Caltrain on track to bankruptcy without electrification and HSR
- Published Thursday, April 22, 2010, by the San Mateo County Times
Caltrain data shows path to bankruptcy without electric railroad
By Mike Rosenberg
San Mateo County Times
Declaring an electric railroad its only chance at salvation, Caltrain officials on Thursday released the most-detailed projections yet of the rail line's bleak financial picture: $47 million in debt next year -- with a gap that will grow by about $1.6 million a year.
With electric trains, Caltrain could expand commute-time service and collect 49 percent more money while keeping expenses roughly flat, according to a new financial forecast the agency compiled at the request of the Bay Area News Group.
Under its current service with diesel trains, the commuter line would be losing $61 million by 2019 -- half of what it would need to operate.
"You get into a vicious cycle that takes you down," said Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon. "I'm not ready to say 'electrify or bust.' But I sure as hell won't be very proud of what we'd be able to put out."
The new projections come weeks after Caltrain officials announced massive service cuts were inevitable for the popular rail that transports about 40,000 people from San Francisco to San Jose each weekday. Weekend, nighttime and midday trains could be on the chopping block as soon as this fall.
Next to go, Scanlon said possibly in fall 2011, would be a "considerable" number of commute-time trains, which the majority of Caltrain passengers ride. Then the railroad, which Caltrain bought in 1992 but has been transporting passengers since 1863, will continue to decline until the entire system is threatened, although Scanlon would not speculate on when it would have to shut down.
Scanlon said the new numbers show a diesel Caltrain system, under the best-case scenario, may initially be able to run two dozen trains in each direction on weekdays and none on weekends before having to cut further.
"It wouldn't be the type of service that would attract you or me," Scanlon said. "Eventually, the well dries up and we're at the point now. There's no more magic that's going to pull us out of the fire."
Officials said Caltrain's demise would devastate local freeways and transit systems. The average rider travels 31 miles per day on Caltrain.
It would be a slow and painful death if the agency cannot electrify, Caltrain officials say. While electric trains would cut the 2019 deficit to $27 million in today's dollars, or one-fourth of the budget, the deficit would dip to $14 million in today's dollars by 2035, which officials say would be a manageable long-term shortfall.
Getting there, though, will be expensive. Caltrain officials say their best chance to survive depends on the future of the controversial high-speed rail project. To build high-speed rail through the Peninsula, the state would add two tracks to the railroad and share the corridor with an electrified Caltrain, possibly as early as 2015.
Agency leaders say they could start the $1.3 billion electrification project, in the works for a decade, if the California High-Speed Rail Authority kicks in the remaining 40 percent of the project costs. But the rail authority still must find the remaining three-fourths of funding for its $43 billion railroad, and overcome other problems that have plagued the polarizing project.
Caltrain officials doubt they can get any new money, such as a tax or more government subsidies, citing two decades of failure to do so. And they said a fare hike would chase away riders and, even if it didn't, would barely make a dent in the deficit.
Caltrain Government Affairs Manager Seamus Murphy said the agency agreed to compile the data for the Bay Area News Group, after it broke news of Caltrain's financial problems earlier this month, in hope of answering a simple question: How bad will it get?
Caltrain gets nearly half its money, or $46 million each year, from rider fares and parking fees. Another 40 percent, or $39 million, comes from the transportation agencies in the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. But those agencies -- Muni, SamTrans and VTA -- all face deficits and, for the first time in two decades, plan to slash their Caltrain subsidies by up to 70 percent, which is factored into the forecast.
With electrification, Caltrain estimates those subsidies could drop by 45 percent before it will need to cut service further.
Caltrain spends $74 million to run and fuel the trains, or three-fourths of its budget. It also spends $9.9 million on administration, $4.5 million on insurance and $2.9 million on shuttles.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 650-348-4324.
[BATN: See also:
Caltrain faces extinction without new funding source or HSR
Caltrain shutdown would have require 2.5 new lanes on 101 and 280
Letter: SJ BART official on VTA and Caltrain funding
Menlo Park NIMBY Morris Brown sues state, Caltrain to stop HSR
Caltrain says survival may depend on SF-SJ Pacheco Pass HSR route
Column: Saving Caltrain in best interests of all; Peninsula HSR
Caltrain riders hope devastating service cuts don't materialize
Caltrain riders try to avert huge service cuts as new blog launches
Column: Why Caltrain is an orphan & 5 myths about Caltrain
Comment: Will Schwarzenegger's war on transit destroy Caltrain?
Caltrain funding crises may force move to commute-only service
Caltrain electrification EIR OK delayed for NIMBYs. PCL attorney
Caltrain crisis has officials eying new sources for operating cash
Caltrain delays electrification OK due to veiled lawsuit threat
Caltrain goes broke; will likely cut weekend, night, midday trains