News

Caltrain ridership skyrockets

But rail agency still faces an uncertain future, officials say

After years of seeking emergency funding to keep from drastically slashing services, Caltrain is on track to balance its budget in fiscal year 2014 after high ridership numbers this year, rail officials announced on Thursday.

The Peninsula commuter rail line has had three years of unprecedented ridership growth, leading to a major increase in revenue. Caltrain's ridership has surged more than 11 percent each year for the last three years, and its strong ticket sales have helped to offset its deficit and increases in operating costs. The agency is projecting ticket revenue of $66.1 million and parking revenue of $3.7 million for fiscal year 2014.

 

But officials are not exactly breaking out the champagne. Caltrain's financial future remains uncertain beyond the next fiscal year, officials said. In 2015, Caltrain faces a significant budget shortfall that could result in service cuts and fare increases.

The rail agency continues to grapple with a lack of dedicated funding and surging demand for its services.

The proposed 2014 budget was balanced using "one-time only" stopgap money. That funding is part of the same life-saving measures revenue used to sustain Caltrain through the last few budgets.

These funding sources have included using regional money through the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, stopgap funds and funds repaid to San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans) for purchase of the rail line. But those funds are exhausted, and Caltrain will need to identify new funding or consider reducing service in 2015, Gigi Harrington, Deputy CEO for finance said of a preliminary report to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board.

Annual ridership counts conducted in Feb. 2013, show that Caltrain serves more than 47,000 average weekday riders, nearly doubling its ridership since introducing the "baby bullet" service in 2004. The increase in demand has meant a further strain on operating and infrastructure costs. During the peak-hour commute, some trains are operating at 130 percent of capacity.

"Caltrain is straining at the seams," said Chuck Harvey, deputy CEO of operations, engineering and construction. "We need to look for ways to add capacity to the existing system to take some pressure off the most popular trains and to provide a more comfortable ride for our passengers."

Caltrain's total proposed operating budget for fiscal year 2014 is $120 million, an increase of 7 percent over the previous year's budget. The increase is caused by ridership growth, officials said.

Harrington said staff will continue to look for solutions to Caltrain's long term structural deficit, but the refrain the agency has repeated in years past still remains:

"Without a dedicated funding source, Caltrain struggles to put together a balanced budget each year, making the long-term planning needed more difficult," she said. Most of Caltrain's operational funding comes from SamTrans, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency.

Comments

Posted by randy albin, a resident of Cuesta Park
on May 6, 2013 at 10:29 am

stay away from the caltrain tracks because they can be very dangerous. these transit agencies have tons of money from various agencies. no wonder people would be riding public transit with the current cost of driving what it is. it's good to report on this. the public should be aware of these current news occurences


Posted by Uh Huh, a resident of another community
on May 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm

@randy albin:

Cool story, bro.


Posted by ron, a resident of another community
on May 6, 2013 at 2:37 pm

I've ridden CalTrain a number of times and I love it. The article is good news in that ridership is way up. However, how is it that some trains are running at 130% capacity at peak hours and the service is not financially self-sufficient, or at least close to it?

If the average load on the trains is say 70% over a whole week and it is not able to sustain itself, there is something seriously wrong with the cost structure that someone needs to look at.


Posted by kman, a resident of Monta Loma
on May 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm

Simple, if they need funding, raise the price of tickets. Oh, I forgot this is a government run business. This will be the same issue with HSR, lack of funding.


Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Jackson Park
on May 6, 2013 at 4:25 pm

@kman:

It's not that simple.

The ticket prices must be considered reasonably priced vis-a-vis other mass transit systems (both local and elsewhere) and the cost of driving your own vehicle (the IRS 2013 mileage rate for business travel is $0.565/mile).

Expensive ticket prices discourage the general public from adopting mass transit. It can't just be a novelty for the well-heeled. There's a threshold where increased ticket prices starts depressing ridership, which ends up reducing total revenue.

Same thing with reducing service. At some point, decreased frequency of trains/slower service discourages people from using the service, since they have to wait too long for a train, the ride takes too long, or the service starts too late/shuts down too early.

