Guest Opinion: Rail debate becomes a push to 'Save Our Caltrain!' | November 5, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 5, 2010

Guest Opinion: Rail debate becomes a push to 'Save Our Caltrain!'

by Yoriko Kishimoto

In 1851, officials of the brand-new State of California proposed a rail line to connect the first state capital, San Jose, to the emerging trading center of San Francisco. The three counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara financed the beginning of this railroad nine years later, according to records.

After several changes in ownership and name for the commuter service (including many years as an unwanted stepchild of Southern Pacific Railway), the same three counties took over ownership of Caltrain in 1992 and govern it today through a joint powers board (JPB), watching its ridership increase substantially.

In return, Caltrain has shaped the touch and feel of the Peninsula: The fine-grained walkable downtowns have developed as "pearls on a necklace" along its line — just as a century or more earlier Peninsula cities were called "knots on a string" as they formed along the tracks.

Today, while billions of dollars pour in for high-speed rail, Caltrain is threatened with bankruptcy, or just as bad it could die a slow death by entering a downward spiral of reduced service and reduced ridership.

That is why a number of stakeholders are pulling together to form "Friends of Caltrain." The idea is to work toward developing a dedicated, permanent source of operating funds that are needed, with or without high speed rail, to keep Caltrain healthy and running. The day-to-day operating deficit is the biggest threat.

Next Tuesday, Nov. 9, we are having a public meeting to present the regional context for Caltrain's serious challenges, both immediate and long-term. The meeting will be at the Menlo Park library from 7 to 9 p.m. (For more information, go to

We are planning a kick-off "Caltrain Summit" for Jan. 29, 2011, to reach out to the interested parties, partner with cities, employers, elected officials, neighborhoods, and environmental groups — allies to help advocate for a financing and governance structure that will be constructive for all stakeholders, including Caltrain.

Caltrain's success is its problem. Caltrain has the second highest fare-box recovery of the 28 transit agencies in the Bay Area. In other words, it is among the most self-sustaining transit agencies operationally.

This is thanks to the dramatic increase in ridership achieved when the Baby Bullet express trains were introduced and travel time was reduced for many riders. Unfortunately, service to most stations was reduced as a trade-off.

Also, many Peninsulans may not know that year after year Caltrain must go to the three counties to get operating funds to supplement the 43 percent that comes from fares. The counties have been steady in providing support, but Caltrain is just one competitor for funding from the struggling state and counties and their transportation authorities.

Thus it finds itself facing a "worst-case" budget gap of up to $30 million (on a 2009 budget of $91 million) in the next fiscal year as the counties warn they will need to cut back

The time is right for us to create some dedicated and permanent funding for Caltrain.

Caltrain recently reduced service to 90 trains as day, from a peak of 98 a few years ago and it has announced a further cut for next year.

The good news is that demand is strong and steady for Caltrain. Our daily ridership is still close to 40,000 despite recent cuts in services and fare increases. The bad news is that state and county contributions to Caltrain face further, potentially dramatic cuts.

We know that excellent public transportation is key, actually indispensable, for our "innovation economy" to grow. For example, Stanford University is dependent on a well-functioning Caltrain to allow it to grow in workforce and population without creating a burden on its neighboring cities or the environment.

The federal government has just announced its $715 million for high speed rail in California is to go to the Central Valley. This should alleviate the rush to complete all the analysis and decisions about the Peninsula alignment to meet the 2012 deadline to get "shovels in the ground," although no change in deadline schedules have been announced.

Although this means there is no immediate funding from this source for electrification or a modern train-control system for Caltrain, the silver lining is that we have no excuse now: We now have time to "do it right."

To serve the Peninsula of the future, Caltrain needs to deliver real service improvements: higher frequency of service, competitive door-to-door travel time, safety and integration with the communities along the line.

No matter what long-term decisions are made, it's clear that Caltrain is critical to our Peninsula's future. We will need some sort of dedicated funding.

At the Jan. 29 "Caltrain Summit" we will explore what type of new revenues might be supported by our voters, solicit more ideas for increasing ridership and improving service, talk about better integration of community and rail — and discuss our hopes and visions for our Peninsula's future.

Our steering committee is made up of representatives from neighborhood, transit, cyclist, and environmental groups, employers and cities. Join CARRD, BayRail Alliance, DriveLess, Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter and Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens Committee and join us next Tuesday to learn about Friends of Caltrain and the regional context for Caltrain's challenges and opportunities.

