Caltrain braces for service termination as a last resort

The COVID-19 crisis is costing transit agencies, riders, and in some cases, the lion’s share of revenue.

Already running with 57% fewer trains, Caltrain officials concede that may not be enough cost-cutting due to COVID-19. They’re bracing for service termination, as a last resort – if things don’t improve.

“It’s not a likely scenario, but in a worst-case, it could happen,” said David Pine, the chairman of the Caltrain Board of Directors.

He said passenger gate fare accounted for 70% of revenue that ran the system. Then the coronavirus hit, and ridership plummeted, as regular passengers sheltered-at-home, or lost their jobs altogether.

"I used to take it daily. But I got laid off last week. So I’ll be moving out of the area in about a month,” said Cesar Tamondong, a Caltrain passenger who used to commute from Palo Alto to San Francisco. 

The severe reduction in ridership has left Caltrain more reliant on government subsidies, such as the funds other transit agencies receive in earnest. It has received almost $50 million from the federal CARES Act to stay afloat into the fall. After that, reductions could eventually lead to discontinuation of service.

“For the foreseeable future, Caltrain will be under tremendous financial pressure. And we’ll be dependent on federal stimulus funds to help bridge the gap,” said Pine.

Added Dr. Asha Weinstein Agrawal, “People are just not riding Caltrain right now.”

A transit expert and director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Finance Center, Agrawal said mass trans all over the country is bracing for a new reality, once the COVID-19/coronavirus crisis is over.

“I suspect we use less transit service, at least for a while,” said Dr. Agrawal.

Caltrain executives are waiting to access ridership once the shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted. But it’ll be slow going as the service tries to secure government funding at a time when all levels of government are stretched to the breaking point.