Caltrain sets lofty goals for operating efficiencies 

click to enlarge See the infoboxes to learn more about the farebox recovery rates. - S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • S.F. Examiner File Photo
  • See the infoboxes to learn more about the farebox recovery rates.

With ridership growing steadily, Caltrain has outlined ambitious operating goals that could make the regional rail operator one of the most efficient transit agencies in the country.

During the past 8½ years, Caltrain has more than doubled the farebox recovery rate in which it recoups day-to-day operating costs through transit fares. It has posted a 65 percent rate in the current fiscal year, which is higher than most of its peers in the Bay Area and well above the agency’s stated goal of 38 to 50 percent.

Taking that recent success into account, Caltrain adopted new farebox goals Thursday that would set a range of 45 percent to 65 percent for cost recovery during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The agency opted to go with that goal because it reflects current industry trends and is further evidence that the system is continuing to grow—average weekday ridership on Caltrain is 49,421 passengers, a 12 percent increase from last year.

If Caltrain achieved the upper echelon of that range, it would be among the most cost-efficient transit systems in the U.S. The average farebox recovery rate for the Bay Area’s two dozen transit agencies is 23.51 percent, according to data collected by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the regional transit planner.

Typically, heavy-rail operators such as Caltrain post solid farebox recovery rates, since most of the costs to the system are related to long-term capital needs and are not figured into the operating budget, said MTC spokesman John Goodwin.  

He pointed out that an engineer and a conductor can carry hundreds of passengers over a long distance for a relatively small cost, something that bus operators at Muni or AC Transit cannot do.

Still, even stacked against its peers, Caltrain’s performance is impressive. San Diego Coast Express Rail has a farebox recovery rate of 58.9 percent, while New York’s Long Island Rail Road’s rate is 46.1 percent, according to the National Transit Database.

Even with the improvement — Caltrain’s farebox recovery rate was just 30.1 percent in 2004 — the local agency is trying to manage expectations, according to spokesman Mark Simon.

Establishing a range of farebox recovery rates is important for projecting the budget, but outside factors, such as the health of the economy and diesel fuel prices, could force Caltrain to adjust its goals from year to year, Simon said.

Caltrain also pays for its services with subsidies from its three partner transit agencies — SamTrans, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and Muni.

Farebox recovery rates

Fare revenue: Operating expense: Recovery rate:
2011-12 $59,891,343 $102,225,947 58.59%
2010-11 $49,025,572 $96,710,101 50.69%
2009-10 $42,732,343 $89,716,521 47.63%
2008-09 $43,271,656 $91,018,423 47.54%
2007-08 $40,129,943 $87,831,635 45.69%
2006-07 $34,844,628 $77,905,255 44.73%


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