BART and Caltrain merger on the table in talks to improve transit
Imagine if transferring from BART to Caltrain was as easy as taking a few steps from one train to another.
Their arrivals would be synced up, so you wouldn’t be greeted by an empty platform and a long wait. The price of your ticket would be based on how far you go, not which train you use, so you wouldn’t have to pay extra for the switch. Maps at every stop would show Caltrain’s line of stations up the Peninsula alongside BART’s routes through San Francisco, the East Bay and the South Bay.
Backers of this vision say merging BART and Caltrain into a single regional rail system, set to eventually encircle the Bay, would make public transportation faster, cheaper and easier for riders to navigate.
It’s a long-debated idea, but there are signs momentum could be building. A merger with BART is one of the concepts Caltrain’s board is considering this year as it overhauls the railroad’s management. And COVID-19 has upped the pressure throughout the Bay Area to better coordinate service between agencies if they want to win back riders in the post-pandemic world.
Seamless Bay Area, a group that advocates for streamlining the region’s complex web of more than two-dozen public transportation agencies, calls for going even further in a report released Tuesday: It recommends bringing BART, Caltrain and other longer-distance operators such as San Francisco Bay Ferry and the North Bay’s Golden Gate Transit together into a single system that stretches from Santa Rosa to Gilroy.
The group’s policy director, Ian Griffiths, said that would create a well-coordinated regional “backbone” system for the entire Bay Area that would be far more effective than the status quo at luring people out of their cars and off of traffic-choked freeways.
“Most people aren’t using transit at all,” Griffiths said. “Fundamentally, it’s not easy enough — it’s not convenient enough for people (and) it’s just not competitive to use transit in many situations.”
By bringing those agencies together, Griffiths said, “We can actually create something that is better for everyone.”
But how likely is it?
Caltrain’s governing board agreed to study and recommend changes to its management structure as part of a deal struck last summer to put a sales tax measure supporting the railroad on the November ballot, which voters approved. Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman said those discussions are now covering “various options so that the recommendations best serve Caltrain’s customers, communities and organization.”
And several Bay Area transit agencies are discussing their management structures as part of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Blue Ribbon Transit Recovery Task Force, BART spokeswoman Alicia Trost said. Another group is studying ways to better coordinate fares between agencies. And Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, has introduced legislation in Sacramento to improve coordination among the Bay Area’s operators.
But, Trost added, “We have not had any discussion with our board about the concept of a rail merger with Caltrain.”
Over the coming decade, though, the two rail agencies are set to offer increasingly similar services.
Caltrain has ambitious plans to eventually run express trains every 15 minutes along its soon-to-be-electrified tracks. Long the domain of white-collar commuters, the agency has embarked on efforts to expand its appeal to less-wealthy workers and riders who don’t own cars.
“Caltrain has set a vision of essentially becoming exactly like BART,” Griffiths said.
While the two systems now only have one connection point, at the Millbrae station, the $6.9 billion BART extension through downtown San Jose would create two new transfer opportunities in the South Bay, at Diridon Station and a planned Santa Clara stop.
Both agencies also have their sights set on major infrastructure projects: Caltrain wants to extend its tracks to the Salesforce Transit Center in downtown San Francisco, and BART officials are pitching a second transbay crossing.
“It’s hardly a surprise that people would come to this conclusion,” MTC spokesman Randy Rentschler said. “There is a great deal of similarity.”
But changes that require giving up local control typically face resistance from within transit agencies, Rentschler said, recalling the fierce fights over the Clipper Card system that unified ticketing around the region. That same hesitancy could doom the latest round of efforts to consolidate and coordinate transit.
“We don’t have any shortage of studies, we don’t have a shortage of conversations or a shortage of meetings,” Rentschler said. “Innovation comes hard to public transit.”