High Speed Rail super-express from San Francisco to San Jose?

The 2014 Draft Business Plan for High Speed Rail includes some early hints about how Caltrain and High Speed Rail service might interact. Clem Tillier’s Caltrain/High Speed Rail Compatibility blog has a writeup and analysis.

The new business plan envisions High Speed Rail service delivering 4 trains per hour serving Peninsula stops within the corridor between San Francisco and Gilroy in 2040. The SF-SJ “super-express” would take 47 to 49 minutes, an 8-10 minute savings over today’s 57 minute Caltrain baby bullet. HSR projects that peninsula stops would generate 2.5 million riders per year. At $22 from SF to SJ, the peninsula stops would produce $51 million / year in revenue. This would be less than 1% out of an projected $5.7 billion HSR revenue base, but a much higher share of Caltrain’s operating revenues, which were $75 million in 2013. If Caltrain doubles ridership, that would be 30% of the local market.

High Speed Rail Peninsula Express Service

If San Jose’s strategy to turn the Diridon Station Area into an employment center and destination that is tightly linked to downtown, a reasonably affordable San Francisco-San Jose super-express might be welcomed by riders. But a High Speed Rail operator taking 30% of local revenues would have unwelcome consequences for Peninsula corridor service.

Tillier argues that the scenario in the business plan is unlikely to happen, because a High Speed Rail operator would likely jack up fares for local trips so that they did not take seats from more profitable long-distance riders. He gives the example of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, where “a seat on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express typically costs well over $100 one way vs. $14.50 on Metro North commuter rail.”

There are other motivations at play. The High Speed Rail authority has a mandate to not require an operating subsidy, and Caltrain, like other commuter rail and rapid transit services in the US (and roads and highways) requires public operating funds. So a HSR operator might have an incentive to skim the profitable parts of a local market. On the other hand, the Bay Area revenues would be a drop in the bucket of the High Speed operator’s revenues. As Tillier’s analysis suggests, an HSR operator would have more to gain by encouraging long-distance over local trips.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area has a regional goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and Peninsula cities are increasingly taking responsibility for reducing vehicle trips. And Caltrain owns the rails. So there would be a local and regional incentive to negotiate a deal that delivered better regional transit mode share.

Also, in an ideal world, Caltrain would be a seamless feeder service for long distance trips. A rider could buy a single ticket, get on at San Mateo or Redwood City or Palo Alto, transfer in San Jose and head on to Los Angeles. There will be some business arrangement regarding the value of the feeder service.

In follow up to the recent forum in San Francisco about options for Caltrain governance in the age of electrification, international rail consultant and HSR peer review board chair Lou Thompson commented that it might be beneficial to have the private operator for High Speed Rail service to bid for the Caltrain contract. If there was a single operator, how would this impact the balance between long distance and regional benefit?

It is early – the first High Speed Trains are not expected to get past San Jose to San Francisco til 2029 at the earliest. This is an early view of an important discussion and debate. What do you think about how best to balance local and long-distance service?