Caltrain is a joint powers board, not a single agency, which makes funding a perennial issue. One unrealized solution: a parcel tax could be assess to property owners in SF, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. That might not be enough to cover the entire budget, but it would make things easier. A gasoline tax surcharge in the three counties would be another possibility, but probably one harder to sell to local voters.


Posted by gdm, a resident of Blossom Valley
on May 6, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Why not ask the voters in the 2 counties for a Sales Tax to support them. With 3 counties it shouldn't take much of an increase to raise a lot of money.


Posted by Robert, a resident of another community
on May 6, 2013 at 10:03 pm

@kman

I'd support that, the day that gasoline taxes and registration fees go to paying for more than a fraction of the cost of roads bridges and highways.


Posted by Doug Pearson, a resident of Blossom Valley
on May 6, 2013 at 10:27 pm

I'm with @Robert: Raising Caltrain fares while automobile (gas and registration) taxes are not even high enough to pay for maintenance on our existing road structure doesn't make sense.

@Jay Park also makes some good points. Under all of them is the unspoken point that a certain level of tax subsidy is a good idea and Caltrain is not getting it.

In connection with @Jay Park's point that "At some point, decreased frequency of trains/slower service discourages people from using the service," Caltrain did reduce frequency and only now, with ridership much greater, are they replacing some of the lost service. While ridership did go up despite reduced service, I'm glad to see the service increases and I'm glad Caltrain never cut service as much as they threatened.


Posted by Martin Omander, a resident of Rex Manor
on May 6, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Caltrain is good for the region. Even if you are driving to work, Caltrain helps you by taking 42,000 commuters off the freeway on a typical weekday.

Economists call this a positive externality. If we raise the price of tickets to make Caltrain profitable, fewer people will ride the train, and everyone will suffer, including motorists and businesses.


Posted by kman, a resident of Monta Loma
on May 7, 2013 at 9:19 am

This is exactly why government should not be in the train business or any other business.

The Government does not know how to run a profitable service. The reasons are obvious, just look at our schools.


Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on May 7, 2013 at 11:41 am

Why should everything be profit driven, if Caltrain wanted to make a profit they would offer much more services, stations will be built up and ticketing would be far different.

I can make freeways more profitable, just add toll roads.
I can make schools more profitable, get rid of the special ed students, ELL, ESL students and cramp up the class rooms.

For Park, why not make it a key holder park, you have to buy a key.


Posted by kman, a resident of Monta Loma
on May 7, 2013 at 2:38 pm

What's wrong with being profitable, after all this is a capitalistic society, last I heard. Oh wait, a lot of people in office what to make this a socialist society.

But anyway, if they can't be profitable, at least run a business that comes within budget. What is wrong with that?

We pay plenty of taxes to take care of roads and schools and such, the problem is the mismanagement of money. I could go on and on about that, but I don't have the time.


Posted by Connie, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 7, 2013 at 4:51 pm

Capitalism is a great system for businesses - that's where efficiency and profit are the right things to measure. But, there are things where the outcome is so much more important than mere money: transportation, schools, research, police, health care, our court system. Since the 1950s, the world has looked to America as the shining example of where to apply capitalism, and where to apply society's resources for the common good. Transportation, schools, our court system, etc... are the drivers for the health of our nation and our economy. They are investments towards our future and have been the secrets to America's success. With our tax money, we funded mandatory high school education before other countries did and we pulled ahead of everyone else. Be wary when someone says these investments are now "too expensive". That usually means that they have theirs and they don't care what happens to the rest of us.


Posted by Political Insider, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 8, 2013 at 6:56 am

Caltrains users should pay their way just like car drivers pay their way with gas taxes and fees. There is no externality since individuals can freely choose which type of transportation option they prefer. You could just as easily say drivers help reduce the congestion of train users. Transportation is not a public good that benefits all residents like police, fire, parks, and a court system. It benefits the users directly. Caltrains should be privately run so that it will maintain long term feasability. The fact that they cant breakeven when 70% full tells you something about their inefficient cost structure. There are private trains that do make money and pay their costs.


Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on May 8, 2013 at 9:46 am

One time SP ran the train system, it was running at a loss, which they got out. A deal was made to keep the trains running thought a JPA, Caltrain was born. The money problems, revenue problems or whatever happened even then.

