Wednesday, June 29, 2011

With Friends Such As "Friends of Caltrain," Who Needs Enemies?

Note the complete circumnavigation of the Bay Area with BART, Caltrain (the yellow line on the Peninsula) and the Capital Corridor line from Fremont to San Jose.  All three should be folded into one continuous, state-level organization. What we're talking about mostly in this blog is that yellow Caltrain line.

For those few of you in America who still don't know, Caltrain is the  commuter train that runs the 50 miles from San Francisco to San Jose.  They have a permanent annual fiscal crisis, declaring a "financial emergency" each year. 

And after getting the entire Peninsula all riled up, they manage to resolve their operating deficit for yet another year.  Isn't this the story of the boy who cried WOLF too often?  Except in this case, I wish the wolf would finally appear and swallow Caltrain up.

There are a small number of Caltrain entries on this blog.  I'd really rather not be bothered with Caltrain, since they're a distraction from the real big-time issue of High-Speed Rail.  But, again I have to make an exception here.

The "Friends of Caltrain" are a bunch of Peninsula do-gooders who secretly love high-speed rail on the Peninsula. They think that helping Caltrain will get them the HSR they want and under their particular conditions.  How naive that is!

And, Caltrain wants HSR on their rail corridor so that HSR can buy them all the capital development goodies they lust after, such as electrification and grade separations.  They don't need them, you understand, but being old white railroad  guys, they are fixated on the macho-glamour of hardware upgrades.  Operating deficits, after all, are boring.

Where am I going with this story?  Be patient, we'll get there.  I just received one of the "Friends of Caltrain" notices talking about the Dumbarton Rail debacle.  Dumbarton Rail is another ambitious Caltrain empire building intention, seeking to cross the Bay with their trains and heading into BART territory on the East Bay.  It's totally unnecessary.  Ironically and without realizing this, the "Friends of Caltrain" email notice makes that very point:
At a Dumbarton Rail Policy Advisory Committee meeting last Friday, committee members discussed a plan to increase the amount of bus service across the Dumbarton bridge, connecting Bart and Caltrain. The bus service would be supported by funds from by Regional Measure 2, approved by voters in 2004 to pay for a rail line across the Dumbarton bridge. The Dumbarton Rail project has stalled, but buses crossing the Bay have been increasingly popular. The goal of the increased bus service would be to build ridership for a train service.

They appear to be trying to scratch their left ear with their right hand. They don't have to.  The obvious alternative to a Caltrain railroad crossing the Bay near the Dumbarton Bridge, is a BRT, bus-rapid-transit system using the existing Dumbarton Bridge to carry Bay crossers back and forth. The current bus line can be a precursor to such a bus improvement to BRT.  But, of course, that won't give Caltrain a new tentacle across the Bay.

One bad thing about Caltrain choo-choos crossing the Bay is that they require a multi-billion brand new, seismically up to date rail bridge.  The "Friends of Caltrain" and the Dumbarton Rail committee survivors don't ever talk about that. Maybe because such a bridge would price out at well over $4 billion. 

But, that's still not my point here.  Caltrain, it should be obvious by now, is as badly managed as the California High-Speed Rail Authority.  They are top-heavy and over-salaried. It's an unaccountable management that should be terminated.  

The map of the Bay Area shows where BART now runs, and where Caltrain runs on the Peninsula.  Both organizations could be folded within the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Board to complete the circle, which would then operate at the state, not county level.  That way, there is a rail commuter "spine" that goes clear around the Bay, as it should. 

Caltrain's hardware upgrades can successfully be far more modest than now projected by them.  A good personnel house-cleaning is in order.  Both organizations, the "former" Caltrain,  BART and Capital Corridor would have tight, cooperative linkages at their inter-face terminals.  The annually deficient operating subsidies would not have to be begged from other commuter operators, but would be stabilized at the state level. 

So, as far as I can see, the biggest problem with Caltrain now is that the "Friends of Caltrain" can't see or think outside the Caltrain box.  Such shortsightedness will cost all of us more in taxes even as we get ever less service at ever greater cost.

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