Loyal Caltrain riders on shaky rails

Little new in analysis of high-speed rail routes

Almost 20 years of Caltrain weekday commute service to South
County could end if its board of directors follows through on a
proposal to slash service south of San Jose.
Almost 20 years of Caltrain weekday commute service to South County could end if its board of directors follows through on a proposal to slash service south of San Jose.

Facing a 78 percent decline in South County ridership since its peak in 2001 and a $2 million deficit, the board of directors is hosting four drop-in meetings, including one in Gilroy.

The board is seeking public input on proposals of suspending service to South County and increasing fares by 25 cents, among others.

Three northbound trains leave Gilroy every morning at 6:07, 6:30 and 7:05 a.m. and return in the evenings at 5:30, 7:07 and 7:47 p.m.

Riders from San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties drop their cars in Gilroy every day to catch the train north. Aromas resident Janet Ryder hops on the train in Gilroy most mornings and met a new friend, Morgan Hill resident JoAnn Fredrickson, a few years ago when they realized they were headed in the same direction when the got off a train in Santa Clara during a rainstorm.

“I always take the train. Today I drove and I got lost,” she laughed.

About 10 years ago, Ryder swapped her car keys for a train ticket when she decided the commute was too much to take on four wheels.

“There’s too much road rage,” she said. “Even at 5:30 in the morning. It’s easier on the nerves to ride.”

Fredrickson has been riding the Caltrain to Santa Clara every weekday for the past 13 years.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “Can you imagine if we all had to go back to driving again.”

Fredrickson and Ryder plan to voice their concerns Aug. 19 at the Gilroy community meeting.

“I hope that it doesn’t go away,” Ryder said. “We really need it and sometimes they forget about us down here in South County.”

But Caltrain board member and Santa Clara County Supervisor Don Gage said he’s not going to let that happen.

Gage said he’s confident he can steer the board away from that option as long as they can find the money some place else. Staff will come back to the board in September with more money saving ideas.

But if South County riders want to keep their service, they’ll have to start showing it in numbers.

“I can’t save anything if there’s no ridership,” Gage said. “We’re not going to run empty trains.”

Caltrain statistics show ridership on the Gilroy extension – the stops in Capitol, Blossom Hill, Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy – declined from 2002 to 2007, and although 2008 saw a small bump in ridership, it again decreased in 2009 and continued to do so in 2010. Ridership peaked in 2001 with 1,555 weekday passenger boardings on the Gilroy extension, then steadily declined to the current ridership of 341, a 78 percent decline.

“When we’re talking budget, nothing is sacred,” Gage said. “But when you cut service like that, you never get those people back. In the past, it’s been on the table and I’ve been able to pull it off because we need to go after bigger fish.”

Eliminating service south of Tamien Station in San Jose – the proposal that has most riled South County Caltrain riders – would save $350,000.

Paul Kloecker served on the Gilroy City Council when Caltrain came to Gilroy in 1992 and was one of its biggest advocates.

“That was one of my favorite projects,” he said, remembering how the effort to extend Caltrain south was nicknamed the “Track Attack.”

With a 16.7 percent unemployment rate in Gilroy – the second highest in Santa Clara County after San Martin’s 25.4 – lower ridership doesn’t surprise Kloecker, who doesn’t use the train for its regular commuter service but takes it every time he heads to San Francisco.

“It’s no fun dealing with low ridership, that’s for sure,” he said. “But I’m hopeful they won’t drop the service altogether. I think that would be absolutely drastic for the cities of Gilroy and Morgan Hill.”

Usually with a cup of coffee in hand, Hollister resident Jason Gentry enjoys the company of the group of friends he’s established riding Caltrain north to his job working for the City of Santa Clara.

“There’s kind of like a little community on the train,” he said.

Although he would pay a quarter more a trip to keep the service coming to South County, he suggested Caltrain actually drop the price for stops on the Gilroy extension to boost ridership. Gentry started riding about two years ago for the same reason as Ryder.

“The stress of driving every day was too much,” he said. “Riding the train is very relaxing. It’s cheaper to drive if you have a fuel efficient car but with all the stress of driving, it’s well worth being able to ride.”

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