Column: Why Caltrain is an orphan & 5 myths about Caltrain
- Published Wednesday, April 7, 2010, by the San Jose Mercury News
Why Caltrain is an orphan
By Scott Herhold
Mercury News Columnist
When President Obama finishes reforming the nation's health care system, he might want to rectify the zany and volatile way that transit operates in the Bay Area.
Exhibit Number One is last week's announcement that the Peninsula commuter rail line, Caltrain, is going broke -- short $30 million of its $97 million yearly budget. Its managers say they might cut night, mid-day and weekend service, including popular trains to San Francisco Giants games.
The reason the railroad finds itself in this plight is that its chief backers -- the Valley Transportation Authority, Samtrans and SF Muni -- are reducing their contributions in tough times.
But just a week before this dispiriting announcement, Caltrain announced it was eligible for federal and state money to begin a $1.23 billion project to electrify the line between San Jose and San Francisco. (A lawsuit has delayed the project for now.)
This is like the guy who boasts he can afford a new BMW, albeit with his uncle's help, but has to confine himself to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because his food stamp allowance has been cut.
It gets worse. The guy's cousins are eating at decent restaurants, thank you very much: BART, high-speed rail and Santa Clara County's VTA all benefit from dedicated sources of money.
Think of them as trust fund babies, even though they're also facing cutbacks. Think of Caltrain as the orphan who has to depend on his kin.
As a transit fanatic, I take all this personally. When I started covering county government more than 30 years ago, I was eager to take the train back and forth between my apartment in Mountain View and the county building in San Jose.
I could do this only by leaving work at 5 p.m. and jogging to the College Park station near Bellarmine Prep. If I missed the Southern Pacific train, I had to wait two hours. I wound up driving more than I wanted.
Today, that same trip is much easier. When I go from San Jose to Palo Alto to visit my mother on Tuesday evenings, I have several trains to choose from. I can even take my bike.
What used to be a "reverse commute" -- from San Francisco south to the Peninsula -- has become far busier. And the baby bullet trains, which take you from San Jose to San Francisco in an hour, are a rousing success.
What is to be done? Several transit experts have argued that Caltrain should have its own source of funding, which could mean a new tax. "We need to start to think of Caltrain as a regional asset," says San Mateo County Supervisor Rich Gordon, and he's right.
But the public hasn't shirked paying for transportation: In 2008, voters approved a $10 billion bond for high-speed rail and a conditional 1/8 cent sales tax for BART to Silicon Valley.
No, the problem stems from our fixation on the new and our boredom with the old, a familiar Silicon Valley trait. We want the iPad, not the Palm Pilot.
We'd rather spend money whisking people to Los Angeles than improving a workaday passenger line that carries more than 35,000 people a day. For politicians, cutting ribbons beats repairing locomotives.
I don't pretend to have all the answers (see my "five myths" on transit and Caltrain [below]). But I do know one thing: This isn't any way to run a railroad.
Five Myths About Caltrain
Caltrain's current plight has given fresh life to myths about the Peninsula rail commuter service and local transit in general. Anyone looking for thoughtful answers to the line's problems should be able to rebut five of them.
MYTH: It's time to end Caltrain and let BART circle the Bay. While superficially appealing, this argument overlooks the substantially higher costs for BART. In Santa Clara County, for instance, an improved standard rail line to Fremont is estimated to cost about one-third as much as the planned BART extension, which involves expensive tunneling under downtown San Jose. BART costs more not just because it is a specialized technology -- the tracks are wider -- but because its massive stations demand more concrete, more land and grade separations. The Bay Rail Alliance <http://bayrailalliance.org> estimates that replacing all of Caltrain with BART could cost $20 billion. You could probably make a better argument to end BART and have Caltrain circle the Bay.
MYTH: Let passenger fares pay for everything. If it doesn't bring in enough money, close it down. Virtually no transit system in the United States operates without a subsidy. As these things go, Caltrain is not so terrible. It gets nearly 40 percent of its money from the farebox, roughly three times as much as the notoriously inefficient Valley Transportation Authority. You also have to reckon that some 35,000 commuters daily will be on the road if Caltrain closes. That will inevitably burden highways, which are hardly the self-sustaining facilities that some people believe. The Federal Highway Administration estimated two decades ago that only 60 percent of highway costs are covered by user fees like gas taxes.
Finally, Caltrain aids the environment by funneling road warriors onto the train. Ending that benefit will involve costs in road repairs, productivity and the environment.
MYTH: Caltrain cannot be trimmed in any way; it's already just muscle and bone. Untrue. The line runs hourly trains in the middle of the day, for example, that are not heavily populated; they could run every other hour without substantial damage to service. The same is true of some late-night trains. It's worth remembering that the core of Caltrain is still a commuter service: That's why preserving successful operations like the baby bullet trains is so important. But it's hard to argue that Caltrain should remain untouched when governments everywhere are cutting back.
MYTH: The service is so bad that you shouldn't want to ride it. The furnishings are plain, and the bathrooms sometimes get messy. But understand: this is a commuter railroad, not an upscale ride like the Chunnel train from London to Paris. The conductors, while a little weary, will answer polite questions. And the trains generally run on time unless there is an accident. This kind of complaint comes from people who are reluctant to take mass transit in the first place.
MYTH: Electrification will solve Caltrain's problems. The idea of converting Caltrain from diesel-electric locomotive power to a fully electric system would improve times and reduce pollution and noise. But it will not save much money, which is Caltrain's biggest problem. Depending on the cost of diesel fuel, electrification is expected to save only between $1 million and $2 million per year. The cost for conversion, meanwhile, is high: It's expected to take $785 million for building costs like overhead wires and another $440 million for new train cars. [BATN notes Caltrain electrification <http://caltrain.com/caltrain2025.html> includes new state-of-the-art high-performance lightweight Euro-style EMUs which accelerate and brake faster and should be substantially more reliable than the current old and lumbering heavyweight equipment]
Contact Scott Herhold at sherhold@... or 408-275-0917.
[BATN: See also:
Caltrain electrification EIR OK delayed for NIMBYs, PCL attorney
Caltrain crisis has officials eying new sources for operating cash
Caltrain goes broke; will likely cut weekend, night, midday trains