Sunday, November 29, 2009

Caltrain weekend "service"

Caltrain is tasked to be public transportation, not commuter rail. However, weekend service, especially "counter-commute" (SF->SJ AM, return PM) is so marginal to be almost useless. This weekend really reinforced that point. My coach was running a weekend training camp: rides daily at 8:30 am. I couldn't make it. Not Sunday, not Saturday, not even Friday which isn't an official holiday. Not even close.

I thought things were bad when service was restored in June 2004 following a two-year down-time due to track work to allow for "Baby Bullet" service, which required passing zones. After a period of debate in which four different scheduling options were considered, the worst of the four, full local service on each hourly train, was chosen. Every time it was suggested various stations would be omitted from the service of some or all of the trains, people from those stations would complain. People from places like Atherton, where the local station is within walking distance of the Menlo Park station, and also quite close to the Redwood City station. But it's the principle of the thing, after all.

So each additional stop adds two minutes. Only two minutes, right? But these two minutes quickly add up. And they can be the difference between making it somewhere in time or not doing so.

This used to be the case when the Alto Velo A-ride met at Peets in Los Altos at 8:30 am. The 7 am train from SF would get to San Antonio with just enough time for me to ride to Peets in time. That is if the train wasn't late at all. So sometimes I didn't make it. Those two minutes per stop at places like Atherton, Broadway, and Hayward Park were the difference.

But then the 7 am train was eliminated. Good bye, A-ride.

Eventually the A-ride moved to 9 am. Now it was back in the game. If it was headed north, I had a chance to intercept it, if I was lucky, by getting off the train further north of San Antonio and plotting an optimized trajectory. This took luck, and once again those two extra minutes were often the deciding factor. On the other hand, if the ride was heading south, game over.

A similar scenerio occurred with the Spectrum Ride, or with the Alto Velo B ride on Saturday. Early southbound train was 8 am. A bit of luck, and I could intercept.

It was harder for the Low-Key Hillclimbs, which I organize. These used to start at 10:00, with registration closing ten minutes before. I moved them back to 10:10 with reg closure @ 10 am to improve chances with the train at locations such as Montebello Road or Windy Hill Open Space Preserve. Again, a bit of luck was needed.

But then the coup de grâce . The first morning train was moved back to 8:15. Crash and burn A ride. Crash and burn Spectrum Ride. Crash and burn B ride. Crash and burn Low-Key Hillclimb. Not to mention those climbs which had required the 7 am train to reach in time, a significant number, including the traditional Thanksgiving climb of Mt Hamilton road. Caltrain was to me now essentially useless on weekends.

Someone was once quoted in the Caltrain newsletter that he'd only drive to work if he had to.... then he'd look for a new job. Well, an alternate spin on that is I'll only drive to play if I have to, but then I'll look for new places to play. So instead of riding down on the Peninsula (which is spectacular), I'm far more likely to ride up into Marin, or to take BART, a truly useful mode of public transit (at least on Saturdays), into the East Bay. BART runs every minutes in comparison to Caltrain's every hour. And on Saturday BART starts early: way early enough for me.

Caltrain claims there is insufficient demand to justify increasing the frequency or broaden the schedule range of weekend service. Yet with the level of service so wretched, so pathetic, so useless is it at all surprising demand for that service is weak? Who wants to show up at the station only to realize the next will arrive in 55 minutes, then it's up to an additional 1:30 to reach the destination? That's well over twice the time it would take to drive. Indeed, BART with its much denser schedule has weekend trains filled to a considerable fraction of capacity.

No, this is a parody of public transit. The bus is even worse, so I won't even go there. Someone should be able to get useful places by the crack of 9 am, if not sooner, and shouldn't need to make every stop along the way to get there.

Where else in the developed world is the public transit so poor on weekends?

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