Soaring Caltrain Ridership Puts Capacity Expansion Back on the Agenda
Caltrain ridership continues to boom and even the addition of new cars may not be enough to stay ahead of demand:
With Caltrain attracting about 4,300 new weekday riders every year since 2010, ridership will reach almost 60,000 on weekdays this summer, and could surpass 75,000 by 2018….
To alleviate crowding in coming years, Caltrain is planning to run longer trains using 11 to 16 used train cars to be purchased from Los Angeles Metrolink for $8 to $10 million. By 2015, Caltrain riders could see some five-car trains extended to six. Those trains would burn more fuel and require more maintenance, but would also boost seat capacity from 650 seats to 780. Caltrain’s two busiest trains started seeing more than 780 passengers per train on typical weekdays since February of last year.
While the 20 percent increase in those trains’ capacity would help mitigate the Caltrain crunch, it took just two years (2011 to 2013) for weekday ridership to increase by 20 percent. So, the added seats may be filled by 2015.
As a result, passenger rail advocates on the Peninsula are rightly calling for Caltrain to explore other capacity solutions. Adina Levin and Clem Tillier, two names familiar to readers of this blog, are quoted in the Streetsblog article offering their thoughts on the issue:
“We want to see Caltrain address the capacity crunch strategically,” said Adina Levin, Co-founder of Friends of Caltrain. “Caltrain should be planning for expected ridership based on demand from cities and employers, and proposing capacity improvements to address the demand.”
Levin says level boarding platforms and wider trains could provide major increases in Caltrain’s capacity. The agency hasn’t sufficiently analyzed those measures’ costs, timelines, or most importantly, their potential for meeting future ridership demand….
Some of the scenarios for electric Caltrain service analyzed in the agency’s draft environmental impact report on electrification are perplexingly unambitious. When service to San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center begins in 2022, Caltrain only plans to run two trains per hour to the grand new hub, while up to four other trains would still stop at the existing 4th and King Station. The Transbay Center will have over 100,000 jobs located within a half-mile radius – more jobs than every other Caltrain station combined.
“This station absolutely must be served by each and every train, and it would be highly counter-productive to terminate any train at 4th and King,” wrote Clem Tillier, author of a blog on building a Caltrain system compatible with California High-Speed Rail.
I fully agree with both Levin and Tillier on this. Levin’s suggestions for level boarding and wider trains are sensible planning and can add capacity easily without a big capital investment on the ground. And Tillier is absolutely right that for a variety of reasons, Caltrain needs to send as many trains as possible to the Transbay Terminal. After all, it’s much better served by connecting mass transit lines than 4th and King, even when the Central Subway opens.
Others on the Peninsula are coming to understand the importance of electrification in solving the Caltrain crunch, such as Paul Bendix at the Almanac Online
Use it. That is the interim answer to speeding Caltrain service from Menlo Park.
As for the long run: support electrification….
Until Caltrain electrifies – within the next few years – the rail service will operate under strain. Meanwhile, be patient. Keep riding the rails. And whenever possible, ride them from Menlo Park.
Bendix is right as well. Electrification speeds trains along the corridor, creating more space on the tracks for additional trains to serve the corridor.
But even if level boarding, wider trains, and electrification are adopted, there’s still one major obstacle to providing Caltrain with the capacity it needs – adding two new sets of tracks to the Peninsula rail corridor.
As long as the corridor includes just two sets of tracks, rather than the four that the ROW can currently accommodate, Caltrain will be operating under artificially low constraints. When Highway 101 was jammed with traffic, new lanes were added. Of course, widening a freeway is bad transportation and bad environmental policy. But it did prove that more space meant the facility could carry more users.
Adding new tracks to the Peninsula rail corridor was incredibly controversial a few years ago, and it led the state to develop the “blended plan” for high speed rail service to San Francisco. This plan was intended as an interim phase until adding the new tracks on the corridor became politically possible. That plan has raised questions about whether the bullet trains can make the SF to LA trip in the legally required 2 hours 40 minutes.
The “blended plan” is bad planning imposed as a result of shortsighted NIMBYism. Above all it puts an artificial cap on Caltrain ridership, ensuring that the system will be prevented from having the capacity it needs to handle soaring ridership. And from a transportation and environmental perspective, getting as many people as possible to ride Caltrain is a top priority for the Bay Area.
Adding two sets of tracks remains controversial, and I expect that many advocates will continue to see it as a last resort given that contentiousness. But it cannot be avoided. Even if high speed rail didn’t serve SF at all via the Peninsula, more tracks – as well as grade separations – will eventually be required to allow Caltrain ridership to keep up with demand.
There’s no good reason why someone who wants to ride Caltrain should be turned away because a nearby homeowner felt wider tracks or an overpass would offend their personal view of what their city should look like.