End of the line for Caltrain? | February 11, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - February 11, 2011

End of the line for Caltrain?

How Silicon Valley could fare if the West's second oldest passenger rail line were to curtail service

by Sue Dremann

The Caltrain advertisement reads like a 1930s luxury-rail travel poster, luring urban sports fans toward a comfortable ride free from traffic jams, long lines, hunts for parking spaces and exorbitant parking fees:

This story contains 1871 words.

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Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.


Posted by commuter, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 11, 2011 at 11:00 am

The amount of money they are talking about is paltry compared to the billions of tax dollars that the Bay Area spends on highways. Why can't our government get their act together and put together a comprehensive regional transportation program? Caltrain is not an independent entity any more than Highway 101 is an independent entity. They should get their funding from the same pot.

Posted by JT, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 11, 2011 at 11:13 am

Note to Yoriko and the others who want to raise my taxes: I, for one, will never vote for a Caltrain tax with their CEO pulling down $400,000 a year. Granted he works for three transit agencies, but when the boss gets that kind of pay, everybody else's salary is probably inflated too. My guess is the Caltrain would be solvent if people were paid market rates for their labor rather than these inflated government wages.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of another community
on Feb 11, 2011 at 11:36 am

Your guess is wrong. Caltrain's entire staff (CEO on down) make about $6 million per year. Even with a 100% pay cut to everyone on the staff (CEO on down) you would still only cover one fifth of the budget shortfall.

Caltrain needs a subsidy. Once you get over that, we can and should address how to make that subsidy reliable and predictable, instead of the existing system that relies on 3 other agencies' ability and willingness to pay.

Posted by Martin, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 11, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I am ready for Caltrain 2.0! Like any other business, there comes a time to trim "dead wood", and rebuild from the foundation. In my opinion, any train running less than half full, is dead wood.

My suggestion is: 1) cut service to peak commute hours only, 2) build a financially sustainable commute service, 3) expand at a later date, based on a) online market driven ridership, tallied from logged in users to the caltrain.com web site (unique users), and b) financial viability.

Let's stop trying to prop up old fictitious schedules, rebuild the railroad, and run trains based on "real" demand.

Its time for Caltrain 2.0!!

Posted by Bruno, a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 11, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Caltrain is run worse than most third world countries. If you ride it daily, you know how bad it can be...

The system should be privatized and run by professionals, not the careless employees Caltrain employs.

Posted by Palo Alto Commuter, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 11, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Losing CalTrain would be quite devastating for bay area commuters, tourists and the odd Giants game trekkers. It's a great service that the peninsula really needs. The prospect of 20K more cars on the road should be enough of a slap in the face to wake up our local governments and increase subsidizes for the service even if it means higher taxes.

Come on folks, this is the richest and most advanced tech corridor in the country - can we sustain a rail service for it?

Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 11, 2011 at 1:39 pm

Caltrain's yearly Ridership report show that during the weekday about 8500 unique people, from San Jose's 1+M population, and 2,500 unique people from San Francisco's 800,000+ population, board trains headed north and south. Together, this very small group generate about 55% of the passenger traffic of the whole Caltrain system on a weekday basis. These 11,000 unique people constitute less than .4% of 3+M living in Caltrain's Peninsula service area.

Looking forward at Caltrain’s funding problems, and understanding the extremely high costs of government-managed/subsidized transportation systems, the operating/maintenance costs of this system can be shown to be about $8+B for the coming 30 years. That’s $8+B providing transportation for no more than 18,000-20,000 unique people a day.

Our Bay Area highway system, on the other hand, provides perhaps half-million(estimated) "trips" for vehicles of all kinds for the 6.5+M residents, and who knows how many travelers who pass through the Bay Area on a daily basis. There is no one in the Bay Area who is not dependent on the goods that are delivered, and the services that are facilitated, on Highway 101 and Highway 280. Caltrain, on the other hand, outside of transporting this small segment of our population, does not enable our general economy, as these two highways do.

Caltrain needs to be terminated, and any/all public dollars intended for its future improvement redirected to our very neglected, and very useful, highway system.

Wayne Martin
Palo Alto, CA

Posted by Satish, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 11, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Wayne Martin, Very convincing data driven argument!

