Caltrain wrestles with capacity crunch

At January’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee, Caltrain Director of Operations Michelle Bouchard walked through the decisions Caltrain faces in its effort to alleviate the capacity crunch prior to electrification scheduled for 2019.  As of the board meeting earlier in January, the Caltrain Board has approved making an offer on a set of used railcars to add capacity. It will take another year to retrofit the cars.

Caltrain estimates that most crowded regular service trains carry 30-40% more passengers than they have seats.

The most crowded Caltrain trains

The most crowded Caltrain trains

A big question for Caltrain is how to integrate the cars, how to make more schedule changes to fit more riders, and what other changes might help.

Caltrain’s new automated signalling system, being installed now, is expected help somewhat by allowing Caltrain to run trains closer together even before electrification – Michelle Bouchard said she would report to the CAC about how much improvement Caltrain is expecting.

The baby bullet schedule was very popular, with express trains helping Caltrain to double ridership over the last decade.   But the schedule leaves gaps that suboptimize capacity. Should Caltrain tweak its schedule, or change it substantially to be able to carry more riders?

This post on service from Clem Tillier’s blog explores changes that Caltrain might make after electrification -what changes might make sense to make in the meantime.

Another question raised at the meeting (by this blogger who serves on the CAC) was the potential to create more comfortable spaces for standees.  Caltrain riders’ *average* trip is over 20 miles, and Caltrain does not expect many people to stand for 30-60 minute trips. But Caltrain has not yet analyzed what percent of riders are taking trips that are 5-15 minutes long, where people might stand if it was less uncomfortable.  Caltrain will do more analysis to find out if there’s a customer segment that would be ok with standing. If so, reconfiguring the cars could create some more room.
Average trip length

Average trip length

Another topic that took lots of time at the CAC meeting was discussion about whether to provide more bike capacity.   Caltrain riders bringing bikes on board have increased even faster than the overall ~10% annual ridership increase, leading to continued “bumps” even after Caltrain added a second bicycle car on every train.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Bikes OnBoard project is asking for a pilot to add a third bike car to avoid turning away passengers. Caltrain staff asserts that adding a third bicycle car would require an additional conductor on each train to avoid safety problems, which would incur high labor costs.

Riders with bicycles do take up more space than riders without bikes.  But the bicycles are also a cost-effective means for riders to make the “last mile connection.”  According to regional think tank SPUR, about 80% of the Bay Area’s jobs are within 3 miles of Caltrain or BART – which  means that many jobs are within an easy cycling distance although too far to walk.  Shuttles and bike share could help some riders – but these solutions aren’t free, and the location of Bay Area Bike Share kiosks don’t serve popular work centers in the Peninsula and South Bay yet.

Caltrain’s capacity challenges are one of the Citizens’ Advisory Committee’s top priorities for the year, so there are likely to be more meetings discussing these issues.  If you have suggestions, you can send them to in addition to adding them in comments below.


Caltrain ridership - bikes on board