Since 2004, Caltrain’s ridership has taken off like a runaway train.
Now, fifteen years later, the agency’s booming growth has finally leveled off — and that could be bad news for Peninsula commuters.
That’s according to Caltrain itself, which presented the latest average weekday ridership numbers to the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, which oversees the agency, at its regular meeting Thursday.
In a way, the agency is a victim of its own success. The trains are full. They’ve reached peak capacity.
“We’ve come up against the ceiling,” said Dan Lieberman, a Caltrain and SamTrans spokesperson.
But Caltrain isn’t the only entity impacted when riders stop hopping on the train. Peninsula and San Francisco commuters struggle with increasingly congested roads. Every soul stuck in clogged traffic along U.S. Highway 101 depends on more transit — and more people taking transit — to make traffic flow again, public officials have long warned.
Caltrain may raise its own ridership ceiling in 2022 when a newly electrified Caltrain fleet is expected to run more-frequent, BART-like service. That will allow Caltrain to boost its rider capacity anywhere between 21 and 30 percent, according to various estimates found in Caltrain documentation.
“It’s definitely fair to say our trains at peak hours are truly at capacity,” Lieberman said. “Once we have electrification, once we have an increased frequency of service, (ridership) should continue rising.”
Until then, however, the agency is struggling with sardine-packed trains — and that doesn’t just affect Caltrain riders.
Ridership numbers count for more than just bragging rights. Caltrain’s operating costs are calculated using these numbers, meaning the agency changes its train deployment based on the number of butts in seats.
Also, importantly, ridership numbers are key to calculating how much funding participating counties San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara allocate to Caltrain annually.
So, a frozen ridership could also mean a frozen checkbook.
“I don’t have confidence the future is at all bright” in terms of those counties being able to pay their annual contributions, said Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board Director Charles Stone, who represents San Mateo County. In light of that worry, he asked Caltrain staff to present information on funding challenges at the agency’s next meeting.
The current squeeze on Caltrain may also be bad news for commuters on U.S. Highway 101. Traffic to and from the South Bay has only risen in recent years, contributing to gridlock along the corridor and the rise of corporate commuter shuttles from companies like Google, filling a need for frustrated workers who lack transit options.
That means regional demand for transit is growing even as Caltrain’s ridership stalls.
Public transit agencies are still struggling to meet the need of the burgeoning region. SamTrans last month launched a Foster City express bus line to San Francisco and back to meet that demand and plans to launch more express bus lines along the Peninsula, but full implementation is years away.
Caltrain’s ridership started its steep rise in 2004 when Caltrain launched its Baby Bullet service, an express train that rockets between San Francisco and San Jose in about an hour with limited stops in-between. There were about 23,947 boardings on average per weekday in 2004, according to Caltrain. That’s the number of folks boarding in the morning commute and evening commutes combined.
In 2005 those numbers jumped by about three thousand rider trips, and another three thousand again in 2006, and so on. There was a slight dip in ridership in 2010, and again in 2017, but for fifteen years ridership has steadily increased.
Last year, Caltrain’s ridership hit an agency peak of 65,095 rider trips, higher than any point since 1998, before finally leveling off at 63,597.
It’s even a slight dip — about 500 daily rider trips — below the agency’s ridership in 2017, which Peninsula joint powers board director Devora Davis attributed largely to weather. The count is traditionally taken in February, she noted to staff during Thursday’s meeting.
“To be clear,” she said, “we take (ridership counts) in the rainiest part of the year.” That, she added “may explain the ridership decrease, does that sound reasonable?”
Caltrain staff agreed.
Staff also told the board that ridership generally decreased in the evenings, though ridership in the mornings and midday have risen slightly. The lowest ridership decrease is on Caltrain’s Baby Bullet line, which only dropped by a handful of daily riders. Boardings also decreased the highest in San Francisco versus stations in other Peninsula cities, according to Caltrain data.
Caltrain’s busiest, most-packed northbound trains include the 6:59 a.m. train leaving from Hillsdale and the 8:04 a.m. train leaving Sunnyvale, which run at 130 percent ridership capacity. Its busiest southbound trains are the 5:38 p.m. train leaving Millbrae and the 4:38 p.m. train leaving Palo Alto, which run at 143 and 125 percent ridership capacity, respectively.
While there is hope among transit advocates that electrified Caltrain service would sufficiently reduce congestion on U.S. Highway 101, and address climate change by reducing cars on the road, Caltrain may need to see an organizational restructuring to effectively grow, some have said.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin recently introduced a resolution at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors this year in support of Caltrain reorganizing its governance.
Friends of Caltrain, an advocacy group, recently wrote on its blog that Caltrain needs stable funding — which right now depends on the largess of San Mateo, Santa Clara, and San Francisco counties — as well as more robust capital project planning to meet the needs of a growing agency.
When Caltrain’s ridership grows, the group wrote, the agency may also need to grow into a new role, too.