Electric Caltrain: the product is the service

Now that Caltrain electrification is moving forward, what do we want electric Caltrain service to become?   This summer, starting with the July 6 board meeting there will be important discussions about the business plan for electric Caltrain.

This business planning exercise offers riders, community members, funding partners and stakeholders a chance to consider what we want to get out of Caltrain in the future.

Friends of Caltrain’s mission statement says this about our goals for Caltrain service and the corridor:

Friends of Caltrain is dedicated to a financially stable, electrified rail system, with frequent all-day service, easy access via transit, walking and biking, and well integrated into a regional transit network and transit-supportive land uses, serving people of all ages and all walks of life.

In a recent white paper on the future of the Caltrain corridor, SPUR articulated a vision of frequent, all-day service serving nearly 5 times today’s ridership:

Develop reliable, frequent all-day rail service with enough capacity to meet demand. … Caltrain should plan to grow its ridership to nearly five times what it is today by offering an attractive, competitive rail schedule, pursuing system and infrastructure upgrades that support additional capacity, and extending the rail corridor to reach downtown San Francisco.

What do you think? Should electric Caltrain:

  • Provide all-day BART-like service?
  • Increase market share compared to driving, for maximum congestion relief and environmental benefit?
  • Support infill development in station areas, providing more choices for car-light lifestyles and helping with the housing shortage?
  • Provide faster service for long-distance trips?
  • Provide sustainable commute options to lower-income service workers and contractors who are disproportionately driving today?
  • Take Caltrain off taxpayers hands by operating the service to break even?
  • Support convenient, integrated, regional and statewide transportation?

And what should the priorities of these goals be?  If there are tradeoffs, should Caltrain optimize for the highest financial return, or for taking more cars off the road? Making it faster to longer-distance trips, supporting more transit and less traffic in walkable areas near transit, or supporting all stations regardless of use?

These service goals would translate into requirements for customer service in the short and long-term:

  • Peak hour frequency
  • Service frequency in the mid-day, evening, and weekend
  • Schedule quality (clockface schedule)
  • Station stop pattern
  • Fares designed to achieve business goals

And these service plans would translate into specific scenario options for operating and capital funding.


Step by step toward much better service

Electric service in 2021 is only the first step – it will take multiple steps for electric Caltrain to reach its full potential.spursteps

The business goals and priorities will help define the capital needs over time to provide the desired service levels. For example, these are the investments that SPUR recommends, to achieve the goal of increasing ridership 3-5x over (see report appendix for details).

spur caltrain investments

Good decisions for blended system with High Speed Rail

These goals can help with decisions that are being made as part of planning for the blended system with High Speed Rail.   Conventional wisdom says that Caltrain’s deal with High Speed Rail locks Caltrain into 6 out of 10 trains per hour forever, but 10 trains per hour isn’t a technical limit, and 6 trains per hour arguably shouldn’t become a business contract limit.

Ballot measure goals – advance vision or prevent decline?

One of the goals of the business planning is to enable Caltrain to articulate its needs for a ballot measure in the short term to help provide stable funding.

Stable funding is essential, as we see again this year, when one partner’s financial challenges triggers risky fare hikes and cutbacks to maintenance of aging equipment.

For voters, what would provide the greatest motivation?  A vision of greatly improved, fully electrified transit service, with short, medium, and long-term goals? Or the ability to provide modest service improvements and prevent service cuts, while taking $5Million per year off of the bottom line of partner transit agencies?

Your input will be needed

The business plan for Caltrain offers community members a chance to write a blueprint to guide Caltrain into the 21st century.  See this new SPUR blog post for more ideas to shape the business plan.

What do you want electric Caltrain to become?  Can you participate in shaping that vision and the goals to achieve the vision?