Town Square

Post a New Topic

Group seeks to stem Caltrain 'death spiral'

Original post made on Jan 31, 2011

More than 200 Friends of Caltrain met on Saturday (Jan. 29) to find ways to keep the Peninsula railway from going into what one transportation official called "a death spiral" that threatens to shut down the West's second oldest passenger train service.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Monday, January 31, 2011, 11:07 AM

Comments (31)

Posted by Lean Caltrain, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 31, 2011 at 11:28 am

A $30M budget cut is the best thing that can happen to Caltrain, it will be a forcing factor.

Caltrain is a temporary solution, unsafe, inefficient and unreliable that should not get permanent funding or we will stand very little chance to get something better in the future.

Caltrain is suffering from chronic inefficiencies in the way it is run

Outside of peak hours, Caltrain runs nearly empty. Late night trains run up and down the peninsula with a handful of people on board.

We need efficient public transportation and that is not Caltrain.

Short term solution: Cut Caltrain diesel trains to peak hours only

Long term: Electrify, let BART take over and save on operating costs.


Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Rex Manor
on Jan 31, 2011 at 11:55 am

"Caltrain is a temporary solution, unsafe, inefficient and unreliable that should not get permanent funding or we will stand very little chance to get something better in the future."
- You're using the word "temporary" here very loosely -- passenger service on the Caltrain corridor has been running for over 150 years.
- "unsafe": Caltrain had 19 fatalities in 2009, most of which were suicides. In comparison...cars killed 35 pedestrians in 2008, in San Francisco alone. Approximately 30 people jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge every year. Auto accidents are the leading cause of death among people under the age of 39.
- "inefficient": Caltrain's overhead costs are among the lowest of any Bay Area transit agency. Its farebox recovery ratio is second only to BART in the Bay Area (BART benefits from significant capital investment, and can charge higher fares due to the highly congested freeways it competes with).
- "unreliable": Caltrain's on-time performance in December 2010 was 95.8%. This compares favorably to the unpredictable congestion on 101.
- "should not get permanent funding or we will stand very little chance to get something better in the future"...well, I certainly can't argue with that logic...

"Outside of peak hours, Caltrain runs nearly empty. Late night trains run up and down the peninsula with a handful of people on board."
Caltrain cannot adjust train length easily with locomotive-hauled carriages. They did the math and decided that it's more cost effective to run big trains mostly empty, than pay for extra labor to adjust the length of the trains. When they get electrification, they will be able to run shorter trains during off-peak.

"We need efficient public transportation and that is not Caltrain."
Ok, then what is it?

"Short term solution: Cut Caltrain diesel trains to peak hours only"
Most Caltrain riders expect to have the option to take a later train home if they decide to stay at work late. Weekend trains almost pay for themselves (weekend operating subsidy is <$1MM/year).

"Long term: Electrify, let BART take over and save on operating costs."
You should double-check your math on this one. BART's farebox recovery ratio (probably too optimistic for the Caltrain corridor) is not high enough to close the Caltrain operating deficit.


Posted by Sean, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 31, 2011 at 12:17 pm

The fact that trains run every half hour, almost completely empty, during the middle of the day, has to be addressed.

The commute time trains are critical, I get that. I'm guessing they are profitable as well, based on the full train cars I see.

Clearly, there is a part of the schedule that is performing well, and part that is not. It seems like an obvious place to start cutting to me.


Posted by Mike Laursen, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm

David Bloom,

Thanks for your comment. I've always wondered why it's claimed that electrification would reduce Caltrain's cost. Yours was the first explanation I've ever seen that made any sense.

Do you have any idea why it is so expensive to have a train yard crew decouple a few cars, though? Isn't it just a matter of throwing a few levers, disconnecting a few hoses, etc? Is it some extra expense related to unions?


