With an additional 1.2 million people and jobs expected along the Caltrain corridor within the next 20 years, the railroad’s board of directors Thursday signed off on an ambitious plan to significantly expand service and nearly triple ridership in that time. 

What’s being described as a “long-term service vision” entails an increase in the number of trains per peak hour per direction from the current five to at least eight, all day express service every 15 minutes and increased off-peak and weekend services. Express service between San Jose and San Francisco will take about one hour and the longest wait time at major stations would be 12 minutes. 

As a result, ridership is expected to grow from the 65,000 daily riders Caltrain serves today to 180,000 daily riders. Such growth will eliminate 825,000 daily car trips and an estimated 5 1/2 lanes of commuter traffic from the region’s highways as well as 110 metric tons of carbon emissions every day, according to a press release. 

“This is an unprecedented plan in terms of its scope, its quality and the outreach that’s occurred,” said Board Member Dave Pine, also a San Mateo County Supervisor. “We’re really building the major artery connecting San Jose and San Francisco and providing the major artery for Silicon Valley.” 

The plan also prepares Caltrain for a future shared corridor with California High-Speed Rail and integration with a regional rail network that includes the planned extension to the Salesforce Transit Center in downtown San Francisco and a potential renewed rail service across the Dumbarton Bridge, according to the release. Opportunities presented by a second Transbay crossing and expanded service to Monterey County are also accounted for in the plan.

To accomplish the above goals, Caltrain is planning incremental upgrades to the corridor, including an improved signal system, station modifications such as platform lengthening and level boarding and a series of four-track stations that allow express trains to pass local ones, according to the release. 

The proposed plan for growth is only possible because of electrification of the corridor, slated for 2022, and the expanded capacity that that project affords.

The adopted service vision has also been referred to as the “moderate growth” scenario, one of three scenarios proposed to the board, the other two being “baseline growth” and “high growth.” The latter entails 12 trains per peak hour in both directions to serve 207,300 daily riders. 

While the board adopted the “moderate growth” scenario, the service vision does direct the railroad to “continue its planning for a potential ‘higher’ growth level of service.”

Many have called for the “high” growth scenario throughout Caltrain’s outreach process and Board Member Cindy Chavez said it was her preference during Thursday’s meeting.

“I still want us to go to the biggest buildout,” she said. “I’m going to support the motion because that’s where my colleagues are, but if it were up to me I’d say let’s do it, keep going.”

The service vision and how to achieve it will be articulated in detail in the agency’s business plan, set for completion by early 2020. 

But in order to realize the vision, Caltrain will have to secure funding that currently does not exist.

Caltrain’s current annual operating cost is $135 million with $97 million covered by fares and $38 million coming from contributions by the three counties it serves, grants and other revenue sources. By 2040, annual operating cost is expected to reach $370 million, with $266 million coming from fares. That means new funding sources will need to be secured to cover the remaining $104 million, not to mention significant capital costs needed to build out the railroad. 

Officials are currently exploring sales tax measures to finally provide Caltrain with a dedicated source of revenue. 

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