Posted by Martin Engel, a resident of the Menlo Park: Park Forest neighborhood, on May 18, 2011 at 1:34 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.
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.