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August 24, 2010


pat giorni

Anson Bgame,
If you are unable to voice these good ideas, or any others at the
Caltrain/JPB public hearing on the proposed fare increases and service reductions at 10 a.m., Thursday, Sept. 2, at the Caltrain Administrative Office, 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos then an send e-mail to [email protected], send regular mail to District Secretary, Caltrain, P.O. Box 3006, San Carlos, CA 94070-1306, or call 1.800.660.4287 (TDD for hearing impaired only 650.508.6448).

Ron Fulderon

I'm curious if Caltrain actually went bankrupt what would that do to their retirement pension obligations?

Has anyone seen their budget broken down to know what percentage of their revenue is used for servicing that category? I have not.

pat giorni

Although I don't know what the pension obligations are, I think only Administrative Staff is covered as most of the work, conductors, maintenence,security, etc is contracted out to Amtrak,County Sherrifs Dep'ts, etc. Whatever questions you have, email Mark Simon, Chief Info Officer at: [email protected]

pat giorni


Caltrain low on financial fuel


I’m getting used to seeing artists’ renditions of new commuter trains fronted by gleaming, streamlined, jet-like locomotives, especially the trains depicted by the high-speed rail people. But the plainwrapper fact of the matter is that just keeping our under-100 miles-per-hour, unexciting, present- day commuter trains running is the real game. Caltrain, the rail commuter service connecting Gilroy and San Jose to San Francisco, is coming up against the same problem that public schools, municipalities and the state are encountering — elusive funding.

Started in 1863 as a privately run passenger railroad, and later operated by the old Southern Pacific Railroad, Caltrain fully came into its own in 1992 when it purchased the tracks and right-ofway between San Francisco and San Jose and hired Amtrak to staff the trains. Like the stock market, Caltrain’s ridership has its ups and downs. The average number of weekday rides rose to 36,000 in 2001, fell to 26,000 by 2004, and rebounded to 39,000 in 2009. Now ridership is falling again.

This fiscal year, which began July 1, Caltrain expects a deficit of $2.3 million. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 2011-12 fiscal year, when a deficit of $30 million is projected. As they say, something’s gotta be done.

The alternative is unacceptable.

If Caltrain went out of business, one estimate has it that highways 101 and 280 would require 2½ extra lanes to handle 19,000 more vehicles. Bus lines and BART’s Peninsula segment would likely be swamped. And commuters’ wallets would get hit because, for example, 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. Caltrain hasn’t been that badly run. Its ridership hasn’t fallen as much as some other transit systems during the recession and its fares cover nearly half of its expenses, much better than the 20 percent that bus fares usually cover.

To deal with less revenue, Caltrain must either raise fares and/or reduce service. To its credit, the carrier has solicited public input on its options. At this point, midday trains appear to be the first service that will be cut, probably followed by some evening trains and the Gilroy-San Jose segment. Many in Gilroy who would hate to see that happen.

And even though Caltrain fares were raised just last year, there’s a proposal on the table to raise either the basic fare or zone add-on fares by 25 cents. I expect Caltrain is such a good deal that most riders won’t stop using the train because of such an increase.

There’s a big push now to find more reliable funding for Caltrain.

It is the only major Bay Area transit system that isn’t funded through regular tax streams, with the exception of the Golden Gate Transit District. BART, VTA and SamTrans are all funded in part by sales taxes, and AC Transit by parcel taxes in East Bay counties.

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 40 percent of its revenues from those partners. But SamTrans, which in the past helped subsidize Caltrain, has decided it can no longer do so.

Meanwhile, Caltrain’s other transportation partners, facing their own financial challenges, are lowering their contributions.

So, expect a drive to find a reliable tax base to keep Caltrain running.

Caltrain has been planning to electrify its entire system for over a decade, but that’s very much on hold until flush times return.

Also, Caltrain has been partnering with the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA), hoping that the authority can land the big bucks to build its shared railroad corridor down the Peninsula and consequently help pay for a shared electric power network. Trouble is, high-speed rail is running into financial roadblocks of its own.

One possible answer to Caltrain’s problems is to remove it from the maze of bureaucracies that have a say in how it’s run, and make it an entirely independent transit system, perhaps funded by a special taxation district covering the Peninsula and South Bay.

It would no longer be SamTrans’ stepchild and have to depend on other transit agencies for funding.

It would no longer be managed and staffed by employees who also work for SamTrans and be governed by a joint powers board that doesn’t truly represent all the cities along its route.

There are overpaid employees at SamTrans/Caltrain, which doesn’t look good when rail service is about to be cut. SamTrans CEO Mike Scanlon is paid $268,600 per year (excluding benefits) for managing 664 employees, while the general manager of the Sacramento Regional Transit (which also has rail and bus operations and 1,088 employees) earns only $175,000.

Mark Simon, SamTrans’ top PR person, is paid $150,000 per year, while the top public and legislative affairs manager at 211,000-employee Caltrans (also known as the state Department of Transportation) only earns $108,000. A government- corporation employee of my acquaintance who’s responsible for PR for most of Northern California (where his agency employs 18,000 people), earns approximately $100,000.

Caltrain has the chance to reduce its operating expenses as its contract for train staffing with Amtrak ends. This time around, more companies are likely to compete to win the contract. And if BART can operate without conductors, Caltrain should be able to as well.

It’s time for Caltrain to evolve even further. Its riders love it, and they’re determined to keep it viable.

Bil Paul’s columns run on Thursdays. Reach him at [email protected].

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