Caltrain Faces a Crowded Future

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It’s 8:39 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday as Caltrain 329 pulls into Redwood City station, four minutes late. Every seat is filled, so 18 passengers stand in the last car and vestibule alone. A crowd of backpack-wearing commuters piles off the last Baby Bullet train of the morning.

Exiting passengers wend their way through a crowd of boarders and bicycles to tag off at Clipper terminals, which beep-beep like a Roadrunner cartoon. A young woman tries to board, only to be yelled at by the conductor. “Bikes on first please—you gotta learn.”

Some exiting passengers walk to the nearby Crossing 900 office building. Others head for the line of SamTrans buses or to Sequoia Station for coffee and bagels. It’s a vibrant urban scene that helps define a new downtown.

“Think of what’s a suburb. Back in the day it was a bedroom community,” says Adina Levin, who runs the Friends of Caltrain blog. “People commuted into the center city, San Francisco. Now we have the Redwood Cities that have many more jobs than homes and are in the heart of a major metropolitan area. It’s really not a suburb anymore, and that’s a significant transition.”

Redwood City was one of only two of the 10 busiest Caltrain stations that gained passengers in this year’s ridership survey. It’s the fifth largest station (after San Francisco, Palo Alto, San Jose Diridon, and Mountain View) with an average of 4,220 midweek passengers.

Surprisingly, after a decade of rapid growth, Caltrain’s average midweek ridership dropped 2.3 percent in this year’s survey, with 63,597 midweek passengers daily (since most commuters ride home too, the number of individuals carried is around half that). Overcrowding on peak-time trains was cited as one of the biggest factors in the decline, along with price increases for monthly passes.

The rail system thinks it can triple ridership by 2040. But with trains already so overcrowded at peak hours, how could that be possible?

Sebastian Petty, a Caltrain planner, has been working on something called the Long Range Service Vision–a plan to raise capacity. It consists of three alternatives—baseline, moderate, and high-growth.

By 2040, ridership would increase to 151,700 under the baseline, 177,200 under the moderate scenario, or 207,300 under high-growth.

Caltrain’s staff preferred option is the moderate scenario, while keeping the door open to further growth. Under that plan, there would be eight trains an hour at peak hours in each direction, or one every 7.5 minutes. Four would be local, the other four express.

Let’s say a passenger is traveling from Menlo Park to San Francisco. The local train would pick her up in Menlo and travel to Redwood City, then wait for the express to pull in. She would transfer to the express, which would pull out first. The local would follow–next stop, San Carlos.

Moving from the current irregular schedule to regular intervals would make it easier to connect with SamTrans buses and employer shuttles. The longest wait time at peak hours at major stations would be 22 minutes under the baseline scenario and 12 minutes in the moderate scenario.

In addition, four high-speed rail trains per hour in each direction would share the tracks, when and if that system is completed.

The first step is already under way—$2.3 billion in improvements, primarily for electrifying the route. Caltrain expects electrification to produce a 20 percent jump in ridership.

“Currently at peak hours we can run five trains per hour in each direction. That increases to six per hour when electrification is completed in 2022,” Petty said.

Caltrain is putting up poles alongside tracks to allow electric trains to run between San Francisco and San Jose. After the project is completed, about 75 percent of the trains will be electrified. Some diesel trains will still need to run, because Caltrain doesn’t own its tracks from San Jose to Gilroy and that part of the route will not be electrified.

After 2022, at least $16.3 billion in additional investments will still be needed, mostly by partners other than Caltrain.

  • $3.3 billion to complete the San Francisco extension to the downtown Salesforce Transit Center.
  • $3.4 billion for San Jose Diridon Station improvement and integration with other systems.
  • $2.6 billion related to high-speed rail.
  • $6.9 billion for grade separations along the route.

In addition, at least $3.6 billion, and probably more, will be needed for items like additional cars, boarding improvements, and expanded storage and maintenance. The total bill under the moderate growth scenario? $25 billion, including $2.5 billion already invested.