VTA,SamTrans, please defund Caltrain an take it out of its misery.
There is no way Caltrain is going to get a 2/3rd majority approval on a new tax at this point.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm

VTA's, SamTrans's, and SFMuni's farebox recovery ratios are all *much* lower than Caltrain's.

If you think funding decisions should be purely data-driven, then all three agencies should defund their own services before defunding Caltrain.

Posted by J, a resident of University South
on Feb 11, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Wayne Martin,

Just a follow-up to your point "Caltrain needs to be terminated, and any/all public dollars intended for its future improvement redirected to our very neglected, and very useful, highway system."

Shouldnt the same criteria be used to judge the road network and how much future investment should go towards it?

Should roads be held to the same standard that they must be cost-neutral as well. If so, then alot of roads will have to close down as well since there may be too few people using them.

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of another community
on Feb 11, 2011 at 3:13 pm

> 8500 unique people, from San Jose's 1+M population, and 2,500 unique people from San Francisco's 800,000+ population

You've got that backwards. In February 2010 San Francisco had 8600 average weekday boardings and San Jose 2700. You not only ignore the other 25500 average weekday boardings (the remaining 70%, yes, SEVENTY PERCENT, of Caltrain's weekday ridership that board between SF and SJ) but also assume that average weekday ridership consists entirely of commuters who ride twice a day 5x a week. In reality Caltrain probably serves upwards of 25000 unique people very week.

Let me turn your data-driven argument on its head.

A four-lane highway carries at most 1500 cars per hour per lane, each of which carries about 1.2 unique people. That means that during the AM rush hour (6-9 AM) any given point along 101 or 280 carries 1500 cars x 4 lanes x 1.2 occupants x 3 hours x 2 directions = 45000 unique people. Those exact same people use the highway in the evening, so they don't count in our total of unique people. 45000 unique people is a tiny fraction of the three counties' population of 3.3 million.

101 and 280 need to be closed, and any/all public dollars intended for maintenance, policing and auxiliary lanes should be redirected to our very neglected, and very useful, rail system.

Data-driven or data-dumb?

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 11, 2011 at 3:41 pm

I agree with Anonymous.

The majority of people living on the Peninsula are not on 101 and 280 at commute times. I myself rarely use these highways, but when I do I expect them to be running at the speed limit, not at a standstill. If all the people who use Caltrain (?) were on 101 and 280 at the busiest times of the day as well as the current level of traffic, then both highways would not be moving at the limit.

I am only one person, but I expect my bread delivered to the store, my doctor/dentist to be in the office, by kids teachers to be in school and my mail delivered by 5.00 pm. If traffic can't move on 101/280 then I am affected in so many ways.

At present there is no incentive for people to use off peak Caltrain. There are no reduced off peak fares, no free parking after 3.00 pm at their stations, and no family or weekend discounts. Caltrain cannot market itself and cannot envision itself as attempting to win riders.

When service oriented businesses are losing customers, they actively look for new markets. They introduce specials, discounts and promotions. Caltrain has never advertised or promoted itself on a regular basis and never tried to compete with private transportation. What is happening now is due to failed management and diminishing service.

Reducing service now is going to be the deathcall, not the miraculous back to profit strategy some may think. Putting people in seats on the empty trains has always been the best way to go. Unfortunately, Caltrain never saw that as an option.

Posted by Rider, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 11, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Caltrain wants to close Santa Clara and Lawrence stations so there will be no way for people in 10 mile radius to get on the train, genius idea! eliminating even more riders (customers) is THE way to go when you want to increase the revenue.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 11, 2011 at 5:44 pm


Stations cost money to operate, and, even more importantly, trains are much slower when they need to make a lot of stops. There is a trade-off between speed and stops when it comes to ridership. The trains that favor speed have been much more successful to Caltrain, so it makes sense for them to focus on those.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 11, 2011 at 5:56 pm

Wayne Martin posted the same one-sided set of phony half truths a couple of weeks ago. It doesn't matter though, because posting here is meaningless. The people who will make the decisions will not do so based on what anyone says here. If you want to go the meetings that count and speak your mind, you had better have a more factual and compelling argument than Wayne's because many of the people there will actually know their stuff. They will hear Wayne say that Caltrain is useless because it doesn't serve enough people, then they will hear from a bunch of major employers saying they need Caltrain to get their employees to work and they will hear from the blind girl who can't get to work any other way. Caltrain may need to be re-organized with a different funding model and business model, but we should not abandon it.