Posted by MVFlyer, a resident of Monta Loma
on Jan 31, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Mike--they need several things to decouple cars--an engineer to run the original train, someone to decouple the cars, another switching engine to move the decoupled cars (with engineer), and space to put the cars, plus be able to move the switching engine out of the way. Might seem simple, but it's not like parking your car.

Electrification makes sense because the trains can accelerate and decelerate much more quickly than diesel. They're lighter (no need to carry fuel, and, believe it or not, diesel train engines actually have electric motors in them, so they have those plus a big diesel engine), and quite energy efficient since they use regenerative braking like a hybrid car to generate power while braking and pouring that power back into the electrical grid for use by other trains. The time savings alone is significant--say two minutes per stop adds up to a 20-25 reduction between SJ and SF, which means they can run fewer trains and extend the length to carry the same number of people per hour.


Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Rex Manor
on Jan 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm

"Do you have any idea why it is so expensive to have a train yard crew decouple a few cars, though? Isn't it just a matter of throwing a few levers, disconnecting a few hoses, etc? Is it some extra expense related to unions?"
Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on this, so this is based mostly on conjecture and stuff that I've read on Wikipedia.

Caltrain's passenger cars don't have engines -- they can't move themselves (unlike BART's electric cars, which can move themselves independently). So they would need to...
* situate the train near a free siding track.
* unplug the cars to be removed
* hook up a switching locomotive
* pull the cars off of the train, and then push them onto the siding track
* probably do a bunch of legally required safety tests to make sure the brakes still work, etc
...and then repeat a similar procedure to re-attach the passenger carriages.

Actually, it's probably even more complicated than that. Because each train must have both:
* 1 cab car, which must be at the end of the train, and
* 1 handicapped accessible car (required by federal law)
...it might take many more steps of switching railcars in order to compose an acceptable trainset (kind of like solving a Towers of Hanoi puzzle with railcars)

All of this would require having more siding tracks at SF and SJ (this would be a very expensive capital investment, since both 4th and King and SJ Diridon are in relatively dense areas), as well as increased labor costs.


Posted by Jon Wiener, a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Glad to see the effort is underfoot. Given that we're supposedly in an anti-regulatory mood, I'll cross my fingers to see cities on the Caltrain agree to stop requiring businesses near stops, (and, at least in Mountain View's case, at the stop), to build parking spaces or pay fees.


Posted by jupiterk, a resident of Gemello
on Jan 31, 2011 at 2:38 pm

I think it is time to bring back the horses and we need horse trails.


Posted by Lean Caltrain, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Thank you all for your comments
The next couple years are going to be trying times for Caltrain and this is a great opportunity to optimize the service

I simply cannot accept that running empty trains in the middle of the night just in case someone might need them is a good practice when you are about to go bankrupt.
The trains stopping in Mountain View at 10:48pm 11:48pm and 1:09am with 12 people on board got to go or Caltrain is going to loose all credibility.
You don't go back to the tax payers asking for more money when you have such blatant inefficiencies in your system.

Additionally, Caltrain has done absolutely nothing for the quality of life of the people leaving near the tracks.
In MV with the 3 rail crossings downtown (2 pedestrian + Castro) each train is required to blow the horn 12 times (4 times per crossing) per FRA + CPUC regulations. That makes it impossible for anyone leaving nearby to get a full night of sleep

The MV city council with a passion for "transit oriented development" has amended the city plan to authorize a great number of new housing developments facing the MV station: 213 apartments (Minton/Promotheus) + 96 homes (Classic Communities) + 51 below market units at (Franklin/Evelyn).
I wish good luck to the new residents if they expect to sleep at night With the last SB train stopping a 1:08 am and the first NB morning train showing up at 4:49 am they will get 3 1/2 hours of quiet time!

Transit oriented development is a great idea but it simply won't work if the quality of life near the track is unacceptable
You would never see anything like this in Europe (or any other large US cities) where public transportation is integrated into the infrastructure

So, Caltrain, keep the 50 years old heavy diesel trains to a minimum (peak time + week end when its needed) drop the useless night trains and start investing into technology like PTC (positive train control) at the crossings to eliminate the horn and electrification to eliminate rumbling noise and diesel fumes or else you will simply vanish into obsolescence


Posted by phm, a resident of The Crossings
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:04 pm

"The fact that trains run every half hour, almost completely empty, during the middle of the day, has to be addressed."

