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Flawed thinking on both sides of Caltrain debate

Original post made by Renee Batti, associate editor of The Almanac, on Mar 20, 2007

The following guest opinion by Martin Engel was published in the Almanac's March 21 print edition:
By Martin Engel
The recently formed Council for Expanding Train Service (CETS) is a group of current and prior council members from cities in San Mateo County who want Caltrain to re-open closed rail stations and add service to several others.
They want more trains and want them to stop at more communities up and down the Caltrain line. Some of the group's members believe that more trains will justify building transit-oriented housing.
It is an argument that Caltrain rebuffs, citing the deficit spending required to keep the trains running. Caltrain officials believe that faster trains that make fewer stops will encourage more riders to use the service.
There has been a flurry of correspondence between Caltrain and the council group that has become acrimonious and contentious. Each side wants something different. Unfortunately, what each wants is the wrong thing.
The council members want more trains to stop and Caltrain wants more bells and whistles on its hardware and on its rail corridor; that is, they want to electrify, buy new rolling stock, add tracks and grade separations, and accommodate a high-speed train. Both sides are demanding more trees, so to speak, but neither is able to see the forest.
If CETS got what it is asking for, it wouldn't be what we all need, and that is an integrated, multi-modal, comprehensive urban mass transit system. If Caltrain received all its hardware upgrades, it still would not become part of the mass transit system that the Bay Area is longing for. Both sides should be working together to achieve a mass transit system that has the following characteristics:
  • It would be multi-modal, using a variety of people-moving technologies, including buses (with rapid bus lanes), light rail, DMUs (hybrid-diesel multi-unit self-motorized train cars), bicycles, and yes, private cars.
  • It would make it possible for any rider to go from point to point, i.e., from home doorway to place of work, recreation or shopping.
  • It would be as fast or faster than driving from home to work, door to door. This also means very short stopover times between modes and frequent run times.
  • It would be convenient -- clean, attractive, comfortable, safe, child- and mom-friendly, and easy to use.
  • It would be available throughout the Bay Area, so that a rider could get from anyplace to anyplace else.

In my opinion, all of these attributes should be included in the agendas of CETS and Caltrain. Caltrain, BART and VTA are no longer speaking to each other, when instead they should be collaborating, operating an attractive public transit system that will "pull" more people out of their cars, not "push" them with empty rhetoric.


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