Faster service and more capacity – if Caltrain and HSR can solve platform problems

Caltrain would provide faster service, and the “blended system” with Caltrain and High Speed Rail would deliver more service, if Caltrain and High Speed Rail could solve platform height problems.

This is relatively time-sensitive – Caltrain and High Speed Rail are making critical design decisions in the next couple of years that will maximize (or cripple) system performance in years to come.

For best results, Caltrain would provide level boarding, and Caltrain and High Speed Rail would have the same platform heights. Here is a brief summary of the benefits, an explanation of the barriers, and ways to overcome the barriers.

Addressing these issues will require collaboration and leadership from Caltrain and the High Speed Rail Authority. If the problem can be solved, the result will be a higher ridership, higher revenue Caltrain service, and provide a better customer experience, stronger resilience and disaster recovery for High Speed Rail.



Benefits to Caltrain Benefits to High Speed Rail
Level Boarding  Improves travel time by reducing dwell timeImproves reliability by reducing time to serve disabled passengersSafer and easier boarding for everyoneIncreased revenue driven by better serviceServe more riders without increasing staff More robust feeder service to high speed rail 


Consistent platform heights Convenient transfers between Caltrain and high speed rail Convenient transfers between Caltrain and high speed rail
Supports longer baby bullet trains with greater ridership and revenue
Flexible station use in case of emergencies Flexible station use in case of emergencies
Flexible capacity at stations supports future service plans Flexible capacity at stations supports future service plans

Save 10+ minutes on the Caltrain schedule with level boarding

At the last Caltrain board meeting, Executive Director Mike Scanlon talked to the board about a major opportunity that save time and improve the reliability of Caltrain’s schedule, in the context of Caltrain’s modernization plans.

Caltrain stops at stations much longer than BART does. The median dwell time for Caltrain baby bullet trains is 1:15, overall median is 48 seconds, and the median time for a person needing assistance (e.g. wheelchair user) is 1:58. By contrast, BART dwell times are in the 20-30 second range.

A major reason for the longer “dwell time” is that Caltrain riders need to step up to enter the train – several high stairs with the older Gallery cars, and two shorter steps up for the Bombardier cars. For wheelchair users, a special lift is needed.

Because BART has level boarding, a passenger with a stroller, or luggage, or a bicycle, or a wheelchair can simply roll on (the photo is a different transit service with level boarding).

If Caltrain had level boarding, it could save 30 seconds per stop, shaving about 10 minutes on a local train and 4-5 minutes from a baby bullet, and improving on-time performance. Caltrain’s riders are time-sensitive – when Caltrain shaved 30 minutes off the schedule by adding the baby bullet, ridership spiked. Taking more time off the schedule will make Caltrain even more competitive with driving.

In addition, staff support is required for the step-up cars, for all customers and especially for people needing assistance. By providing level boarding, Caltrain could support an increased number of passengers without proportional increase in staff.

So why doesn’t Caltrain have level boarding?

The answer is an antique rule from the California Public Utilities Commission, rule 26D. This regulation was needed many years ago to allow freight employees to hang off the side of a freight train while standing on a step looking out for obstacles. To eliminate this rule, it would require an administrative change or state law. This is relatively time-sensitive, since Caltrain will soon need to specify the vehicles it will use in the electrified system.

Another way to address the obsolete rule for freight trains would be to eliminate freight service from the Peninsula. The Caltrain corridor serves a minimal amount of freight – just one or two trains per day. Union Pacific runs trains on the line to preserve the right to keep using it, and does not make a profit from the service. It would be conceivable to buy out the freight service entirely, or replace it with short haul service which would not have the same regulatory constraints. This would require negotiating with Union Pacific, which has the right to run freight trains on the corridor. Eliminating long haul freight service would be a challenge; the most straightforward way to eliminate the obsolete rule might be to eliminate the obsolete rule.

Consistent platform heights with High Speed Rail

The other major decision is whether Caltrain and High Speed Rail will have the same platform height. This would help get maximum capacity from the blended system where Caltrain and High Speed Rail share tracks.

