Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

This is the newest installment in my series "Profiles in Transit." In this series, I reflect on transit systems around the country that I've ridden, focusing on unique elements.

I was in the Bay Area in October, and had the pleasure of riding Caltrain during my trip. Caltrain is one of the best commuter/regional rail services in the country, in my opinion. Service is fast and efficient, and very popular. Frequencies are high and transit oriented densities can be seen all along the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose. Additionally, Caltrain has ambitious plans for expansion and service optimization.

The Basics:
Caltrain is a one-line commuter/regional rail system operating along the San Francisco Peninsula. The service is funded by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board and operated under contract to Amtrak. The line was constructed in 1863, and was operated by Southern Pacific from 1870-1980. After 1980, the California Department of Transportation began subsidizing the service, and it became 'Caltrain' in 1985.

The 77 mile line includes 29 regular stops, 1 football only stop, and 2 weekend only stops. Service on weekdays operates approximately every 30 minutes, with additional service provided during rush periods. Most service operates over the segment of track between San Francisco and San Jose-Tamien Station, with additional service provided south to Gilroy during peak times.
Service is operated in one of three patterns: Local, Limited, and Baby Bullet. Not all trains make the same stops, even within the same category, with the exception of local trains, which make all stops. Limited stop trains tend to have a northern local/southern limited or northern limited/southern local pattern. Baby Bullet trains make 5 stops from San Jose Diridon to San Francisco, taking approximately 57 minutes--a savings of approximately 33 minutes over slower trains.

Other rail transit connections are available at multiple points along the line:
  • San Francisco Caltrain: Muni Metro light rail
  • Milbrae: BART heavy rail
  • Mountain View: VTA light rail
  • San Jose Diridon: VTA light rail, ACE commuter rail, Amtrak Capitol Corridor
  • San Jose Tamien: VTA light rail
My Visit:
I took two trips on Caltrain:

Segments Ridden
  • Limited Stop train, Millbrae-SJ Diridon
  • Baby Bullet, Mountain View-SF Caltrain
Stations Visited
  • Millbrae
  • San Jose Diridon
  • Mountain View
  • San Francisco Caltrain (4th & King)
One of the things I found most profound about the service was the amount of transit oriented development along the line. In town centers all along the line, there are walkable communities with housing, retail, and offices mere steps from the platforms. To some degree, this has occurred because these communities grew up next to commuter services. But the cities along the line have also focused growth around the service, and it seems to be working.

Another thing I was surprised by was the ridership. Perhaps it's a function of the above paragraph or maybe it's because service is so frequent, but the trains I was on were very crowded.

Bikes: Trains have significant accommodations for cyclists, allowing up to 32 bikes per train. Bikes are kept in a designated car in racks. To make room for additional bikes, communities along the line have installed bike lockers at stations and a bike station as been created at the San Francisco Caltrain station.

Frequencies are very high. With trains every 30 minutes, even off-peak, the service is reliable and easy to use. It means that frequencies off-peak are a little less than half of the frequencies for an individual BART line (they operate every 12 minutes, even at rush hour, translating to every 3 minutes or so downtown).

I was also impressed with Caltrain's vision for the future. While in many areas, commuter rail services exist at the behest of freight railroads and as remnants of former systems that are focused just on getting by. Caltrain's Baby Bullet is a perfect example. With the installation of passing tracks, purchase of new rollingstock, and creation of a central control system, Caltrain significantly improved service and laid groundwork for future improvements. Future plans include electrification and a tunnel to San Francisco's Transbay Terminal.

I was very impressed with Caltrain. I think it offers a lot of good lessons for other commuter/regional rail operators in the US. If any of you have a chance, I highly advise you to take the time to ride Caltrain.

Thoughts? Reflections?

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