Actually, the current schedule reduced midday trains to once per hour. In response I stopped taking the train for errands during the day because if I miss one, I have to wait an hour. This is why eliminating runs leads to a "death spiral." If Caltrain only runs in weekday commute hours, people working other than a 9-to-5 weekday schedule or who sometimes need to leave early or stay late will stop taking Caltrain, leading to less fare income and less demand.

PS - When the trains ran every half hour, the San Antonio Station was busy with shoppers. The trains certainly weren't "almost completely empty."


Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Rex Manor
on Jan 31, 2011 at 3:41 pm

"Lean Caltrain":

I live about 500 feet from the tracks, and although I can hear the trains, I am not disturbed by the noise. Perhaps your building is not very well insulated. Ultimately, living near the tracks is a choice, and, if you are sensitive to noise, then living near the tracks was probably a bad idea. The train was here before you were, so what gives you a right to complain?

"The trains stopping in Mountain View at 10:48pm 11:48pm and 1:09am with 12 people on board got to go or Caltrain is going to loose all credibility."
I am going to be on board the train arriving at 10:48pm today, so I guess that will make 13 of us.

"You don't go back to the tax payers asking for more money when you have such blatant inefficiencies in your system."
Caltrain is not asking for more money. They are asking for the same amount of funding that they had before. If this results in a tax, you can blame that on the inefficiencies of MUNI, SamTrans, and VTA -- not on Caltrain.

"I wish good luck to the new residents if they expect to sleep at night With the last SB train stopping a 1:08 am and the first NB morning train showing up at 4:49 am they will get 3 1/2 hours of quiet time!"
These apartments will probably have good sound insulation :).

"Transit oriented development is a great idea but it simply won't work if the quality of life near the track is unacceptable"
I dunno, when I think of an "unacceptable" quality of life, I'd probably think about poverty and starvation, not an occasional annoying toot toot in the night.

"So, Caltrain, keep the 50 years old heavy diesel trains to a minimum (peak time + week end when its needed) drop the useless night trains and start investing into technology like PTC (positive train control) at the crossings to eliminate the horn and electrification to eliminate rumbling noise and diesel fumes or else you will simply vanish into obsolescence"
Caltrain wants to electrify and add PTC, but you're clearly opposed to them getting funding for it. Maybe you should just move.


Posted by Derek, a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2011 at 4:08 pm

"California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a keynote speaker, said a collapse would doom drivers to stop-and-go traffic."

Only where freeway access is priced below the market equilibrium rate!


Posted by Lean Caltrain, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jan 31, 2011 at 4:35 pm

David Bloom, If yo leave in Rex Manor you don't leave 500 feet from the MV train station! you don't get 12 horn blows every hour until 1:08 am

"The train was here before you were, so what gives you a right to complain?"
This is a bogus argument that I keep hearing from Caltrain and high speed train fan boys.
It's like complaining to your noisy neighbor only to be told "I bought the property before you did so I can make as much noise as I want".
It is the responsibility of the city council when they rezone and authorize new development near the tracks to ensure the area is livable.
It's Caltrain's responsibility to conduct proper environmental impact assessment when the rules change (like the new 2009 CPUC horn rule) or when the schedule changes and new late night trains are added. There is a reason the SJ airport is closed after 10pm!

This mentality of Caltrain at any cost is turning the 97% of peninsula residents who don't use Caltrain against it and this is what Caltrain is going to be facing if they decide to put a new tax on the ballot.


Posted by Bruce, a resident of North Whisman
on Jan 31, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Mountain View doesn't have a transportation commission. I think that Shirley Ingalls was a member of the Environmental Sustainability Task Force, not a transportation commissioner.


