, call it BART to San Jose and use the billions of 2000 Measure A funds.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm

"rename Caltrain": I'm OK with that sort of a BART takeover :)

Posted by Bob, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Between 18,000-20,000 individuals ride the rails on workdays, so if the employers of these at least 12,000 to 15,000 of these people would agree to subsidize their way to work to the tune of $5-$6 per ride, this would bring in between $30M to $37M a year. Fare increases for people who are not employed, but use the trails would also be required, as well as those who use the trains on the weekends.

If Caltrain is so important to these folks, then there won't be any problem paying for it.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Everyone benefits from Caltrain, even people who don't ride it. It takes cars off of the freeway during times when the traffic relief is most needed.

Imagine that the Bay Area's transportation infrastructure is like a power grid. The freeways are like nuclear power plants, providing a large base load capacity with very high capital costs and very low operating costs. Caltrain is like a natural gas powered peaker plant, providing an infusion of extra capacity when it's needed. Its capital costs are much lower than the nuclear power plant's are, and its operating costs are slightly higher.

Shutting down Caltrain would essentially cause the transportation equivalent of brownouts and rolling blackouts. During peak hours, the mobility of everyone on the Peninsula would be severely impaired, and it would have a significant impact on the local economy.

(And, because people want to have options of what time they make their return trip, restricting Caltrain to peak hour service only unfortunately would not work as well as this metaphor would lead you believe :-( )

Posted by commuter, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Caltrain is an important part of the peninsula transportation network. All other parts of this system, including highways and streets, have dedicated sources of tax money. Caltrain deserves a piece of this. It is no less efficient or less important than Caltrans highway projects.

Posted by Dreaming, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 27, 2011 at 5:52 pm

I wish they could be bold, and actually increase service, and particularly the number of trains and their speed. There should be trains every 15 to 20 minutes. That's what it takes for a line to be successful. Faster trains too (better equipment and more Baby Bullets).

If they could do that, they could see ridership increase dramatically.

I know I am just dreaming. But if you look at successful suburban commuter rail lines all over the world, you'll see that they are based on a model of more frequent and faster trains.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 27, 2011 at 8:17 pm

The freeways run way under capacity during off-peak hours, too, but I don't hear anybody advocating that we cut them in size or funding. The total budget of Caltrain is small compared to what we spend on freeways, but the impact on traffic is substantial. Traffic flwo is nonlinear, and as traffic volume on a freeway rises to near peak capacity it only takes a small disturbance to create a major delay. Likewise, removing a few percent of cars from the freeways makes a big difference in flow and causes a disproportionate reduction in delays. None of our transportation systems (rail, car, truck, air, boat) pay for themselves entirely through user fees. We all support them through the use of general funds because they provide a general benefit that is considered worthwhile to society as a whole. Everyone benefits from Caltrain, even those who don't use it, although most people don't realize that.

Posted by A Concerned Rider, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 27, 2011 at 9:37 pm

They can get rid of the Transit Police that provides law enforcement service for Caltrain. The local police can handle the calls for service. That would save Caltrain millions.

Posted by Martin, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 27, 2011 at 9:42 pm

"cut all service except for peak commuter hours" ... Great, best news I heard all day! Let's make Caltrain an efficient, self sustaining system. Save the money spent on half-empty trains, and buy two DMU units to run in north/south on one hour increments. This will cover all the light load periods, and prevent needless infrastructure improvement costs.

Then, everyone is served.

Posted by John David, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 27, 2011 at 9:43 pm

They should let Caltrain shutdown so BART can take over. BART should have been build from the beginning to go all the way down to San Jose not Caltrain.

SamTrans is managed by a bunch of idiots. Dedicated funding for Caltrain will not really solve the mismanagement within SamTrans.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 28, 2011 at 7:00 am

"They can get rid of the Transit Police that provides law enforcement service for Caltrain. The local police can handle the calls for service. That would save Caltrain millions."
Caltrain already shares its transit police with SamTrans.

