Saturday, June 1, 2013

Petition for later Caltrain Baby Bullet train

Sign the Baby Bullet petition here.

Caltrain always seemed to need to be dragged kicking and screaming to do what's in its own best interest, assuming its best interest is more ridership at lower cost and better service for the majority of people.

John Murphy, who previously petitioned Caltrain for weekend baby bullet survice (ie trains with substantially reduced stop schedules between San Francisco and San Jose), is now petititoning for a later baby bullet. Presently the last southbound AM baby bullet is at 8:57 AM from San Francisco, and the last northbound AM baby bullet is from 8:03 AM. From 9 am until around 4:30 pm it's essentially skeleton mid-day service, substantially reduced from its already inadequate peak around 2008, despite a higher budget and ridership growth since then.

Electrified Caltrain rendering

Caltrain has continuously underestimated latent demand for later baby bullets. When the trains were first introduced, southbound baby bullets left San Francisco at 6:11 am and 7:11 am. This was perhaps based on survey data that ridership ramped up at near 6:11. The reason it ramped up is the trains were so damn slow you needed to get on such an early train. With the baby bullet, you could leave later, so the 6:11 demand fell well behind the 7:11, which was jammed. So they eventually realized the need for one leaving around 8:11, converting the 6:11 train to a limited schedule (more stops than baby bullet).

They later padded the baby bullet train with trains at 6:59, 7:59 and 8:59, these trains stopping at alternate stations, including Menlo Park but skipping the popular Palo Alto station adjacent. I never understood the choice of Menlo Park, a much less popular destination, for so many baby bullet routes, and indeed they later added Palo Alto to these trains as well, making them less bullet-like, moving their start times up two minutes to 57-after. Indeed I argued at a Joint Powers Board meeting that these trains now exceeded the original definitive travel time for baby bullets, which was one hour from San Francisco to San Jose, and so should be reclassified as limited trains or else eliminate either Menlo Park or Redwood City from their schedule to bring them back to a baby bullet standard, but the new padded out schedule, retaining the three consecutive stops of Redwood City, Menlo Park, and Palo Alto was retained. The move increased the popularity of these trains, baby bullet or otherwise, since Palo Alto serves Stanford University which is a huge employer as well as serving many students who choose to live away from campus.

The latest baby bullets are very popular with cyclists who have the maximum flexibility with transportation at the end-points. Non-cyclists tend to have to catch company shuttles to get to work, and these run on an earlier schedule. But later trains serve as an important back-up for people when circumstances result in them being later than normal to work, for example early conference calls, early AM appointments, or dropping children off at day care, etc. Cyclists, with the limited capacity on the trains, thus face a relative cliff where missing the last baby bullet adds a substantial increment to arrival time in Palo Alto or further south. There's an excellent chance of getting "bumped", denied boarding, from these latest baby bullets, especially for commuters who attempt to board at stations other than the initial departure point. It's a risk many can't afford to take so Caltrain no longer becomes a viable option.

The solution is to extend baby bullet service later. This not only increases the attraction of the later train versus its present local schedule, but further increases the attraction of the baby bullets which precede it, since it moves these trains away from the schedule cliff-edge.

Of course, replacing a local with a baby bullet means some commuters no longer have a train stopping at their favorite station. But what Caltrain often underestimates is that with baby bullet service, you increase commuting speed to the served stations, but may well increase it to adjacent destinations as well. Here's an extreme example: yesterday I left work at a time which would have gotten me to Caltrain in Mountain View just in time for 375, which gets me to San Francisco at 6:25 pm. However, I chose instead to ride downstream to Palo Alto, which takes around 30 minutes longer on bike, and board the later 381, which gets me to San Francisco at 6:44, 19 minutes later. So I traded 30 minutes of riding time for 19 minutes of arrival time, a very nice trade-off on the nice evening. My closest platform to work is Sunnyvale, but instead I went not there, but four stations further north. My total travel time was around 1 hour 30 minutes from my door.

Now if I were to take a local train from Sunnyvale I'd need to allocate around 8 minutes to ride to the train, but then it would take me 1:17 to reach San Francisco, a total travel time of 1:25 from my door. So despite not taking the nearest train station, not the next further north, not the next further from that, or the next further from that, but the 4th station northward from my closest, Sunnyvale, I added only six minutes to my travel time. Baby Bullets skipping Sunnyvale but arriving to either Mountain View, San Antonio, or California would still be faster than a local from Sunnyvale, and even a Baby Bullet stopping only as close as Palo Alto would be slower, and only slightly. And this even neglects the possibility of going south to get a Baby Bullet in Lawrence, which would also be faster than a local from Sunnyvale. Of course I'd love a Baby Bullet from Sunnyvale, but I recognize that everyone can't have express service from their favorite station. Local train service is like the tragedy of the commons, everyone seeks to optimize their personal well-being by protecting their favorite local station but the end result is the majority is worse off.

I am highly confident that John's proposal, like all previous increases in baby bullet service, will be a success. Indeed Caltrain should pepper the entire schedule, weekday and weekend, with baby bullets. Because with train travel, time really does matter. Caltrain competes with 101, so instead of simply petitioning the needs of present passengers, to expand customer base you need to meet the needs of those who presently don't take the train on a daily basis.

I hope you sign John's petition.

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