Caltrain needs higher fares to expand service and reduce overcrowding

by Andrei Z, on Flickr

by Andrei Z, on Flickr

Caltrain is packed, and its ridership growth shows no sign of abating. Meanwhile, the Caltrain system is struggling to make ends meet, often threatening service cuts.

This is madness. A service so popular that it cannot bear all the passengers also cannot pay its own bills.

The solution is three step: match demand to supply, then match supply to meet demand. In other words, Caltrain has a shortage of supply, so the price of a ticket needs to go up. With the extra money, Caltrain can make more supply and serve more people. Everyone wins. It’s possible Caltrain could even approach the break-even point, if it structured its fares and service right.

But wait a second, replied some after I tweeted this. Caltrain has a huge, growing ridership, and that’s a good thing. Shouldn’t we lower fares to make more people get on the train, not discourage people by raising fares?

While more ridership is definitely good, Caltrain could serve even more if it had better service. People aren’t just driven away (or attracted by) price. Service frequency, crowding, travel time – people weigh these factors when deciding whether to drive or take transit.

By keeping service where it is, we leave behind those potential riders who are sensitive to issues other than price. And, by relying on unreliable government funding, Caltrain may never have to funds to increase service to the point where it can meet all the potential demand.

The one area where we need to be sensitive to price is when transit functions as a social service to the poor. Yet even here there are better ways to support their needs than subsidizing fares for everyone. Direct fare subsidies, a “food stamp” for transportation, or some other program would allow Caltrain to raise fares for most people without screwing over those with lower incomes. On top of that, it would give everyone, from the tech millionaire to her kids’ teacher, a better, more reliable Caltrain.

Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

2 comments to Caltrain needs higher fares to expand service and reduce overcrowding

  • Elliot Schwartz

    One thing to keep in mind is Caltrain’s definition of “overcrowded” is “some people on the train have to stand during peak hours.” Other suburban commuter systems like BART have always had this condition during peak hours, and urban systems like Muni have this all day. Caltrain riders may be on the train longer, but many BART and Muni riders stand for up to an hour as well. Caltrain is only over-crowded in that it can’t provide its first class service, where everyone sits in cushy chairs, with few affordances for standing (e.g., poles and wider aisles). Standing at peak times is probably necessary on any system, unless you are willing to waste a bunch of extra dollars on staff and equipment that sit idle the rest of the day. The only folks who have actually not been allowed to board Caltrain due to fullness are those with bicycles.

  • Caltrain has money in its budget to buy extra rail cars for longer trains on the crowded baby bullets. That is a much better way to alleviate crowding than to reduce the number of riders by increasing fares.

    The place where Caltrain does have room to raise revenue is in its build-discount-purchase GoPass program. This program offers companies – and soon, residential developments – unlimited Caltrain use to their employees/residents, at a price of $13750 per year or $165 per user.

    This is a fabulous deal for large employers such as Stanford, but is a stretch for smaller companies because of the minimum purchase price. See more analysis in the blog post below. Caltrain could create GoPass versions that would appeal to smaller companies and increase the price somewhat for larger companies, and market to Transportation Management Associations that are starting to serve geographical areas.

    This is a better way to generate more revenue for Caltrain, without exacerbating the demographic split where trains are for wealthy people and buses are for low-income people, which is unhealthy for the Bay Area transit system.