Posted by Finnaly, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2011 at 9:20 am

Finnaly we will not have to worry about the teen train suicides. Caltrain has ignored multiple requests from the community to add lights along the tracks in Palo alto, and cutting down bushes so more drivers can see if a teen goes inside and get him or her help. By ignoring the requests, they are asking for trouble.

Posted by RealityCheck, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jan 28, 2011 at 9:47 am

For those who say that all modes of transportation must be self-sustaining are essentially saying that ALL transit agencies must be shutdown including BART and Muni and that all streets and highways should not be maintained or expanded as none of them are self-sustaining. BART get 50% of its cost from fares, Caltrain %40%, Muni 30%, VTA 15% and AC Transit 10%. Ridiculous arguments. Why don't we make the Military become self-sustaining as well, then. Let's invade countries and take their booty to pay for the military.

Posted by Multi-mode transit isn't, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2011 at 10:18 am

Let Caltrain go under so that it can restructure.

Let's get BART down the peninsula!

Posted by me, a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Jan 28, 2011 at 10:28 am

They might reduce the budget if the conductors actually checked for tickets. I have been on the train for weeks and never ONCE asked for a ticket. How many people jump on and off without paying??? thousands I would imagine.

Posted by rider, a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2011 at 11:01 am

I disagree that trains run nearly empty in off-peak hours. I mainly ride off-peak and there are loads of riders, both in the San Jose area and on the peninsula to S.F.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 28, 2011 at 11:34 am

For those of you who think that only Caltrain users benefit from Caltrain: office vacancy rates are 41.5% lower near Caltrain stations than elsewhere on the Peninsula. (source: Web Link )

If Caltrain service is cut, property values for office space in downtown Palo Alto and Mountain View will tank -- and these cities will lose a huge tax base.

Posted by PA Transit Watcher, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2011 at 11:35 am

Caltrain works for us...better than any other transit service we have. Please SAVE IT!

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2011 at 11:36 am

CalTrain: 15,000 riders strong (out of 2 Million peninsula residents) who want everyone else to subsidize the cost of their means of transportation.

(just kidding...sort of)

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2011 at 11:40 am

@ Donald:

You wrote: ---> "The freeways run way under capacity during off-peak hours, too, but I don't hear anybody advocating that we cut them in size or funding." <---

Okay...but about 100% of Bay Area residents and plenty of visitors use our freeways every week. What percentage of Bay Area residents and visitors use CalTrain every week?

We would be paying for those roads regardless of whether CalTrain exists...or even if less people drove upon them.

Should we be comparing apples and oranges?

Posted by stretch, a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2011 at 11:43 am

Finnaly - show me one person who will hop out of their car when they see a teen go into some bushes! Finally, we see that the real problem with CalTrain is that it provides an easy way for teens to kill themselves. Don't forget the ease of getting guns and prescription drugs. Where there's a will, there's a way (which means counseling and attention from friends and family will be more effective). Lights won't stop this particular problem, and neither will cutting down the bushes. CalTrain needs to operate on a user-friendly schedule and keep those people off the roads!

Posted by noname, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 28, 2011 at 12:14 pm

"$100 million budget" for "12 million riders annually".
Must be kidding.

Posted by Dan, a resident of Southgate
on Jan 28, 2011 at 12:51 pm

I find it ironic that so many politicians are supportive of spending $Billions on sexy new bullet trains, but would let a functioning mass transit system like CALTrain die on the vine. A $3B endowment would run CalTrain in perpetuity with free fares. No more ticketing machines, ticket checkers, etc. Mass transit should be the cheaper option for commuting, but currently, its cheaper to drive. How does that encourage people to take mass transit?

Also, I wish Caltrain had smaller, more frequent trains.

