Thompson: Transit agencies need a reality check
A Caltrain engine at Diridon Station is pictured in this file photo.

Recently, the idea of consolidating Caltrain and BART has been floated as an easy way to fix Bay Area transit. In short, it’s a bad idea: the benefits, if any, are small and can be achieved in other ways while the problems are large and very real.

I’ve spent a long career analyzing rail agencies and opportunities for improvement all over the world, including California. What we’ve seen over the last few weeks is a lack of understanding of the operational, financial, legal and regulatory differences between the two agencies and what consolidation would entail. Since only about 5% of Caltrain’s passengers connect to or from BART, there is very little scope for consolidation to actually benefit riders and communities of either system.

The first issue is operational. BART and Caltrain are completely different modes of transit, which means the idea of “streamlining” operations is illusory. BART is a third rail rapid mass transit system regulated by the Federal Transit Administration, whereas Caltrain is a commuter rail diesel and electric overhead catenary system regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration. They have different tracks, rail vehicles, propulsion mechanisms, labor unions, capital needs and electrical distribution systems. Consolidation would provide no benefit in terms of bulk purchasing of rail vehicles, maintenance equipment, track equipment and other types of rail capital.

Since BART and Caltrain operate differently, the technical expertise needed to operate these two systems does not translate from one to the other. Caltrain has trackage rights agreements with freight and multiple commuter railroads because it shares the rail corridor between San Francisco and Gilroy. Caltrain staff have specific technical expertise related to building grade separation projects and creating the future blended system with California High-Speed Rail. BART is a completely separated system with a unique gauge and only operates and dispatches BART trains.

If the goal of consolidation is to integrate service planning, nothing prevents Caltrain and BART from coordinating schedules and fares now. In fact the two agencies are already scoping an integrated fare study. It’s true that BART recently changed service to Millbrae, making some transfer times challenging. Yet rather than spending tens of millions of dollars and a decade of legal battles to merge agencies, or spending a few million dollars to do a consolidation study, BART could fix the issue for riders immediately by running an improved schedule of trains to Millbrae.

Financially, Caltrain is one of the more efficient commuter rail systems in the country with an operating budget that is about 17% of BART’s $1 billion annual operating budget. The bulk of Caltrain’s operating budget is for employee agreements to operate and maintain the trains, procure diesel fuel now and electricity once the system is electrified in 2024, and insurance. BART has a different structure. It is unlikely there would be any significant cost savings for the agencies through a merger. It seems more likely that Caltrain’s costs would go up than BART’s would go down.

Due to BART’s enabling legislation and governance structure, in order for San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to join BART, they could be forced to pay an exorbitant amount including not only their share of ongoing BART operating expenses, but their share of all previous capital costs to BART imposed by taxation on territory within what would be the new districts. Some level of property tax reimbursement appears to be statutorily compelled, and a half-cent sales tax would have to be imposed with BART receiving 75% of the revenues and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission dispersing the other 25%. All these billions of dollars from residents does not guarantee Santa Clara or San Mateo residents better service or more influence over planning or operations.

If Bay Area leaders care about the rider experience, they should focus on coordination and transparency in service planning and making progress on Clipper 2.0, which will integrate fares for riders on multiple modes of transit but has been delayed for months.

There are serious challenges facing our region’s transit agencies that have been hammered by the pandemic and the rise of remote work. The continued push for consolidation of BART and Caltrain is not only a distraction from real solutions for Bay Area transit agencies and the communities they serve, but would create an entirely new set of financial, operation and legal challenges at a time when they can least afford it.

Lou Thompson is an expert in railway and transport issues in the U.S. and worldwide. He serves as chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Peer Review Group, which reviews plans for the High-Speed Rail project and provides comments and advice to the Legislature. Formerly, he served with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration and The World Bank as railways adviser. He is now a principal at Thompson, Galenson and Associates, a consulting firm working with public and commercial clients on railway and transport issues in the U.S. and worldwide.

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