Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 28, 2011

On Deadline: Can Caltrain survive 'death by a thousand cuts'?

by Jay Thorwaldson

It is impossible to imagine not having Caltrain and dumping most of its estimated 44,000 average daily riders onto the Peninsula and Santa Clara County freeways.

It is one of those "unthinkable scenarios," such as the real planning for nuclear war back in the scary years of the 1950s, when freeways were new things in the orchards of "The Valley of Heart's Delight," before silicon invaded.

That end-of-Caltrain threat became real last week when Caltrain announced it may have to make $30 million in cuts out of its $100 million annual operating budget. That means closing stations, slashing service on numerous trains and serious staffing cuts.

It would mean, in short, disaster, something akin to a small A-bomb falling on the economy of Silicon Valley, already famed for its jammed freeways during commute times. It would undo all of the decades of efforts to reduce traffic congestion and increase use of transit, chiefly buses and trains.

But is the threat real? The Caltrain press release announcing the cutback was issued just one day before a major "save Caltrain" summit meeting sponsored by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, held at Stanford University.

It followed an announcement that the three transit agencies that heavily subsidized the Caltrain operation were making huge cutbacks in their subsidies this fiscal year — Samtrans alone has said it plans to cut $10 million from its subsidy, leaving just about $4.7 million. Santa Clara County's VTA and the San Francisco transit system also would make substantial cuts, blaming the Great Recession.

So the $30 million is a conditional cut, based on a big IF. And the IF is laden with inter-agency politics. In addition, there is still the question of funds going to a BART extension into San Jose from the east, but not up the Peninsula, and a huge push (and counter-push) relating to a high-speed rail connection from San Francisco to Los Angeles, in its initial phase.

A highlight of the summit last Friday was a call for merging at least the funding of the transit agencies around the bay, based on a suggestion of state Assemblyman Jim Beall, a former Santa Clara County supervisor. "Regional funding for regional transit" was picked up by a number of local-government officials in the 200-person audience.

A follow-up "save Caltrain" session will be held this Saturday in San Carlos, sponsored by a group called "Friends of Caltrain," and organized by Yoriko Kishimoto, a former Palo Alto City Council member. The panel will be in the SamTrans auditorium, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos. (Disclaimer: I'll be moderating a morning panel.)

But "saving the commuter service" is not a new topic, although it may be a historical footnote for the current generation of public officials.

Decades ago, when I was a reporter for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times (later the Peninsula Times Tribune), one of my beat responsibilities was covering the Peninsula commuter service then run by Southern Pacific Railway.

It was a pretty sad service, compared to today's Caltrain operation. Most of its rolling stock (technical term for train cars) had been rolling for decades. I can't recall when it converted from steam to diesel engines, but as a kid in Los Gatos I used to like watching the steam engines arrive and depart from town about 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

I once decided to take a mid-morning train to San Francisco from Palo Alto to attend a state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) meeting on a proposed rate increase that SP was pushing hard. The off-peak rail car I boarded had rounded corners, cloth seat covers and a row of flower-shaped light fixtures down the middle of the car.

It also had a conductor in full SP uniform and squared-off cap who came back and punched my ticket. As I was the only passenger in the car, we began chatting. He first complained about "these young guys" not caring about the "rules of the road." He said when he was young "we'd sit around debating what a rule meant."

Then he told me of the hierarchy of SP, of how the president had a rail car made that cost a half million dollars, a pretty outlandish sum in those days. I thought of that car description when watching "Wild Wild West" TV episodes later.

And he told me of how the president, when he went somewhere in the car, would be followed to the station by all the top brass of SP, who would stand and wave good-bye as the train pulled out.

SP was one of the last great pyramid organizations.

But it hated its own commute service and tried over and over to kill it, to the extent that it almost became a joke. It tried to convince the PUC that the "high-speed commute trains," such as they were, actually tore up the tracks more than the heavy freight trains — trying to shift the bulk of maintenance costs.

And reporters had to be especially on guard with the SP press announcements. Being generous, one might say they didn't always include full information, or included information that sort of side-tracked accuracy.

An example is a hard-fought battle by SP to get PUC approval for an especially large fare increase. The PUC granted it but with a big condition: that SP order 18 brand new, double-decker commuter cars.

Ordering such cars custom built and delivered took about three years. Then one day I received a press release in the mail that SP was rolling out 18 brand new rail cars. The release had an extensive quotation from the SP president saying that this purchase should put to rest critics who claim SP was trying to kill the commuter service.

I called a friend in the SP public relations office. "George, aren't these the same cars that the PUC shoved down SP's throat three years ago?" A pause. Well, yes they are. Ah.

SP once offered to help its commuters acquire vans for vanpools.

When the service was shifted to public ownership through an agreement between SP and Caltrans — ultimately becoming Caltrain — the Palo Alto Weekly ran a cover story on it. It was the brand-new Weekly's third issue, Oct. 25, 1979.

"Southern Pacific cures its 47-mile long migraine," the headline read.

So now it's Caltrain that has the migraine.

Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson is retiring as editor today but will be writing columns in the future. He can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com.

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