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Photograph by Jeff Kearns

Train Trust: It's easier for conductors to make the rounds these days collecting tickets and fares from the fewer passengers on board, but critics allege millions of dollars in revenue have been lost.

Free Ride

Critics say Caltrain blew a huge opportunity for profit during the dotcom boom by letting thousands of passengers ride for free

By Gordon Young

JUST ABOUT EVERY Caltrain rider has at least one complaint about the 77-mile commuter service that runs from Gilroy to San Francisco. It could be the bone-jarring ride, the shortage of bike racks, the obnoxious cell-phone talkers or the 2 1/2 hours it takes to get from one end of the line to the other. But Caltrain's biggest flaw seems to generate the fewest complaints.

"It's a dirty little secret among people in the know that Caltrain hasn't been good about collecting fares for eons," says Adrian Brandt, former head of Peninsula Rail 2000, a volunteer transit consumer group. "I'd estimate they easily fail to collect 10 percent of cash fares, and that's a conservative estimate."

Regular Caltrain riders, especially those who travel only a few stops, often complete their journey without buying a ticket or getting their passes canceled. During peak commute times, entire cars with roughly 130 seats have been known to roll from San Jose to San Francisco without a single fare being collected. As a regular commuter for the past seven years, I have ridden for free on approximately 25 percent of rush-hour trains. Veteran Caltrain Conductor James Ford, who has been given a pseudonym because he did not wish to be identified, estimates that Caltrain has lost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 a day on uncollected fares because conductors simply don't have enough time to walk the aisles collecting fares or tickets from passengers.

That works out to as much as $1.8 million in lost revenue per year, or more than 5 percent of Caltrain's projected $32 million in revenue for this fiscal year. Hardly small change at a transit agency that doesn't come close to meeting its expenses with ticket revenues. More than half of Caltrain's projected $66.2 million operating budget will be covered by subsidies from Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco Counties this fiscal year.

"We're losing buckets of money," Ford says.

To make matters worse, it appears that Caltrain missed an opportunity for huge revenue increases during the high-tech boom, by not collecting fares when ridership on the San Francisco to Silicon Valley routes reached record highs.

Transit watchdogs like Brandt say fares have been going uncollected since Caltrain took full control of the commuter service from Southern Pacific Railway in 1992.

He should know. Brandt began his life on the rails in 1979 when he started commuting from Palo Alto to Hillsdale to attend Serra High. He now commutes regularly on Caltrain from Redwood City to Mountain View. In addition to his work with Peninsula Rail 2000, which recently changed its name to BayRail Alliance, Brandt is the former chair of the citizen's advisory committee of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB), which oversees the commuter line.

"If you take a short ride on Caltrain," Brandt says, "there's a good chance you won't run into a conductor."

Fare Criticism

Caltrain officials admit the problem but are unwilling to give figures or even estimates on how much money has been lost. Probably because they don't really know.

"This is something we've been aware of, and it's been a long process to correct it," says Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Maltbie, who hopes recently installed ticket vending machines (TVMs) will be the solution. Since July, riders have been able to purchase tickets from the machines in advance of boarding. This saves conductors some time because they only have to verify tickets and not sell them on board. As an incentive to use the machines, commuters buying tickets on board have been made to pay a surcharge of $1 for not purchasing tickets in advance, and this amount will soon increase to $3.

How much the machines are correcting is hard to gauge; Caltrain has no way to accurately determine how many commuters ride on a given day. Unlike BART, there are no turnstiles at Caltrain's 34 stations. Caltrain occasionally conducts surveys and spot checks, but ridership is ultimately determined only by the number of paid fares. If all the fares aren't being collected--and they're not--then the numbers will be skewed.

This may help explain the strange ridership and revenue figures now coming out of the agency's headquarters in San Carlos. To look at Caltrain figures for the past two years, a person would never know that the dotcom boom happened. During the boom, commuter trains became so crowded it wasn't uncommon for riders to stand in the aisles and vestibules. Some were so packed that weary commuters were told to wait for the next one. But with the current 6 percent unemployment rates in the Bay Area, empty Caltrain seats are as easy to find as out-of-work dotcommers.

Yet for this past August, with the downturn in full swing, Caltrain counted 945,626 monthly passengers, higher than the 906,407 passengers the previous year when the economy was pumping. Revenues for this August also climbed to $2,300,336, up from $2,104,856 the previous year.

"Ridership is obviously down, despite the numbers, due to layoffs and the economic downturn," confirms Caltrain's Maltbie. "We're not really seeing more riders, but we are realizing more revenue. The $1 fee is a real incentive to buy tickets in advance, so the TVMs have definitely helped."

Ticket to Ride

Just how much they've improved the situation is difficult to determine. The unreliable Caltrain numbers showing an increase in revenues and riders when fewer people are actually riding the train could indicate that conductors simply have more time to collect tickets and fares from the passengers they have. That means the percentage of fares collected--whatever that percentage may be because Caltrain doesn't know--could start to dip when the economy rebounds and trains get crowded again.

