Should Caltrain plan to keep up with ridership growth? Board workshop next month

On Thursday, October 4 at 9am, the Caltrain board will hold a workshop on one of the biggest topics to consider in the business plan for the service – how aggressively to plan for ridership growth. Read on for more on the big questions that the Caltrain board will be considering – and the issues to share your thoughts about with the board and business plan team.

How big should the vision be?

Today, cities are making big plans that depend on Caltrain carrying many more passengers – San Jose is currently planning for Google’s expansion into the Diridon area, and San Francisco is planning to connect the tracks from 4th and King to the Salesforce/Transbay terminal, where there were 3x as many jobs nearby as the rest of the line combined at the last census.

The latest Caltrain ridership count shows ridership continuing to increase, and trains continuing to be crowded.


Electrification which is under construction is expected to add over 30% more room for people, and Caltrain has gotten funding for longer trains (though Proposition 6 puts that funding at risk).


Big questions remain about how much growth Caltrain should plan for. Caltrain’s electrification plans envisioned 111,000 daily riders. Spur’s Caltrain Corridor Vision Plan urged the region to set sights higher, carrying over 300,000 passengers to fulfill pent-up demand.


So in October, the board will be looking at factors that affect the “long pole in the tent” – the strategic decisions that will shape the investments needed for growth.

A carbon-neutral state and increasing transit market share

Meanwhile, Governor Brown just issued an executive order committing the State of California to carbon-neutrality by 2045. This builds on a law just passed committing to 100% clean energy by 2045. But energy accounts for only 16% of carbon emissions in the state. Transportation accounts for about 40% of California’s emissions. This aggressive climate goal will require not only swapping gas cars for electric cars, but shifting more trips to transit and active transportation, and enabling more people to live and work in places requiring less driving.

How much room in a blended system with High Speed Rail?

The initial proposal for a blended system with High Speed Rail envisioned ten trains per direction per hour, with Caltrain service delivering six trains and High Speed Rail delivering four trains. That service plan wouldn’t be able to move 200,000 to 300,000+ passengers. Caltrain staff have been analyzing what service plan, and what infrastructure, would be able to keep up with growth and market share, and (we hope) climate goals.

How much service to South San Jose/South Santa Clara County?

Another topic that’s part of the “long pole in the tent” is the amount of service to provide to South Santa Clara County and Gilroy.

The Gilroy Extension has ~800 average weekday boardings with minimal service and offpeak ridership is currently ~10,000 with infrequent service. Research suggests that adding service has good likelihood to increase ridership – especially in South San Jose where there are many residents who live near stations with very poor service.

There is funding available from Santa Clara County Measure B for some increased service to South San Jose and South Santa Clara County, and the proposal from the High Speed Rail Authority to electrify the line from Tamien to Gilroy, would allow even more service. Because equipment to run that service is part of the maximum capacity, that will be considered now as part of the picture. Refresh this page for a link to a blog post on opportunities for more service to South San Jose and South County.

Grade separations? Dumbarton service? A second transbay crossing?

In order to provide much more service than today, it would be helpful to have more grade separations that separate the Caltrain tracks from roads. Caltrain doesn’t make decisions about local grade separation designs today, and doesn’t want to get involved in those locally sensitive details in the future. BUT Caltrain could pursue a regional strategy in partnership with cities, the region and the state to fund and fully grade separate the corridor. Should this be part of the picture.

More topics that could affect corridor capacity needs in the longer term include Dumbarton service. The recent SamTrans Dumbarton study envisioned a long-term strategy to have trains from the Central Valley and East Bay crossing the Dumbarton Corridor and continuing right or left on the main line toward San Francisco and Silicon Valley. This would require more mainline capacity.

Another big-picture vision in the State Rail Plan is a second transbay crossing with conventional rail, allowing intercity service from the Peninsula Corridor and San Francisco up to Sacramento. The State Rail Plan’s analysis indicated that adding these longer-distance trips to local service would result in many more passengers to use the infrastructure (and fewer cars on the highways). This would also require more corridor capacity. Caltrain isn’t the lead player in these decisions, but it would be helpful to express a willingness to participate in megaregion and state plans.

All-day, all-week service – later in the business plan process

It also seems counter-intuitive but mid-day and evening service frequency isn’t slated to be part of this workshop and stage of the conversation.

A decision to providing frequent service at time other than rush hour is a big, existential question for the Caltrain corridor. Should Caltrain remain a historical Commuter Rail focusing on peak commute times, or should it adopt the practices followed by dozens of rail services around the globe, providing frequent, all-day service for more kinds of trips, and helping people live with fewer cars, relieving congestion and helping meet the state and planet’s environmental goals?

This will be a critically important decision, but won’t be a big subject of the October workshop, because mid-day and evening service could be increased without increasing equipment or infrastructure.

But, if you’re writing to the Caltrain board, or planning to give public comment at the workshop, it can’t hurt to mention it if this is part of your vision for what Caltrain service should become in the future.

Share your thoughts with the Caltrain board (and let us know)

What do you think about these topics?

  • How ambitious should we be to plan for ridership growth? Should Caltrain plan to meet the pent-up demands shown in SPUR’s vision plan, with goals to take cars off the road and carbon out of the atmosphere, or make incremental changes?
  • With the state’s new goal to be carbon-neutral, should Caltrain have a goal to take more market share from solo highway driving?
  • Should Caltrain actively support connecting the tracks to downtown San Francisco, which will likely move many more riders?
  • Should Caltrain support megaregional goals for longer-distance trips to/from the Central Valley and Sacramento, as a smaller player in big picture decisions?
  • Should Caltrain play a key role in a strategy to grade-separate the corridor with state and regional funding?
  • Should Caltrain support more service to South San Jose and South Santa Clara County?
  • Should Caltrain support frequent all-day service for more kinds of trips (not the subject for October but important to include while you’re corresponding.

The board won’t make final decisions in October, but they will start to set direction, so it’s important to participate and weigh in.

Send your thoughts in writing to the business plan team at Send us a copy at

And if you have time, come to the board workshop at 9am, Thursday October 4.