Caltrain rethinks relationship with high-speed rail

Agency considers other ways to electrify trains, close structural budget deficit

A recent decision to start California's high-speed-rail line in Central Valley has prompted Caltrain to reconsider its seven-year-old partnership with the agency overseeing the controversial rail project, Caltrain officials said at a Town Hall meeting in Palo Alto Tuesday morning (May 17).

Santa Clara Supervisor Liz Kniss, who sits on Caltrain's governing board, hosted the meeting in Palo Alto City Hall to update the community about Caltrain's ongoing financial struggles and its efforts to electrify the financially troubled train system. But the discussion also touched on California's controversial high-speed-rail project, a sore subject in Palo Alto and around the Peninsula.

The high-speed-rail line is slated to stretch from San Francisco to Los Angeles and to pass through the Peninsula along the Caltrain corridor. In 2004, four years before California voters approved a $9 billion bond for the new rail line, the rail authority and Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which oversees Caltrain, entered into an agreement to work together on the new rail line. The parties amended the agreement in 2009, after the bond's passage.

The arrangement seemed like a win-win situation. The rail authority needed Caltrain's right-of-way to make the system work, while Caltrain officials saw the rail project as a possible way to electrify the popular but cash-strapped system. But with high-speed rail facing its own financial challenges, as well as increasing skepticism from Peninsula residents, Caltrain is giving this partnership a second thought.

At Tuesday's meeting, several audience members questioned Caltrain's partnership with the rail authority and encouraged the JPB to take a more assertive stance. Palo Alto resident Hinda Sack said Caltrain should have a greater say in its partnership with the rail authority.

Kniss, a former Palo Alto mayor, said the relationship between the agencies has always been tentative and subject to changes.

"It's like many arrangements," Kniss said. "I'd call it, maybe they were in the engagement phase.

"Caltrain got the ring but never got a wedding band."

Mark Simon, Caltrain's executive officer for public affairs, said his agency entered into a partnership with the rail authority because it felt the high-speed-rail project could help it achieve the ultimate goal of electrifying the Caltrain system, a goal that he and Kniss say is necessary to ensure the long-term viability of the popular commuter service.

He also said Caltrain has been "rethinking our relationship with high-speed rail" since the rail authority approved a plan to start the line in Central Valley. The plan has prompted many legislators, watchdogs and concerned citizens to wonder whether the Peninsula segment will ever get built. On the bright side, the plan created a welcome reprieve for many Peninsula officials, including the Palo Alto City Council, who felt the project is moving too fast and in the wrong direction.

"I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when the money went to Central Valley and we had ourselves a little more time to reach these decisions and think about what we can do," Simon told the audience Tuesday morning.

Some on the Peninsula still hope the high-speed-rail line and Caltrain can work together. Last month, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and state Assemblyman Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, proposed a plan in which high-speed rail and Caltrain would "blend" on the Peninsula. The plan calls for an electrified Caltrain system that would serve high-speed-rail passengers on the San Jose-to-San Francisco segment of the line.

The plan met a cool reception at the most recent meeting of the rail authority's board of directors. Several members, including board Chair Curt Pringle, suggested that the proposal could be little more than an attempt by Peninsula legislators to take money from the high-speed rail and use it for Caltrain's needs.

For Caltrain, the uncertainty over the Peninsula segment means it has to look for other ways to raise the roughly $1.5 billion needed to electrify the system. The three partnering agencies have already set aside $269 million for the project and expect to receive about $350 million more in grants. Even so, Caltrain is still looking for about $640 million to make electrification possible, said Marian Lee, Caltrain's executive officer for planning and development.

The capital project is one of two major funding challenges the agency is wrestling with. Caltrain, which has no permanent, dedicated funding sources, is facing a structural budget gap of about $30 million. The shortfall can be attributed largely to decreases in voluntary contributions from the three partner agencies that support the commuter service -- the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority.

Simon and Kniss said Tuesday that switching Caltrain from diesel to electricity would reduce emissions by 90 percent as well as cut down noise. The agency also hopes to install "positive train controls" -- a GPS-based signal system that will allow Caltrain to run more trains and further boost its ridership.

Caltrain has already completed a draft Environmental Impact Report for the electrification project and hopes to certify the state-mandated document this summer.

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Like this comment
Posted by caltrain convert
a resident of Downtown North
on May 18, 2011 at 10:55 am

More and faster trains, please. My car is perfectly happy sitting in the driveway.

