Published Wednesday, September 10, 2008, by the Palo Alto Weekly
Caltrain is on track to a sustainable transit future
By Yoriko Kishimoto
There is a referendum on Santa Clara county's vision for transit
and how we can achieve it this fall, with Measure B which is an
additional 1/8 cent sales tax to finance a BART extension into
San Jose and Santa Clara.
I vote "no" to this new tax. There is an alternative.
The story of Caltrain -- its past and its future -- is a model of how
transit can be built up in a adaptable, flexible way. Although it may
look like an old-fashioned train system to some, it has morphed into
a competitive and attractive service to today's green and demanding
Some 25 percent of SRI employees and 17 to 20 percent of Stanford
campus employees take Caltrain to get to work and Google and Apple
are among the many technology employers that regularly dispatch
buses to shuttle workers from Caltrain "Baby Bullet" stations to
the office. (My husband is one of those employees.)
Caltrain anchors most of the walkable downtowns up and down the
Peninsula and leaves enough funding on the table for a diverse bus,
shuttle and bicycle network. A ride from Palo Alto to San Francisco
can be as short a half hour, or an hour from San Jose to San
Caltrain continues to explode in ridership growth, with standing
room only on some trains during rush hour -- not quite as crowded
as Tokyo but impressive.
The average Caltrain weekday ridership jumped 18 percent this summer,
leading to a historic high of over 46,000 daily riders. This is
almost a doubling compared to the daily ridership of less than 26,000
before Baby Bullet service began in 2004. Even more astounding is
that this increase in ridership has been accomplished with the same
Caltrain's Rail Transformation Officer Bob Doty tells the tale of
how they were forced to innovate to survive the dot.com bust. With
plummeting employment and ridership, they faced the dilemma: Should
Caltrain cut service to reduce costs?
Caltrain was indeed forced to cut local service, but it increased
its express service -- and ridership and revenues -- with two clear
One was to reduce trip time for its customers, with the business
model in mind that ridership would rise as trip time came down.
The second was to increase earned revenue per employee, which linked
consideration of not only farebox recovery but optimizing customer
satisfaction and responsiveness and broadening markets and revenue.
Caltrain earns its riders' loyalty with comfortable, reliable, safe
and, most important, time-competitive rides.
The Baby Bullet service is a clear winner. With $4 to $5 per gallon
gasoline and enlightened workers interested in reducing their
greenhouse-gas footprints leading to capacity problems on the trains,
Caltrain has been developing a vision for its next phase.
Caltrain's vision for the future is one that would upgrade the
inefficient diesel locomotive trains into a BART-like modern electric
cars. Unlike BART, they would run on standard-gauge tracks and be
integrated into future statewide high-speed rail and freight
systems. Its vision is "Rapid transit service on a commuter rail
BART to San Jose/Santa Clara is a vision that sounds attractive.
But the difficult reality is that it is doomed to fail. It does not
work as a fast way to get from one part of the Bay Area to another,
with no express trains and round-about routing.
It does not work as a cost-effective way to travel within the county.
It would not be compatible with high-speed rail, meaning there may
need to be two multi-billion-dollar heavy-rail systems on the East
Bay. With the same investment, we just might be able to build a
smart, responsive system that would provide fast inter-city travel
and also provide for a dense network of buses, shuttles and diamond
carpool lanes to support our valley's future.
Too many transit investments have been made based on political
promises without the evidence-based planning that truly evaluates
options and weighs informed choices.
The Valley Transportation Authority's light-rail system is indeed too
slow and does not work as well as it should. BART's extension to the
San Francisco International Airport has effectively eliminated our
Peninsula and South Bay's convenient transit access to that airport
and led to worse bus service in Santa Mateo County.
We can't afford another huge mistake, which I and many others believe
Measure B represents.
Santa Clara county is the healthiest county in the Bay Area. We don't
need to become like San Francisco. This is our opportunity to create
our own family-friendly, green, tech-savvy model for land use and
Yoriko Kishimoto is a member of the Palo Alto City Council and
serves on the boards of the Valley Transportation Authority and the
Bay Area Air Quality Management District. She can be e-mailed at