Here are answers to some common questions ask about Caltrain emergency.

Why is Caltrain running a deficit? Does that mean it’s badly run and deserves to go out of business?

The Caltrain crisis is triggered by a sharp decline in the funding contributed by SamTrans, and not because of a drop in riders or fare revenue. Caltrain has been at record levels.

Caltrain covers about 60% of its operating expenses using fares from riders – the 2nd best rate of any Bay Area transit agency. Its administrative overhead costs, as a percentage of overall costs, are among the lowest of any Bay Area transit agency. By objective financial metrics, Caltrain is run far more efficiently than MUNI, SamTrans or VTA, the three agencies that provide the remainder of Caltrain’s funding.

But other Bay Area transit agencies have dedicated funding. Because Caltrain is the child of a joint powers agreement between public transit entities in San Francisco, Santa Clara County and San Mateo County, it has in recent times received approximately 20-30 percent of its revenues from those partners. In contrast, Caltrain must make yearly requests from the three county transit agencies.

How is Caltrain funded, as opposed to agencies like VTA and BART?

Caltrain’s operating subsidy comes from the local transit agencies in the three counties that Caltrain runs through: San Francisco, SamTrans (San Mateo County), and VTA (Santa Clara County). The subsidy is split among the three counties by where the riders board the train in the morning. However, financial trouble at any of the three partners can jeopardize the entire Caltrain service.

VTA and BART collect their own taxes. VTA has several local sales taxes and BART has a 1/2 cent sales tax and a property tax in San Francisco, Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties. SamTrans is funded in part by sales taxes, and AC Transit is funded by parcel taxes in East Bay counties.

So what’s going on at SamTrans?

SamTrans has a structural deficit caused by rising operating cost, lower than expected tax revenue, and significant reductions in state support for transit operation. While SamTrans’ main responsibility is the local bus system, it is also contributing funds to Caltrain and the BART line from Daly City to SFO. Over the years SamTrans cut some of the cost by lowering subsidy to the BART extension (which was picked up by BART). Recently SamTrans has sought to eliminate Caltrain funding (which would not be picked up by any agency).

Until we are able to identify long-term funding, we do not agree that SamTrans should “dump” Caltrain and leave train riders stranded. Like high schools and elementary schools, regional trains and local buses complement each other. The transit system would not function well without one or the other.

If Caltrain were shut down, would anyone notice?

If Caltrain were shut down, it would take the equivalent of 2-3 extra lanes on Highway 101 to carry the extra rush hour traffic. It would also greatly increase parking demand in Downtown San Francisco, Stanford University, and at AT&T Park. Additional traffic to and from the parking lots would also tie up local streets.

Caltrain ridership is smaller than freeways, but the impact on traffic is substantial. As traffic volume on a freeway rises to near peak capacity it only takes a small disturbance to create a major delay. Likewise, removing a few percent of cars from the freeways makes a big difference in flow and causes a disproportionate reduction in delays.

The details: 80% of the ~40,000 daily trips are made during the peak hours (6-9AM and 4-7PM), which equates to ~5300 passengers per hour. A freeway lane can carry about 1500 vehicles per hour. So Caltrain today is equivalent to 3 freeway lanes with an average vehicle occupancy of 1.2. It could easily double that if the proper capital improvements are made.

Shouldn’t Caltrain pay for itself like a business?

None of our transportation systems (rail, car, truck, air, boat) pay for themselves entirely through user fees. We all support them through the use of general funds because they provide a general benefit that is considered worthwhile to society as a whole.

The train benefits everyone, even those who drive. Without Caltrain, the roads and parking lots will be more crowded, increase everyone’s commute time even further. Without Caltrain, people would have one less safe mean to get home while intoxicated, putting lives at risk.

Can’t we just close down Caltrain and run BART instead?

To build BART in place of Caltrain, would be a $10 Billion project to close a $30 Million deficit. It doesn’t make any financial sense. The additional funding required to build and operate BART is much larger than what is needed to keep Caltrain going.

There’s a lot that we can do to integrate and coordinate transit without tearing down and replacing the things we have. Many cities in the United States and around the world have rail lines that aren’t physically compatible (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, to name a few), but are integrated in terms of schedules and fares. We do not see BART replacement as a serious solution, rather as a distraction to real solutions that keep and improve our transit service.

