Thursday’s a big day – urge Caltrain to aim high

On Thursday, the Caltrain board will give direction about a major transformation in service with electrification as the starting point.   Caltrain’s business plan studies show that there is pent-up demand to increase ridership by up to 4x, taking the equivalent of another 101 highway’s worth of cars off the road.

The changes would transform Caltrain from a historical “commuter rail” service to a transit-like service that is convenient all day and all-week, with great connections, for more kinds of trips to more places, serving a greater diversity of people.

Getting there won’t be easy. 

  • It will take raising money with the support of the region.
  • It will require work to expand the capacity of the system, with great connections at hub stations, grade separations, and passing infrastructure.
  • It will take new skills for the region to enable great connections in an integrated system

The exact details of will be needed isn’t fully known yet, and can’t be yet be known with open questions such as whether and when there will be a Dumbarton Rail connection, and when High Speed Rail might reach San Francisco. 

Caltrain is leaning toward goals of ridership growth and better service, but they’re (understandably) being tentative and cautious because of the challenges and uncertainties.  They need encouragement now to aim high for as much ridership growth as possible.   

Setting a strong visionary goal will motivate regional leaders and agency staff to overcome the challenges that will come up along the way, so we can get to a great system, and not leave opportunities on the table for the most convenience, traffic relief, and pollution reduction.

Read on for why it’s good to aim high, and actions you can take can support a higher ridership, more equitable system.

More riders, more congestion relief, fewer cars on the road, less pollution

Caltrain’s growth scenarios show pent-up demand that could increase ridership by up to 4 times over today’s level.   The highest level of ridership growth would take 3 more lanes of cars off the highway, reduce driving miles by 80%, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 50%.

Much better connections 

The higher growth scenarios enable much better connections – a “baseline” scenario would provide a gap-toothed schedule where “you can’t get there from here” – for many trips, you’ll need to backtrack with a long wait to make a connection.

The high capacity, high growth scenario would be needed for the best regional and megaregional connections, enabling one-seat train rides to and from the East Bay, Sacramento, and the Central Valley by enabling longer distance trains to travel onto the Caltrain corridor (instead of requiring riders to transfer.)

Caltrain needs encouragement to support diversity and equity

Today, the average Caltrain rider income is about $130,000.  The service vision could enable Caltrain to serve a greater diversity of riders.  

  • Service that was frequent, earlier in the morning, afternoons, later at night, and in the weekend would help people who have schedules other than 9-5 jobs
  • Better connections with feeder local transit service could help people without cars get to work and school in a reasonable time
  • Integrated fares would help households with modest incomes have cost-effective transit commutes – including many who wouldn’t qualify for the means-based discount fare ($50K or less for a family of 4)
  • Frequent service with integrated fares and schedules would help households live with fewer cars, saving $6,000 or more per year for each car avoided, not to mention lower housing costs in places that allow parking to be purchased separately
  • Affordable housing on Caltrain’s land would help lower-income people live walking distance from the train

Summary – Aim High, Aim Broad, Pursue Connections

The detail of the policy recommendation to the Catrain board calls for the board to recommend “moderate growth,”,but “not to preclude” higher growth by cooperating with the region on assessing the feasibility of major connections like a second Transbay rail crossing, and by avoiding making choices that could block high-growth options like allowing buildings to be built on land that would be needed for expended passing stations.

It’s good that Caltrain wants to refrain from promising growth options may turn out to be impossible. But setting a goal of “moderate growth” doesn’t have the same motivating force for the region and the agency as “aim as high as possible.” 

Caltrain should set a strong policy direction to aim high as high as possible, depending on funding and feasibility, and to actively work to pursue the needed funding and solve feasibility challenges.

The Caltrain board has already adopted a fare policy setting affordability as a goal.

Now, with the prospect of more frequent all-day service, the board should adopt a broader set of policies to serve a wider range of people, instead of limiting the benefits of fast trains to the well-off.

Also, the proposed “service vision” includes “regular service making transfers and connections easier and more predictable.” This is good but passive.

Caltrain shouldn’t just make it possible to make connections.  Caltrain should actively support initiatives to improve connections, like the business case study for integrated fares. Caltrain alone can’t drive an integrated system, but it can have board policies that are strongly supportive.

How you can help now

If you want Caltrain to set their sights high for the most service and the least driving and pollution, let them know this week.

  • There is a board workshop on Thursday, August 1 starting at 9am in at Caltrain HQ, 1250 San Carlos Ave, San Carlos, near the train station.
  • If you can make it, come. If you can make a very few public meetings in a year, come to this one.   This is a “pack the room” opportunity to show the Caltrain board that you want them to “aim high”
  • If you can’t make it in person, send a letter. Click here to send a note to the Caltrain board urging them to “aim high” and then send the built-in reminder to a friend.
  • For another powerful action to help make Caltrain more affordable while increasing ridership and revenue, click here.