Editorial on Caltrain service, pilot program really missed the boat

Dear Editor,

I’m responding to your Jan. 6 editorial on Caltrain as a Valley Transportation Authority board member and a Director on the Caltrain Joint Powers Board. I’ve been a strong advocate to increase and improve Caltrain service to South County.

While I appreciate the acknowledgement for spearheading the recent purchase of the Union Pacific right-of-way, I want to provide you and your readers with some additional information on how Caltrain service levels are determined.

Last year, the number of South County residents using Caltrain dropped from 1,555 in February 2001 to 667 in February 2004, a

57 percent decrease.

The current ridership numbers likely reflect the large job losses in Santa Clara County. Caltrain has considered reducing the number of trains serving South County due to these large drops in ridership over the past three years. I have fought hard to preserve the current level of service in the face of these low ridership numbers. It is important to remember that the operating cost of Caltrain’s South County segment is shared by all three Caltrain partners; San Francisco County, San Mateo County, and the VTA. The other counties have not looked favorably on expanding South County service.

The editorial also indicates that the previous South County weekend pilot program was handled in a half-hearted manner and that it was only conducted in February.

The pilot program was not limited to February, rather, it was conducted from November 18, 2000 to February 25, 2001. It was planned to begin in November to take advantage of the potential of bringing holiday shoppers to the Gilroy Outlets. The rationale was that weekend service to and from Gilroy during the holiday season had a greater chance of success. The planning and marketing for the pilot was a cooperative effort by Caltrain, VTA, the City of Gilroy, the City of Morgan Hill, the Gilroy Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce.

We set low ridership targets prior to the service and none of the trains met the ridership goals. The program ran its full 15 weekends as planned, in spite of very low ridership, and was not ended prematurely as the editorial suggests. The pilot program costs were the following: train expenses: $288,000; VTA advertising: $175,000; shuttles: $17,325; total expense: $480,925. Fare revenues were $18,236.

The good news is that the recent negotiated right-of-way agreement with Union Pacific (UP) set the groundwork for service upgrades because we will not be hampered by the UP freight schedule.

Once ridership increases on the South County segment, VTA will be in a position to make the case for improved services.

Donald F. Gage, Supervisor, District 1

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