The plan, which the Caltrain board will consider in August, is both a detailed documentation of exactly what kind of infrastructure is needed to achieve such a rapid expansion and a public argument for why the expenditure makes sense a year ahead of some kind of transportation tax measure being put on the ballot.
“This is one of those things where it’s not a study to put on a shelf,” Caltrain CEO Jim Hartnett said in an interview just before the release. “This is not a strategic plan. This is one where a real business case has been made for how and when we can make improvements that will take us to 2040 and continue to advance the economic vitality of the region and the quality of life.”
The growth rate anticipated in the plan is lower than what Caltrain has seen recently. It tripled its passenger load between 2003 and 2017 after adding Baby Bullet expresses, and it increased its farebox recovery from 30 percent to 63 percent. The plan calls for raising that recovery to 75 percent by 2040.
The plan calls for the middle of three possible levels of growth, although Hartnett said he doesn’t preclude an even greater increase later to the upper level of 207,000 passengers a day.
The middle level calls for as many as eight trains per hour in each direction during peak hours — one train every 7½ minutes — on the San Francisco-San Jose portion of the corridor and more trains at all other times, which now is as infrequent as hourly. Half the trains would be expresses.
Between San Jose and Gilroy, Calif., where service is weekdays-only with three northbounds in the morning to San Francisco and three southbounds in the evening, service would increase to seven days a week with three trains per hour in each direction during peak weekday hours.
On top of this service would be layered up to four high-speed trains per hour in each direction at peak times between San Francisco and San Jose and up to eight high-speed trains per hour from San Jose south.
“It becomes a system, then, in which you don’t worry much about the schedule as a passenger, because — particularly in the peak hours — you just show up and there’s going to be a train there pretty soon no matter what time you got there,” Hartnett said. “That’s the kind of service that is successful in all transit modes.”
All of that, the plan says, will require a new signal system, new maintenance and storage yards, longer station platforms raised to allow level boarding, additional four-track sections between San Francisco and San Jose, a new station in San Jose and elimination of most, if not all of the more than 50 grade crossings at an estimated $100 million each.
And it would require an electric railroad, shared with high-speed rail, all the way to Gilroy.
The northern part is being electrified now. About $2.5 billion from local, federal, state and high-speed rail funds is already in hand and being spent on the project to electrify the 47 miles between San Francisco and San Jose.
“Now there’s going to have to be a will to fund it,” Hartnett said. “That is the bottom line. That’s the core interest of the Caltrain as an entity. It’s a core interest for the region.”
Like Amtrak, Caltrain has no dedicated funding source. Although it recovers 64% of its operating costs at the farebox, it depends on about $22 million a year in voluntary contributions from the three counties it serves: San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara.
If high-speed rail can’t find funding to extend its Central Valley line — now under construction despite federal threats of grant “clawbacks” — to the Bay Area, then Caltrain will have to bear the full San Jose-Gilroy costs itself.
Two options are being considered outside the business plan. One is a sales tax referendum in the three counties that would raise about $100 million a year for the railroad. The second would be a cut from a much larger Bay Area-wide transportation measure, modeled on similar ballot successes in Seattle and Los Angeles, designed to raise $100 billion over the next few decades.
One of those is likely to be on the November 2020 ballot, said Seamus Murphy, Caltrain’s communications officer.
Hartnett said Caltrain has been critical to the success of Silicon Valley’s economy and the plan would more than pay back the money raised to fund it by even more economic activity. The plan estimates the improved service would produce $40.8 billion in economic impact on the Peninsula and would add between $25 billion and $37 billion in value to residential and commercial property within a mile of its 28 stations outside San Francisco.