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.


arcady said...

As an absolutely implausible idea, if Caltrain decides to shut down the service entirely, I wonder what it would it take to run VTA light rail over the Caltrain tracks from Palo Alto to Mountain View or even San Jose. A basic minimum would be a half-hourly shuttle between Mountain View and Palo Alto, which can be run on a single track. For that, they'd need to install wires on about six and a half miles of Caltrain track (from a newly reassembled connection at Evelyn to Palo Alto), add at least one or two new substations, and install temporary wooden platforms to provide accessibility to the LRVs. There would also have to be some signal work, though for a single-track shuttle, it could just be a matter of bonding over the insulated joints and possibly replacing the grade crossing predictors.

accountablevta said...

If VTA can run light rail on Caltrain tracks then it should run from Palo Alto all the way to San Jose, not through the Tasman line. That line is slow and don't go to where riders are.

arcady said...

Yes, the ideal case would be to get time-sharing with the freight trains and take over the whole line from Menlo Park to San Jose. But this would require considerably more infrastructure investment, which VTA may or may not be able to afford. But it's still much, much cheaper than building BART, because you can reuse all the tracks and structures, and partially reuse the stations, though level boarding is going to be an issue.

Also, I disagree that the Tasman line doesn't go where the riders are: it does provide some useful service as a connection from Mountain View (and Caltrain) to places of employment in Mountain View and North Sunnyvale. A through service from Palo Alto to the Tasman Line might actually have some success. It definitely does not provide a useful connection from South San Jose though, neither directly nor via a Caltrain connection, and this hurts ridership on that line considerably.

Anonymous said...

I think that extending light rail from Mountain View to Palo Alto would be an excellent idea. It really wouldn't be that much slower than Caltrain is currently, except you wouldn't have any baby bullets going directly from MV to PA.

I think the speed issue would be solved by running express trains along the Tasman/North First corridor.

Anonymous said...

There's a large number of people who currently take Caltrain to/from work in PA, who get off at MV and points south. I think by siphoning off those folk, it'd definitely improve ridership.

Of course, it runs into the ugly reality of HSR being built, but that's alas so far in the future at this rate, that I still think taking over the Caltrain tracks would still be a good idea.

Anonymous said...

If Caltrain service is halted, VTA already has plans to institute new 190/191 express routes that would travel along the route. It is not clear how often they'll operate or to where they will operate from Morgan Hill/Gilroy.

arcady said...

Anonymous: do you know anything about the hours/frequency/route of these proposed 190/191 routes? I imagine for Morgan Hill and Gilroy, the existing 168 bus does an adequate job, especially if it connects to, or is through-routed with, the 190/191 at San Jose. In fact, the 168 is actually both cheaper and faster than Caltrain from Gilroy, which might explain why that service isn't quite as popular as it used to be (ridership has decreased by a factor of 3.5 since 1998-99).

Anonymous said...

At this point - it is vague...I assume that the 190/191 would travel similarly along Caltrain, while one of the routes would be faster than the other with less stops to N. County. The 190 could possibly operating across commute/base hours, while the 191 would operate during the peak.

Line 168 is proposed to remain as it currently operates, it's primary service is to get passengers to DT SJ from South County.

These routes are temporary, but are in the planning stages. VTA also has new express buses arriving later this year, the remaing 20 hybrids would have WIFI, hi-back seats, overhead lighting...etc.