Caltrain doesn't have a steady revenue source, funds that they receive are from other agencies and they are running short on funds also.

Time to merge all transit agencies and create a super network.


Posted by Brian, a resident of Whisman Station
on May 8, 2013 at 9:58 am

Transit systems in the eastern half of the United States began as independently operated, for profit systems. The Elevated in Chicago was a system of often disconnected routes run by independent firms. The MTA in NYC began the same way. Most heavy track rail was run by the freight lines until it became unprofitable or inconvenient for them to do so. From that state of affairs came the regional rail systems you now see in NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston. The systems were combined to prevent financial failure and ensure the convenient movement of the region's people.

Most transit systems operate at a farebox loss as the cost to maintain the system can not be fully recovered by ticket prices without driving ridership down increasing the financial woes. Just like roadways, rail systems are an investment in a region's infrastucture best funded across that same region through a combination of farebox, concession and tax revenues.


Posted by Donald, a resident of another community
on May 8, 2013 at 10:16 am

Political Insider:
Car drivers do NOT pay their full share with gas taxes and fees. Some of our highway projects are paid for with sales taxes, and others with general funds. Even so, California has a shortfall of about $300 Billion in transportation funding to maintain our crumbling roads. Clearly drivers are not paying enough.


Posted by OMV Resident, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 8, 2013 at 4:08 pm

Political Insiders says "There is no externality since individuals can freely choose which type of transportation option they prefer"

Perhaps you need a refresher on the concept of externalities. Our transportation system is full of them. Ever hear of air pollution from tailpipes? How about the cost of maintaining military bases and fighting wars to protect oil supplies and keep gasoline flowing to our Cadillac Escalades and Hummers? How about degraded property values for houses on roads with lots of car traffic (or lots of train noise)?


Posted by PA Resident, a resident of another community
on May 8, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Trains are the most economical form of mass transportation due to the number of people they carry v the amount of staff needed to run each train. We need to improve mass transportation all over the Bay Area and yes, one super administration overseeing all transit in the Bay Area makes sense, along with one ticketing system, one advertising system, etc. Admin costs are a heavy burden on small systems and streamlining the Bay Area would keep these costs down.

On a different note, gas tax and other charges to car ownership only pay for highways, etc. Most local roadways are funded from property taxes and sales taxes.

No cars are getting all the roadways paid for by taxation. Of course roads are part of infrastructure, but so is public transportation.

My mother gave up driving several years ago as she felt her abilities were not as good as they had been. She walks, uses buses and trains and the occasional taxi. The fact that she no longer drives is definitely a safety plus for all the people who live and drive in her community. Yes, public transportation is infrastructure.


Posted by Political Insider, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 8, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Posted by Brian, a resident of the Whisman Station neighborhood, 7 hours ago. Transit systems in the eastern half of the United States began as independently operated, for profit systems. The Elevated in Chicago.....The systems were combined to prevent financial failure and ensure the convenient movement of the region's people.

You can google trains that make a profit to see todays version of profitable train systems. AS to history, Brian is mistaken that public intervention was necessary to save these private lines in NY and Chicago. They were taken over by govt intervention under the guise of public interest.

@ Donald, Agreed, CALTRANS is funded by sources other than gas taxes. but underfunding just means CALTRANS will not spend money they dont have. If drivers want to pay more for better roads they can tax themselves. If only other govt agencies would agree to spend only the money they collect.

@ OMV Resident,

Political Insiders says "There is no externality since individuals can freely choose which type of transportation option they prefer"

Perhaps you need a refresher on the concept of externalities.

You misrepresent my point. I was referring only to the argument that using a train provides a positive externality to car drivers. The reverse is also true about car drivers.

I am fully aware of other externalities caused by emissions but both cars and trains have emissions and noise issues. The one about the military is nonsense and the one about house values is not an externality since it is fully internalized by the land owners. The same would apply to business's that allow smoking indoors.

Bottom line is that govt run transportation is inefficient, so that any potential benefits to society are absorbed by bureaucrats and wasted on inputs like labor and capital. If they had to compete with private forms of transportaton they would lose and only the profitable ones would survive.

Notice that google runs their own bus line for their employees. Its worth it to them and they still make money.







