Thursday: Upgrading Caltrain to achieve service vision goals

On Thursday morning, the Caltrain board will be holding a workshop to take on the issues of organization and governance that are logical consequences of the far-reaching goals the board adopted in October to increase service to meet pent-up demand to triple or quadruple ridership over the next two decades.

Big changes are needed to achieve those goals.   While the organizational assessment commissioned for the business plan concluded that until now, Caltrain has been performing in the top tier of similar organizations, with double the passenger miles per employee compared to peers it also concluded that “the status quo is no longer viable…. Caltrain has already embarked upon a path that requires significant organizational change.”

Accountability to shared goals

As policymakers responsible to travellers and taxpayers, it would be valuable for the board to think through the shared goals, in order to assess how the organizational options might support the shared goals.  Policymakers and community members seeking change want accountability – it’s important to have an answer to the question – accountable to what?

Here are some potential goals that the board might select – what do you think should be on this list?

  • A capital plan to increase ridership in steps over time
  • Increasing service according to the service vision
  • Financial efficiency – lower cost of service per rider
  • Capability to manage large construction projects
  • Reduced driving miles and greenhouse gas emissions
  • Alleviate congestion – reaching the service vision would replace another 101’s worth of cars
  • Achieving goals determined with follow-on studies to the business plan – such as improved connectivity, increased rider diversity, land use
  • Ability to fund and finance improvements and service

Ugrading organizational capabilities

Based on the goals, there needs to be a plan to upgrade the capabilities to deliver the goals.  These capabilities might include things like: 

  • Ability to manage and deliver large construction projects on time and on budget
  • Ability to create and manage to a business plan to deliver goals cost-effectively
  • Financial planning to be able to improve service cost-effectively
  • Human resources – ability to hire and retain top people
  • Ability to manage a much more frequent, complex and precise service schedule
  • Data and information technology skills
  • Understand, create and deliver excellent experience for customers
  • Legal skills including defining terms for relationships with corridor/network partners (HSR, Dumbarton, etc)

Defined timeline and process for change

Deciding what changes to make for a growing, increasingly complex organization take some consideration. And stakeholders advocating for change want to see change. 

To meet both of these needs, the board could ask staff to recommend a process to assess and frame options and decisions for the board.  This could set expectations for decisions in a finite time – without trying to re-organize the governance and staffing of an organization by Christmas break.

Active participation for regional integration

The organizational assessment led by former MetroNorth CEO Howard Permut that Caltrain commissioned as part of the Business Plan research observed that there are types of organizational and governance change that go beyond Caltrain’s borders. Changes like creating a regional megaproject construction authority, and developing the region’s capability to plan and manage a regional rail and transit network, go beyond the boundaries of Caltrain’s three counties. 

The Permut report said that these regional layers would take longer, and therefore didn’t need to be addressed in the short term.  But there are initiatives that are moving at a regional level sooner: MTC is holding a discussion of regional rail in January; there is a regional fare integration study in the works now, there are discussions about a regional megaproject construction authority following on from the governance review of the Downtown Extension

Caltrain could wait and respond to these processes being done by others. Or the board could direct Caltrain to participate as one of the leading players in these regional discussions.  Actively participating as one of the leaders in the regional discussion would be a better for the goals of the service vision. 

From tug-of-war to rowing in the same direction

Policymakers seeking needed change have been looking to upcoming deadlines for potential funding ballot measures – a regional transportation measure for the Bay Area, or a Caltrain-specific measure which could be a backup plan if a regional measure takes longer –  as leverage to promote the change.

We hope that the Caltrain board can take this opportunity to use the view of the horizon in Half Moon Bay to set their sights on shared goals, and to promptly set up a process to be rowing in the same direction, to upgrade the organization to be able to achieve the common goals to serve riders and the region, to pursue funding that advances the goals.