The Structural Deficiencies of Caltrain

Caltrain is one of the few commuter rail-type services in the United States that attains significant ridership over a short length. For comparison’s sake, look at Caltrain and Metrolink in Southern California. Metrolink has over 500 track miles, yet only has a few thousand more daily riders than Caltrain, with its 70 track miles. Caltrain’s remarkable effectiveness is due to its alignment along the San Francisco Peninsula, a dense urban-suburban area with high volume transfer points on either end of the line, San Francisco and San Jose. The Peninsula Corridor (as Caltrain’s alignment is known) was scheduled for a BART line from San Francisco to Palo Alto until San Mateo County defected from the BART district in the 1960’s. Despite the lack of a BART line, and perhaps because of it (and the express service the commuter rail mode allows), the Peninsula Corridor’s demand and land use around stations justify a fully grade separated, electrified, rapid transit line. This vision is nearer to reality than ever before with the California High Speed Rail Program potentially providing funding to electrify and quadruple track the Peninsula Corridor between Tamien in San Jose and a new terminus at the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco.

Still, Caltrain is cutting service and raising fares faster than any other transit agency in the Bay Area. This is due to the structural deficiency that is built into the agency’s operations as a joint powers authority. Instead of a special district, like BART or AC Transit, Caltrain is a joint powers agency, a government corporation that is controlled directly through other government agencies. The joint powers in Caltrain’s case are the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. These agencies fund Caltrain’s operation through grants of there operational funds. Instead of sustenance through a levy like BART and AC Transit, Caltrain is inherently dependent on the contributions of SFMTA, SamTrans and VTA. All three of these agencies have no set amount and give as much to Caltrain as they please. For this reason, the recent budget cuts at SFMTA, SamTrans and VTA have hit Caltrain harder than the transit agencies’ operations themselves. This deficiency is structural: Caltrain’s level of service is inherently dictated by the whims of other government agencies, rather than through taxes and public discussion.

A solution? Consolidation of the governance of BART and Caltrain into a single agency. A single operating agency for all regional rail in the 9 county Bay Area would allow operational synergies (collective purchases, consolidation of departments) and more importantly, give Caltrain a dedicated source of revenue like BART. Without that revenue, Caltrain’s level of service will continue to depend on inconsistent funding from other public agencies that are nearly bankrupt themselves. The Bay Area cannot allow this critical regional rail link between San Francisco and San Jose fall into budget hell. Consolidation is the key.


About Karl Tingwald

Civil engineering student at the University of Southern California with a severe transportation compulsion.

Posted on October 19, 2010, in San Francisco Bay Area. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I have a naive question. Why don’t transit fares cover operating costs? Obviously many riders are low income and thus may need subsidies, but are other riders unwilling to pay the real cost of the service. If so, are they being economically irrational (ie, the actual cost of the non-transit alternative is higher) or is the service really not worth what it costs?

    Being a big advocate for mass transit, I’ve often dreamed that, setting aside capital costs (which taxes could help cover), it would be profitable.

  2. Kelley,

    Public transport in the United States is not profitable for several reasons. First of all, the cost of driving is highly subsidized, so transit must be priced lower than a profitable margin in order to be competitive.

    Also, transit needs subsidies because its cost does not reflect the public goods it provides: less air pollution, less carbon emissions, and better land use. These costs do not have a dollar value in the free market, so their costs are not reflected in the price of transit, driving and subsidies for both. See this article of mine for the reasons that transportation as a good is wildly under priced. Indeed, modern society is based on low-cost transportation which is not linked to a free market price due to excessive government intervention.

    • Thanks for the reply,

      Two questions. Regarding the operating costs of buses, don’t the subsidies (and fuel price externalities) for cars help them too. (In fact, are natural gas buses paying fuel taxes?) Its hard to see that a full bus is a more expensive way to move people than cars. Does the need to run less than full buses for the sake of wide coverage account for the difference?

      Regarding commuter trains, its still hard to understand why they can’t return they’re operating costs. They ought to run full, and its hard to see that a full train can’t move people more cheaply than individual cars (think higher insurance costs, wear and tear). Artificially low fuel prices help diesel fueled trains as well as cars. Aren’t freight trains cheeper than long hall trucks? Though subsidies for roads are irrelevant to the issue of operating costs (vs. capital costs), rail road construction was also subsidized.

      That 20% number for LA Metro is just so depressing! Returning your operating costs is a very low expectation. People on Wall Street joke that since deregulation the airline business has failed to return its cost of capital….

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