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Caltrain rethinks high-speed rail relationship

Original post made on Jan 10, 2011

Bob Doty, director of the Peninsula Rail Program, has traded in his Caltrain ticket for a position with engineering firm HNTB, leaving the transit agency rethinking its relationship with high-speed rail.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, January 10, 2011, 10:42 AM

Comments (8)

Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm

The obvious "windfall" for Caltrain in the HSRA partnership is the piggybacking on HSRA's capital expenditures in the corridor to electrify and fully grade-separate the line. None of which has anything to do with ameliorating its immediate budget crisis relating to operational funding from the state and the Caltrain JPB member agencies (Muni, SamTrans and VTA). At current ridership levels (which are not the problem -- ridership and revenue had dropped modestly and are both back up now), subsidies cover about half the cost of each ride. (The farebox, or cost-recovery ratio, as the ratio of farebox revenue to operating cost is known as, is comparable to BART and far, far better than for Muni, Samtrans and VTA).

Anyway, just to simplify for Mayor Cline and others that misunderstand or imply that Caltrain was looking to HSR to resolve its operating budget problems ... here's a rough analogy:

Caltrain is having trouble paying to keep the car (trains) it has running (putting diesel in it, fixing it, the road it runs on and paying people to drive it, etc.) ... and HSRA's money was going to help fund Caltrain's upgrade to a sleeker, peppier electric car (trains) running on massively improved/upgraded road (tracks) ... and while that peppier electric car may cost substantially less to operate than the current fossil fuel-burning (diesel) model, it still does not fix/resolve the funding shortfall to keep the whole operation running at current levels.


Posted by Grateful, a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jan 10, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Thank you reality Check. It might be wise to send your comments directly to Mr. Cline as I doubt he bothers reading these blogs and he very definitely needs the facts. It's disappointing how he could have misunderstood the connection and benefits HSR will offer Caltrain. It's so silly that Mr. Cline calls for Caltrain to "cut the cord" with HSR. He is the mayor of one small town in the State of California and it's silly for him to think he is going to stop a voter-approved state-wide project.

Here's his address: racline@menlopark.org


Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jan 10, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Only upon his departure is Mr. Doty willing to step forward with a candid opinion. Had he stayed I doubt that we would have heard him tell us that the HSR game is over for Caltrain and that they better get their own house in order.

As it happens, this point has been made already. You can read it below as well as on the blog:

<Web Link;
---------------------------------------------------------

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 26, 2010

The shortsighted vision of the 'Friends of Caltrain'

Caltrain officials said their ongoing budget meltdown could force the commuter rail line to shut down by 2012.

Caltrain officials, despite doomsday financial scenarios, acknowledged they'd gotten hefty pay and benefit increases, which they explained were due to the long hours spent saving the railroad.

<Web Link;

<Web Link;


In the spring of 2008, he Palo Alto city council, led by the city mayor, passed a unanimous resolution supporting Proposition 1A, thereby enabling California (and the Peninsula) to be burdened with a nightmare of monumental proportions, the high-speed train. That was a huge mistake. And, it's going to happen all over again led by, guess who, the very same person.

Unless I'm told otherwise, I believe the agenda of the Friends of Caltrain is to promote unconditional support for generating subsidies -- probably in the form of a regressive tax on the three county Peninsula of some sort -- to help cover Caltrain's perennial operational deficits. I say unconditional since they will ask for no necessary accommodations from the Caltrain organization. My own, personal reading of this situation is that it's more wimpy compromises for personal political gains.

The issue of Caltrain's financial problems keeps re-surfacing and therefore it is necessary to draw a set of clear distinctions, especially now, when we learn that HSR won't be coming to the Caltrain corridor for at least ten years.

Before anything is done to help Caltrain, they have to get their house in order. They are mismanaged. The executive team takes home huge salaries and they are seriously over-staffed. They need an operator contract that is far more parsimonious than the current one with Amtrak. Like in many cities, the Caltrain staff-benefits package and the Amtrak benefits-package are runaway.

