Friday, June 4, 2010

Saving Caltrain

There has been a lot of talk recently of Caltrain being in a financial crisis, which will result in significant service cuts, possibly leading to the system being shut down entirely if nothing is done. The Caltrain management has even asked for suggestions from the public on how the system can be saved. I think that there are steps that Caltrain can take to drastically reduce its operating costs without degrading service, and thus ticket revenue, too much.

Caltrain is a Joint Powers Authority, which is operated and funded jointly by the 3 counties through which the line runs. The root of the crisis is that Caltrain's revenue will be considerably lower than its expenses, because the counties can no longer afford to provide the current level of subsidy. The only way to resolve this problem is by increasing revenue or reducing expenses, and the single biggest expense in running Caltrain is labor. In order to save money, ways must be found to reduce the labor force.

Fortunately, there is one very glaringly obvious target for such cuts: Assistant Conductors. Their job used to be assisting the Conductor with ticket sales, but Caltrain has had Proof of Payment for years now, and it seems that most of the time, the Assistant Conductors spend their time chatting with the Conductor and not doing anything useful. Firing all of them can save several million dollars in annual operating costs, with very little impact to the quality of service. There's precedent for running with a single conductor too: Metrolink in Southern California has been doing so since the beginning. There are other possibilities for operational savings as well, including cutting (or at least re-thinking) Gilroy service, re-designing the schedule and focusing the capital program on maximizing operational cost savings, and I may explore these further in subsequent blog posts. But getting rid of the Assistant Conductors is the elephant in the room in terms of cost savings here, and I'm surprised Caltrain hasn't even mentioned this option yet.


  1. Has the subsidy for roads gone down the same percentage as the subsidy for trains?

  2. The problem isn't even total subsidy, it's operating subsidy (as opposed to capital subsidy), and the operating subsidy for roads is hard to account for, because it's rarely directly attributed to the roads budget. For example, the Highway Patrol is largely concerned with enforcing order on roads but gets counted in the law enforcement budget, while Caltrain has to explicitly account for their law enforcement costs. And I would argue that the many hours of unpaid labor spent on driving are a subsidy to roads as well.