Posted by Andrea Gemmet, Mountain View Voice Editor
on Jan 31, 2011 at 5:23 pm

Andrea Gemmet is a registered user.

@Bruce: Good catch! It was the environmental task force, and the story has been corrected. Thanks for letting us know.


Posted by NeHi, a resident of Cuesta Park
on Jan 31, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Ahh, for a business plan that did not depend on subsidies.

And recall that the peninsula and the east bay grew up around the trains.

The peninsula was served for many years by "interurbans" which I believe were self-propelled passenger cars. Would that not be a solution for mid-day and late-night transportation.


Posted by DCS, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 1, 2011 at 9:17 am

I took the train from MV to SSF for 2 years, and there is no way in he** that it was over 95% on time, and it would take me 1.5 hrs each way. If I drove it would take 45 minutes on average. My train was always at capacity, uncomfortable, and dirty. I really never understood why Caltrain didn't make this commute a priority and givre us the newer trains, or allowed the baby bullet to stop in SSF, lots of people stop there.


Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 1, 2011 at 10:43 am

Lean Caltrain:

I live about here: Web Link
Unfortunately, it's not in any of MV-Voice's neighborhoods (see Web Link ) so I picked Rex Manor because it's kind of close. I'm sorry that my approximation offended you.

"It's Caltrain's responsibility to conduct proper environmental impact assessment when the rules change (like the new 2009 CPUC horn rule) or when the schedule changes and new late night trains are added."
Caltrain cannot control CPUC rules. In fact, they would have to perform an environmental impact report in order to *cancel* any trains if they were concerned about their noise.
Caltrain has been running the midnight southbound train for at least 10 years (see Web Link -- the earliest schedule I could find) -- how long have you lived near the tracks?

"It's like complaining to your noisy neighbor only to be told 'I bought the property before you did so I can make as much noise as I want'."
A noisy neighbor is probably breaking the law. Caltrain has legal authorization to operate its train service and has had it for 150 years. People who are considering moving next to train tracks should probably do some research on when the trains run.


Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 1, 2011 at 10:54 am

DCS:

According to Web Link (Caltrain's 2010 ridership report), South SF station is ranked 22 out of 29 in weekday passenger boardings. It has about 1/10th as many riders as Mountain View station, but receives 23 northbound trains every weekday compared to 37 for Mountain View. If anything, I'd say that it's overserved, but I agree that even the current service level

Electrification allows trains accelerate and decelerate faster, which would allow Caltrain to provide much more service to less popular stops without slowing down the schedule. I'm very excited about that because improving service quality at these less popular stations could induce much more ridership at them.


Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 1, 2011 at 11:17 am

Lean Caltrain:
sorry, google maps link screwed up in my last post.

this is my approximate location: Web Link


Posted by AC, a resident of another community
on Feb 1, 2011 at 11:23 am

AC is a registered user.

Lean Caltrain:

Just a note... BART is really bad, and honestly it needs a revamp. The tracks are non-standard width, and the electric shoe design means that only highly proprietary parts can be used for maintenance, repair, or expansion.

I think it would be great to have a uniform rail transit solution for the Bay Area, but if we're to take it on, I'd prefer to see something truly scalable, rather than going from the frying pan to the fire as it were. Investment to extend BART southward is a huge capital project, which would lock us into yet another pickle.

I wish we had the money. The time is ripe to look at this, what with the construction of the new TransBay Terminal. But we're broke. :(


Posted by Political Insider, a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 1, 2011 at 10:31 pm

The article suggested very few sensible solutions. Best one. Privatize and see if another group could figure out how to make a business run with 40,000 weekly customers. There are trains systems in other areas that make money but the current systems of funding is silly.


Posted by David Bloom, a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 2, 2011 at 8:35 am

"Political Insider":

Caltrain's operations are already contracted out. The current operator is Amtrak, but there is a competitive bidding process going on right now among 5 operators to take over the contract.