Posted by Old Steve, a resident of Rex Manor
on May 9, 2013 at 9:27 am

So Google runs their own buses on roads paid for in part by those who pay sales taxes but do not drive. How is that different than those of us who do not rely on Caltrain agreeing to allow some of our taxes to support it? Caltrain has better farebox recovery than almost any other transit system. Since it spans three counties, each should make a contribution, and they do. But since they each also run bus services, when money is tight they support local services first. Apparently you believe we should also turn VTA, SF Muni, and Samtrans over to strict farebox recovery funding, and if they cannot survive, so be it. While we are at it, should we convert all of our "freeways" to Tollways and institute a local vehicle registration fee to pay for proper upkeep of City streets?


Posted by Donald, a resident of another community
on May 9, 2013 at 9:58 am

I have mixed feelings about a unfied transportation agency for the whole Bay Area. We have the MTC right now which is kind of like that, and a very good example of the negatives of that approach. There is a lot of politics in the distribution of money and services, and smaller communities get left out. Marin County, with less population and density, gets preferential treatment over Santa Clara County for reasons that I don't understand. Yes, there are advantages to unifying all transit agencies, but you lose local control and turn over the power to officials who may not know anything about your community.


Posted by Old timer, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 10, 2013 at 7:17 am

I took the train back in the old days when it was a private enterprise run by UP, and it was terrible. The cars were old, run down and uncomfortable. The stations were shabby. They wouldn't let you take a bike on board, etc. They didn't really seem to care about their customers. The improvements since it became Caltrain are truly remarkable!


Posted by ron, a resident of another community
on May 10, 2013 at 2:49 pm

@Garrett, because if it is not self-sustaining, then it will always be dependent on a subsidy from the government. If things get bad and there needs to be cuts, the system goes down.

It's like asking why do your kids need to be taught how to be self sufficient and independent? Because if they're not, they will always be coming back to you for a handout.


Posted by DC, a resident of Sylvan Park
on May 11, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Problem Trains at 120% capacity? Um they are trains add a car...


Posted by Donald, a resident of another community
on May 12, 2013 at 9:28 pm

I don't know that they have enough extra cars to put more into service, and they don't want to buy more cars at this time because they are planning to electrify and replace them all in a few years.


Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on May 13, 2013 at 8:55 am

I agree transit systems to create way to self fund or at least reduce the amount of public dollars. Improve travel times, improve the stations will help with services, retail and offices. Encourage building next to or above the stations.

Look at the planned San Antonio project, build as close to Caltrain, build so people will use the system other then going or leaving work.


Posted by Connie, a resident of Old Mountain View
on May 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm

@ Political Insider

Regarding what you said about transportation only benefiting the users and not all citizens. It only seems that way because we have it so good here.

Here are some examples of how good transportation benefits everyone:
1) Caltrain allows SF residents to commute to Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley residents to commute to SF without dealing with rush hour traffic. This benefits the entire high-tech industry and facilitates rapid transition to new jobs as companies go through the boom and bust cycle. Even if you aren't in high-tech, say you own your own business - you benefit from access to more customers that are drawn to the area for the high-tech jobs.

2) In countries that have poor transportation, many of their citizens have little access to food because there's no way to transport the food before it spoils. In India, there are people starving while food is rotting in the fields. Similarly, delicious Indian mangoes are allowed in the U.S. but they aren't able to send them to us in a reliable manner. Here in the U.S. we can't even imagine empty grocery stores. All our citizens benefit from our transportation system.

I find it really ironic that American success is getting in the way of American progress. We've forgotten what made us successful in the first place so we aren't able to maintain the winning formula. However, the rest of the world watched our investments in infrastructure and education and learned.


Posted by Closures, a resident of Cuernavaca
on May 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm

The San Antonio station was very close to being shut down during the last round of Caltrans cuts. So, despite building housing next to a transit stop, the ridership was low, and there was no way for MV to guarantee the San Antonio station would remain open. That was eye-opening.

Perhaps if cities insist on building next to transit routes, and base the location of that housing on the (false?...pardon the editorial) promise that this will take cars of the streets, they should back their plans by making a financial commitment to ensure the transit remains viable.


