Caltrain board member calls for regional rail system

Improved coordination between transit agencies will be key to Bay Area’s recovery, officials agree

Could the Bay Area transit network’s future include some regional rail integration between Caltrain and BART?

That was the idea floated by Director Steve Heminger at the Jan. 7 Caltrain board meeting.

Heminger, who represents San Francisco on the Caltrain Joint Powers Authority board, suggested “some kind of regional rail enterprise centered around BART and Caltrain” be considered. The proposal would enhance efficiency, improve reliability and more seamlessly connect the largely disparate 27 Bay Area transit agencies, a long sought-after goal historically hindered by tensions between individual operators reluctant to give up control over service, fares and frequency, Heminger suggested.

Officials, riders and advocates largely agree it’s currently too cumbersome, costly and time-consuming to navigate the region’s transportation network.

Ideas about a more connected, perhaps even unified, regional transit system are not new, nor are they simple.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the body that coordinates transportation policy among the nine counties, has now made the task of enhancing coordination between agencies a central part of its efforts to restore ridership and stimulate recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.

Heminger’s comments followed a staff presentation updating the Caltrain board on the Blue Ribbon Recovery Task Force, created by the MTC earlier this summer to bring agency executives and other stakeholders together on a weekly basis to navigate the pandemic, and its efforts to develop a number of models for coordinated transit.

The Task Force will make recommendations likely to be folded into a legislative proposal spearheaded by Assemblymember David Chiu, who introduced the Seamless Transit Act in February 2020 but later sidelined it due to the more emergent slate of bills made necessary by COVID-19.

One recommendation being considered by MTC would be to create a federation of transit managers that, in some ways, emulates the structure of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, bringing together agency executives to make decisions about integration and further the functionality of a regional network.

Heminger pointed out a drawback of this approach: the body wouldn’t be made up of final “decision makers” at any of the Bay Area transit agencies. That power, he pointed out, is largely left to board members, not general managers.

An enterprise between Caltrain and BART, by contrast, could capitalize on the existing synergy between the two that goes beyond their shared modality of rail, according to Heminger. Both agencies share an existing major connection at Millbrae Station, and BART already runs operations in the three counties served by Caltrain.

Together, these make for a “set of relevant facts for our governance conversation,” Heminger said. “I think it’s an option we ought to consider.”

Heminger asked the concept be included as part of a future workshop on regional governance.

Caltrain’s ridership has hovered at around 95 percent below its pre-pandemic levels, with many of the passengers continuing to rely on the railroad considered essential workers. Attempts to minimize delays and improve connections with other operators even without a more system-wide coordination effort have already been a focal point for Caltrain in order to reduce the burden on these riders.

Caltrain Executive Director Jim Hartnett reminded the board on Jan. 7 that the agency had adjusted its schedules the month prior in order to synchronize its trains with BART, and he added there’s been closer cooperation with Muni at San Francisco’s 4th and King station as well as attempts to fill service gaps that Muni can no longer provide.

BART Spokesperson Alicia Trost confirmed “enhanced coordination” is “currently underway.”

“It is exciting to hear ideas about how we can deliver customer-focused rail service. Caltrain and BART both stand to benefit from greater coordination, and we will continue to explore options as we work with all local agencies to establish a Transit Network Management Board,” she said.

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