Saturday, March 7, 2009

Low-Speed Rail

Caltrain just shifted their southbound weekend schedule by 15 minutes to allow extra time for nocturnal track work.

Caltrain weekend service is a long, sorry tale. For two years weekend trains were canceled altogether for track upgrades, replaced by a limited-stop "RRX" bus which kept up with the previous local-stop schedule to the stops it served. This included a brutal round-trip crawl between 101 and Palo Alto transit center.

With track work completed, Caltrain patted itself heartily upon its back by returning weekend rail, presenting three schedule options to public comment. There were plans A, B, and C (PDF schedules linked to page no longer available). Under A, the train would stop at approximately 2/3 of the stations, every hour. Under B, they would stop at every 2/3 of the stations, but some of these stations would be served every hour, others every hour. The final plan, C, and the one I vocally opposed, was to stop at every station, every hour.

Obviously with slow-accelerating diesel locomotives and time spent at a station for passenger exchange, the more stops the slower the service. It's easy to see from comparing schedules of different trains that each stop increases travel time by two minutes. It doesn't seem like a huge deal, perhaps, but it adds up quickly: there's 23 stops available each direction, not counting the event-only stop at Stanford Stadium (actually Town and Country Village, a short walk from the stadium), so going from even 15 to 23 stops adds 16 minutes to a full trip each direction, 32 minutes to a round trip. That's a nice chunk of time, even if you're doing only half of the full run. How many people would like being stopped for 10 minutes, each direction, on 101 or 280?

Except that for those lucky few who live immediately proximate to one of the less-well-served stations, the "as-the-Google-flies" distance to the nearest two or even three stations typically differs by less than a mile. For example, some of the most vocal opposition to the "limited" weekend schedules came from Atherton. But Atherton station is within walking distance of the Menlo Park station, and a short bike ride from Redwood City. Move a mile perpendicular from the tracks, with more route options, and the delta between the stations is even less. Basic trigonometry, albeit modified by the available street layout. No problem covering the extra distance in significantly less than the time which would be saved by a limited train in its run to San Francisco or San Jose.

But despite logic, YIMBYism prevailed, and the Schedule C was adopted, even including the Atherton and Broadway stops which had been abandoned altogether for weekday service. Caltrain resisted, even offering a Schedule D which alternated local and limited trains, but to no avail. The result? Very few people with a choice seemed to take the weekend train. Why would you? It's much slower than driving, even if there's a train available to take, an "social responsibility" to reduce fuel consumption doesn't go very far in car-obsessed California, despite the "green" talk. Even worse: if you show up at a station at a random time, say after a nice bike ride, it's an average 30 minute wait for the next one. This is a stunning contrast with BART, where with a 20 minute schedule, waits average a third of this. Not surprisingly, BART does excellent business on weekends.

But at least with an early start in the morning I could manage. The 7am train from San Francisco pulled into San Antonio at 8:10am, allowing me just enough time to ride up to Los Altos to catch the Alto Velo A-ride, which met at 8:30. I'd bring some reading material, find a magazine rack to stash it before the ride, pick it up at the end of the ride, and continue to read it on the long, slow trip back north.

But then the 7am train was canceled due to budget. Even RRX had provided a 7am southbound. But now the earliest southbound was an hour later. But I could still catch en route the Spectrum Ride on Saturdays, and later when it was rescheduled for 9am, a north-bound A ride (with a bit of luck), in each case at Foothill and Page Mill in Palo Alto. That extra stop in Atherton seemed especially painful, as those extra two minutes would have increased my chances significantly of catching the A riders, but there was still a good chance.

But now it's all over. 8:15 is just too late. They pushed it too far.

Blur XC Carbon
My ride this morning

This morning, I'm going with Cara to Passion Trail Bikes in Belmont for their test-ride day....Santa Cruz Blur XC carbon for me, Specialized Epic S-Works for her. Wow! But our ride is scheduled to start at 9am, and we need to get set up with our bikes before then. That 8:15am southbound pulls into the Belmont station, a short walk from the bike shop, at 8:58. Too late. 8:43 would have just been early enough. So instead we drive a 2465 lb car 43 miles to transport less than 11% of its mass in human. All due to that 15 minute shift.

As the train passes through South San Francisco and Brisbane, it's within sight of 101. Car after car is visible from the mostly empty train. I find myself thinking that if no more than 1% of those drivers took the train instead there'd be demand for full trains running up and down the Peninsula every 15 minutes. Then there'd be plenty of time for limiteds to still cover every local stops, with reasonable local transfer times for those rare few who must travel between minor stations not served on the same route. Yet the demand isn't there because gas is too cheap and because the train service is just too poor. An the service is poor because the demand just isn't there.

An although I obviously take the weekend train more often than most (even a few times a year would put me in that category), many months I don't ride it at all. It's just too slow. Too infrequent. Too late. If you don't build it, they won't come.

Caltrain doesn't run a profit on any of its trains. It needs local support, local funding. It's not just a commuter rail, despite what it would like to claim. With public funding, it's tasked with providing public transit. It's time more people supported more local funding for Caltrain, but with that funding hold it to its public transit responsibility to competitive transportation service on weekends, weeknights, and mid-day, not just the "rush hours" so well served by the Baby Bullets.

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