Is all this government spending worth it? Advocates say the expansion isn’t just important to people who ride the train. It’s also needed to keep the road system from becoming even more gridlocked as the number of residents and jobs continues to grow.

“What happens to Caltrain affects any sort of transportation on the Peninsula,” said San Carlos Mayor Ron Collins, a member of the Joint Powers Board that runs the system, at a recent board meeting.

Currently, Caltrain carries the equivalent of four freeway lanes of people during peak hours. Ridership growth is expected to eliminate the need for between 4 and 8.5 additional lanes, Petty said.

The need for transportation will grow with the population of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, which is expected to be 4,620,000 in 2040, up from 3,320,000 in 2010. Most of that gain will be in a corridor within two miles of Caltrain.

Expansion also is expected to have public health benefits. Sick days would be reduced since there would be more people walking or biking the recommended 30 minutes per day to get to stations.

The environment also would benefit from the reduction of emissions by diverting auto trips and eliminating the remaining diesel train service.

Property values are also expected to rise. An analysis performed for Caltrain shows that single-family home values are 7 percent higher within one mile of a high-frequency station like Redwood City. The benefit is only 3 percent near low-frequency stations. The additional value for condos is a bit less, 2 to 6 percent.  Offices have the best return, with rents 20 percent higher within a half-mile of a train station.

Caltrain estimates its plans would raise property values $13-19 billion within a half-mile of a station, and $25-37 billion within one mile, by 2040.

The building boom around the Redwood City station makes the desirability clear.

Large projects are planned, like the Greystar Real Estate proposal for a six-block area on El Camino Real and Main Street near the train tracks. The site was formerly occupied by Towne Ford, Hopkins Acura, and other businesses. The plan calls for 291 apartments and 550,143 square feet of office space.

In August, a proposal by the Los Angeles-based real estate company Lowe Enterprises surfaced to redevelop Sequoia Station, including building housing and offices and revamping the core Safeway and CVS stores.

“There’s tons of transit-oriented development all along El Camino. When somebody’s proposing development within half-mile of a train station or good bus service, a lot of those folks will be able to take the train for some or all of their trips,” said Adrian Brandt, a lifelong area resident and transit advocate.

Some form of rail has been on the Peninsula since 1863. Redwood City and Palo Alto grew up around it and have substantial downtowns nearby. That’s unlike, say, Sunnyvale, which didn’t take shape until the post-World War II auto boom and isn’t oriented toward the train, Brandt said.

Why is Redwood City so important? Levin, who manages the Friends of Caltrain blog and frequently testifies at public hearings, says one reason is because of its central location between San Francisco and San Jose.

“Geometrically, they found from analysis they would need passing infrastructure in Redwood City because of in the middle of the line, a fast train could pass a slow train,” she said.

That would mean expanding the station to accommodate four tracks, with four platform faces, something that could be accomplished with two island platforms. The moderate growth scenario calls for a set of new passing tracks in Redwood City, while the high-growth scenario would extend them from Redwood City to Hayward Park.

There are already passing tracks at Bayshore and Lawrence, and more will be needed in higher-growth scenarios, including northern Santa Clara County.

Grade Separations: The California Public Utilities Commission requires that four-track rail lines are separated from roads, because of the danger. San Mateo County has 42 places where the tracks still cross streets at grade, snarling traffic and creating a safety hazard. Currently, 18 separations are being studied, Petty said.

Redwood City alone has six remaining grade crossings (Fifth Avenue, Woodside Road and Jefferson Avenue are already separated). Whipple Avenue, Brewster Avenue, and Broadway, north of the station, could require grade separations as part of the four-track expansion. Maple, Main, and Chestnut, south of the station, are less affected.

The city’s transportation plan calls for studying all six grade separations, with the northern three  getting higher priority scores.

The biggest problem is at Whipple. According to a city report, the intersection has average daily traffic volume of 16,000 vehicles. It is regularly congested at commute times around the tracks and El Camino Real, and additional Caltrain service will make it even worse.

