Caltrain will begin increasing service this month and later this summer will offer a 50% discount to low-income riders to be in effect up to a year and a half.

The discount is being offered through the regional means-based fare pilot program, now known as Clipper START and administered by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The discount applies to single ride adult Clipper fares and is for those earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level, which comes out to a salary of $25,520.

The Caltrain board initially approved the pilot in February with a 20% discount. On Thursday, the board unanimously agreed to the deeper discount to further assist those affected by the economic crisis and also attract riders at a time when ridership is down more than 90% due to COVID-19.

“With so many people facing serious economic hardships in light of the coronavirus pandemic, now is the perfect time to provide a 50% discount to low-income residents that rely on transit,” board Chair Dave Pine, also a San Mateo County supervisor, said in a statement. “Not only can we help existing riders, many of whom are providing essential services, but we also hope to attract new riders at a time when Caltrain is experiencing sharp ridership losses with most office workers continuing to work from home.”

During the meeting, Board Member Charles Stone, also the Belmont vice mayor, urged staff to find additional strategies for recruiting new riders.

“I would encourage staff to continue to be creative and look for other ways to get folks back on the train, folks who might not have been riding the train before or who might’ve thought they couldn’t afford to ride the train before,” he said.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, one speaker called for free Caltrain fares for at least the remainder of the pandemic. He alternatively proposed Caltrain honor bus passes or charge the equivalent of bus fare.

“There are some buses that are meeting the maximum amount of passengers given the distancing precautions and opening up Caltrain to alleviate that concern and provide more opportunities for residents is very much needed,” said Eduardo Lalo Gonzalez, representing the San Mateo County Youth Leadership Institute.

A launch date for the pilot has not yet been announced, but it is expected to run for 12 to 18 months.

The decision to deepen the discount follows the agency’s postponement of a fare increase that was planned to go into effect in April.

Service is slowly returning to normal as Caltrain starting June 15 will go from 42 trains per day to 70 trains. Before COVID-19, Caltrain ran 90 trains per day. 

This month’s service expansion will maintain hourly local service while skip-stop service would be layered in during peak hours resulting in a 30-minute or better frequency at most stations on the corridor, said Sebastian Petty, director of policy development.

Skip-stop service is a pattern in which two trains travel close together and both serve major stops but alternate service to the smaller ones. The strategy allows for faster travel times and balances passenger loads, Petty said. 

“The key objectives in doing this are to make sure we’re continuing to balance loads across trains,” Petty said. “We’re trying very hard to avoid crowding on trains to make absolutely sure that we’re able to ensure sufficient space for social distancing at all times.

“We’re also making sure we’re maintaining full coverage of all our stations” he added. “We know our service is being used by people making essential trips and we want to make sure they can where they need to go.”

The weekday span of service starting June 15 will also be expanded to between 5 a.m. and midnight while weekend service will remain as is. Officials also noted a trip between San Francisco and San Jose will span about one hour and 18 minutes with latest service changes.

Further changes to service levels are expected in the fall, if not sooner.

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