Your claim that "there are trains systems in other areas that make money but the current systems of funding is silly" is not very accurate. Acela Express is the only major passenger train service in the country with a >100% farebox recovery ratio (and even that is not enough to recoup capital costs).


Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Whisman Station
on Feb 2, 2011 at 2:41 pm

People aren't going to like this set of facts, but I will post them anyway.

First, you have to accept the fact that PUBLIC TRANSIT of any type will never turn a profit; it was and still is something that is funded by the groups of cities.....SP ( before CalTrain ) was tring to get out of the passenger business ( they moved FREIGHT, remember ) for a long time.

Second, ELECTRIFICATION of the SF/SJ peninsula is the only way to get the costs down when it comes to public transit in a heavy population corridor.

AGAIN, We voted to get BART to be a complete circle around the Bay which was the whole point of starting this " outlandish " ( at that time ) project. It was a no-brainer to expect that the SF ccommuter system would be replaced by BART....Except that certain communities HAD NO BRAINS....

The parallel between the C470/E470 road fiasco in the Denver Metro area is striking...with Golden playing the part of NIMBY Menlo Park/ Atherton...

The RTD FAST TRACK system around the Denver Metro area is an example of Public Transit Electrification DONE RIGHT ( except for Top Heavy Management ) with connections to all other systems including AMTRAK!
( look at the UNION STATION project for details ).

The bottom line is that the CalTrain R.O.W. WILL be electrified sooner or later...and hopefully sooner...because electric trains are cheaper to run...in ALL aspects.



Posted by Mike Laursen, a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm

re: "First, you have to accept the fact that PUBLIC TRANSIT of any type will never turn a profit"

I hear that over and over, but I don't buy it. First of all, it's too often used as an excuse for letting transportation agencies get away with no financial accountability. Second, there are countless examples of businesses that do make profits (and of financially stable non-profits) by providing people with something they want and need in innovative, efficient ways.


Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Whisman Station
on Feb 3, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Mike:

You have to back up your comment with FACTS.

Most of the transit systems I have used have NEVER been, or intended to be run as a BUSINESS.

The E470/North Corridor System in the Denver Metro area are TOLL ROADS that charge about $5.00 ONE WAY to use them. THAT is the closest example I have to a TRANSPORTATION AS A BUSINESS SCENARIO.

I've had to use the MTA and Mass Turnpikes ( on Cray's dime, not mine )

If you supply the COMPLETE infrastructure ( the trains and " overhead " ( pun intended )) you would be looking at DOUBLING the cost of the system at a minimum. Are you willing to shell out $15.00 ONE WAY to get to SF from SJ?

That would be what to expect if transit was run like a business.


Posted by Citizen, a resident of Cuernavaca
on Feb 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm

I read on the P.A. Weekly site that they are proposing a closure of the San Antonio Station. How will this affect to proposed redevelopment of San Antonio Shopping Center. I thought that proposal included potential new housing structures that would benefit from the nearby CalTrain access.

Also, how does this all tie in with the high-speed rails project? Is CalTrain being pushed out to make way for this project?


Posted by the_punnisher, a resident of Whisman Station
on Feb 3, 2011 at 7:52 pm

" Also, how does this all tie in with the high-speed rails project? Is CalTrain being pushed out to make way for this project? "

NOPE. The HSR Project looks like the same treatment we got for the BART extension when SP WAS WILLING TO GIVE UP THAT RAIL RIGHT OF WAY!!

I've been though all this before as a proponent of the WHOLE proposed BART system!

Mtn. View had the same ANAL ENCEPHILITUS they have today.


Posted by Mike Laursen, a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 4, 2011 at 12:22 pm

punnisher, both the statements "PUBLIC TRANSIT of any type will never turn a profit" and my expression of doubt about that are conjecture. Neither position can be proven or disproven by looking at what has happened in the past. Your position isn't a fact; it's a statement of how public transportation has always been run, typically.

