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.