The train network that serves the South Bay, Peninsula and San Francisco has been cruising on a string of months of record-breaking ridership that coincide with a regional economic boom. And the system’s directional split — with 60 percent of riders commuting north toward San Francisco and 40 percent south into San Mateo and Santa Clara counties — has been a constant for the past decade.
But, according to transit officials, achieving a more even travel split and continued ridership growth will be accomplished less through ongoing job growth and more through upgrades to the rail system.
Before the first tech boom in the late 1990s, Caltrain mostly served workers commuting into San Francisco, with 70 percent northbound ridership, said spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann. With the boom, ridership began to even out, reaching the 60-40 split. That carried on through the dot-com bust of the early 2000s and even through the most recent economic downturn.
It wasn’t until 2004, with the introduction of Baby Bullet express trains, that ridership numbers started to take off.
Caltrain has seen 40 consecutive months of increasing ridership, Ackemann said. The system had more than 1.3 million trips in January, a 9.5 percent jump from January 2013.
WHEN THE SHIFT BEGAN
In the early 1980s, when the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board purchased Caltrain from the state of California, the north-south ridership split had not even reached 70-30.
“The vast majority were going north in the morning when we purchased the system,” said Rod Diridon, executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, who chaired an earlier board that conducted studies leading to the purchase. “We reoriented some routes to go south. And now there are as many southbound as there are northbound trains in the morning.”
Reaching the existing 60-40 split involved substantial growth in the southbound commute. From 1992 to 1998, southbound ridership grew 120 percent, compared to a 36 percent increase in northbound ridership, according to Caltrain data.
While the 60-40 split has remained relatively the same in the past decade, ridership numbers are growing “precipitously,” Ackemann said.
“We were experiencing a boom in 2000 in ridership but today we’ve more than doubled that ridership coming south,” she said.
The growing southbound commute indicates there are more jobs in the South Bay and Peninsula than in the past, said John Goodwin of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional transit planning group.
“For a long time, the two major employment centers in the Bay Area have been the Financial District in San Francisco to the north and the so-called Golden Triangle of Silicon Valley in the south,” he said. “We’re probably seeing some movement in between those poles, but we’ve had that bipolarity now for some time.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
But regardless of how healthy an economy is, people take transit if it’s reliable, efficient and convenient. Caltrain has fairly good service in the morning and evening peak hours, but is lacking in between, said Egon Terplan, regional planning director for the San Francisco-based urban think tank SPUR.
The game-changer, he said, is electrifying the tracks. The system’s trains currently run on diesel fuel.
Electric trains are lighter and able to accelerate and decelerate much quicker than gas-powered ones.
Electrification, which should receive its final environmental impact report by the end of this year, is being made possible through funds from the state’s high-speed rail project that will eventually run between Northern and Southern California. Caltrain and high-speed rail will operate in a blended system.
Without money from high-speed rail, according to Diridon, funding for electrification would not be available “for many, many years, if at all.”
With electrification, Caltrain could run six instead of five trains per hour per direction, Ackemann said.
“The strategy has to be to expand from what it is,” Terplan said. “With electrification, ridership is going to go up much, much more.”
Other transportation options like driving and using corporate commuter shuttles, which emerged in the last decade, are still used because Caltrain is not easily accessible to everyone.
Making the system more accessible and increasing the ridership heading south, Ackemann said, also depends on the completion of the Transbay Transit Center, which would extend Caltrain into downtown San Francisco. The line currently ends at Fourth and King streets.
The project is slated to wrap up in fall 2017 and accommodate 100,000 passengers each weekday.
“We’re going to see another dramatic shift in directional ridership,” Ackemann said. “Because it will be a far better attraction for people who are living in The City to get to Caltrain.”
Regardless of demand in either commute direction, Caltrain’s future may depend on keeping pace with its surge in ridership, said SPUR Transportation Policy Director Ratna Amin.
“Capacity is not keeping up with demand,” she said.