Can we save money by cutting Caltrain north of Millbrae? People can just transfer to BART.

San Francisco 4th & King station has consistently had the highest ridership on the entire Caltrain system, even after the BART extension opened in 2003. The 4th & King Station is a key origin and destination for Caltrain’s most profitable customers who ride the Baby Bullet express trains, and is far busier today than it was 8 years ago. Cutting off 4th & King would cut off the healthiest part of Caltrain’s fare revenue; instead of saving money, it would further degrade Caltrain’s finances and hasten the “death spiral” of reduced ridership and service.

Caltrain takes 18 minutes to travel the direct route from Millbrae to 4th & King. BART takes a full half hour to go the same distance, not counting the extra time to switch trains, because of the circuitous detour around San Bruno Mountain. Slower service would further depress Caltrain ridership and revenue.

The 4th & King Station is only a block away from AT & T Park. Cutting service north of Millbrae would mean no direct access to this venue. Riders on BART have to walk a mile to the ballpark or take the crowded MUNI.

The Millbrae Station doesn’t have the tracks and service facilities to turn trains around on a regular basis. Overall, Caltrain could lose more riders and fare revenue by terminating trains at Millbrae than keep running trains all the way to San Francisco.

Finally, unlike BART, Caltrain can carry bicycles onboard on all trains at all times. Cutting service north of Millbrae would mean that passengers heading to San Francisco in the morning would not be allowed to take their bikes.

What is the impact on the personal finances of riders?

Commuters’ wallets would get hit if they needed to drive instead of taking the train. A train trip from Palo Alto to downtown San Francisco only costs a little more than $3 using a discounted monthly pass, while driving a car that distance costs $13.50, when insurance, depreciation and maintenance expenses are included.

What solutions are being considered to provide stable funding for Caltrain

Possible funding solutions include gas tax, sales tax, payroll tax, tolls from congestion pricing, and tolls from high occupancy toll lanes.

Sales tax. One option is an 1/8 cent sales tax in all 3 counties that use Caltrain.  Another option is a sales tax in San Mateo County only, since SamTrans is currently the agency with the deepest financial problems.

Gas tax. With a 1 cent increase in the gas tax, the 1.3 billion gallons of gas sold every year in the three counties served by Caltrain alone would bring in $13 million, almost half of the current deficit.

Payroll tax. A Tri-county payroll tax of just $20 per year could bring in $35 million, well over this year’s entire deficit.

Other solutions including high-occupancy toll lanes, bridge tolls, and congestion pricing.


FAQ: Caltrain Electrification and Blended System

What is a “Blended System”?
This is a plan to enable High Speed Rail share tracks with Caltrain. It was first proposed by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, State Senator Joe Simitian and Assembly Member RIch Gordon. In contrast of High Speed Rail’s initial proposal for an elevated 4-track structure the length of the corridor, with separate tracks for HSR trains, requiring expansion beyond the existing right of way, the “blended system” is intended to stay primarily within the Caltrain right of way and use primarily the existing two tracks.

What is “Early Investment” aka “Fast Start” aka “Bookends”?
The most recent version of the High Speed Rail business plan proposes to have High Speed Rail funds pay for improvements in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles Area earlier than previously planned. According to the previous version of the High Speed Rail business plan, High Speed Rail would not arrive in the Bay Area until 2034 or later.

The proposal was dubbed the “Bookends” proposal by the High Speed Rail Authority. Caltrain called the Bay Area portion “Early Investment”. A consortium of San Francisco agencies called their version of the proposal “Fast Start”.

Regardless of the nickname, the upcoming version of the Business Plan plan is expected to provide $1.5B of funding from High Speed Rail, federal, state and regional sources to fund the electrification of the Caltrain Corridor and positive train control, and a similar amount to fund improvements in the Los Angeles Area.

What is the “Memorandum of Understanding”?
The Memorandum of Understanding is the agreement to fund to the Early Investment Plan in the Bay Area. It describes the funding sources, the goals for the funds, and Participants in the MOU include MTC, the High Speed Rail Authority, the Caltrain Joint Powers Board, San Francisco County Transportation Authority, San Francisco City and County, Transbay Joint Powers Authority, San Mateo County Transportation Authority, VTA (Santa Clara County), and City of San Jose.