And while Caltrain spent millions installing TVMs to help solve its fare collection problem, it turns out the agency has no reliable way to measure just how many riders are using the new machines. Conductors don't keep a tally of tickets purchased at TVMs. They simply cancel the ticket and hand it back to the rider. The machines only calculate total revenue generated, not the number of actual riders. Caltrain isn't even bothering to keep track of how many surcharges conductors levy for purchasing tickets on board instead of at the machines. The surcharge revenue is simply mixed in with revenue from onboard ticket purchases, Maltbie says.

And while TVMs do guarantee Caltrain will collect revenue for each ticket sold at the machines, they don't ensure that tickets will be canceled on the train. A passenger could still get on and off Caltrain without having a ticket validated. The tickets are good for 30 days, so the passenger could use it for a future commute, effectively getting two rides for the price of one. (Given Caltrain's track record, a passenger might ride four or five times before the ticket he purchased at a TVM is validated.)

That's why Brandt advocates issuing tickets from the machines that expire in three hours rather than the current 30-day expiration. Even if passengers made it off the train, they couldn't reuse their tickets. The proposal, however, was recently rejected by the Joint Powers Board.

"The three-hour expiration time was extremely unpopular among our ridership at public meetings on the issue," Maltbie explains.

Margaret Okuzumi was one person who voiced opposition. She and her husband became involved in local transit issues when they moved to the Bay Area from Tokyo four years ago.

"It was a shock to us that Silicon Valley, of all places, had such bad public transit," Okuzumi remembers. "The trains were pretty bad compared to the nice trains in Tokyo."

The 30-year-old Okuzumi is now the executive director of BayRail Alliance, the same organization that Brandt led when it was known as Peninsula Rail 2000.

She feared the three-hour limit would prevent people from purchasing tickets in advance and unfairly punish those who missed their train or changed travel plans. Instead, Okuzumi favors some type of validation machine that would cancel tickets when passengers board a train. But like Brandt, she believes the ticket machines are a good first step.

"The transition to TVMs has not been a smooth one, but it's a move in the right direction," says Okuzumi, who complains there are not enough machines at each station and that they often break down or malfunction. "We raised the issue of fare collection a number of years ago and it seems like Caltrain is finally conscious of it."

Semi-Conductors

Conductors also welcome the ticket machines, but they're quick to point out they aren't a panacea for Caltrain's fare collection woes. With all their other duties, conductors complain that there simply isn't enough time to get to every passenger, even with TVMs. Unlike many commuter lines across the country, Caltrain passengers don't necessarily journey from the suburbs to a single urban job center. Instead, hundreds of riders might only be on board for a few stops before exiting.

"There are a lot of demands on a conductor's time, and our focus is primarily on the safety of passengers," says Ed Adams, the local chairperson of the United Transportation Union, which represents conductors. "We're not just ticket machines with arms and legs."

Although some trains have an extra helper, two conductors are often expected to work trains that can have five cars with seating for approximately 650 passengers. Two conductors are required to exit the train at every stop and monitor the platforms.

On crowded trains, a conductor is often tied up patrolling the bike car to make sure aisles aren't blocked. Passengers with disabilities sometimes need assistance entering and exiting the train. And communicating with non-English speaking passengers can be time consuming.

While some riders seek out conductors to settle up before they leave the train, others aren't exactly advertising the fact that they haven't paid. Veteran conductors have run across a variety of methods to bilk Caltrain. Some passengers try to pay with $50 and $100 bills, hoping the conductor won't have change. Others try to pass off foreign coins. And some aren't above feigning sleep or hiding in the bathroom. All these ruses eat up valuable time conductors could be using to collect fares.

"Given the circumstances, an individual who truly wants to avoid a conductor can probably do it," Adams admits. "Fare collection can be a real challenge given the small number of conductors on each train."

Collecting fines from passengers who bypass the machines and wait to buy a ticket on board can put conductors in an awkward position. They have the option of letting riders off the hook if there's a valid reason--the machine wasn't working or the passenger got to the station too late to buy a ticket. But riders who are fined usually let conductors know they aren't happy about it.

"I've been spat at, lunged at, and called every name in the book," says conductor James Ford. "I try to back off, but there have been times when we've had to call the police. The machines take some of the burden off us, but the fine puts us in an adversarial position."

Conductors should probably get used to it. Caltrain recently signed a five-year contract for service and maintenance of the commuter line with Amtrak, which has an employment relationship with the conductors union. The new contract stipulates that Amtrak is responsible for collecting 100 percent of all fares.

"If you talk to conductors, they probably voiced concern and skepticism, to put it mildly, that 100 percent fare collection can happen," Adams says. "But we show up at work every day with the full intention of doing the best we can given the circumstances."

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From the November 22-28, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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