In a community survey, a Whipple grade separation was viewed as the second most desirable transportation project after improvements to the Woodside-Highway 101 interchange, with votes by 60 percent of the 100 respondents.

The city is spending $850,000 (mostly through a SamTrans grant) to study alternatives. A simple grade separation at Whipple would cost an estimated $150-300 million in 2009 dollars. An alternative that would fully elevate the railroad between Whipple and Maple, permanently closing Marshall Street, would cost roughly $500 million, while fully depressing the railroad between Whipple and Marshall would cost even more.

Dumbarton Corridor: Another reason why the Redwood City station is so vital is that it’s the likely connection point if cross-bay train service resumes on the Dumbarton Corridor. Train service began from Newark in 1910 and freight service ran until 1982, according to Carter Mau, Caltrain deputy general manager.

However, the old wooden trestle was severely damaged by a fire in 1998. Studies are under way for whether a completely new bridge would be needed.

With Facebook looking for new ways to bring employees to its Menlo Park campus near the rail line, “there appears to be a market for re-establishing service,” Mau said. Facebook and the infrastructure developer Plenary Group are currently conducting a feasibility study under an agreement with SamTrans.

Besides Redwood City and near Facebook, possible stops are at Marsh Road and in North Fair Oaks.

On the East Bay side, Dumbarton rail could be extended from Newark to Union City, potentially connecting with BART, Capitol Corridor from Sacramento, and ACE service over the Altamont Pass to the Central Valley.

Redwood City would need a larger station if Dumbarton rail becomes a reality, Brandt said. Because of limited space due to the big-box stores at Sequoia Station, one possibility would be to move it north, even past Broadway.

High-speed rail: With long delays, no clear source of adequate financing, and the Trump administration pulling back nearly $1 billion in funds, the future of high-speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles is in doubt.

Strong Towns blogger Daniel Herriges likened it to the unknown status of the cat in the uncertainty principle for radioactive emissions.

“Physicists studying politically-radioactive emissions from California have stumbled upon the strange case of Schrödinger’s Train. Is it alive? Is it dead? Who knows; let’s ask an observer.”

Caltrain’s plan forecasts two trains per hour in each direction to a completed segment in the Central Valley by 2029, and four per hour all the way to Los Angeles sometime after that. From San Jose, the route would run through Stockton, Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield.

Southern California Democrats in the Legislature have been talking about diverting funds from the Central Valley segment to rail projects in the more populous Los Angeles and Bay Area, which could mean more money for Caltrain’s own projects.

Still, Caltrain assumes eventually the system will be completed. “If high-speed rail is delayed, it could be 2050 instead of 2040,” Petty said.

Redwood City isn’t currently on the list of high-speed rail stations (the nearest would be Millbrae and San Jose), but Brandt is hopeful. “If high-speed rail ever gets here, there’s no reason why someday in the future Redwood City couldn’t be a station.”

San Francisco extension: One reason more commuters don’t take Caltrain is the location of the main San Francisco station at Fourth and King streets.

The booming area around the station is no longer a sketchy mess and is well-situated for sports fans, near the Giants’ Oracle Park and the Warriors’ new home at Chase Center. But it’s bad for most commuters, who face an eight-block walk or slow Muni ride to the heart of downtown and the bus and BART connections at Mission and Market streets.

Plans are under way to extend the line to the new Salesforce Transit Center south of Mission Street between Beale and Second streets, which ultimately will be the hub for 11 transit systems. When the extension is complete, expected in 2029, Caltrain sees its ridership jumping 25 percent.

The extension is currently in the early design phase. The total cost is $3.9 billion, but the project faces a significant funding gap that will have to be resolved through a mixture of federal, state, regional, local and private sources, according to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

At the other end of the line, a project to upgrade the San Jose Diridon Station (near SAP Center) is in the design and study phase. At some point, BART and high-speed rail will join Caltrain, buses, and light rail at the San Jose hub.  Caltrain will fill the gap BART leaves between Millbrae and San Jose.