Like this comment
Posted by Bruce
a resident of Barron Park
on May 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

HSR can't cost-effectively get from San Jose to San Francisco without Caltrain's right of way. So why is Caltrain letting HSR treat it disrespectfully?

Call off 'the engagement,' as Supervisor Kniss put it. Terminate the HSR-Caltrain partnership agreement and start over.

Any new agreement should include

1. a minimum signing bonus to pay for immediate Caltrain electrification ($700 million) and

2. a HSR ridership guarantee to assure Caltrain viability for fifty years.

HSR will figure out how to best do that within their 'Prop 1A mandate,' or no deal.

Like this comment
Posted by Shut-It-Down
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2011 at 11:39 am

Amtrak's financial losses are projected to widen this year despite rising ridership, the top executive of the government-subsidized rail system said Tuesday.

View Full Image
Government subsidized/operated mass transit is a massive black hole of public funds, and trust. This morning's Wall Street Journal restates the story, one more time---

Web Link

Amtrak Chugs Deeper Into the Red
Amtrak ridership, up 9.9% in April, has climbed 18 consecutive months.

Amtrak blames the red ink on rising compensation costs for union workers and increased costs for fuel, materials and other expenses. Amtrak is making money on its heavily traveled Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, serving mostly commuters, executives said. But money-losing, long-distance routes are a drag on the bottom line, Amtrak says.

Getting out of government mass transit, as quickly as possible, is absolutely necessary to keep from throwing any more good many after bad. This story repeats itself no matter what aspect of our lives the government tries to manage/control.

Like this comment
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Downtown North
on May 18, 2011 at 11:46 am

HSR picked up votes by promising better train service on the peninsula. Voters didn't care whether better train service was labeled HSR or Caltrain. After the voting was over, HSR came back with ugly plans, but given the HSR budget problems, voting isn't over yet. Perhaps the rail authorities objection about taking HSR money for Caltrain will be dressed up again. Vote against the HSR taking tax money from Santa Clara and San Mateo counties that could be used to make our train service better.

Like this comment
Posted by Robbie
a resident of Ventura
on May 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm

The federal Highway Trust fund is also running in the red. The Congressional Budget Office says that between 2008 and 2010 the government had to provide $30 BILLION in bailout funds. Our money-losing highway system's financial troubles dwarf those of Amtrak or Caltrain. Shutting both down will not make a dent in the deficit that our highway system is running.

Like this comment
Posted by Shut-It-Down
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2011 at 1:19 pm

The following is from the CBO, released very recently:
Web Link

Status of the Highway Trust Fund

The United States spends about $160 billion annually on highways, with about one-fourth of that total, or roughly $40 billion, coming from the federal government.

Federal highway spending is funded mainly through taxes on gasoline and other motor fuels that accrue to the Highway Trust Fund. In recent years, the Congress has spent more on highways than the revenues accruing to the fund for that purpose, and it has supplemented the trust fund’s balance with money from the general fund of the

Given a population of about 330M people, this $160B comes to a "government" expenditure for highways at just under $500 per person in the US. There is obviously income from those using the highways, which is paid by a number of tax sources. This highways system is the backbone of our economy, or national security, our very existence.

The idea that a highway system, like ours, is "losing money" is simply crazy, since it is supposed to be "free", for the most part. There are many reasons why there is a mismatch in revenue vs spending. It's always the same problem. Our elected government officials do not have the backbone to trim to spending to match the revenues. Government has become a "jobs engine", more than a service delivery engine.

Finding out where all of this money goes is probably something that only a State Department of Transportation, and the Federal DOT could provide. Having a "spending map" that shows what the cost/highway segment might be would be most instructive.

Locally, the cost of providing Caltrain service to the current users is over $6,000 per person. This is a huge difference between the $500 cost (with sales taxes, gas taxes, income taxes, etc) reducing the cost per person to something that reduces to possibly close to zero in many cases. The same $6,000 might be true for VTA buses, based on a daypass cost of $6.00 and that the farebox recovery hovering around 20%.

It would help this conversation a lot to have the various government agencies providing honest, timely, accounting of their services.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on May 18, 2011 at 1:31 pm

> The agency also hopes to install "positive train controls" -- a GPS-based signal system that will allow Caltrain to run more trains and further boost its ridership.

It's not just a hope, it's an FRA-mandated precondition for running electric trains of the type that Caltrain plans to procure. No PTC, no service.

Then there's the little issue of Caltrain's PTC system being 100% incompatible with HSR train control systems. Better fix that quick, before they spend the $12 million allocated to PTC in the coming year's Caltrain capital budget.