Posted by Frank, a resident of another community
on Feb 11, 2011 at 6:20 pm

I find it hard to believe that a viable rail transportation system is so hard to fund in such a cosmopolitan region of the world. They can do it in Europe and Asia. What is wrong with you people?

Posted by danos, a resident of another community
on Feb 11, 2011 at 6:37 pm

It is true that the relatively small number of people who use CalTrain during commute hours do not represent a major impact on freeway volume.

40,000 people is really not that big of a number. VTA Light Rail in San Jose has a daily ridership of 37,000. Would anyone consider that a significant population of transit users? By most measures, a rapid transit system serving so few people would be considered a failure.

Posted by Satish, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 11, 2011 at 6:44 pm

> The people who will make the decisions will not do so based on what anyone says here

The folks who will make the decision are the tax payers when Caltrain puts a new tax on the ballot to fund their operations.
And, by law, 2/3rd of the voters will have to approve it.
I can't see that happening given that less than 1% of those who will vote actually ride Caltrain.
Besides, Caltrain has the habit of making the fontpage for the wrong reasons (sky high employee compensation)and that does not resonate well with the voters

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm

If Caltrain is such a loser, why is VTA trying so hard to save it? VTA is not just a transit agency, but also our Congestion Management Agency. As such it is builds a lot of highway projects. Michael Burns, the GM, deals with funding for freeways, BART, Caltrain, buses, light rail, pedestrians and bicyclists. He understands more about transportation funding than anyone. If Caltrain is such a dog, why isn't he letting it sink to save his own budget? The answer is that he understands how important Caltrain is as part of a multimodal transportation system. He wants to have a system that serves everyone, not just stingy and selfish people who are healthy and wealthy enough to drive on freeways.

Posted by who cares, a resident of Triple El
on Feb 11, 2011 at 8:03 pm

If Scanlon makes $440,000 a year running three bankrupt transit systems using taxpayer money and receives multiple kudos from other high paid government officials as a "smart manager', then he shouldn't have any problem running the same companies as private entities. Why waste taxpayer money if they think he is doing such a great job, privatize and run CalTrain using his great skills. It is a sad statement that high paid government managers back each other when they come under public scrutiny. It is clear that taxpayers can no longer sustain poorly run government programs. The free ride is over.

Posted by Spokker, a resident of another community
on Feb 12, 2011 at 2:26 am

Oh, the old, "transit doesn't serve many people/let's cut all subsidy" argument. They often overestimate freeway capacity and underestimate the effect of transit patronage. Kick the ten thousand or so unique users off of Caltrain and add them to the freeway. The damn thing is already at a standstill. That's some crazy scary freeway capacity, I'm telling you! One guy merges late and suddenly you're backed up to San Jose.

Posted by Markie, a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 12, 2011 at 6:43 am

It's all a political ploy to scare everyone, so they can ask for higher fares, and higher taxes to waste on special interests projects. Wake up California, the politicians are taking you to the cleaners...

Posted by Barbara Saxton, a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 12, 2011 at 3:23 pm

What doesn't make news is how enjoyable Caltrain is as a commute option! 99% of the time, the service is timely, courteous and pleasant. I get tons of work done on the train, or I relax, and I arrive at my destination refreshed and prepared for my work day. If you dislike driving and cars as much as I do, give Caltrain a try. Many of these comments center around the relatively small number of "unique individuals" (normally, I would enjoy being called one of those, but in this case, the implication is somewhat pejorative...) currently using this marvelous train service, so let's get those numbers up. One way we can save Caltrain is by riding it!

Posted by Spokker, a resident of another community
on Feb 12, 2011 at 5:14 pm

"It's all a political ploy to scare everyone, so they can ask for higher fares, and higher taxes to waste on special interests projects."

So are you saying that Caltrain doesn't have a budget deficit and is faking the whole thing to extract more money out of taxpayers?

You may want to shed your tinfoil hat and discover the realities of public transit funding in this state (and country). There is a real problem here, and even if Caltrain staff and CEO worked for free, it still would not close the budget deficit.

