Uncertainties mount for struggling Caltrain

Friends of Caltrain group seeks public input Saturday to keep and modernize the Peninsula rail line

Facing the looming possibility that Caltrain could go bankrupt if other means of financing are not found, Friends of Caltrain -- a grassroots group of riders, neighborhood groups, environmentalists and employers -- will hold a community meeting Saturday, Jan. 29, in support of the Peninsula's beleaguered rail line.

Caltrain is facing a $30 million deficit on a $100 million budget in the coming fiscal year. The rail line could cut all service except for peak commuter hours as early as July if additional funding is not found, ending non-peak weekday service, as well as weekend and special-events service.

Seven stations would be closed and service south of San Jose would end, according to Sean Elsbernd, chair of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees Caltrain. He gave the dire prediction at a Silicon Valley Leadership Group summit held at Stanford University on Jan. 21. He is also scheduled to speak at Saturday's event in San Carlos.

Currently, three transit agencies partially fund the rail service. Forty percent of Caltrain's operating budget comes from San Mateo County's SamTrans, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA). Budget cuts and reduced state funding of those agencies have led them to slash their subsidies of Caltrain, according to rail officials.

Fare revenues account for another 43 percent of funding. The remainder comes from a variety of sources that vary from year to year, according to Christine Dunn, Caltrain spokesperson.

Friends of Caltrain wants the rail line to be financed independently and also modernized.

If Caltrain were to shut down entirely or drastically cut service, Friends of Caltrain maintains, the Peninsula would become more congested and polluted, with more than 12 million riders annually getting back in their cars and onto Bay Area freeways. U.S. 101 would need the equivalent of three more lanes of traffic in each direction, said former Palo Alto mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, who is spearheading the group.

"There is no room to expand 101," she said. "Caltrain is essential to the Peninsula's quality of life, our commute alternatives, avoiding freeway gridlock and our economic vitality. The three counties must come together to work on solutions."

Friends members say a dedicated, permanent source of operating funds for Caltrain is needed whether or not a statewide high-speed rail line is built on the Peninsula.

Caltrain should be supported because it is one of the best-performing of the Peninsula's public-transportation alternatives, supporters say. Ridership is up -- it currently serves 40,000 passengers daily -- according to a report by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which oversees regional transportation.

Caltrain operations bring in three times the fare revenue per dollar of operating cost of SamTrans and four times that of VTA, according to Friends of Caltrain.

But SamTrans has announced a $10 million reduction to its Caltrain subsidy, citing falling revenues and reduced state funding. Caltrain officials said they expect the other agencies will follow with reduced allocations.

Speakers at the Jan. 21 Silicon Valley Leadership Group summit suggested various ways funding could be established for Caltrain and the agency could be modernized. Ideas included reorganizing and merging the three transit agencies into a regional organization to redistribute funds, creating a dedicated high-occupancy/toll lane on U.S. 101, adding local traffic-impact fees on new construction, approving new taxes, and extending bridge-toll congestion pricing to all Bay Area bridges.

Burlingame Mayor Terry Nagel has joined the effort to support Caltrain.

"Caltrain is a vital link in our communities that should not have to beg each year for funding from the three counties it serves. Our rescue plan for Caltrain should be part of a larger transportation vision for the Peninsula based on strong community input and projected future needs," she said.

Other supporting organizations include the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, Rail Passenger Association of California, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, Menlo Park Green Ribbon Citizens' Committee, Palo Alto Community Environmental Action Partnership (CEAP), BayRail Alliance, Sustainable San Mateo County and Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design.

The Save Our Caltrain meeting will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at SamTrans Headquarters Auditorium, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos. It will feature U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, as keynote speakers.

Panel discussions include how Caltrain's current economic model was established; the history and evolution of the rail line; and possible sustainable-funding models. Public input and brainstorming sessions will be part of the day's agenda.

Registration is free but organizers request an RSVP at

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Jan 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Given that unemployment in California is above 12%, there is an extremely simple and efficient way to solve the problem:

- cut salaries by 50%, and hire replacements for anyone who quits.
- cut benefits by 50%, and hire replacements for anyone who quits.
- fire 2/3 of administrators.

Like this comment
Posted by J. Black
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2011 at 7:14 am

Caltrain already has a very lean management staff, and the organization is administratively "hosted" by SamTrans, so there's less overhead for office space, IT infrastructure, phone system, etc., than you see in most mass transit or other public organizations. Cutting salaries is not going to do it; you won't attract and/or keep the quality people that you need to run the system (and it's actually not possible to cut the salaries of the engineers, conductors, train dispatchers, and others who all work under a collective bargaining agreement with Amtrak, Caltrain's operations and maintenance contractor). Even if you could cut salaries by 50% and maintain a qualified staff, the staff is so small that this would be a tiny drop in the bucket of the overall cost of running the system.

The only viable option to fill that large a budget hole is unfortunately to slash service.

Like this comment
Posted by Lean Caltrain
a resident of another community
on Jan 29, 2011 at 8:12 am

A $30M budget cut is the best thing that can happen to Caltrain, it will be a forcing factor.
Caltrain is suffering from chronic inefficiencies in the way it is run
Outside of peak hours, Caltrain runs nearly empty. Late night trains runs up and down the peninsula with a handful of people on board.
We need efficient public transportation and that is not Caltrain.
Caltrain is a temporary solution, unsafe, inefficient and unreliable that should not get permanent funding or we will stand very little chance to get something better in the future.
Short term solution: Cut Caltrain diesel trains to peak hours only
Long term: Electrify, let BART take over and save on operating costs.

Like this comment
Posted by Caltrain fan
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 29, 2011 at 9:32 am

I am not defending the fiscal management of Caltrain, but have to point out that BART is not the answer from a rider's perspective. In the end the riders have to be happy or the revenue doesn't flow. Caltrain travel is FAR more efficient for Menlo Park residents than BART ever will be. Caltrain is a straight shot to San Francisco whereas BART wanders and currently takes longer door to door to the City. Even if it were to come down the peninsula, its routing would be more timeconsuming than Caltrain is now.
BART has grossly misused its funding for things like the extremely expensive and disjointed connection from Calltrain to SFO.
How about a southern San Mateo county vote to divert its contributions from BART to Caltrain? We've been paying for decades for lousy BART service for us.

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

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Nationally renowned Indian restaurant expanding to Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 2,487 views

Summer travel: Is anything changing?
By Sherry Listgarten | 8 comments | 1,075 views

Premarital and Couples: "Our Deepest Fear" by Marianne Williamson
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 666 views

Swimming with the kids
By Cheryl Bac | 2 comments | 603 views

Cap On? Cap Off? Recycling Bottles is Confusing
By Laura Stec | 10 comments | 554 views