The story of Caltrain — its past and its future — is a model of how transit can be built up in a adaptable, flexible way. Although it may look like an old-fashioned train system to some, it has morphed into a competitive and attractive service to today's green and demanding knowledge-based workforce.
Some 25 percent of SRI employees and 17 to 20 percent of Stanford campus employees take Caltrain to get to work and Google and Apple are among the many technology employers that regularly dispatch buses to shuttle workers from Caltrain "Baby Bullet" stations to the office. (My husband is one of those employees.)
Caltrain anchors most of the walkable downtowns up and down the Peninsula and leaves enough funding on the table for a diverse bus, shuttle and bicycle network. A ride from Palo Alto to San Francisco can be as short a half hour, or an hour from San Jose to San Francisco.
Caltrain continues to explode in ridership growth, with standing room only on some trains during rush hour — not quite as crowded as Tokyo but impressive.
The average Caltrain weekday ridership jumped 18 percent this summer, leading to a historic high of over 46,000 daily riders. This is almost a doubling compared to the daily ridership of less than 26,000 before Baby Bullet service began in 2004. Even more astounding is that this increase in ridership has been accomplished with the same operating resources.
Caltrain's Rail Transformation Officer Bob Doty tells the tale of how they were forced to innovate to survive the dot.com bust. With plummeting employment and ridership, they faced the dilemma: Should Caltrain cut service to reduce costs?
Caltrain was indeed forced to cut local service, but it increased its express service — and ridership and revenues — with two clear strategies.
One was to reduce trip time for its customers, with the business model in mind that ridership would rise as trip time came down.
The second was to increase earned revenue per employee, which linked consideration of not only farebox recovery but optimizing customer satisfaction and responsiveness and broadening markets and revenue. Caltrain earns its riders' loyalty with comfortable, reliable, safe and, most important, time-competitive rides.
The Baby Bullet service is a clear winner. With $4 to $5 per gallon gasoline and enlightened workers interested in reducing their greenhouse-gas footprints leading to capacity problems on the trains, Caltrain has been developing a vision for its next phase.
Caltrain's vision for the future is one that would upgrade the inefficient diesel locomotive trains into a BART-like modern electric cars. Unlike BART, they would run on standard-gauge tracks and be integrated into future statewide high-speed rail and freight systems. Its vision is "Rapid transit service on a commuter rail infrastructure."
BART to San Jose/Santa Clara is a vision that sounds attractive.
But the difficult reality is that it is doomed to fail. It does not work as a fast way to get from one part of the Bay Area to another, with no express trains and round-about routing.
It does not work as a cost-effective way to travel within the county. It would not be compatible with high-speed rail, meaning there may need to be two multi-billion-dollar heavy-rail systems on the East Bay. With the same investment, we just might be able to build a smart, responsive system that would provide fast inter-city travel and also provide for a dense network of buses, shuttles and diamond carpool lanes to support our valley's future.
Too many transit investments have been made based on political promises without the evidence-based planning that truly evaluates options and weighs informed choices.
The Valley Transportation Authority's light-rail system is indeed too slow and does not work as well as it should. BART's extension to the San Francisco International Airport has effectively eliminated our Peninsula and South Bay's convenient transit access to that airport and led to worse bus service in Santa Mateo County.
We can't afford another huge mistake, which I and many others believe Measure B represents.
Santa Clara county is the healthiest county in the Bay Area. We don't need to become like San Francisco. This is our opportunity to create our own family-friendly, green, tech-savvy model for land use and transportation.
This story contains 747 words.
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