Governing Caltrain in the age of electrification – expert perspective

Last week Tuesday at SPUR HQ in San Francisco, at an event co-sponsored by Friends of Caltrain, a set of international and regional experts discussed different scenarios for the governance of Caltrain in the age of electrification.

Electrifying Caltrain promises to create even stronger financial performance, with higher ridership and relatively lower operating costs, and the potential for more coordinated service. Meanwhile, there are risks. The Downtown Extension to the Transbay Terminal, which could greatly increase San Francisco ridership, is not nearly fully funded. Caltrain electrification gets half of its funding through the High Speed Rail project, which is facing legal risks.

To take advantage of the opportunities and reduce the risks, transit riders and people with responsibility for the transit system often suggest making changes in how Caltrain is governed.  Caltrain is going through a strategic planning process to set the stage for the coming decade, so it seemed like a good time to have expert education on what these governance options might do.

Ratna Amin, Transportation Policy Director at SPUR, put the governance questions into a regional perspective.

The region is planning for major population and job growth. Building more roads and freeways won’t solve traffic congestion, and auto-dominated transportation system is a major contributor to climate emissions.

Bay Area Regional Growth    


One of the big barriers to expanded transit use is a fragmented system. The fragmentation extends beyond the factors that riders can see: capital planning, funding, land use planning and other administrative responsibilities are hampered by the system’s fragmentation.

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Other panelists with international and regional expertise spoke about various governance options. Please note that the speakers on the panel were not advocating specific policy changes.  They were describing various options to help riders and decision-makers understand what the options may be.

Public Private Partnerships

Lou Thompson, who chairs the High Speed Rail peer review group, and whose consulting firm provides advice to governments and agencies around the globe, gave a whirlwind tutorial on the options for Public Private Partnerships.

Recently, the Transbay authority proposed to creating a Public Private Partnership to help build and operate the Downtown Extension to Transbay Terminal.   According to the proposal, the private operator would charge Caltrain and High Speed Rail riders a toll of $1 to $2, and use the funding to operate the tunnel.  At the board meeting when this idea was discussed, Caltrain’s Marian Lee raised the logical question – why stop there? Why not have a public Private Partnership to run Caltrain? Or the same entity for High Speed Rail as well?

Thompson started his presentation with some comparative analysis showing that Caltrain is doing quite well compared with peer services. Its operating costs are low by comparison to peers, its ratio of expenses to revenues is well above average, but its revenue per passenger mile is only in the middle of the pack. By this set of comparisons, Thompson suggested, Caltrain may be under-charging its rider base, which is largely prosperous and has the ability to pay more.

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It’s complicated

When considering governance options, the first lesson from Thompson’s presentation is that it’s complicated.  There are numerous governance structures used by transit services around the world; including public infrastructure and private operators, as in the EU and Australia, public infrastructure and management with contracted operations (as Caltrain is run today), and entirely public infrastructure, management and operations (as BART is run today).

Rail Structures

Within the category of private operators, there are different structures:

  • gross cost contracts, as used with urban franchises in the UK, where the public entity transfers the cost risk, allowing the company to pocket the difference if they are able to cut costs, but the public entity retains the revenue risk, paying more subsidy if revenue is lower than expected
  • net cost franchises, as with longer passenger rail lines in the UK and some rail services in Brazil, where the government contracts with private agency that carries the responsibility to manage costs and increase revenue
  • fully private systems, as with High Speed Rail systems in Taiwan and Japan.

One of the key points in Thompson’s presentation is that it is critically important to determine the appropriate balance of public and private benefits and costs.   This is very different from the stereotype of “privatization”, where a service is provided by a private corporation with the primary goal of maximizing its own profit.  Instead, most public private partnerships around the world are designed to provide some level of public benefit, based on public entity’s goals for the system.   The public entity could decide it wants more ridership to reduce congestion and pollution, and is willing to pay a subsidy to achieve the goal. There is no one right answer about how to balance the public and private benefits. It depends on goals.

Another important consideration is risk. The use of a public private partnership transfers cost and risk between public and private entities.   Thompson wrote the summary analysis of a fascinating in-depth report published in 2007 containing case studies of public private partnerships used for rail systems around the globe. In situations where the public agencies did not do a good job of managing risk, they were taken to the cleaners (the words of this blogger) by private entities that underbid on the contract, took extra risks in search of profit, went bankrupt, and left the public agency and taxpayers to foot the bill.