What is Electrification? What are its benefits?
Electrification is a project to modernize Caltrain by replacing its aging diesel trains with new “electric multiple units” or EMUs, which will be powered by electricity from an overhead wire. Electrification will provide a welcome increase in service frequency and station access. Electrification will enable Caltrain to carry 50% more riders, will providing relief for traffic congestion and rising gas prices. Electric trains are less polluting and noisy than Diesel trains, and are more cost-effective to run.

Why electrify Caltrain instead of extending BART all the way down the Peninsula?

Modernizing Caltrain is a lot cheaper than extending BART.  The cost of extending BART to San Jose was $333 million/mile.  The cost of electrifying and modernizing Caltrain is $31 million/mile.   A key reason that Caltrain/BART transfers are poor is because Caltrain service is much less frequent than BART. Electrification will enable Caltrain to run more frequently and have better transfers.

Does the Memorandum of Understanding allow a four-track system?
The language of the MOU clarifies that the system “will remain substantially within the Caltrain Right of Way” and clarifies that it is “primarily a two-track system.” Incorporating concerns of Peninsula communities, this MOU does not cover a continuous four-track system as envisioned by High Speed Rail initially.

How will local concerns and design needs be addressed?
Caltrain partway through a 2 year process to plan the blended system. So far, Caltrain has studied the blended system and verified that the plan would be feasible. In the next phase, Caltrain will study the grade separations, passing tracks, and schedule options, and present a set of options for community feedback. Caltrain is requesting that the language be clarified to show that Caltrain is the lead agency for the project, with primary responsibility for design, environmental review and clearance, and construction.

Will the Blended System be able to use land in a way that hampers local transit oriented development plans?
The Memorandum of Understanding clarifies that the project needs to support local land use and Transit Oriented Development policies. This requirement rules out unwanted intrusions that violate local land use policies such as the large train storage and maintenance yard HSRA had intended for Brisbane.

Will the Blended System require additional environmental review and clearance?
The MOU clarifies that the Environmental Impact Report for Caltrain Electrification will need to be recirculated to be brought up to date and “to incorporate local and regional conditions and concerns.”

What is the role that the MTC plays in the Early Investment Plan?
MTC assembles and disburses federal, state, and regional funding. In the current deal, MTC played a role in bringing in money from BART, bridge tolls, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and brokering the federal/state/regional funding package. The agreement provides $600 Million of Proposition 1A funds (the High Speed Rail bond measure), and $106 Million of Prop 1A connectivity funds, matched by Federal, state and regional funding.

Does the MTC play a role in design decisions such as the selection and siting of grade separations?

When will the project be complete?
According to the project description, if funding is finalized in 2012, the Electrification project could be complete in 2019.

Is the Downtown Extension in the Plan?
In order to meet the needs of Proposition 1A, the High Speed Trains need to stop at Transbay terminal in downtown San Francisco. The DTX will also benefit Caltrain riders since there are 10x as many jobs in downtown San Francisco. Funding for this segment is not included in the current funding, however the MOU describes the intent to pursue funding for DTX.

Are Grade Separations in the plan?
In addition, Caltrain is studying the expected impact of expected schedules on traffic impact and gate down time. Additional grade separations may be needed. Funding for the grade separations are not included in the current funding plan, however the MOU describes the intent to pursue funding for “Core Capacity project” including improvements to stations, bridges, tunnels, grade separations, and other elements needed to run a blended system with Caltrain and High Speed Trains.

Are there passing tracks included in the plan?
Caltrain has been studying passing tracks as an option in its capacity analysis. Without passing tracks, the corridor can carry 6 Caltrains and 2 High Speed Rail trains per direction per hour at peak. With passing track, the corridor can carry up to 4 High Speed Trains.

The MOU mentions “potential passing tracks” as part of the Blended System. But there is no funding identified or allocated for the passing tracks, and the first stage of Caltrain’s plan does not include them. Additional environmental review would be needed for passing tracks.

How will Baby Bullet service be handled?
When High Speed trains arrive on the Peninsula, local riders could take one of these trains as an express commute service on the Caltrain corridor. Caltrain and HSRA have not yet determined how the customer service or revenue would be handled. This topic will be addressed in the future when Caltrain and HSRA work on service plans.