This is a choice the Bay Area must make. Is Caltrain important or not?

I don't think shutting it down would be a bad idea. Let's see once and for all what a world without Caltrain looks like.

If the prospect of worse Caltrain service scares people, then maybe, just maybe, Caltrain might be important enough to save.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Feb 12, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Someone needs to provide a broader vision. Why not complete BART all the way around the Bay and extend it east to Stockton. Then run the HSR from from San Diego and Los Angeles directly to Sacramento with a connection to BART.

Posted by ODB, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 12, 2011 at 11:35 pm

$175 million have been spent in the past few years upgrading the Burlingame and California Avenue stations and building a maintenance facility in San Jose, and hundreds of millions more retracking the entire line for baby bullets. Now they want to shut down the service altogether. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

And people still believe privatizing CalTrain is a viable option. It's not! No private interest in its right mind would go near it. It would be bad business for them. It's a money loser which requires ongoing public subsidies, the very reason the state of California took it off S.P.'s hands in 1980.

Agreed CalTrain has done little to market itself. Selling passes to large employers at a discount is a start.

Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 13, 2011 at 7:12 am

A few things Caltrain has done to market itself:
* Showing its estimated travel time vs. current freeway congestion on electronic message signs along US-101 (see page 8 of Web Link )
* In 2006, was the first train operator in the United States to offer 4G broadband service over WiFi: Web Link (this was a trial program and unfortunately Caltrain decided to wait to set it up permanently until costs went down)

Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 13, 2011 at 12:04 pm

"It's a money loser which requires ongoing public subsidies,"

What? On what planet do you live?

As I've mentioned before in numerous other threads, Caltrain as it currently stands cannot work. It's designed to get people from the peninsula to San Francisco. The peninsula does not have enough density to support using Caltrain as a backbone because VTA and Samtrans cannot afford to put together an effective feeder network to Caltrain. Even San Francisco is barely dense enough to support MUNI.

We are a suburb. Stop pretending we live in a dense urban environment. Caltrain assumes we are the Long Island / New Jersey to San Francisco's Manhattan. Once you get your little minds wrapped around that, then you can start really thinking about fixing the problem.

Posted by psa188, a resident of Los Altos
on Feb 14, 2011 at 10:57 am

It's ironic to see the grossly misnamed Silicon Valley "Leadership" Group involved in the effort to save Caltrain. For the past decade or so, this loathsome bunch has been advocating extending BART to San Jose at the expense of just about every other transportation improvement in the south bay. The 2000 Measure A sales tax increase ballot language listed 14 specific projects or project areas which included:

Improving Caltrain by double-tracking to Gilroy and electrifying from Palo Alto to Gilroy.

Increasing the level of Caltrain service.

and connecting Caltrain with the Dumbarton Rail line.

Sadly, these and other promised projects have been sacrificed at the alter of BART, and this group hornswaggled voters into passing yet another BART tax in 2008. (some folks never learn.) Now this group wants YET ANOTHER TAX to bail out Caltrain.

Santa Clara County residents already pay enough in transit tax, most of which goes into one gold-plated, over-designed project that uses the wrong route. The last thing we need in this lousy economy is more taxes.

Posted by ODB, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 15, 2011 at 3:40 am

As has been stated here many times previously, Southern Pacific ran the commute service at a loss for decades. Fares weren't covering the cost of operations. Southern Pacific was in effect subsidizing the service and begged and begged the CPUC to be released from its obligation to operate it. That's what the state of California and the three counties got themselves into when they took it over with both eyes wide open starting in 1980.

The line was built in the mid 1800s before the 101 and the 280, when the only kind of traffic on El Camino Real were horse-drawn buggies.

All of this information can easily be found on line with a couple of Google searches.

Posted by sdfs, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 15, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Caltrain staff are paid way too much. They should all take 50% pay cuts. Problem Solved. If they aren't willing to do it, there are a lot of unemployed people who are willing to take their place.

Posted by reader rider, a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 15, 2011 at 3:22 pm

We are at the point where buses and trains just serve employers ("let's just have 'em in commute hours"). Want to spend a long day Sunday with your family, getting back relatively late at night? Forget it.

If these things just serve employers, then something's wrong, and "public" transit of this kind probably should bite the dust.