BART, Caltrain, Peninsula, Regional Rail, South Bay

Celebrating a Milestone and Biding Time

Hey, Caltrain: nice work. This past fiscal year, the underappreciated regional rail corridor linking Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco Counties has enjoyed the highest annual ridership in its history (now 145 years and counting): close to 12 million riders, or an average of almost 38,000 each weekday. The average weekday ridership in May 2008? 41,892 riders. In June 2008? 44,079 riders. It may not seem like much compared to the ridership of Muni, BART, or AC Transit, but exceeding the 40,000 mark is a notable milestone for Caltrain, which even during the dot-com boom enjoyed an average maximum of about 35,000 daily weekday riders. Ridership declined after the bust, once again dropping below 30,000 — but since 2004, when Caltrain completed the Caltrain Express (CTX) project and introduced Baby Bullet rush hour express trains that travel between San Francisco and San Jose in just under an hour, ridership has increased 48%. We should celebrate this milestone, but to be fair, this success must be qualified. Caltrain’s diesel operation is subject to the whims of rising fuel prices, and fare hikes are once again on the table, to go into effect January 2009. One proposal would raise only the base fare, by 25 cents. The other proposal would raise the base fare by 25 cents in addition to raising the fare for additional zones by 25 cents. Meanwhile, the surge in ridership since 2004 makes it clear that unmet demand exists for rapid, high quality rail service on this corridor. Augmenting the fleet is more of a short-term fix to accommodate increased demand, biding time until the complete array of funds necessary for Caltrain electrification become available.

Electrification, and grade separations, station improvements, and upgrades constructed in connection with high-speed rail, could transform Caltrain into a much more robust, higher capacity system — and would pave the way for a northward subway extension in San Francisco from the current terminus at 4th and Townsend Streets to the Transbay Transit Center. Besides reducing pollution, electrification of Caltrain will shorten travel times by permitting trains to brake into and accelerate out of stations more quickly (of particular relevance for Caltrain, where stations are often rather closely spaced). Service would be quieter and much more frequent: electrified Caltrain service could operate every 15 minutes or better. For 2020 electrified service, 132 weekday trains were studied (compared to the 98 weekday trains in 2008), but still more could be added to achieve five-minute headways at peak. Midday and weekend trains notwithstanding, Caltrain is still at heart a commuter rail line. But with shorter headways, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties would enjoy service levels closer to that of BART — plus the express service that BART’s limited track cannot accommodate. Revenue service with electric Caltrain could start in 2014. At what cost? The most recent estimate to rehabilitate the 52-mile route between San Francisco (the current terminus, not Transbay) and San Jose is $626 million, which includes the overhead catenary and ten power substations distributed throughout the route, but not the rolling stock. That’s about $12 million per mile; even adding in the rolling stock, the cost is a fraction of the $170 million per mile cost for the 2003 BART extension to Millbrae and SFO.

But the intangible effects of electrification may be equally compelling. Right now, BART is the only Bay Area agency providing service that could all-around be legitimately named “rapid transit,” and its 15-minute headways (or better, where multiple lines share track) are just good enough to allow riders to drop in spontaneously on stations without first consulting a schedule. This level of convenience has engendered the public perception that a BART extension is the superior, most natural way to expand the reach of Bay Area regional rail, and that any other technology will fall short of excellence. But BART’s broad gauge demands custom, segregated infrastructure, the extreme expense of which siphons funds from other worthy projects and prevents the Bay Area from reaping the full benefit of its transit expansion dollars. So it is unfortunate that this attitude should prevail, at all levels — starting with members of the public and going right up to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

