Integrating Caltrain into a seamless regional transit network

Caltrain’s Business Plan envisions transforming Caltrain from a “commuter rail” line largely focused on bringing people to and from work to an integrated piece of a regional rail and transit system with much higher ridership. In order to achieve this vision: 

  • the Caltrain board needs to strengthen its policies about actively pursuing an integrated system, and

  • the region needs to develop much stronger governance for regionally integrated transit. 

On Thursday, October 3, the Caltrain board is scheduled to approve the service vision, with some next steps that could strengthen its policies to pursue an integrated system and strengthen governance to achieve an integrated system.

The basics - frequent service and a regular, clockface schedule. 

The foundation of the vision comes from studies that show pent-up demand for greatly increased ridership. If Caltrain provided more frequent service, including more frequent service all day and all week, not only at peak commute times (i.e., service more like BART), it would achieve BART-like ridership. Caltrain ridership could quadruple by 2040 if it provided enough space on the trains and frequent service.  In order to carry that many people in cars instead, the region would need to double deck highway 101.

To achieve this level of ridership growth will require additional investments using electrification as a foundation, with level boarding and longer trains to carry more people and enable more precisely reliable travel times; passing infrastructure to enable express trains to pass locals; and grade separations to support much more frequent service with greater safety and reliability, without hampering crosstown travel.  

Providing a regular, memorable “clockface” schedule (e.g. trains at Noon, 12:15, 12:30, 12:45) with all-day frequency is important to promote service predictability for customers, and also to enable reliable timed connections with other services. 

A couple of years ago, VTA overhauled the design of its local transit network, re-organizing its routes to create feeder service to the newly extended BART line (that is expected to finally open this year.)  At the time, VTA explained that the Caltrain schedule was too infrequent and too peaky to connect to - but they would rethink when Caltrain was electrified if there was an all-day clockface schedule. 

Policies to actively pursue an integrated system

While Caltrain’s service vision emphasizes that a frequent, all-day, clockface schedule will enable much better connections, Caltrain does not yet have policies to pursue making those connections happen.  Thanks to vocal input from transit supporters and stakeholders including Seamless Bay Area, the next phase of Caltrain’s business plan analysis will study opportunities for better transit network connections. 

Recently, San Jose City Council endorsed comments on the business plan encouraging Caltrain to step up to “proactively pursue seamless transit interconnectivity to improve customer experience for trips that include transfers between systems. This should include fare integration, schedule coordination, station design, and other near-term and long-term strategies and policies that will improve customer-focused transit service integration”

A good outcome of Caltrain’s studies in the coming months would be strong policies along the lines recommended by San Jose City Council.

Strengthen governance to achieve regionally integrated transit

In order to achieve the goals of the service vision, governance changes will be needed. Caltrain commissioned an “Organizational Assessment” that looks at staffing, management, and governance issues. The assessment concluded that until now, Caltrain has been performing in the top tier of similar organizations, with double the passenger miles per employee compared to peers. 

However, the Organizational Assessment report concluded that to grow to achieve the service vision, “the status quo is not an option.” The report examines a range of smaller and larger scale changes to strengthen management accountability, and upgrade the governing structure either by strengthening the current “Joint Powers Authority” or replacing it with a special district.  

The report also looks at a range of broader regional solutions. To effectively weave Caltrain into an integrated transit network, the solutions go beyond the current borders of Caltrain. 

  • Regional construction authority and/or regional grade separation authority. The problems with the Transbay Terminal/Downtown Extension project to connect Caltrain a mile into the heart of the SF Financial district is one of multiple examples where the Bay Area is failing at delivering “megaprojects.” The downtown connection is expected to increase Caltrain ridership by 25% once the rail connection opens - but the project to build the station was late, defective, and so badly over budget that building the terminal ate up the money to extend the rail to the station.   In the context of the Transbay and 2nd crossing program and elsewhere, the region is starting to discuss the potential for a regional construction authority to be able to more effectively deliver megaprojects.

    Similarly, the Caltrain business plan discusses the potential to create a “grade separation authority” which would fund and manage the extended program needed to separate (or close) the 42 remaining at-grade crossings between San Francisco and San Jose, instead of leaving the program to be achieved piecemeal through the individual actions of the corridor’s 19 cities. 

  • Integrated service.  To deliver a regionally integrated network of backbone service (rail and fast bus) that is well-coordinated with local feeder transit, and well-coordinated with megaregion and long-distance travel, institutional changes are needed to designate a regional entity with the authority and mandate to do multi-modal “network planning”. Currently, there is no authority in charge of ensuring an integrated regional network, so it is no surprise that it doesn’t happen. A solution could mean a “transport alliance” like the organizations that drive meticulously organized transit service in Germany and Switzerland, or combining currently separate agencies, or some combination of both approaches. 

Unfortunately, the Organizational Assessment report concludes that the governance options extending beyond the borders of the current agency are long-term, pertaining to future stages of the evolution of the service vision, and therefore can be deferred to a later date. “At this time, there are too many unknowns to determine the optimal strategy to deliver the 2040 service vision. A long term decision is best made in future in conjunction w/progress on implementing key projects and services outlined in the vision.”

But there are events and needs that are moving faster. 

  • The discussions about the future of the Transbay program are moving forward, with some next steps being discussed at the San Francisco County Transit Authority this month.

  • Fare integration – the region is moving forward with a business case study for integrated fares

  • Service integration – Caltrain electrification creates new opportunities to coordinate schedules with BART and with feeder transit. 

  • Regional measure - there is an initiative afoot to create a $100 Billion transportation funding measure.  There are tremendous opportunities to take advantage of the funding to require participation in regional integration as conditions of funding, and to boost the process to create structures to manage an integrated system.

Developing solutions to strengthen the organization to achieve its growth plans as part of a regionally integrated system will require thoughtful consideration of a range of logical options, with expert support.

Following up to the Organizational Assessment report, and in response to advocacy to move ahead to strengthen governance, Caltrain has recently scheduled a board workshop for November 21, which will start a discussion about strengthening the organization within its current scope, and potentially looking beyond that scope.


In order to take advantage of opportunities that are moving forward in the near term:

  • the Caltrain board should set near term policy direction regarding goals to pursue an integrated system,

  • the Caltrain board should, as part of its process to strengthen the organization, encourage active participation in regional initiatives to create an integrated system

The good news is that thanks in part to comments from the Seamless Bay Area community, the Caltrain board will likely kick off studies over the next several months to support stronger policy direction for service integration; and will be starting board consideration of governance options.

We’ll keep you posted as things move forward on opportunities to continue encourage Caltrain system ridership growth as part of a regionally integrated transit system that is accessible to all. 

Adina Levin