Posted by DZ, a resident of Terman Middle School
on Jan 28, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Leave Caltrain run only at peak time make sense. Higher fare make sense. Electrify Caltrain also make sense. What doesn't make sense is to use public money to support a service that only benefit very limited groups of people. People pay more for organic food, right? People also should pay more for their live-far-away-from-work-by-train + bike life style. This life style is a health hazard for people live alone the rail and who has to cross the rail. Everyday, when I see cars have to stop in the middle of road because an incoming train; or sometimes, surprised drivers has to driver off the road because traffic and suddenly flashing red train lights; Or the all day train horn noise even at middle of night, I told myself, this madness should stop. For those who think train is the way to save the planet, certainly it is not in the way that Caltrain is. So the best thing for everyone is, unless we can improve Caltrain to a certain level, let's minimize its negative impact on our communities. And that is exactly what the market force telling us.

BTW, Please don't compare tax money for highway and tax money for Caltrain, you know how many people use highway and how many people use trains. There is no comparison there.

Posted by Caltrain rider, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 28, 2011 at 12:57 pm

As a longtime Caltrain rider, the idea of increasing service frequency to gain ridership is attractive. Although it's hard to imagine, in an era of cutting back, the idea being adopted. There are still lots of ways to make existing service an even more attractive option than driving and build ridership.

Mid-day bullets in each direction would be great for accommodating flexible schedules and folks like me who may commute to SF, lunch in PA, then have afternoon mtgs in SF. I'd love to see wireless internet service offered on all trains and more space for bicycles. I'm mystified as to why Zipcar isn't available at all stations, it would go a long way toward solving the "first mile/last mile" problem.

The pilot Baby Bullet weekend service seems to be a growing success, the trains I've ridden have all been full. I'm baffled they don't charge more for express service than for local.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm

@ John David: Um, CalTrain used to be run by the Southern Pacific Railroad --- it was running commuter trains since the 1930's...i.e., "the very beginning"...long before BART was gleam in anyone's eye - get your facts realigned.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 28, 2011 at 2:00 pm

@ Crescent Park Dad:

Actually, the original Peninsula Commute corridor was constructed in 1863 (see Web Link ). Revenue service had begun on the corridor a few months before Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.

Posted by Mat, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 28, 2011 at 3:33 pm

BART. BART. BART!! Please bring BART!!!!

Posted by BART, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 28, 2011 at 4:23 pm

BART. BART. BART!! Please bring BART!!!! We just need $12 billion to build it up the peninsula after paying $6.1 billion to build it from Fremont to San Jose. The Palo Alto residents easily have the money to tax themselves for this!

Posted by who cares, a resident of Triple El
on Jan 28, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Southern Pacific wisely abandoned this albatross in the 80's and only government was able to subsidize this unprofitable experiment with public money. The experiment has failed and now a minority group of government officials want to increase funding with public money? I am sure the few people who ride the train subsidized by us with cheap ticket prices are concerned, but they and CalTrain workers are probably the only ones. The free ride is over. So long to subsidized choo choo train rides.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2011 at 6:48 pm

I rode the train when it was run by SP and I use it now, and the comments above are absolutely wrong. It is a far better service now and much more popular. Lack of demand is not a problem. It is actually a very succesful experiment in terms of showing how an organization that listens to its customers can increase its business and popularity. It is a failure in terms of its funding model.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 28, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Typical politician - make up facts like the 40,000 rides tranlates into 12 million cars? there are only 3.5 million people (including children) in the service area (San Fran, San Mateo & Santa Clara).

Instead of taxes, how about creating services that Caltrain could offer businesses? For example, haven't we heard about the buses Google has to transport workers from SF to Mt View? why can't Caltrain offer a service for those workers? How about offering transport service for the Post Office - mail from each city could be put on the train and transported to the regional sorting center in SF? or work with UPS or Fedex to transport dropped off packages from each city to their regional centers at the airport?

If these politicians had to get a real job in Silicon Valley, it would still be a valley of orchards.

Posted by ODB, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 28, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Hey, not a bad idea! Sell monthly passes to local employers at a BULK RATE! Get 50 or more employees to take the train and get 10% off the fare. Get 100 or more and get 20% off the fare. Employers could then charge their employees back for the discounted passes or simply make them a fringe benefit.

common sense: The old S.P. commute trains had mail cars on them back in the '60s. Carrying cargo would cut into Union Pacific's freight business but what the heck.