To be sure, the blame does not only belong to Amtrak and it's Union-driven salary scales; it also belongs to Caltrain management itself. In the case of Amtrak, fortunately Caltrain is now finally seeking other service providers to operate the trains at lower cost. That's a good thing to do, although, given their protracted structural deficit, they should have done this years ago.

Please understand that while the CEO of Caltrain is making $400K, his executive team mates are equally highly remunerated, and he is publicly wringing his hands about an impending "bankruptcy." He expects a $30 million shortfall this coming fiscal year. What's wrong with this picture?

There is a mounting effort, in the form of a Peninsula group called 'Friends of Caltrain,' that are seeking to generate permanent subsidy funding for Caltrain operations. These funds would derive, most likely, from some form of taxation. Unfortunately, there appears to be no apparent interest among this group's promoters to consider the various confounding issues connected with Caltrain's ostensible fiscal dilemma.

Maybe this plan is a good idea; maybe it isn't. Yes, I think that there should be an effective, albeit cost-effective commuter rail service on the Peninsula. It certainly doesn't need to be heavy-rail, like the current rolling stock, since that's a vestige of the freight operator technology of yesteryear. And, it should certainly be far more user/customer friendly.

Caltrain has been obsessing about electrification, expecting it to be paid for by HSR and claiming that it will help bail them out of their financial quagmire. Said another way, they think they are in the Railroad business, when they should understand that they are in the Urban Commuter Mass-Transit business. There's a huge difference between those business models.

They don't need electrification. There are other equally effective and less costly systems available. They don't need high-speed rail to bail them out. What they do need is to partner with us, the residents, citizens and their customers on the Peninsula.

However, before we give them one additional dime of our tax dollars, these are our conditions:

1.We want an independent audit from Caltrain; a complete examination of their books.

2. We also want an independent management consulting firm that specializes in urban and regional mass transit to analyze and assess their organization and management structure, with recommendations for updating, especially for their financing.

3. We want to see a revised strategic plan from Caltrain conceived without high-speed rail participation. Also, especially under the current circumstances, we want a termination of the MOU agreement between Caltrain and the Rail Authority. There's no longer a reason for it.

4. We need them to drop their electrification obsession. DEMUs (see Wikipedia) will do the same job as electrification and EMUs, but for a great deal less capital development investment. It's our money and we want it spent wisely.

5. We want a complete restructuring of the non-functional, rubber-stamp JPB. We want elected representation from each and every city on the Caltrain corridor on such an expanded Board. And we want this Board empowered with greater decision-making, accountability and oversight authority.

6. We want a break-up of the several layers and overlapping organizations led by a single CEO. Too many pies, with only one and the same finger in them all. It reeks of multiple conflicts of interest. (Mike Scanlon, Executive director of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority and as the general manager/CEO of the San Mateo County Transit District. CEO of Caltrain and SamTrans. Board chair for the American Public Transportation Association.) That's a shell game and conflict of interest.

7. We want an airtight Caltrain agreement that they will not admit any other rail operators (besides UPRR and themselves) on the rail corridor without the concurrence of ALL the corridor cities.

I must say that the approach taken by the Caltrain 'advocates' so far is really rather shortsighted. It is the same approach taken by all those who were also high-speed rail advocates in 2008, and who so enthusiastically endorsed the Prop. 1A bond issue. Now, many of them are, or should be, kicking themselves. Do we need to go through this yet again?


Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jan 10, 2011 at 10:05 pm

See above for web site reference:

Web Link


Posted by Clem, a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Martin appears to have a highly mistaken reading of Caltrain's current predicament.

While it's popular in these tough times to rag on the unions and fat cat management, it turns out Caltrain isn't that badly run and isn't as unprofitable as one might think. Caltrain recovers through fares nearly half of every dollar spent on operations. That's 2x better than MUNI, 3x better than SamTrans and 4x better than VTA. If you want to rail about mismanagement and union pay and huge subsidies an all that, be my guest, but Caltrain is the wrong target. It performs better than EVERY bay area transit agency save BART... and BART only performs so well because of the capital largesse showered upon it.