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Engel
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 18, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Mucking about in the Chaotic Mud of Caltrain/High-Speed Rail

Dealing with the never-ending travails of Caltrain and its ambiguous relationship with High-Speed Rail is a task I take on with reluctance. It's a distraction from the mega-billion dollar high-speed rail project in California which requires full daily attention.

So, let's say certain basic things right up front, even before reading Gennady Sheyner's excellent coverage of the current situation.

Caltrain does not need electrification. That's merely posturing. Regardless of what they say, it will not solve their operating deficit problem. Furthermore, it reflects the misconception that Caltrain sustains in its vision of its business model.

Caltrain believes it is in the railroad business. Adding more bells and whistles to their trains, such as electrification, etc. will give them fancier, more up-to-date trains, but will not address the key problem of ridership and commuter rail access.

What they fail to grasp is that they are actually in the public mass transit commuter business, regardless of the technology, which is merely the Means, not the End. Their mission is a public utility service dedicated to moving the most people possible.

They confuse that with being in the railroad business, as if the trains are what their purpose for existence is. It's not; it's the people they move that justifies their existence. And they could and should be much better at it.

Caltrain is merely one element and should be an integrated element of a Bay Area wide commuter transit service. It is now only an unintegrated component of the Bay Area public transit service that fails to be a fully coordinated network.

For example, it competes with, rather than being tightly connected and integrated with, BART. Caltrain has not solved the first and last mile problem for its customers. One small step in that direction, for example, is being highly receptive to bike riders and their bikes; not hostile. That change is taking place and is to be commended. In addition, every train station needs adequate parking.

Those who persist in thinking that driving or Caltrain use is an either/or proposition don't grasp the realities of how most people commute. All transit is multi-modal. Caltrain should facilitate that.

Caltrain should be working like crazy to connect all of its train stations, converting them to "transit stations," where other modalities like buses and shuttles bring train riders to and from their origination point. What Caltrain fails to do is integrate itself into a much larger arterial network of multi-modal transit that spreads, like a web, all over the Bay Area.

Caltrain reeks of mis-management and should, as an ambiguously multi-layered organization, be terminated. But there must be a Peninsula Commuter Rail component closely coupled with the Bay Area transit network. And that's where all the current discussions fail. They don't address the problem at its source.

All the so-called "Friends of Caltrain" want to do is to put Caltrain on a money IV drip so that it can continue in its catatonic state of suspended animation. That's no solution to either its structural operating fund deficiencies, or its capital improvement upgrades. Electrification sounds so progressive and innovative, but the substantive upgrades are less a hardware problem than a systems integration problem.

Indeed, DEMUs can solve the rolling stock upgrades at far lower costs and can be gradually integrated in more cost-effective ways. We've discussed this previously. Let's put that another way, the fallacy in the reasoning about Caltrain's salvation is that there is too much focus on capital development investment and not enough on systems integration. What Caltrain is unable to do is subordinate itself into a larger, comprehensive transit Bay Area wide network. It's not a Peninsula problem; it's a Bay Area problem.

Now, back to the major concerns about high-speed rail. If that issue goes away, Caltrain's problem will be much easier to understand and resolve.

Like this comment
Posted by morris brown
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 18, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Essentially for their own selfish interests, the PCJCB decided to accommodate HSR regardless of all the very serious impacts that would come with this alliance, permitting the Autority to use their Right-of-way.

Thus far CalTrain has stuck to this position, even though the Authority has left them orphaned, putting all its money in the Central valley. We wouldn't be having all these discussions about our local interests, or would we have needed a Cities consortium to deal with the Authority if CalTrain had not really turned its back on the citizens that own the system, and therefore should have come first in the priorities of what is good for the Peninsula.

One should really wonder if CalTrain is indeed seriously thinking about booting HSR off their right-of-way. They have had plenty of opportunity, but thus far no action in that direction.

In a presentation vanArk gave in Berkeley the other day, a slide showing a possible time-line for various segments to start (after the Central Valley) didn't even have the San Jose to SF segment listed; apparently it is too far down the line now, with opposition etc., to currently think about.

But then we have the group "Friends of CalTrain", who leaders have always supported High Speed Rail, trying to gather to support for poor CalTrain and "let's pass a tax", to support its deficits. The effort by Friends of CalTrain deserves no support from the community, until CalTain divorces from the Authority.