Posted by ChrisC, a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 29, 2011 at 1:15 am

Picture "Uncertainties mount for struggling the Paris Metro & RER." Never, ever, ever, because other governments realize that transportation is a basic right, a basic infrastructure need to get people to work and back. Cutting Caltrain, VTA, Muni, is just sooo sad.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2011 at 7:32 am

Freeight trains still run on the Caltrain tracks at night, so you can't just rip them out and replace them with BART. This is a complicated issue.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2011 at 8:48 am


You're right. This would never happen in a European city because public transportation is a lifeline to the public. Large European cities are increasing their public transit all the time, Dublin Ireland is a good example of this. Not only are they increasing within the city but on the outskirts and into the country too.

Let's face it. If Caltrain were to vanish and not be replaced, the whole Peninsula would be affected in primary and secondary ways. Obviously traffic would be the most immediate primary effect. But the secondary effect would be the housing market (people may need to move closer to their city jobs), which could effect quality of life issues, happiness levels and even increase the divorce rates.

Posted by Joseph Kott, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2011 at 11:08 am

Good luck to the public-spirited Friends of Caltrain! Let's hope that Caltrain not only survives, but thrives as a sustainable transportation alternative to driving along the San Francisco Peninsula.

Posted by Nayeli, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 29, 2011 at 2:24 pm

@ Resident:

You are joking, right? Are you seriously claiming an increase in divorce rates if the 15,000-18,000 people who use CalTrain each day have to find a different way to get to work? I mean, there are just 15,000-18,000 people who ride back and forth each day. Out of an area of over 2 Million people -- that is just a drop in the bucket (less than 1% of the population).

BTW, if the people need to move to be closer to work, they will just move from one home/apartment into the next. Since more people work in Palo Alto than live here, there might actually be a minor housing boom.

We are ALL hoping that CalTrain can get its act together. However, year after year, we hear CalTrain complain about how they can't pay their bills.

Posted by Norman, a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 29, 2011 at 4:17 pm

If Caltrain is a financial sinkhole of losses just wait until the Bullet Train gets built.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Portola Valley
on Jan 29, 2011 at 4:57 pm

"Hey, not a bad idea! Sell monthly passes to local employers at a BULK RATE! Get 50 or more employees to take the train and get 10% off the fare. Get 100 or more and get 20% off the fare. Employers could then charge their employees back for the discounted passes or simply make them a fringe benefit."

Good news! Caltrain just listened to your advice and createdd such a program. It's called a "GO Pass": Web Link

Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 29, 2011 at 7:57 pm

The last train/bus in any public transit system is seldom full. Part of the cost of doing business -- you have to have a safety net.

Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 30, 2011 at 12:19 am

Here's the article describing Google bus service: Web Link

A the time the article was written, 1200 for Google, 350 for Yahoo. Caltrain should be asking what it takes win this business. Just these 2 companies could be another $3 million (about 10% of their deficit).

But the main point is that Caltrain needs to think more like a business, developing revenue, rather than having the reflex reaction of some of the politicians in the article of "let's assess taxes on everyone"

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 30, 2011 at 10:10 am

"common sense":

I agree, Caltrain should be trying to win some of this business. I think it would be interesting to see a peak-direction BRT system (one dedicated lane that switches direction in AM and PM) for transporting workers between Caltrain and corporate campuses. If the Caltrain shuttle can bypass traffic, it would be much more competitive.

One thing worth keeping in mind is that not all of the Google shuttle users are going to San Francisco. Many of the shuttles go to the East Bay, and some even to Santa Cruz.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 30, 2011 at 11:17 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Eliminate grade crossings and most of the suicides are eliminated, and times are improved by 10 to 20 percent. Electrify and you beat BART service.

Posted by svatoid, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 30, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Caltrain is doomed. I heard on the radio this morning a story about the group "Friends of Caltrain"--one of the founders was interviewed on the radio--this person is a former PA councilmember. If this person deals with Caltrain the same way in which this person dealt with the problems facing PA during this person's tenure on the council, then we can say goodbye to Caltrain.

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