Next stop … crowded, late trains

Be prepared to jockey for room, worm into small spaces and wait for minutes at a time on Caltrain after the transit agency announced recently that it has removed 13 percent of its railcars due to hairline cracks found in the wheel assembly.

A total of 14 cars of Caltrain’s fleet of 110 were taken out of service after the mechanical problems were discovered during a routine check by Caltrain investigators last week. To compensate for the smaller fleet, the transit agency has reduced its five-car trains to four, causing extra crowding, forcing some passengers to stand and resulting in occasional delays of a few minutes, according to the transit agency.

“It always gives you pause when you hear of a potential problem that could be a hazard of some kind,” Caltrain board member Jerry Hill said.

The announcement and impending crowding comes as the transit agency, which runs from San Francisco to Gilroy with an average of 40,000 riders on weekdays, is experiencing a record number of riders. Some trains have reached full or nearly full capacity, Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said recently.

Authorities had no estimate Monday for when the cars could be returned to service but said they were working on the cracked equipment and looking to borrow cars from other rail lines.

Dunn said the hairline cracks were likely not dangerous at the current size, but would have grown in size if the affected railcars were still in operation, perhaps causing the cracked wheel assembly to fail.

“At this stage, it’s not an issue; but if we didn’t repair it, it could become an issue,” Dunn said.

The cracks were not found on baby bullet trains and affected the part ofthe railcar known as the bolster, which supports the train’s suspension between the passenger car and the car’s two trunks. A trunk is the large cart that holds the train’s wheels.

An investigation is under way to determine the cause of the cracks, but Dunn said agency officials think they were caused by the way the bolsters were manufactured. All 14 of the cars with cracks were added in 2000 when Caltrain purchased 20 new cars.

Some of the cars replaced had wheelchair lifts, causing the agency to use slower manual lifts in the meantime, which could cause slight delays, Dunn said. She said this type of cracking has never happened to any Caltrain equipment before.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

All aboard!

A look at Caltrain’s railcar numbers.

14 Railcars with mechanical problems

110 Total cars in Caltrain’s stock

5 Typical cars per train

4 Cars per train after adjustments

40,000 Average weekday riders

98 Total weekday trains

Source: Caltrain

Fuel cost has Caltrain considering fare hike

Rising fuel costs have prompted Caltrain officials to factor a fare increase into this year’s budget, though passengers will not have to worry about paying more for a few months.

The budget, which will be voted on by Caltrain’s board of directors on Thursday, includes an extra $3.3 million that the agency will earn from a fare increase and a jump in ridership of about 2.5 percent.

No exact fare increase has been proposed yet. Caltrain last increased its fares in April 2007, when it upped costs by 25 cents per zone. A zone refers to a trip length, with six zones between San Francisco and San Jose.

Fuel prices have nearly doubled for Caltrain in less than a year. In July, the agency paid $2.39 per gallon, and on May 29 it paid $4.11. In the coming year, Caltrain expects to spend $14.4 million on fuel, $2 million more than last year.

“It’s inevitable that we’ll have to look at recovering some of those costs in the future,” said Caltrain board member Jerry Hill.

The long-term solution to funding Caltrain and other local public transit agencies is through a regional plan that will pay for public transit with regional funds, Hill said.

A fare increase is a lengthy process that requires public meetings, hearings in each of the agency’s three counties and board approval, Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said. — Mike Rosenberg

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