In contrast to the perhaps sleeker (but aging) BART trains, Caltrain largely maintains the image of a more antiquated railroad, despite recently acquiring Bombardiers in connection with implementing Baby Bullet service. The contrast is perhaps especially emphasized in San Francisco: while BART serves Market Street directly in a subway, Caltrain gets no further than a yard one full mile from from the heart of downtown. But run frequent service on lighter electric vehicles — even throw in the downtown extension for good measure, assuming funds are found to pay for it — and suddenly Caltrain starts to look a lot more like BART. If service as frequent as BART’s can be provided with infrastructure that costs a fraction of BART infrastructure — and it can — for how much longer should we continue to flat out ignore common sense, all in the name of realizing the original idealistic vision of BART planners, in which BART trains would cross each bridge, run in the median of every freeway, and circle the entire Bay? As long as intermodal connection points between BART and Caltrain are made seamless, particularly in terms of fare integration and minimizing wait times, there is no reason why two different systems should not exist side by side. Easier said than done, but we can do much better than Millbrae. BART is best suited to the metro-style service it currently provides to San Francisco, Oakland, and nearby inner-ring suburbs. Electrified Caltrain could play a similar role for the Peninsula and South Bay, if only we’d let it. Both electrified Caltrain and high-speed rail would provide the Bay Area with real-life, up-close and personal examples of rapid, high quality rail service. Rapid, high quality — and yet, not BART. Imagine that.



20 thoughts on “Celebrating a Milestone and Biding Time

  1. How hard, I wonder, would it be to implement a BART-Caltrain fare union? Since both systems have fares based on distance, you could simply put BART-style faregates at Caltrain stations, use the same ticketing stock, remove the faregates from the Millbrae stop (and the pedestrian tunnel linking the new Transbay Terminal to Montgomery station) and add the BART and Caltrain fares together for individual trips. Viola, instant integration! It could get to the point that people barely notice that they’re separate systems…

    Posted by jfruh | 7 August 2008, 9:37 am
  2. Electrification and access to downtown via a new tunnel could bring to Viz Valley and Bayview what the T never could and that is fast frequent (up to BART like serive) access to downtown SF

    Shame we had to built the T at all

    Posted by zig | 7 August 2008, 1:30 pm
  3. jfruh consider what a Caltrian station looks like and a BART station

    You idea is terribly expensive as many Caltrain stations are concrete platforms

    But if anything BART stations in places like Concord are what is over-engineered

    Basically subway stations in the middle of nowhere

    Posted by zig | 7 August 2008, 1:32 pm
  4. At the risk of asking the obvious, why does electrification lead to shorter headways? Is it just a result of the better acceleration?

    Posted by Wes M | 7 August 2008, 3:04 pm
  5. a caltrain extension is way too distant in the future to make the usefulness of the T line a question, not to mention that commuter rail is not comparable to light rail, different functions (local vs long range service), different stop spacings, different headways esp on non-commute hours.

    but i agree, better caltrain/bart integration would be great, wasn’t that one of the points of the translink? where is that again? :p

    Posted by misa | 7 August 2008, 4:41 pm
  6. And imagine what ridership would be at the 22nd street station if there were reliable bus service or secure parking…

    The 48 is a joke — unreliable, late, slow.—48-quintara-24th-st-san-francisco

    Muni, could you at least coordinate bus departures with the Caltrain arrivals?

    I understand why the 48 has a crazy loopy route, but it shouldn’t be the ONLY bus at that station. If you are serious about it, give me a BRT that connects through Cesar Chavez to Noe (half of whom work in Silicon Valley and would do the train a couple of days a week), and another that handles 16th or 18th.

    While I could drive there, I can’t tell you how many people I know who have parked there only to find smashed windows and sliced tires. No way am I leaving my car there if it will be dark upon my return. Put up a fence, decent lighting and have security on bikes. I’d gladly pay a couple of bucks for parking rather than have a $200 deductible for a new window or tire a couple of times a year.

    The tamale ladies are the most organized part of the 22nd St station! Maybe they can organize a shuttle.

    Posted by johnny0 | 7 August 2008, 5:10 pm
  7. Great post! I’m guilty of wishing for the demise of Caltrain because, as your post mentions, the 1 hour headways in the mdidle of the day are intolerable. The penalty for missing your train is severe.

    Now, if Caltrain with lighter, electrified rolling stock can do 15 minute headways from 7am to 7pm, I’m sold. I’d ride it several times a week. Is it really possible that this could happen?

    So, yes, this would be absolutely fantastic. But, here’s a warning: an electrified Caltrain with anything more than 25 minute headways would just be a big waste of money.

