Caltrain is under threat. The 77 mile commuter train line running from Gilroy to San Francisco, CA faces the possibility of a shutdown due to sinking revenue and no stable funding mechanism. The COVID-19 pandemic has made train riding obsolete, as employers have transitioned to a work-from-home system leaving only essential workers as primary riders of Caltrain. 70% of Caltrain’s revenue comes from ticket sales, and with ridership plummeting, there is hardly any revenue to keep the train afloat.
Measures to create a more equitable Caltrain have been proposed, often coupled with a 1/8 cent sales tax—both of which have received positive press amongst potential voters in the Bay Area. However, supervisors have not been able to come to a sound conclusion on what to do, which is not alleviating any fear amongst riders on the future of Caltrain.
As a frequent Caltrain rider pre-pandemic, I thought I would share what Caltrain means to me, why I believe it is important to keep Caltrain running, and what a shutdown would mean for me and my peers.
As a kid, I grew up fascinated by trains. From the way the doors opened and closed to the track whistling to the exhilaration I received when a train flew by—it made me dream of riding the train to school. For a while I lived far from any train line, roughly a 20 min drive at the minimum, but when we packed our bags and moved back to the Bay Area I now lived closer to the train than I did at any other point in my life.
Enrolling in school, I realized that my high school would be blocks away from the Hillsdale Station, leaving me with an opportunity to fulfill my dream. For two years now I have woken up every morning to catch train 218. Being free from the car on my way to school has given more independence, opportunities to socialize with friends, and great views of the Peninsula as the scenery passes by out the window. Those were things I took for granted as I believed the train would be there every morning. On days it was late, I waited it out, sometimes as long as 90 minutes. I made a pledge with myself to never have someone pick me up to take me home, even if the trains were delayed.
I have used Caltrain to get to Giants games, and there is no other option as convenient as Caltrain and a two-block walk. I have visited friends using Caltrain, even going shopping far away with it. For a while I thought I was special when we were on a train comprised of Bombardier BiLevel “Baby Bullet” train cars, back when they only ran on Baby Bullet service. I made a note of it on my phone, dated to 2011.
I fondly remember riding Caltrain up to SF to visit a model train store, with rain dumping. We almost scrapped the journey, but my desire to ride Caltrain overcame all hesitations. Even for Bay Area residents who are not infatuated with trains, they might still be drawn to Caltrain as it presents a very different way to see the Peninsula.
I have seen the downsides of Caltrain, too. I have witnessed tense arguments between passengers, and people hanging their feet and arms over the railings. Every now and then the smell of the restrooms wafts through the train car. On days when the air conditioning is broken it is impossible not to alight without sweat—but I continued to ride, day after day…
…Until the pandemic hit. March 12th was the day of my most recent ride. It was the last day school was in session, and the last time I stepped foot on the Hillsdale train platform before it was torn down. My need for Caltrain has evaporated, and it has for others as well. But Caltrain need not stop running, since many dedicated workers who risk their health daily to keep the economy running rely on it. This chapter is just another fond memory of my beloved local commuter train.
For decades, Caltrain has been more than a simple commuter train line to the Bay Area. It has catered to a wide variety of demographics: car owners, the homeless, car-less commuters, tech workers, students, and more. Without it, every rider would be forced to find another way to commute. For some, this means using Samtrans, VTA, or Muni buses — a large hassle if traveling from San Jose to San Francisco since multiple transfers are inevitable. Those who have a car have an easy work around. As a transit-lover, I would choose a bus or bike over a car, but others may not have a choice. Frankly, while Caltrain needs its riders, riders need Caltrain. Caltrain declutters parking at 49ers and Giants games, it gives people an opportunity to find affordable housing in areas south of SF and still be able to work in the City, and takes four lanes worth of cars off of 101 and 280.
In this age of climate change, Caltrain, while still diesel at the moment, cleans the air, one car removal at a time. To improve upon their climate strategy, Caltrain is electrifying their system from San Jose to San Francisco. Electrification is supposed to be completed in the spring of 2022, around the time I graduate. Of all the things I look forward to in the coming years, this is in the top tier. With greater frequency and upgraded capacity, Caltrain is poised to be a world-class commuter train that rivals European systems. While electrification work is speeding up, it would be pointless if the Joint Powers Board could not find a way to run trains under an approved budget come 2022.
Whether Caltrain survives the pandemic or not, Caltrain has certainly been a big part of my life and it would be a shame to see it shut down for an extended period of time. No rides to school, no train horn every night that I fell asleep to—no more partially-green freeways on Google Maps representative of traffic on weekday mornings. All we can do is hope that voters have a chance to save the beloved rail system.
If you are reading this article, consider petitioning local county officials to get the sales tax measure on the ballot, or emailing CA representatives to advocate for better public transportation. Websites where you can learn more about Bay Area transit advocacy are seamlessbayarea.org, transformca.org, greencaltrain.com, and sftransitriders.org.