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.