    Posted by Bronson | 7 August 2008, 6:09 pm
  8. In terms of fare integration: BART and Caltrain both use zones, but other than that, the payment systems are completely at odds with each other. Caltrain has inspectors, but no faregates to pass through prior to reaching the platform; BART has faregates, but no inspectors. Caltrain has monthly passes that cover travel between two preset zones; BART has no monthly pass. Not to say one or the other agency couldn’t change, but if history is any indication, it will probably be unreasonable to expect that level of cooperation. As misa mentioned, Translink — if it gets completely rolled out within our lifetimes — at least has the benefit of shielding from the rider the need to actively figure out intricacies of different fare systems. Coupled with a substantial reduction in fare for the transfer and actual time coordination, you could probably pull off a pretty good job of integrating the two systems, even without forcing one agency to adopt the system of the other.

    Wes and Bronson, on the shorter headways: quicker braking and acceleration basically reduces travel times. It would, for instance, shave about ten minutes off of the 1-hour Baby Bullet trip between SF and SJ. Caltrain could stay diesel and still run more frequent service than it does now, but more capacity still would be nice. And here’s another way to look at it: with less braking/acceleration delay associated with stopping at a station, express trains could stop at a few more stations than they do now, and still travel from SF to SJ in an hour. So you open up more cities to the Baby Bullet level of service, and certain stations would see trains stopping more frequently — all the while maintaining the 1-hour travel time that compares favorably with freeway commutes.

    But then, in addition to fuel costs and pollution issues associated with diesel, electrification ties into high-speed rail and the Transbay extension. And, there’s still an interesting question about the “intangible” effects mentioned in the post. Shorter travel times with electrified Caltrain would by itself attract more riders, but would having a quieter, more modern (i.e. “BART-like”) transit option entice more people still to ride, more than we might anticipate from time savings alone? It seems like electrification really could have that effect.

    By the way: the 1 hour headways are just on weekends. During the week midday, headways are 30 minutes. Still not great, but I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. :)

    Posted by Eric | 8 August 2008, 1:42 am
  9. Misa you are correct that light rail is a local service not comparable to commuter rail (which is pretty close to what BART is)

    If the point of the T was to give Bay View and Viz Valley a connection to downtown then electified Caltrain could do it much faster and better (this is a long trip on lightrail)

    The T is slower than a bus. For local service along 3rd a bus with signal prioity would have sufficed and likley been faster

    Here are examples of what is possible. No sense in reinventing the wheel. Caltrain could run service to the level of demand

    Posted by zig | 8 August 2008, 11:18 am
  10. “an electrified Caltrain with anything more than 25 minute headways would just be a big waste of money.”

    Headways would be a fuction of demand

    Posted by zig | 8 August 2008, 11:19 am
  11. And to the point about the T vs Caltain: what was the point of the T?

    If it was to give the poor southeast access to jobs downtown then electified commuter service would be best

    Access on lightrail at this distance is pushing what is reasonable. The T is slow, it often runs in traffic. Local service could have easily been provided on 3rd with buses and signal priority or BRT

    Check out the S bahn

    I understand the electrifed Caltrain as to distant so the T had to be built but this just points out the weakness of our transit planning process

    Posted by zig | 8 August 2008, 11:26 am
  12. The T is slow, it often runs in traffic.

    Actually, the T only runs in mixed traffic with vehicles for those few blocks in the Bayview. The rest of the time, it runs in dedicated lanes or in the subway. Not that the subway is necessarily fast — but there it is.

    You’re right that the T is slow. That’s more a function of the high number of stops. There is no bus running on 3rd that could fill in large gaps with local service, so trains are stopping more often than they really ought to. Once again, even when we build a new light rail line from scratch, SF light rail continues to be a sort of rail-bus hybrid. And so, we do not have a demonstrated big boost in service over the old 15.

    But then, there’s the T as a vehicle for development, which is another can of worms.

    Posted by Eric | 8 August 2008, 11:39 am
  13. And imagine what ridership would be at the 22nd street station if there were reliable bus service or safe/secure parking…

    The 48 is unreliable, late, slow.—48-quintara-24th-st-san-francisco

    Muni, could you at least coordinate bus departures with the Caltrain arrivals?

    I understand why the 48 has a crazy loopy route, but it shouldn’t be the ONLY bus at that station. If you are serious about it, give me a BRT that connects through Cesar Chavez to Noe (half of whom work in Silicon Valley and would do the train a couple of days a week), and another that handles 16th or 18th.