For the purposes of discussion (remember, none of the presentations was proposing a recommendation), Thompson proposed a potential solution where the tracks for the Downtown Extension would be leased to Caltrain (not based on use), Caltrain would own/lease and maintain all of the infrastructure on the corridor, and charge the High Speed Rail Authority access fees to use the system, with a joint dispatching center to manage dispatching the trains. Before High Speed Rail, there isn’t a major reason to change Caltrain’s current structure, a public agency with a management contract for operations. Once High Speed Rail arrives, which will have a franchise operator, that operator would be allowed to compete for the Caltrain franchise or contract.

Thompson’s scenario included other goals and outcomes: a state/local funded program to fully grade-separate the Caltrain corridor before the start of High Speed Rail service, a short haul operator for freight service using electrified trains operating only at night; and an oversight agency to coordinate fares and schedules.

So, are there other places in the world where longdistance high speed rail services also run local commute service (we asked Thompson after, because we ran out of time for question at the forum)? SNCF runs some local commuter services under contract to local authorities in France, as do DB in Germany and SJ in Sweden. In the US, Amtrak also contracts to operate local commuter services — they operate the San Joaquins and the Capitols in California. However, Amtrak has also had problems winning competitions with private operators as happened when Amtrak lost the Caltrain contract.

There are challenges either way, says Thompson. If there were two operators on the line, Caltrain might favor local service over HSR access rights. In other places in the world where an HSR operator runs local service, the cost for the national operator can run high.

Based on Thompson’s presentation, public private partnerships are much more complicated and challenging than bringing in a private operator to provide better and more cost-effective services.   A critical success factor is the public agencies ability to set goals and manage risk.

The event could have spent the entire time on Thompson’s presentation. There may be a more in-depth follow-up event focusing on these options.

Integration or merger with BART?

Jessica Zenk, Senior Director for Transportation Policy at Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which works on initiatives to get stable funding for Caltrain, and has been the lead in advocating for bringing BART to Silicon Valley, talked about the benefits of coordinating Caltrain and BART.   The two systems intersect today at Millbrae.  There will be more connections when BART reaches San Jose, and when the Downtown Extension connects Caltrain to the Transbay Terminal, a short walking connection to Montgomery BART.   Zenk said that there should at least be better integration in fares and schedules, and it could conceivably make sense to have the two closely related backbone rail transit services be run by a single operator.

Bear in mind that Zenk was *not* talking about removing Caltrain tracks and replacing them with BART tracks and stations. Instead she was talking about better coordination between the current and planned trains.  It would cost tens of billions to replace the existing Caltrain system – much more than the cost to electrify and fully grade separate Caltrain.

Some of the points raised by Ratna Amin’s introduction apply to the consideration of a BART/Catrain merger. If the agencies were to be merged, which labor contract would apply?  BART has an elected board, while Caltrain’s board members are appointed – what model should be used? As is well known in the private sector,  mergers that sound ideal on PowerPoint involve many challenging details to implement successfully.

Perhaps the major changes entailed in public private partnership or merger are overkill, solutions looking for problems?  Yoriko Kishimoto, former VTA board member and former Mayor of Palo Alto, proposed a more focused set of changes.   Kishimoto reinforced what Lou Thompson’s presentation highlighted – Caltrain is doing fairly well on an operating basis, the problem is lack of stable funding.

A critical needed change is a longer budget cycle. Caltrain currently plans its operating and capital budget on an annual basis with voluntary contributions from three counties: Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco.  Any year, any member can choose not to pay its share. In this case, each agency would then reduce contribution proportionately and the region needs to scramble to avoid drastic service cuts.  A three to five year budget cycle would enable the partners to ward off surprises.

Even better, said Kishimoto would be stable, dedicated funding. One of the challenges in gaining dedicated funding for Caltrain is that Caltrain serves 3 counties, including places that gain minimal benefit from its service.  In Santa Clara County, Caltrain serves only a small slice of the region, and it is difficult to get supermajority approval in an area where many voters are far from the closest station.   Kishimoto currently serves on the board of the MidPeninsula Regional OpenSpace District, which has tax revenues contributed from a district with boundaries drawn for this purpose.    A similar special district could be crafted for Caltrain, allowing voters in places that benefit from Caltrain to support it.