To answer your specific question, I would prefer to pay $15 to ride from SF to SJ, if that were the true cost. I end up paying all these transportation subsidies, anyway, through taxes; I'd rather pay the true cost of things rather than having those costs be obscured.


Posted by Seer, a resident of Blossom Valley
on Feb 4, 2011 at 4:08 pm

It's painful to sort through the mixture of fact, conjecture and sheer misinformation on here!
- BART's equipment may be non-standard, but so is that of the NYC subway, the Washington Metro, and so on. It's non-standard for a reason, which is that "standard" heavy rail equipment doesn't perform well for inter-urban commute rail (too heavy, too slow, etc.) Even in Europe where they are experts on inter-urban rail, they keep it separate from long-haul heavy rail tracks and equipment. BART and these other systems are big enough that the economies of scale in today's automated manufacturing mean that they aren't really paying more for their equipment than if it was some kind of "standard." These are not reasons to avoid expanding BART.
- Caltrain suffers from more inefficiency than just diesel locomotives, including lack of automatic ticketing requiring conductors, lack of automatic door systems, no automated train control, and fixed-length trains. It's run just like a 19th century rail line, hardly suitable for the 21st century even if the only reason is the insane labor costs.
- A quick step to reduce the cost of night and weekend service would be to use a double-car diesel-electric commuter train set like the one being contemplated for the North Bay. Two cars and a staff of two could operate it, or maybe even a staff of one if slight station delays were built in.
- The complaints about noise stem in part from federal regulations on how trains are operated. They can't be changed easily and the comments about knowing where you buy real estate before you buy it ARE completely valid, if you are looking to buy next to the tracks.
- There is only one public transit system in the world that turns an operating profit (including debt service) and that's the airport line in Shanghai. The SHEER IDIOCY of thinking that public transit should turn a profit stems from accounting ignorance: when you take into account the ancillary economic benefits AND the alternative costs forgone, the numbers look much better. But if you only account for farebox revenues minus operating costs, you will never see the forest for the trees. The reason you can get around in Europe and Asia quickly and relatively inexpensively - as well as successfully - by public transit, has to do with cultural and historic outlooks and biases that lead those societies to do the accounting holistically, not with microscopic myopia. Claiming that farebox recovery is some sort of goal or criterion is simply a red herring for opposing public transit on spurious emotional grounds.
- While it's expensive and sad that Caltrain is empty on off-hours, numerous studies have shown that commuters won't use a system if they fear it will strand them on off-hours or curtail their freedom to vary their commute plans. So indeed, cutting weekend and especially off-hour service is a sure entry to the death-spiral.
- HSR and Caltrain have nothing to do with each other. HSR plans allow for a CalTrain (or BART or...) right-of-way alongsite (or under...) The reason is that HSR and commuter rail have different customer bases and HSR needs commuter rail as a feeder since it can't stop at stations ever few miles and still be "high speed." In Europe and Japan, HSR lines typically have commuter rail lines alongside them (with more stations, of course.)


Posted by Mike Laursen, a resident of Monta Loma
on Feb 5, 2011 at 9:19 pm

re: "Claiming that farebox recovery is some sort of goal or criterion is simply a red herring for opposing public transit on spurious emotional grounds."

I suppose that was aimed at me. I love riding Caltrain. I love trains in general. So, that's how I feel about it, emotionally. However, I try to leave my emotions out of it when looking at financial matters.

Not sure why you can't allow someone express a difference of opinion without calling them an idiot. Insecurity in your position, I suppose.


If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Palo Alto quietly gets new evening food truck market
By Elena Kadvany | 3 comments | 2,969 views

On Tour - The Highly Selective Liberal Arts Colleges: Occidental, Pitzer, and Scripps
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 1 comment | 1,804 views

See Me. Hear Me. Donít Fix Me.
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,554 views

Questions for Council Candidates--Housing
By Steve Levy | 24 comments | 1,300 views

Rock N Roll Green Beans
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 963 views