Posted by PA Resident, a resident of another community
on May 13, 2013 at 6:41 pm

It would be a good idea if Caltrain offered new housing being built near Caltrain stations free or deeply discounted Caltrain passes for 6 months as an incentive to buyers and also to use Caltrain. Caltrain is very poor with customer marketing.

They should offer free parking at the stations after 3.00 pm, family discounted tickets (1 adult traveling with 2 children at say $1 for each child with the adult ticket), after 10.00 am discounts on round trip tickets, etc. etc.

It would make sense also for Caltrain tickets to be purchased that include MUNI, or BART, or VTA, for single day use.

In other words, there are few incentives to use Caltrain offpeak or for families for outings. Other large tourist cities offer all sorts of various deals to get people to use the system. Caltrain should learn from European cities which do this well.


Posted by Donald, a resident of another community
on May 14, 2013 at 7:01 am

You can use a Clipper card on Caltrain, Muni, BART and VTA.


Posted by PA Resident, a resident of another community
on May 14, 2013 at 8:49 am

Donald, agreed. But that only helps regular commuters.

It doesn't help someone going on a one time trip - tourists, family outings to the city, etc.

Most commuters travel at commute times. Encouraging off peak and occasional use is something that Caltrain is very bad at. For those who are not used to the system, it is not user friendly. How do you even know if the train arriving at the station is the one you want that will stop at the place you want to get off. Caltrain is very poor at helping visitors and occasional passengers.


Posted by Closures, a resident of Cuernavaca
on May 14, 2013 at 9:32 am

I've sent Caltrain letters about creating a family pass, particularly on weekends. We often liked to go into SF, and the kids enjoyed the train. But when you have to pay $50 for the family, and then add in the cost of transportation in SF, it's not that attractive a deal.

The same holds true for Caltrans to Giants games. For a single person, the $13 beats taking a car and paying for parking. But when a family goes, the same efficiencies aren't in play. The other issue with taking Caltrain to the Giants is the return home. Either you need to leave the game early to assure a spot on the Express Train, or you need to take the train that stops at every station (approx 1:15 to MV), which is long ride, and about 35 minutes longer than it takes to drive home on empty freeways later in the evening.


Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on May 14, 2013 at 10:29 am

Family Tickets are a must, how about a food car on the train. You can get Starbucks on board, Starbucks at every station or some kind of services that riders need or want. I am sure Cal Train can create rental income from their stations.


Posted by Angela Hey, a resident of another community
on May 14, 2013 at 8:35 pm

Maybe Caltrans should add a first class car and a dining car - that's what traditional railways did to increase revenues.


Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community
on May 14, 2013 at 10:50 pm

@Angela.

That is what they do in Europe and the UK, lived in both places so I got to deal with the rail lines. First Class was really nice but would go Second Class, food car was pretty good to have. Coffee, Tea or Beer with food and snacks. Some of the stations had full blown places to eat, Newsagents and if smaller station you could grad coffee.

Light Rail and bus tickets were either sold at the rail station or the newsagents, post office or office supply store. 3, 7 or all month passes, rail cards were great if you were a commuter.


Posted by YUM?, a resident of Castro City
on May 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Maybe better than a food car, have food service available (via food truck) shortly before traintime at stations. Grab-n-go for riders, available, too, for non-riders.


Posted by Kman, a resident of Monta Loma
on May 15, 2013 at 4:58 pm

"there are things where the outcome is so much more important than mere money: transportation, schools, research, police, health care, our court system...Be wary when someone says these investments are now "too expensive". That usually means that they have theirs and they don't care what happens to the rest of us."

Only problem is that our government can't control their expenses. Our tax money is being spent on other things that have nothing to do with these.

Right now the Gov, both state and feds take almost 1/2 of each of my hard earned dollar and yours if you work. The reason they take half is because gov is too big. Since they can't touch property taxes, what do they do, they go after our income. And now they want to break apart prop 13 the property tax prop, so they can get even more money. All lead by marc leno and darrell steinberg and their liberal buddies, who are behind this. These ultra liberals have nothing on their mind other than how to squeeze every last dime out of you and me, all under the guise of it's for the students.

Over 500 different run government agencies, in California, all with huge overheads. I say time to consolidate and reduce the outragous spending on things such as High speed rail that benefits a few and spend that money on our infrastructure.





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