The era of TrainSuck: SF Caltrain vs. Renfe MD

It’s always easy to bitch about US train service. Despite having the largest rail system in the world (at least we’re #1 in something), Amtrak is not a good way to get anywhere. I mean, there should be multiple daily trains covering the 600km route from San Francisco to Los Angeles, yet one has to either take a one hour flight or a six hour drive. Both of which are sad in comparison to the fact that TGV covers a route 33% longer from Perpignan to Paris in less time than it takes to drive from SF to LA.

But, it’s easy to go strawman and pull these extreme examples. What about the regular, boring trains that take us where we need to go daily? Take the Caltrain route from San Francisco to San Jose. This is a 77km journey that costs €6.16 with the new prices that are taking effect soon. By comparison, the route from Figueres to Barcelona on Renfe is 139km and costs €12.90. I bring up these two examples for comparison as I know them both very well and they’ve both been subject to cuts and fare hikes over the past few years.

When broken down, the Caltrain trip costs €0.08 per kilometer. By comparison, the Renfe trip in Spain costs €0.09 per kilometer. It’s funny to realize that Caltrain is actually cheaper than the Spanish train. I believe that this is due to two factors. One is that I started making that Renfe trip three years ago when it was €8 a ride making it €0.06 per kilometer and in my mind it still seems cheaper even though it is not anymore.

The other factor is the time. If (and this is a difficult if) you take a “bullet” Caltrain, the trip from SF to SJ takes an hour, which means that the trains are traveling at an average of 77kph. The Renfe train on the other hand is traveling at 70kph for its trip. But, if you take the standard Caltrain (which is much more frequent and the only one to run on weekends), suddenly you drop to a crawling 48kph.

All told, Caltrain doesn’t look like that bad of a deal on the surface, even if the majority of the trains are slower, but you have to take in account that there is a multi-ride booklet that you can buy for the Renfe trip that heavily discounts the rides. Caltrain also has discounts, but they aren’t so great and to be honest, I’ve never taken it enough to justify looking in to them as they’ve never been a great deal.

More importantly, there are the hidden costs with Caltrain. Much as is the case with the tip and sales tax on a meal in the US where these added items can be upwards of 35% to the listed, “on paper” cost, Caltrain has other hidden costs as well. Because the stations are absolutely not in the center of their respective towns, you will have to either drive to and pay to park at the stations or take other public transportation to get there. This increases the overall costs and most importantly, it increases the time factor that makes Caltrain to unappealing to me overall. By comparison, Renfe’s Figueres to Barcelona line start and end in the centers of town (more so with Barcelona). You can’t compete with the train in cost (gas is more than €1 a liter or $8 a gallon) and time in that the train truly is faster in Spain, even if it costs slightly more strictly on paper.

Of course, it’s unfortunate that the costs of both these systems have gone up considerably in the last couple of years. Caltrain’s rise is due to mismanagement and the burden of employee pension and health benefits that should be part of a public government (yes, I mean “social”) plan. Renfe’s rise is due to the idiotic separation of the rail system from the train system in order to allow for rail competition, which failed horribly in England by the way and has so far only managed to make Spanish passenger rail cost the same as America–on paper.

(I used Euros as I had to use one base monetary system for comparison, the Euro is stronger, and I felt like being a punk. Amounts are based on the exchange rate of $1 = €1.37 when I wrote this. The use of kilometers is because miles are not base ten as well as being complete and utter shit, along with the rest of the British Imperial system that they don’t even use anymore… hey Burma and Liberia, want to trade some gallons?)

The era of TrainSuck: SF Caltrain vs. Renfe MD