Don't get me started about your criticism of the $1.4 billion electrification project, when just down the road BART is well on its way to spending $6 billion to extend to San Jose... again, wrong target, Martin. If you seek to preserve a certain look & feel in Menlo Park, and to prevent the HSR camel from sticking its nose under the tent, your stance begins to make sense. Dressing it up under the pretext of fiscal responsibility rings hollow.

As for your idea of DMU trains: it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of performance and track capacity. Diesels cannot cost-effectively carry the power they need to accelerate quickly. While DMUs would have somewhat more pep than Caltrain's freight locomotives, their performance comes nowhere close to what Caltrain is justifyably shooting for to grow both service frequency AND reduce trip times. DMUs would spell the end of the Baby Bullet, the very reason for Caltrain's entirely respectable financial performance.

To those of you who decry any sort of public transit subsidy, ask yourselves the next time you sit in traffic who pays for the roads you drive on, and what fraction of that operations & maintenance cost is recovered through tolls (analogous to the train fare each user of Caltrain pays). The answer is zero, which pales in comparison to Caltrain's mid-40-cents-on-the-dollar performance.


Posted by Clem, a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2011 at 11:14 pm

Why Caltrain Should Electrify (after establishing a stable source of operating funding)

1) First and foremost: frequency trumps nearly everything else. Frequency is not just measured by how many trains run on the tracks every hour, but how many trains stop at your own origin station AND your destination station. Today, for many station pairs, that is a dismal one or two trains per hour.

2) While this may seem counter-intuitive, Caltrain is at capacity TODAY. You couldn't run more frequent rush hour service without killing ridership and revenue, and here's why: the Baby Bullet. Providing fast trips comes at a cost. All those local trains must clear the tracks ahead of the bullet, or the bullet will get stuck behind the local... and no longer be a bullet. In theory, you could run more frequent trains if they were all locals, but the average speed of 29 mph would make trip times non-competitive with driving. Caltrain's schedule is already a finely tuned trade-off between speed and frequency, with every ounce of performance already wrung out, and it shows: Caltrain is setting revenue records and finds itself a very close second to BART on how much revenue is generated per operating dollar, beating out EVERY other public transit system in the Bay Area.

3) Electrification is not about being green or shiny new trains. It's primarily about breaking out of the debilitating trade-off between frequency and speed. Electric trains, by virtue of their enormous power, stop and go much more quickly than today's anemic diesel trains. Fast stop & go performance, saving tens of seconds per station stop, really starts to add up over many stops, and will provide the opportunity for more local service to more stations while maintaining the excellent trip time advantage of the Baby Bullets. From the point of view of a passenger at under-served stations like Burlingame, Belmont or California Ave, that means literally doubling or tripling of service frequency.

4) Electric trains won't cost less to operate, but they will grow revenue per train by growing the number of stops made by any given train without making the trip longer. The effect of increased ridership on Caltrain's bottom line is the same: a reduction in the subsidy required yearly from each of the three Caltrain counties.

5) Electrification is the cheapest way to increase service frequency. The other option is to build a long section of four-track, grade-separated right of way to enable Bullets to overtake locals. Not only would that cost billions more, but it would probably not be any more popular than the existing high-speed rail plans. Also note that 30% of the price of electrification is for new trains, an expense that Caltrain will face anyway because a large portion of its fleet is nearing a quarter-century old.

6) That electrification should pay for itself is a fallacy. No public investment in transportation pays for itself directly. Is anybody asking for a business plan or break even point when we're about to spend $6 billion on BART to San Jose (four times more expensive than the 50-mile electrification of Caltrain) ? Or is anybody asking for the rate of return on investment from adding frontage lanes to highway 101 through Palo Alto? No, and no. There is no reason why Caltrain electrification should be held to a different, higher standard.

