At least 2.5 years to restart Caltrain if a shutdown is needed

At Caltrain’s board meeting on Thursday, staff presented the chilling scenario of a potential shutdown.  It would take at least 2.5 years to start up again if a shutdown is initiated.  Much of that time is rehiring and training skilled workers.

And shutting down for passenger service would still leave an large, ongoing financial gap – costs would still be $62M per year to keep the corridor open as required to support freight, ACE and Capitol Corridor. 

Running reduced service this year (FY 2021), Caltrain forecasts to bring in about $46 million in fares. But that revenue would evaporate without passenger service.

If there is a widely available vaccine in mid-2021 and travel picks up, that would leave the Peninsula corridor with at least two years of severe traffic,  $150 million in costs without offsetting revenues, and even more financial challenges restarting ridership after at least two years of no service. 

With ridership and fare revenue steeply down due to Covid, Caltrain is running a predicted $18.5 million deficit for FY2021 through June. (But without Federal CARES Act funding, the deficit would have been $60Million.)

The shutdown scenario is different from “light switch” that one would first imagine, considering how to manage the Caltrain corridor the pandemic. Ridership is steeply down – can’t we turn the switch off, shut Caltrain until mid-2021 when there is a widely available vaccine, and save money until then?

The data shows that while shutting down Caltrain in a period with low ridership and steep deficits might seem like a financial solution, the numbers suggest otherwise – a shutdown is costly and risky.