City’s Plan: RWCmoves, the city’s transportation plan, makes public transit an important part of its focus on reducing traffic congestion.

Its goals include eliminating traffic fatalities and severe injuries by 2030 and having non-driving modes account for 50 percent of all trips in the city by 2040.

According to the plan, Caltrain ridership in the city rose 73 percent between 2006 and 2015, from 1,840 to 3,240, the plan says. Only 5 percent of residents take public transit to work, but 20 percent are interested. Shuttle ridership is over 2,500 a month and over 10 percent of respondents say they’d be interested in taking shuttles.

Transit already accounts for 36 percent of the city’s downtown office commutes, compared to only 13 percent in suburban office parks, according to the plan. Three-quarters of the office park commuters drive, compared to less than half of those downtown.

“The point is that people in the downtown area drive significantly less,” Levin said. “Based on this information, the city has updated the plan for future development downtown such that only a third of the people in the buildings drive.”

The city’s separate Downtown Precise Plan calls for 2,500 market-rate housing units and 375 affordable-housing units in a 183-acre area, mostly within a quarter-mile of Caltrain and easily walkable.

Financing: Caltrain is owned by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Authority, consisting of the transit agencies of San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. It does not have a dedicated funding source, but receives about $30 million in annual subsidies from the counties.

The subsidy changes from year to year according to the financial condition of the agencies. Caltrain does not receive money from the sales tax measures that have been passed in the counties.

“Every year they’re always scrounging to keep the system going and improve service. It’s a bare-bones thing,” Brandt said. “They need a dedicated funding source such as every other system has.”

A 2017 study showed Caltrain had the highest farebox recovery ratio of any rail-based system in the country, at 70 percent, compared to 54 percent for New York’s Long Island Railroad. That’s partly because commuters move in both directions, reducing empty return trips.

Still, even under optimistic scenarios, the system will require subsidies.

In 2017, the Legislature passed S.B. 797, allowing the Joint Powers Board to levy a sales tax of one-eighth cent to finance Caltrain operations and capital expenses. The tax could only be imposed if the board placed it on the ballot and it was approved by two-thirds of voters in all three counties. It would bring in about $100 million a year.

The Joint Powers Board has been studying whether to put the tax on the ballot in either March or November 2020. A study the board commissioned by EMC Research showed 64 percent support among likely voters in the three counties, close to the two-thirds required.

“There is significant interest from the community in improving Caltrain, particularly as a way to relieve traffic congestion and speed travel along the Peninsula,” the study found. “While it’s not quite at the required two-thirds support today, with the right environment and effort a sales tax measure for Caltrain may be feasible in 2020.”

Support was at the two-thirds level in San Mateo and San Francisco counties, but only 61 percent in Santa Clara, showing a potential problem. “A lot of Santa Clara doesn’t know about Caltrain,” Brandt said.

Another possibility is a nine-county vote on a regional transportation sales tax, under what’s called the Faster Bay Area plan. Caltrain, BART and ferry service would all get money to improve service and connections.

“We’re talking with proponents and stakeholders on both fronts to help determine the best path forward for providing Caltrain with a dedicated funding source that will help implement our service vision,” said Caltrain public affairs specialist Dan Lieberman.

While maximum speed of trains is expected to improve from 79 mph to 110 mph, actual travel times won’t get all that much shorter, because of higher usage of the tracks and the continued existence of some two-track segments, limiting passing.

Under the baseline scenario, the ride from San Francisco to San Jose would take 69 to 73 minutes, about the same as today’s Baby Bullets. That would decrease to 61 minutes under the moderate scenario. The good news is that the longest ride from Redwood City is little more than half that.

Caltrain’s board of directors is hoping to adopt its service vision in October. More information is available at .

This story was originally published in the September print edition of Climate Magazine.