7) Electrification comes with ancillary benefits, besides its primary benefit of increasing service frequency. It will insulate Caltrain and its riders from the next spike in oil prices. It will put an end to sooty clouds of diesel exhaust wafting into Menlo Park ninety times a day. It will remove the supercharged shriek of diesel engines from residential neighborhoods. It will enable level boarding, removing any stairs required to board the train, shaving precious seconds from each station stop. It will provide a smoother, more comfortable ride. But those are just cherries on the cake. The cake is frequency of train service, and electrification is the logical and necessary next step to improve it from what we enjoy today.


Posted by truth, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jan 11, 2011 at 10:26 am

Gosh I am impressed that people know trains. But does anyone care about finances or bond debt ratios or 100 foot wide elevated trains? Sure, we can all have a contest to see who knows more about trains. And we can put on a Berkenstocks and have a righteous debate about green economies, but what is the point?

Right now we have what has been proven to be a false ridership study sponsored by the MTC years ago, that has been the basis for the high speed rail proposals seen to date. Proven false by local residents and leaders like Cline.

Four tracks, up the peninsula, 12 per hour no questions asked. That is what the ridership study drove.

Local greenies want to throw Cline and the council onto the tracks for questioning the efficacy of the HSR relationship? If it weren't for folks like Cline and many others in our local area, we would not know that the cost of build is twice what HSR projects or that the ridership numbers inflated the data to make 1A work. The state controller and the legislative budget office and federal reps and state reps have all come around now.

Have any of you seen what happens when you put a 100 foot wide freeway through cities? Go to SF and take a look at these monsters.

Why can't you all see how fabulous it is to have leaders who stand up and challenge conventional wisdom? We will get a better project and under more realistic conditions as a result. It just may not be tomorrow. Sorry greenies.

Caltrain needs a realistic operational revenue source and that means taxation and county fundings. Federal leaders have lots of different funding sources to modernize intermodel transit. HSR is not the only way.


Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of Menlo Park: Park Forest
on Jan 11, 2011 at 10:44 am

To begin with, Clem, I appreciate your detailed response. As you know, I have always considered "Rafael" and you among the best-informed bloggers regarding HSR.

Your support for electrification appears to be primarily based on acceleration/deceleration, or as you say, "Fast stop & go performance, saving tens of seconds per station stop, really starts to add up over many stops,. . . "

That, at least to me as a layman, does not sound persuasive. If the incremental gains are a few minutes for a single trip, local or bullet, that's not worth the billions it will cost to electrify. Caltrain has been pre-occupied with capital development funding projects, which are more newsworthy than the boring and routine effort required to secure subsidy funding to supplement the operational cost needs.

I think of myself also as a friend of Caltrain, but not of Caltrain's current management or organizational structure for reasons that many press articles have repeatedly made clear. There are numerous colleagues among us better informed that I who have said that Caltrain should go bankrupt in order to have a major housecleaning of their organization.

I absolutely believe that there is a place for an effective commuter rail service on the Caltrain corridor. I was well aware of the presence of the rail line when we purchased our home, and we have had no objections (unlike many others) to the Diesels, the train horns, the vibration,etc. We consider it part of the "funky" suburban, villagy nature of our urban environment. It's the gross expansion(HSR) and its impact that frightens most of us.

Clem, since you are a high-speed rail advocate, we must, ultimately agree to disagree. I object to HSR because I believe that it will harm California, all of which is "my back yard." I also believe HSR has no place on the Caltrain corridor and many of us have made a case for that position on the Peninsula.

I do believe that the corridor is a place for an efficient, well run public mass transit commuter service. Even if, as you argue, they are more financially secure with a 40% fare box return than the other transit operators, they have been badly financially structured and managed in the context of their operational costs and that should have been rectified a long time ago.

I will stick to the seven points I made as a condition for finding a reliable and permanent subsidy arrangement for Caltrain and the most important of those is the termination of their relationship with the CHSRA. I agree with the newly emerging "Friends of Caltrain" that we have an obligation to create a support mechanism for their operational costs. However, I need a quid pro quo accommodation from Caltrain to justify our taxing ourselves, so that we are assured of an optimal cost/effective public utility service.


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