It seems more people are taking the train.
In an annual survey conducted over one week by Caltrain, ridership is up for South County, but not by much, and some say the lack of trains is one reason.
Train riders at the Morgan Hill station increased by 6.6 percent from 2011 to 2012 or an increase of seven people, while Gilroy increased by 2.6 percent, or an increase of three people. The San Martin station ridership remained the same. That means a total of 113 people ride the Morgan Hill station and 116 use the Gilroy station, 43 use San Martin.
As gas prices surpass $4 a gallon, ridership is likely to increase, and with that increase better service could be addressed, said Ken Yeager, Caltrain board member and Santa Clara County supervisor.
“I believe that between the increase in the cost of fuel and the uptick in the economy, we will see more ridership in this area. As we can demonstrate demand, we can argue more forcefully that scarce resources can continue to be used to support South County service,” he said.
Caltrain, which serves the three counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara, saw an overall increase in ridership of 12 percent – from 37,779 people in 2011 to 42,354 in 2012. Numbers included traditional peak commute hours, midday and night numbers from 86 different trains.
Nick, a school teacher in San Jose who lives in Gilroy and who declined to give his last name, said he doesn’t see the change while on the train.
“I didn’t notice it, it feels empty,” he said.
Nick takes his bike with him on the train to get to and from stations, riding the train from his Gilroy home to San Jose every day, then returning home from work. He says sometimes, he’s the only one on the train from Morgan Hill to Gilroy, at least in his car.
“If you miss one, you have to wait about an hour and a half for the next train,” he said.
Nick said he would like to more frequent service so that large gap wouldn’t keep him waiting.
Trains leave Gilroy in the morning, going northbound at 6:07 a.m., 6:30 a.m. and 7:05 a.m. and depart from Morgan Hill at 6:22 a.m., 6:45 a.m. and then at 7:20 a.m. Things change for the evening commute, with trains arriving at Morgan Hill at 5:11 p.m., 6:48 p.m. and 7:28 p.m. The Gilroy train arrives at 5:30 p.m. 7:07 p.m. and 7:47 p.m.
Santa Clara County itself saw an increase of 14 percent for ridership this year, a total of 17,588 riders were counted in a sample week in February.
San Jose City Councilman Ash Kalra, who represents South County on the Caltrain board, said increased ridership is good news.
“We’ve seen the highest ridership and revenue this year in the history of Caltrain,” he said.
Kalra said the benefits of Caltrain are tremendous for South County.
“I’m going to continue to do outreach to South County. If more of Morgan Hill viewed how great service is, they would take it more,” he said. “It’s a system that is incredibly efficient.”
He pointed out that South County riders aren’t taking trains into San Francisco, but mostly to other parts of Santa Clara County. With more trains to accommodate bicycles than any other system in the nation, as well as free WiFi access, he said, there are more and more reasons for South County to take advantage of Caltrain services.
Ken Yeager, Caltrain board member and Santa Clara County supervisor said the low ridership in South County is a concern.
“The South County stations generate less than 300 boardings per day. By comparison, the San Jose Diridon station generates about 2,800 boardings per day. However, I strongly support continued service to South County,” Yeager said.
In 2011, with a budget deficit of $30 million, Caltrain was looking to make drastic cuts including ending service south of the San Jose Diridon station. In April 2011, the Caltrain board of directors avoided cutting service to three stations and the possible elimination of 10 trains. The board instead approved a revised budge proposal that included a ticket fee increase and parking fees.
A trip from Morgan Hill or Gilroy to San Jose’s Diridon Station costs $6.75 for a one-way trip. A visit to San Francisco aboard the train would cost a South County rider $12.75 one way.
Kalra said that “nominal fee increases” have been suggested to the board this year as well.
“We were in a real dire state a year ago,” said Kalra. “They suggested to drastically cut Caltrain service … I fought against that.”
This wasn’t the first time that Caltrain looked to possible service cuts: in 2009, Caltrain also looked to end services to Gilroy and raise fare prices when it faced a $10.9 million budget gap to fill.
Electrifying the system
Caltrain is also looking for ways to improve the efficiency of its train system. The electrification project will install traction power facilities, poles and an overhead contact system to replace the current diesel powered trains. Electrifying the system would eliminate air pollution, reduce noise and improve service with faster trains and more frequent service.
Currently, diesel powered trains need more time to stop and start, said Caltrain spokesperson Christine Dunn. This needed distance between trains is a safety precaution so that trains do not crash into each other, said Dunne.
Electrification will also prepare the system for the anticipated high-speed rail project, which would blend the Caltrain service and high-speed service together. High-speed rail project would bring a fast ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, at the estimated current cost of the project at $68 billion.
If funding is secured for the project, Caltrain riders could see the new system in place by 2019, with an estimated cost of $1.45 billion, which also includes an advanced signal system.
However, there’s a catch. The Gilroy Extension – stations south of Tamien in San Jose that include Capitol, Blossom Hill, Morgan Hill, San Martin and Gilroy – will not be included in the electrification of the project.
Dunn said the reason for that is because the Gilroy Extension is not owned by Caltrain like the other stations in the system, it’s owned by Union Pacific. Caltrain is under contract through what is called a Trackage Rights Agreement with Union Pacific, Dunn said, and can not make any improvements on maintenance or even railroad signs as it is their private property. Trains in this section are controlled by Union Pacific from their dispatch center in Omaha, Neb.
Yeager said the Union Pacific would have to agree to electrify that section of the rail south of Tamien in San Jose.
“Electrification offers no benefits for freight railroad and could be seen as an complication for Union Pacific’s operations,” he said.
One possibility once the electrification is completed at the other stations said Dunne, is either a diesel-only train specified to go all the way to Gilroy, or riders will have to transfer.
Kalra said the board is working on making the system available to Gilroy Extension eventually.
“Our goal is ultimately to electrify all of Caltrain,” said Kalra. “It benefits all riders: the train will go faster, be more efficient and cost effective.”