It’s Time to Think Bigger About the Future of Caltrain

Old and new trains at the Caltrain station in San Francisco. Photo by Sergio Ruiz for SPUR.

As Silicon Valley’s economy and population continue to grow, the Peninsula is in dire need of transportation solutions. Caltrain has the potential to provide the type of frequent, all-day transit service that greatly reduces the need to drive, serves more people and connects communities and employment centers. Caltrain could provide the spine of a frequent, reliable metropolitan transportation network that would seamlessly connect people and places.

To achieve its potential, Caltrain will need new investment and a stable source of funds for operating and maintaining an improved system. But additional investments alone won’t be enough. Caltrain will need to reform the way it is governed and expand its capacity to run a railroad that meets the needs of the future.

Caltrain is now finishing up its first-ever business plan to determine how much service it should provide in the future. The business plan answers two questions:

1. How much service can and should Caltrain provide on the Peninsula in the future? 

2. How might Caltrain’s governance and organizational structure need to change to provide that service? 

SPUR strongly recommends that the Caltrain Board adopt a bold long-term vision to run trains at least every 4 minutes during commute times and every 8 minutes all day long (14 or more trains per hour). Of the three scenarios studied in the business plan, this is the only one that will deliver the capacity the Peninsula needs and enable the creation of a truly integrated regional rail network.

The business plan also includes an organizational assessment that identifies ways that Caltrain will need to change its service delivery model and how its staff and board of directors can work better together. It also sketches out some “parallel moves” that Caltrain cannot make on its own and that will require actions from other agencies in the region.

To deliver on this service vision, the next steps must also include a process to develop a bigger organizational vision. One that enables Caltrain to deliver improved services and adapt to the challenges it will face.

Caltrain already knows there is danger in doing nothing. But there is also danger in setting sights too low or making hasty decisions. Settling for an expedient solution now could cause Caltrain to become even more financially volatile (see more on this below) or could prevent the agency from growing its service in the future. Those who bear the consequences will be the 65,000 people who depend on Caltrain every day, and future generations who will need to live in a world with a warming climate.

Now is the time to think bigger about Caltrain’s organizational structure. The agency as it exists today emerged when San Mateo, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties bought the rail right of way from the state in 1987, about a decade after Southern Pacific stopped providing passenger service. This was a good decision that helped Silicon Valley become what it is today. But 30 years later, the needs of the counties and the region are different. As a small, commuter-focused railroad, Caltrain has been able to squeeze by without a dedicated source of funding, relying only on a mix of grants, fares and contributions from its three owners, who manage the railroad through a government structure called a joint powers authority. But that won’t do if Caltrain is going to transform to offer outstanding rail service.

SPUR recommends that Caltrain develop a bold organizational vision that matches the scale of its bold long-term vision for greater service.

Organizational Vision

Through the business plan process, Caltrain’s owners will adopt their first shared, long-range vision for providing services. We encourage Caltrain to similarly adopt a shared, long-range vision for governance that will achieve the following goals:

1. Reduce Caltrain’s financial volatility by securing a dedicated source of funding.

2. Put the needs of riders first.

3. Deliver frequent, coordinated and seamless service.

4. Serve a larger and more diverse ridership.

5. Create the backbone for a more integrated megaregional network.

6. Make Caltrain stations the anchors of great, transit-friendly neighborhoods.

7. Build capital projects quickly and cost-effectively.

A process to develop an organizational vision should answer the following questions:

  • How can the organization become more financially secure? The current joint powers authority structure creates volatility and will make it hard for Caltrain to grow into the organization it needs to become to achieve a higher service vision.
  • What type of institution can put the needs of riders first? Without a dedicated source of revenue, the current joint powers authority structure simply reinforces divisions between the three counties, instead of unifying them around a single constituency: riders.
  • Who will plan, deliver and manage the many megaprojects that are needed on this corridor? These include the extension of Caltrain into downtown San Francisco, the redevelopment of Diridon Station, a Dumbarton rail crossing, a regional rail hub in Redwood City and putting train tracks either above or below streets where crossings currently pose safety conflicts.
  • What needs to be done to integrate rail systems across the Bay Area and Northern California? For example, if new standard gauge tracks are built on the Dumbarton Bridge or as part of a new transbay crossing, should other services be able to operate on Caltrain’s tracks?
  • How can the Bay Area build transit-friendly neighborhoods around Caltrain stations?

We encourage the Caltrain Board of Directors to commit to a process that will evaluate options for a much larger evolution of the organization, engaging other transit agencies as well as stakeholders and decision makers at the regional and state levels.

How Should the New Caltrain be Governed?

Some options could include:

  • Remain a joint powers authority but with a dedicated source of revenue.
  • Become an independent special district. The special district could be designed to raise revenues, have greater control over the use of its own land and have a stronger infrastructure delivery branch. This would work much like a “corridor manager” or historical rail operator in many European countries.
  • Merge staff with BART but retain a separate operator and separate board of directors. This is similar to how Capitol Corridor runs and could create significant operational efficiencies.
  • Fully merge with BART and Capitol Corridor to create a consolidated Bay Area Rail District. This could create one simple brand for high-capacity, high-frequency rail in the urban core of the Bay Area.

Any of these solutions would only address Caltrain’s governance and financial issues — none would guarantee a seamless, easy-to-use regional network. The Caltrain Board of Directors should take this opportunity to lead the regional conversation on bold moves such as:

  • Establishing a megaproject delivery organization so that projects are delivered quickly and cost-effectively.
  • Empowering a regional transit coordinator that can coordinate fares, schedules, wayfinding and branding so that local transit and rail connect seamlessly.
  • Expanding the planning and financing tools needed to spur economic development, affordable housing and compact growth in station areas.
  • Monetizing stations so that they are revenue-generating public assets.

Now is the time to think bigger about what Caltrain will need in order to succeed. Adapting Caltrain’s organization and governance model would set it up to face its challenges with eyes wide open, ready to enter into a new era.

Read SPUR's letter to Caltrain >>