Thursday, February 18, 2010

Caltrain weekend service: a proposed schedule

Caltrain in Mountain View

SportVelo held its winter training camp Thursday through Friday. Each of the first two days, I boarded a Caltrain Limited from Sam Francisco with my bike, stopped off in either Starbucks or Peets, and easily made it well in advance of the 9:15 am start time for the training rides. Caltrain does fairly well for commuters on traditional workdays. Honestly I don't understand why so many persist in driving. Indeed, as I type this, I'm on the train back to San Francisco from my office in Palo Alto.

It's the weekends that're the killer. For various reasons I wasn't able to make the weekend rides, but I would have liked to have the option. This is especially true for Sunday's "Queen Stage".

Except Caltrain's earliest train on weekends leaves the City at 8:15. And not only does it leave late, it's slower than any weekday train, stopping not only at all the weekday stops, but additionally at Broadway in Burlingame and Atherton, stops which have been eliminated from the weekday schedule but were kept on weekends for political purposes. Indeed this last point is non-trivial, as each stop adds 2 minutes, and the 8:15 out of San Francisco arrives in Menlo Park at 9:14. Had it been even four minutes earlier, not having made these extra two stops, I might have been able to make the start of the ride. Barely. But 9:14: forget it.

The fact is I've not taken a Caltrain weekend train in months. It's simply not a useful service to me. If I have an activity I can start late in the morning, at a time of my choosing, and can finish at a time also of my choosing, and the hour-plus trip each way from the City to the Peninsula on the super-local weekend trains isn't an issue, then fine. But let's face it: most people aren't willing to deal with these sorts of restrictions.

And it isn't as if people aren't on the road on weekends. Every Saturday and Sunday 101 is jammed with cars below my humble abode on Potrero Hill. Every weekend day 101 is crowded, all through the northern Peninsula, the mid-Peninsula, the South Bay, and down into the Coyote Valley around Morgan Hill: the entire Caltrain route, which extends from San Francisco down to Gilroy. All of these people jammed in their cars are potential customers of the far superior mode of travel which is rail. Here I am now on the train writing this blog entry. Maybe some people can do that while driving on 101 (it wouldn't surprise me), but it's hardly recommended...

The irony is Caltrain views my nonpariticipation in the farce it calls weekend service as a lack of justification for expanding that service. Caltrain isn't very market-oriented. It's more of a government service mindset: that demand is fixed, and its responsibility is to meet that fixed demand. Indeed, Caltrains long-range plan forecasts a demand which varies only with economic activity. It makes no association with quality of service and ridership numbers. If a service cut is met with a decrease in demand, Caltrain's view is that the service cut was clearly wise, correctly anticipated a trend which was totally beyond its control. This sort of simplistic foolishness is no surprise, since few if any members of the Joint Powers Board, Caltrain's controlling body, rely on the train as primary transportation. They all have reserved parking at the Caltrain offices in Santa Clara.

So I decided to propose my own schedule. Rather than ask what is the schedule needed to meet current demand: the supply of present train users, I asked myself what sort of service would be needed to attract more of the true customer base: the set of those parked on 101.

People want to get where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time when they want to go there. So how long are they willing to wait for the next available train? I'd say 15 minutes on average, 30 minutes worst-case, is the absolute max. More than this and people feel they've spent too big a chunk of their day on the platform,. So if you can't provide at least this level of service, I feel, it's almost a waste of time. People will have already made other plans.

Second, you simply can't have every train making every stop along the way. The train need not be as fast as driving: there is a quality factor as well as a quantity factor to the time involved. But the slack people are willing to cut rail is finite: over an hour between San Francisco and Palo Alto is simply too much.

Fortunately, stopping at every station is rarely necessary. For those who are traveling to San Francisco, San Jose, or another key Caltrain "hub", there are typically several stations within close proximity. So whether it's by car, bike, taxi, or (heaven forbid) even foot (a favorite mode of mine for trips of up to three miles), few people are strongly tied to a single station. For example, from California Ave, where I work, I can easily reach Mountain View, San Antonio, California Ave (obviously), Palo Alto, or Menlo Park. By bike, they're all within 15 minutes or so. Similarly from home on Potrero Hill, 22nd St and 4th and King stations are both easily accessible.

So as a result heavy use should be made on weekends on the "Baby Bullet" service which has been so successful on weekdays. the Baby Bullets get not from San Francisco to Palo Alto, but all the way to San Jose within an hour. That's as attractive on weekends as it is during the week.

Then for those requiring local service, the "timed transfer" limited approach which Caltrain uses during commute hours should be extended to the weekend schedule. The idea is that two trains will cooperate, one doing local service on the southern half of the route, the other handling local service on the northern half. Those requiring a local level of service on both halves can then transfer mid-route. For most riders at least one end of the destination can be a major station rather than a minor one, so this isn't needed.

Finally, Gilroy service is currently at a minimal, "forward commute"-only, weekday-only level. Wouldn't it be nice to head down to Gilroy from the City for a weekend day, or even the whole weekend? Or to head up to San Jose or San Francisco from Morgan Hill? Obviously people think so: the traffic on 101 can be horrendous, even on a Saturday or Sunday. So I propose service be extended all the way to Gilroy on an hourly basis.

Finally, note I assign a relatively high priority to Santa Clara. This is because Santa Clara is the connection point to San Jose airport. Surely demand for rail to the airport will increase with an improvement in rail service. I also maintain a priority to 22nd St in San Francisco, as this presently increases parking capacity at the city side. And of course, Millbrae is the primary BART connection point.

Finally then, here's my proposed schedule:

Proposed weekend Caltrain schedule
click on image for PDF version

I know -- not a chance. Too expensive. Yadda yadda. We dump so much money, so many resources, and eat so many hidden costs from our heavy reliance on automobiles. And when we do invest in rail, too often its in financial boondoggles like BART to SFO (better covered by a shuttle bus from Millbrae) or BART to OAK (currently well served by bus service from the Colosseum stop). Instead of focusing on "shovel ready" big-ticket projects, we need to bring the day-in day-out level of service on existing lines up to something resembling a first-world standard.