Concept art for electrified EMUs.
Concept art for electrified EMUs.

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.


  1. 60% of farebox recovery means one round trip between SF-SJ with average ridership covers 60% of its operating cost. This means train with 1.67 time or more ridership should be break even or generate profit. Is it correct statement that you say: “Even its most heavily ridden trains don’t break even.” ?

  2. The majority of our trains run well under 100% capacity. So to isolate a few peak hour trains as ‘profitable’ isn’t possible as they are part of a larger system. Every peak hour train turns to become another off-peak train before the crew completes their shift, which means that the total cost of fuel and labor for any train is amortized over the entire period it is in operation, not just the single one-way trip most riders experience.

    Even our busiest peak hour trains leaving San Francisco at capacity will see dwindling ridership as they approach San Jose. Riders disembark at Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale in great numbers. The average Caltrain rider travels just over 20 miles a ride, meaning most passengers aren’t paying full fare from San Jose to San Francisco and no southbound train ever arrives in San Jose at 100% capacity. Similarly, no train ever leaves San Jose at capacity. This means that while there may be times when it seems the train is straining at capacity, most of those riders are traveling for shorter durations on less expensive tickets. Factor in the large pool of monthly riders, who receive significant discounts on the price of a one-way ticket, and Go Pass riders, whose companies pay a heavily discounted flat rate for their trip and even on a full train you are not realizing the full cost of the service for any given trip.

  3. Thank you for reply to my comment. It is true, add one more set of trainset/crew will increases operating cost. What Caltrain can do, is reduce turn around time and run more train with existing operating resources.
    For example, train 329 (#1 busiest NB) depart from Tamien 7:56 but trainset arrived in Tamien 7:05 AM as train #105. (51 minutes turn aruond time!) There are several trains whichare idling at terminal because of long turn around time even in peak period,
    Majority of current timetable is created in 2005 when Caltrain have only 30000 weekday ridership and many hold-out stations. Increasing ridership and only 2 hold-out station (SSF and colledge park), Caltrain can make better timetable with more frequent service but same operating expense. (beside fuel)

  4. Whats the plan for the Gilroy extension? I ride from Morgan Hill to Redwood City everyday. I believe these tracks are owned by Union Pacific and wouldn’t be part of electrification right?. I know more and more people are moving to the south county area due to increased costs in SJ, the penninsula etc. Is there a possibility of more trains and frequency long term in this area?

    On the other end of the coin, a few years back there was talk about eliminating trains from the extension. Please tell me Caltrain would never consider this given the improvements in ridership…

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