Caltrain ridership booms to record high 

Five years after the dot-com bust and terrorist attacks on the East Coast sent the local economy into a tailspin, dragging Caltrain ridership with it, the commuter train agency has tallied its highest ridership figures ever.

Average weekday ridership topped the 35,000 mark in December, the highest figure in the 143-year-history of Peninsula railroads, according to Caltrain.

Barring an unforeseen drop in riders before the end of the fiscal year on June 30, Caltrain will also surpass its highest annual average weekday ridership of 32,921, a record set in fiscal year 2000-01, Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg said.

The hard-earned milestone comes after a complete overhaul of the agency’s services in August 2005. Facing dismal ridership figures and falling revenue at the time, Caltrain took a gamble, reinventing itself by increasing the number of trains from 76 to 96. Most popular has been the Baby Bullet express service between San Francisco and San Jose, which helped drive an average 7 percent ridership gain in 2006, according to Caltrain.

"There was a market demand to get people from San Francisco to San Jose in under an hour and we found it," Weinberg said.

While Caltrain’s reinvention has been a leading cause of the turnaround in ridership, the improving economy can’t be ignored, according to R. Sean Randolph, president of the Bay Area Economic Forum.

The value of the Bay Area’s gross domestic product — a major economic indicator — has rebounded from about $335 billion in 2000 to about $400 billion today, Randolph said. In addition, the area’s unemployment rate has dropped from about 6.6 percent to 4.3 today, Randolph said.

Passenger Hilary McFarland, 22, said taking the train to work in San Francisco allows her to avoid traffic congestion.

"I’m incredibly happy to see it catching on, especially with the students," said McFarland, who works at The Body Shop and studies nursing at the College of San Mateo. The train saves her about 10 minutes each way, she added.

While the success of the Baby Bullet has "been beyond anyone’s imagination," Caltrain board member and county Supervisor Jerry Hill said it was just the beginning.

Indeed, Caltrain projects the agency’s peak passenger load will hit about 16,000 in 20 years time, almost triple the current figure.

To accommodate the increasing ridership in the short-term Caltrain plans to begin running six-car trains in the next 18 months, up from the four- and five-car trains currently running.

Any expansion beyond that will require trains to go electric, Weinberg said.

E-mail Edward Carpenter at ecarpenter@examiner.com.

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