    But it looks like the plan is replace the 48 stop with a new bus, the 58.

    Click to access rte_048.pdf

    Click to access rte_058.pdf

    Still just one bus serving the station though.

    It takes three times longer for me to take the bus than drive. Secure parking would be helpful. Put up a fence, decent lighting and have security guys on bikes. I’d gladly pay a couple of bucks for parking rather than have a $200 deductible for a new window or tire a couple of times a year.

    The tamale ladies are the most organized part of the 22nd St station! Maybe they can organize a shuttle.

    Posted by johnny0 | 8 August 2008, 12:19 pm
  14. That reminds me, I really ought to do some sort of post soon on the TEP update.

    Posted by Eric | 8 August 2008, 12:29 pm
  15. My humble suggestion for a Noe – Cesar Chavez – 22nd St Caltrain BRT. Also a Mission-Dolores/16th St BART/22nd St loop.

    Posted by johnny0 | 8 August 2008, 1:35 pm
  16. Caltrain boosters might look at Metra Electric and the South Shore in Chicago. The main line from downtown to 115th street is four tracks w/bi-directional signalling so that three tracks can be direction of rush. This system, electrified in 1926 has been both a suburban commuter line and within the city rapid transit. In the 50s the branch in my South Chicago ‘hood featured 20 min headways during midday.

    About the T, Muni needs to aggressively increase both speed and frequency of service. Every time I have idden, the trains seemed to crawl–they should be doing at least 30 mph. as for the tunnel issues,another post.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 8 August 2008, 9:06 pm
  17. johnnyO, spot on A 24th/Castro local to Valencia , nonstop to Cesar Chavez Stop Mission, maybe one or two al Chavez east ofPotyrero/Bayshore direct toCaltrain then up to 3rd/18th loop and retrace. For all practical purposes no EIR should be needed as akmost all the route is currently in use. three coaches should be able to cover meeting scheduled trains in base day 4 in rush.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 8 August 2008, 9:15 pm
  18. BART fare integration mostly is a political issue. If MTC who distributes funds cared, the recent BART TVM/Faregate hardware could have been tweaked to work w/ Caltrain AND gasp! dispense Muni fare instruments at the SF stations. Thanks MTC.
    Note that Capitol Corridor has a joint ticketing deal.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 9 August 2008, 12:11 pm
  19. a word or several about “commuter” rail and rapid (mass) transit. (and heavy v light rail an even fuzzier distinction) The argument over which sysems are which regularly erupts on which is a New York centric message board. Some very fuzzy definitions emerge ALL of which can be shown to have exceptions. For instance, PATH, the train system connecting Newark, Jersey City to lower Manhattan and Hoboken to midtown, was built to the same basic dimensions as NY’s IRT (first subway line). Stations have “barrier” fare control, high level platforms, destination signs on the cars, a flat fare, third rail, ; its a subway right? Wrong, because at one time it had active connections to a mainline RR it is a RAILROAD subject to FRA jurisdiction/safety rules which for instance do not apply ro BART or Muni as “isolated systems”. Conversely, the Chicago L system which also was once connected to the national railroad network, and even operated a freight service, while considered a ‘heavy rail’ subway system, is 1 non FRA, and 2, operated cars physically lighter than Muni’s Breda LRVs.
    While I think of the Metra Electric in Chicago as mainline RR, because it was once part of the Illinois Central, it was built as if a stand alone system–which it became when bought by the State of Illinois. Since 1926, it too featured, high level platforms, barrier fare control, overhead catenary, discount monthly tickets, destinaton signage. etc. BUT, like unto some NYC subway routes featured 4 and in places SIX tracks thus offering express and “special” (baby bullet like) service.
    The point of all this is that if Caltrain were four tracks, electrified MUs and had the budget, they could easily do 20 minute headway locals and 30 minute expresses all day. Thus NOT ONE FOOT of BART extension need be built at their platinum/vanadium plated prices. Superior service can be provided by trains which are not limited to a deliberately incompatible guage. .

    Posted by david vartanoff | 9 August 2008, 1:41 pm


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