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2011 at 4:35 pm

"Trains will only become widely popular when they are quieter, less personally expensive than driving, faster than driving and when it makes a quick stop next to your house." - Paul Diesing

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm

The HSR project is dead

1/ No market

2/ No need

3/ It does not make economic, social or environmental sense

4/ It is a failed boondoggle---good--put it in the grave

Like this comment
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2011 at 4:47 pm

@ Sharon:

...and, most importantly, NO MONEY!

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Stanford
on May 18, 2011 at 5:50 pm

If only the car and oil companies had not bought up and gutted the public transportation system back in the 70s, we would not be a state clamoring about environmental consciousness while putting out the most CO2 car emissions in the country.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on May 18, 2011 at 6:14 pm

@Posted by Hmmm

Web Link

Arnolds and John Edwards situations were the same

The way they dealt with them was very different

Comparing the two cases is very legitimate and fair to all parties and voters

We do not understand your objections to objective evidence

Like this comment
Posted by Adina Levin
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 18, 2011 at 8:56 pm

"Caltrain on a money IV drip"

Caltrain currently gets 48% of its revenue from riders, which is second only to BART in the region, and similar in rider along with New Jersey Transit, Long Island Railroad, at the top tier of US transit systems. Caltrain has among the lowest administrative costs in the region as well. It's ridership is at an alltime high.

The reason Caltrain needs funding is that the Joint Powers Board arrangement isn't working - it gets money from voluntary contributions from 3 agencies that see Caltrain as it's secondary priority, so if any of them has a problem, the funding for the year falls apart and there's a wasteful search for emergency funding. This is no way to run a service that's part of the economic backbone of the region.

Transit in the US and Europe doesn't make a profit. We subsidize transit and roads because we believe that having good infrastructure is part of the basis for a functional society and a strong economy. There are those who argue that all roads and transit should be privatized. The case can be made. I doubt the Bay Area would go for it. Or, you can argue that we should keep subsidizing roads and stop subsidizing transit, and go back to a mid-20th century auto-centric focus, with ever-increasing traffic and pollution and sprawl. I don't think the region wants that either.

So we need to figure out how to pay for transit, and make it more efficient, and make it better. I completely agree with the need to improve systemwide connectivity and first mile/last mile. The Bay Area as a whole needs to have transit work more like a system, and focus on getting people from place to place and less on operating buses and trains.

Like this comment
Posted by martin
a resident of Barron Park
on May 18, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Caltrain is blinded by the false promise that HSR will save them with electric trains. It is almost inconceivable that Caltrain is still "rethinking" their relationship with HSR after just about every objective study has concluded that HSR is a fiscal dog, the board members are essentially incompetent, and it only survives due to political (pork), rather than pragmatic, support.

My advise to Caltrain; promises made by HSR are about as valuable as the recycled news print they were written on, stop "rethinking" and get on with trying to improve your job as a commuter rail rather than making googly eyes at HSR and hoping for the best! Electrification WITH grade separations would be great, but don't throw Caltrain under HSR in order to get there.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of another community
on May 19, 2011 at 12:10 pm

> Caltrain is blinded by the false promise that HSR will save them with electric trains.

It's not just Caltrain being blinded, it's the counties. Measure A (2000) included Santa Clara's entire portion of the electrification project. That was reprogrammed to BART (without voter approval, BTW) with the excuse that HSR would most likely pay for this project. The counties are just as much to blame than Caltrain in believing that money grows on trees. Nobody is pointing the finger at VTA yet... why?

Like this comment
Posted by Remember measure A
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 19, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Measure A (2000) also included extending Caltrain service across the bay. It was an outrageous bait and switch.

Like this comment
Posted by political_i
a resident of another community
on May 19, 2011 at 2:43 pm

The Measure A bait and switch was for BART to San Jose since that was a Santa Clara County measure, NOT FOR HSR. BART has been a major drain with the San Jose project even though they could build 4 tracks of 125 mph rails with eletric lines from Oakland to San Jose, and still have money leftover. But no, we need to build a suburban subway with ridership promises of that in San Francisco.

1) There is a demand for HSR considering the ground delays at SFO, sometimes up to two hours, by that time, you would be just outside of LA Union Station.
2) What does not make environmental sense is putting more planes in the air, nor economically since short-haul routes do not perform well on efficiencies. JetBlue has stated they want to get out of the short-haul market.
3)If you are looking for a boondoggle and white elephant, look at the VTA for funneling money to BART for the boondoggle Oakland Airport Connector which will cost $6 for a 3 mile trip. $2 a mile, when they could have built a BRT system for $60 million. BART to San Jose, could turn into a $13.2 billion project if there are issues in DT San Jose with the tunnels.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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