To do this, Caltrain and High Speed Rail would need to agree. But around the world, High Speed Trains typically have platforms that are about four feet above the rails, and Commuter Trains have platforms that are about 2 feet above the rails.

Why does it matter if the long-distance trains have the same platform heights as the local trains?

Convenient transfers. When Caltrain shares tracks with High Speed Rail, the local stations will serve as a feeder service to and from the long-distance trains. If the services have the same platform heights, stations can be designed so that riders can simply walk across the platform to transfer to and from the local train.

Longer Caltrain baby bullet trains. High Speed Rail trains are going to be long, (8 cars, ~200 meters). At the High Speed Rail stations, including San Jose, Millbrae, San Francisco Transbay, and maybe a mid-Peninsula station, there are going to be long platforms for those trains. Caltrain platforms are only long enough for Caltrain’s 5 car double-decker trains.

Many people ask why Caltrain doesn’t just add cars to add capacity. One of the reasons is that the platforms aren’t long enough. But what if Caltrain baby bullet trains could add another car or two or three, and could stop at the long HSR platforms instead? This would enable Caltrain to add capacity to its very full rush hour trains. Baby Bullet trains currently carry 42% of Caltrain’s ridership. Assuming there is pent-up demand – a reasonable assumption since recently adding peak and near-peak trains in September was followed in October by a 14% increase in ridership – increasing the length of the baby bullets could significantly increase Caltrain’s ridership and revenue.

Flexible capacity at stations. Currently, the blended system is estimated to be able to handle six Caltrain trains per direction per hour, plus up to two high speed trains without passing tracks, or up to four high speed trains with an additional section of passing tracks. But High Speed Rail is not expected to get to the Peninsula until 2029 at the earliest, and there is uncertainty about what its schedule will be. It would be ideal if the stations could be built to “mix and match”, to allow the greatest amount of flexibility for future schedules.

Flexible station use in case of emergencies. If High Speed Rail trains have a different platform height than Caltrain, then those trains will only be able to stop at the High Speed Rail stations. If there was an emergency and trains were backed up, it would be better if HSR trains could stop at any station. Even though Caltrain platforms will still be shorter, the long-distance passengers will be able to walk to one end of the train to exit. The emergency flexibility is particularly valuable for the Transbay station which is underground.

Why haven’t Caltrain and High Speed Rail agreed yet to synchronize platform heights?

For Caltrain to support the higher platform HSR convention, they would need to buy trains supporting higher platforms. Caltrain uses bi-level trains, to help fit lots of passengers into trains that stop at stations with short platforms. In a high-platform train, it’s harder to fit toilets at entry level, as needed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Paris and Sidney transit systems use “Electric Multiple Unit” train cars with high level platforms, so it is possible to make and buy them.

For High Speed Rail, ordering low platforms would be unconventional. But France’s TGV has low-platform bi-level high speed trails, so it is certainly feasible. Supporting the same platform height as the regional trains would help HSR implement blended systems in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. And bi-level trains would help HSR add capacity at the moderate frequency now planned with the blended system (3-4 trains per direction per hour). Since Paris-London and NY-DC offer 3 trains per hour, the blended system frequency is a good match for the current market, but bi-levels would create room for growth.

TSA-style security

The other reason why Caltrain and High Speed Rail can’t have mix-and-match platforms is the current plan to have US airport style security for our High Speed Rail, unlike the Acela in the northeast, and unlike other high speed trains around the world.

It would be much better if the High Speed Rail service could implement proof-of-payment with only the most basic screening procedures, identical to the practice in France and Germany. In Paris you can board a TGV with large suitcases with no screening. whatsoever. Trains are not pressurized tin cans loaded with highly flammable liquids and suspended thousands of feet above the nearest ground. The security risk of a train is different.

Perhaps if the High Speed Rail authority brings in a private sector operator with experience in the European market, they could persuade US officials to have reasonable security protocols. Meanwhile, deciding on consistent platform heights would make it possible to acheive the customer service, safety, and ridership benefits, if the security issues can be worked out later.

These issues were raised quite a while ago (see these two blog posts by Clem Tillier from 2009 and 2010) Now that Caltrain modernization and High Speed Rail are funded and moving forward, it is time to resolve them.