Recently a Mr. Stanford M. Horn posted an opinion blog in the San Francisco Examiner‘s guest column section online. Mr. Horn wants to see more frequent service on the San Francisco Peninsula and Caltrain agrees. But the details are in the execution. With Caltrain Modernization, which the agency is rapidly moving towards, we will operate faster and/or more frequent service to more stations along the Peninsula. Electrification allows Caltrain to run up to 6 trains per hour in each direction.
But let’s look at what Caltrain is doing today and what it can do between now and 2019, when the system hopes to roll out electrification. While Mr. Horn is correct that Caltrain cut service during the low point of the recession in 2008, when systems across the Bay Area were experiencing budget shortfalls and ridership losses, what he fails to point out is that Caltrain added 6 trains back to the schedule as recently as 2012 to accomodate the ridership boom the system has experienced in recent years.
During Caltrain’s peak commute hours, the system runs up to 5 trains per hour. Those trains, a mix of Baby Bullets and limited stops, are generally at capacity and frequently standing room only. In fact, the demand for increased capacity during the commute far outweighs the call for additional off-peak capacity. As an agency with an ongoing structural deficit and no dedicated funding source, Caltrain must make choices about where to invest its precious dollars. Even its most heavily ridden trains don’t break even. Currently, revenue collected through fares covers about 60 percent of the cost of operating the service. Every additional train adds to that deficit.
Electrification will reduce the cost of operating the service, by eliminating the cost of fuel. But until then, the agency is focused on adding capacity where it is most needed, in the peak of the commute. To do that, we are purchasing and leasing additional equipment to run longer trains. This will allow the system to carry more riders when the demand is greatest.
Adding service during the midday and later in the evening is a goal that we aspire towards. But it will be within reach once the system has been modernized. Even then, Caltrain will have to factor the labor costs and equipment availability into the equation when adding off-peak service. While it may be true that if you add it MORE will come, the question for an agency without a dedicated funding source is: If we add it will ENOUGH come?
Feel free to contact Jayme Ackemann, Caltrain’s Communications Manager, via Twitter @JaymeAckemann.