Sunday, February 13, 2011

letter to Caltrain

My friend John Murphy is rather negative on the proposed "scaled back" Caltrain schedule, designed to reduce expenses in a time of reduced support from the counties. Caltrain, surprisingly, has no dedicated funding source, but rather must rely on the good-faith contributions from San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties. This is because the Bay area has such a hopelessly fragmented transit system. Counting Marin, 511.org lists 22 bus agencies, 6 rail agencies (not counting Amtrak), and 7 ferries. Really it makes a lot more sense for there to be a "Bay Area Transit" agency, since with so many interregional routes (San Francisco to Marin, Marin to San Francisco, between San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties) there's extensive duplication of service, and seemingly arbitrary rules to avoid competition (like SamTrans can't pick anyone up on northbound trips which enter San Francisco). It's a mess.

With all of the fragmentation, it's natural there would be some attempts to combine resources. For example, the VTA and Caltrain share the same Chairman, Mark Scanlon. Unfortunately, however, Mark sees fit to get paid for both jobs, reducing any efficiency gains, resulting in a salary of over $400 thousand per year. Yes indeedy, in these trying times, public transit is running lean and mean.

Consider as well the trains run overstaffed. Conductors an "fare agents", with staffing levels dating back to the days when tickets were sold on the train and pre-sold tickets were all punched, spend most of their time chatting with each other. Typically once each trip down the line a "fare agent" will walk down the aisle, glance at paper tickets and scan Clipper cards with his electronic reader. They do two round trips per day. I do one, and that's just my commute.

Anyway, back to the schedule. It's obviously a negotiation point, a line in the sand to get the counties to cough up the cash. Poor, broke Caltrain. I fully agree Caltrain needs dedicated funding, however. Although I'd prefer it come from a regional gas tax, to help offset the increased societal and environmental impact of driving.

Here's the letter I'm writing to Caltrain about the schedule:

Suggestions for schedule:

First, I fully support the emphasis on fewer stops. This should be kept in the future upon the restoration of more trains. I don't take local trains generally, so if others are like me, you lose customers during periods when local trains are the only option.

But the schedule has serveral weaknesses.

First, it's shifted earlier than the present schedule. From SF, there's a limited @ 6:11 am and an express at 6:59. In the proposed schedule, there are 6 expresses by 7 am. That makes no sense in a time of cut-backs.

Similarly, there is no reason to maintain a 15-minute schedule well past the peak commute. Going to 30 minutes at this phase is better.

Second, the "drop-dead" times of 8:30 am and 6:30 pm are too draconian. You need a safety net.

Third, completely eliminating mid-day trains is a mistake. You should have one mid-day train in each direction, as occasionally commuters will have a dental appointment or other work conflict in either the morning or afternoon.

I recognize you have labor issues which suggest compressed schedules are preferred. But it is clear that trains are overstaffed since conductors/"fare agents" have substantial idle time.

So with the total number of trains taken as a constraint, but liberalizing the schedule compression, I propose the following departure times:

6:00 am, 6:30 am, 7:00 am, 7:15 am, 7:30 am, 7:45 am,
8:00 am, 8:15 am, 8:30 am, 9:00 am, 9:30 am, 12:00 pm

3:45 pm, 4:15 pm, 4:45 pm, 5:00 pm, 5:15 pm, 5:30 pm,
5:45 pm, 6:00 pm, 6:15 pm, 6:30 pm, 7:00 pm, 8:00 pm


This schedule actually gets me to and from work better than the present one. And while "bumping", where cyclists are denied boarding due to lack of nominal capacity, is a concern, it's a concern today. The key is to have a "safety net" train which will be there if you get bumped from the last commute train. If I get bumped from the last commuter I still have time to ride 2.3 miles back to my office, leave my bike there, then run back to the station (or take a taxi) for guaranteed boarding on that evening train.

There's presently 14 trains in the morning and evening, the proposed schedule has 12, and my proposed revision has 11 (with one mid-day and one night). The capacity is lower but with increased fares further widening the cost gap between the train and driving, demand will be less. More people will drive instead.

So not a disaster. What would be a disaster would be converting the weekday schedule to a weekend-like schedule. No station left behind. Then everyone gets to work equitably late. There's a good reason I never take Caltrain on weekends.

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