We believe Peninsula residents are hungry to support a great regional rail system that will support our walkable communities for generations to come.

Yoriko Kishimoto is a former Palo Alto City Council member and mayor, and co-founder of the Peninsula Cities Consortium to voice common interests in reducing negative impacts of the California High Speed Rail Authority plans for the Peninsula segment of the proposed state high-speed rail system. She can be e-mailed at


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Caltrain needs to become more user friendly.

It needs to advertise, particularly in conjunction with special events, sports, theater, concerts, etc.

It needs to restructure fares to enable cheaper off peak fares for after 10.00 am and family fares to enable an adult to take a couple of kids for a special rate.

These simple ideas and other innovations will make Caltrain more attractive to those who are not using the service.

Public transit should be increasing ridership and accordingly adding service. Public transit should not be decreasing service to save money. It is a service, not a money maker. It should not be losing money, but it should be servicing the public. At present, it is doing nothing to attract riders other than regular commuters. Regular commuters will only continue to use it while it serves their needs. Reducing service will reduce ridership.

Posted by Resident, a resident of University South
on Nov 5, 2010 at 11:41 pm


What is the funding source you propose to use to finance better service and operations?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 6, 2010 at 4:52 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Elevators are paid for by the businesses that benefit from customers using elevators to access them. Perhaps a business model could develop charges that more directly reflect the benefit of the transit, perhaps some shopper rebate to partially cover the transit cost. Businesses that did not opt in would instead bear the total cost of their parking structures.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 6, 2010 at 8:45 am


Caltrain needs to spend its money on things that actually help.

Eg. New electronic signs have been put up at the stations. They tell you where you are and what the time is. We know where we are and we have our own devices to tell us the time. These signs cost x amount of money and are a waste of effort unless they are useful. The funding of these signs could have been spent on advertising and introducing off peak fares and off peak family tickets.

If the empty seats during the off peak times are filled, then there will be increased revenue to improve service. If there is an advertising budget the increased ridership, particularly for events, will pay for it. Advertising will work because at present there is no advertising to attract new riders. The only new riders are from word of mouth.

Posted by commuter, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 6, 2010 at 10:06 am

Caltrain is just as important part of our transportation infrastructure as Highway 101. Why does Caltrain have to jump through hoops to get funding?

Posted by Self-serving op-ed, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 6, 2010 at 1:34 pm

1) Looks like Kishimoto is all gung ho about Caltrain. Back in 2008 she was all gung ho about HSR. She was in the forefront in promoting a yes vote for the measure--then a month later she did an about face--still no explanation from her about why she changed her mind so quickly. Who knows if she will change her mind about Caltrain when some new "green" initiative catches her eye in a few weeks.

2) She refers to Stanford in a positive manner--yet during her tenure on the council she was the leader in bashing Stanford, while make outrageous demands from them. I guess when it is for a self-serving purpose, saying nice things about Stanford is okay.

3)Once again we hear from Kishimoto about "walkable" communities. This is one of her favorite words--too bad she has done nothing about it. How come two of Palo Alto's shopping centers are gone and during her 8 years on the council nothing was done to save them?
Yes, talking about walkable neighborhoods is okay, but actually doing something is harder than just talking about it.

Posted by William Beaudine, a resident of Professorville
on Nov 6, 2010 at 10:25 pm

I see that the self-titled "Palo Alto queen of Green" will not go quietly away--after her humiliating trouncing in the primaries (more than 70% of the votes against her) you would think she would keepa low profile, but no...
Somehow though I miss seeing her pinched face on the council, with that perennial sour expression of hers, whining all the time about traffic--especially on embarcadero Road (I wonder why).

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 7, 2010 at 4:34 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

My concern is that the animus against HSR will overlap and affect the needed improvement to conventional rail. Elimination of grade crossings and electrification, both piggybacking on HSR, are less likely to interest the politicians who view the present attacks as being anti-rail.

Posted by Occasional user, a resident of Meadow Park
on Nov 7, 2010 at 6:25 am

I think Caltrain should declare bankruptcy; there would be such an outcry along the corridor that Cities would be forced to come forward with more money.

This lurching along with eternal threats of bankruptcy isn't working. We're so tired of hearing about their financial problems that most of us are turned off.

Also, with the possibility of HSR coming what's the incentive for Caltrain to make improvements anyway?

"We are planning a kick-off "Caltrain Summit" With Yoriko in charge bankruptcy is a very real possibility. Let Caltrain go out of business, and see what happens.

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