But if Caltrain had stable funding, this would not help to solve the problems with regional coordination – a more financially independent agency might even have less incentives to coordinate.

Regional Coordination on the European model

Transportation consultant Michelle DiRobertis had done research on the institutional structure used in Stuttgart Germany, Zurich Switzerland, and other places in the European Union and elsewhere around the world. The Stuttgart region has 45 different transit operators in a metropolitan area with 179 municipalities and 2.4 million people.  Since 1979, they  have created a coordinating agency that is responsible for the coordination of fares, schedules, and planning. It has a governing board with half of its members from political jurisdictions and 50% of its members from the transit operators.

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There was a lot of interest in the audience for more discussion about this model – watch for an upcoming event on this topic.   One big question for the Bay Area. If we wanted such a function,  how could we get there from where we are today?  Could the efforts to upgrade the system help us work toward regional integration?

The critical importance of goals

When asked about how Caltrain might include these governance considerations in its strategic planning process, Public and Community Affairs Director Seamus Murphy answered that the place to consider these things is in the section on the fundamental goals for the Caltrain service.

This answer resonated with some high level stakeholders in the audience.

BART director Robert Raburn spoke about the importance of the goal of emissions reduction.  BART has 50% of the share of traffic going across the Bay Bridge, but rail transit has a much smaller percentage of the traffic going north/south on either side of the bridge.  With climate change, we must not accept the status quo where driving is mainstream and transit is marginal.

Gillian Gillett, the San Francisco Mayor’s transportation policy lead wants to see land use taken into account as a major goal.  Transit is most effective when there are plenty of people who live and work close to transit.   One of the major problems in serving our area cost-effectively with transit is sprawl – a spread out land use pattern where driving is the most practical option for many people.  San Francisco is using “value capture” – the added value of real estate –  to help fund the Transbay project. This funding and strategic approach could conceivably be used to help with other major capital expenses and station area plans, such as San Jose Diridon.

The presentations by Ratna Amin of SPUR and Jessica Zenk of SVLG had raised the goals of better integration – but a mid-level transit planner in the audience from another transit agency in the region raised potentially contradictory goal. If transit agencies were forced to coordinate schedules and fares, some agencies might get less farebox revenue – and they have a goal to run their agency in a fiscally prudent manner.

This is the rationale that results in today’s uncoordinated system – and it has merit from the perspective of each transit agency.    So how could the goal of agency budget prudence be met, while still meeting the goal of regional coordination? Could a regional coordinating entity provide transfer payments to help agencies that lost out due to more transfers?  Or are mergers necessary so that the financial budget reflects the bigger picture?

The moderator (your blogger) connected the goals of ridership and equity, which contrast with the goal of maximizing revenue for the service.     To get the most cars of the road, capture the greatest corridor mode share, and reduce the most carbon emissions,  it would be at cross-purposes to raise fares to maximize revenue.    With goals of ridership and equity (your blogger now adds)  does it make sense for the public bus system to be used as a parallel but lower quality, lower-cost service for those who cannot afford the train?  Would it provide more social benefit and more environmental benefit by enabling widespread access to train service, and utilize buses for types of service where the technology provides an advantage – connections, non-rail corridors, and lifeline service.

When people talk about the future of Caltrain and Bay Area Transit, they sometimes look to governance changes as “magic bullets” that will eliminate problems.  But the takeaway from last week’s talk is that there is no magic bullet.  Decision-makers and stakeholders need to be clear about their goals and priorities.   Also, when considering less-familiar options like public private partnerships and a regional coordinating agency, it helps to get up to speed on the benefits, drawbacks, and considerations required to make these work.

One member of the audience asked whether it would be possible for the region to make big changes only when faced with a major crisis.  The challenge is that in an emergency, it’s hard to quickly learn about how to handle the operational questions about public private partnerships or coordinating agencies, and think through how to prioritize competing goals.  Better to learn about the options before having to make the decision.