Wednesday, February 16, 2011

VTA accepts Clipper

VTA today formally accepts Clipper for payment.

Some Clipper tips:
E-cash and monthly passes can be loaded onto Clipper cards. With e-cash you pay one way fares. There's no day pass option at this point. If you want to ride light rail or the bus all day you should buy the light rail excursion pass or day pass with cash.

Transfer privileges automatically apply when transferring to VTA from AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, or SamTrans. There's no transfer privileges with Highway 17 Express or MST if you pay with Clipper.

To ride the bus you basically place the card on top of the blue logo on the Clipper reader. The reader is located in front of the bus to the right of the fare box.

To ride light rail you place the card on top of the blue logo on the Clipper reader at the light rail station. Once your card is approved (green light), you can ride light rail for the next 2 hours.

If you transfer between light rail you don't need to "tag" your card again. If you do so you will pay another fare, even if you have paid for light rail less than 2 hours ago.

The Clipper readers at light rail stations are generally located next to the ticket machines. That means that they are located on the platform at street level stops, and located at the station entrances for Hwy 87 stations. Some ticket machines will not have the Clipper reader next to them.

At the downtown San Jose light rail stops, only one Clipper reader is available on each street for each station. The reader is located at the front end of the station (north end on 1st St, south end on 2nd St) between the raised platform and the ticket machine.

What is not clear at this point is whether you must tag (that means if you don't you get a citation) before you board the light rail if your card has a monthly pass. The FAQs on VTA and Clipper sites say that you need to. On the other hand, you don't need to do that on Caltrain. Because of the number and placement of the Clipper readers at the light rail stations, having tag on every time with a monthly pass is a problem. If you ride, say the 82 to the light rail station on 2nd Street and the light rail pulls in, you won't have time to walk to the front of the front car to tag the card and get on.

The Clipper readers for light rail and Caltrain all look the same, which can be confusing at some intermodal stations especially San Jose Diridon. At that station, Clipper for light rail is located on the light rail platforms only. Readers located anywhere else (inside tunnel, inside station building) at that station are for Caltrain only. At Tamien, light rail readers are located next to VTA machines. Caltrain reader is located next to the Caltrain machines.

You need a youth or senior Clipper card to pay for any youth or senior fare. Standard cards are restricted to pay for adult fares only. Getting one of these cards is not convenient, you basically need to bring a proof of eligibility to a VTA office and apply in person, and wait to receive the card in the mail.

If you have a RTC Discount Card, which is necessary to buy a VTA senior/disabled monthly sticker, you already have a senior/disabled Clipper card. You can call Clipper 877-878-8883 to activate the Clipper account and start loading money or pass. The older RTC card with Translink logo also works on Clipper (Translink and Clipper is basically the same, just a change in name).

If you choose to pay online you may need to wait 5 days for you new purchase to be loaded. If you pay at the VTA office or Walgreens your card is loaded immediately. The reason for the delay is that, unlike credit cards, the reader does not immediately link to the network to validate your card. The readers get your payment information only by downloading at the end of each day through a wireless network at the bus yards. Once your card is validated then you're good for subsequent transactions.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Caltrain proposes drastic cuts

Last week, the Caltrain JPB approved a set of meetings on drastic service cuts which includes elimination of all off peak service, weekend service, Giants service, Gilroy service, and service at some stops like Burlingame, San Antonio, Lawrence, College Park, and Santa Clara stations.

If these cuts go forward, the crown jewel of Peninsula and South Bay transit would basically become another Altamont Commuter Express. The service Caltrain proposes is a giant step backward compared to the service Southern Pacific provided in the late 70s and early 80s, the time when SP proposed to eliminate passenger service and the state (with Jerry Brown as governor) rescued the service from extinction.

What we lack here is a political leadership to get Caltrain out of the crisis. The Caltrain's $30 million deficit is primarily caused by SamTrans' (which manages Caltrain) structural deficit. While the SamTrans/Caltrain management doesn't want to see drastic cuts on Caltrain, yet the same folks on their SamTrans role expressed nothing but hopelessness in preventing and addressing the situation. VTA, which has been cold to Caltrain for many years, have at least proposed ideas to address the problem. Could SamTrans and Caltrain be in a better financial shape if the agency were to tackle its financial problem more aggressively like VTA did several years ago?

Caltrain, which is funded by the three county trifecta, is very weak in financial stability yet delivers service better than the agencies themselves. Caltrain's farebox recovery is dramatically better than the local agencies. Over the last ten years, Caltrain ridership has gone up while some bus systems like SamTrans has declined. Also, none of the stations on the VTA light rail system has higher boardings than Palo Alto, Mountain View, or San Jose Diridon Caltrain stations. College Park station, a Caltrain stop with only 4 trains per day, has a higher boarding count than the Bayshore/NASA light rail stop, which is served by many more trains 7 days a week. Santa Clara station, which is included on the Caltrain chopping block, has more boarding than the average of all VTA light rail stations. Unfortunately it appears that productivity is not a deciding factor for transit funding.

The success of Caltrain is not just the speed of the trains and the locations of the stations, but the fact that the same trains travel through the three counties serving different ridership markets. For instance, some people boarding in San Jose get off in Palo Alto and others get off in San Francisco. If somehow SamTrans has to cut funding and Caltrain has to reduce service north of Palo Alto, then the remaining trains will not be as productive.

Fixing Caltrain in the long run requires us to change the way our transit institutions work, and get rid of the trifecta that threatens the existence of otherwise a productive transit route. Taxpayers don't win under any service cut scenarios Caltrain is proposing.