Caltrain electric car and platform decisions to shape system capacity for decades

Caltrain is about to make decisions about the design of electric rail cars that will affect the service for many decades to come.      On Monday, September 29 at Mountain View City Hall, Friends of Caltrain is hosting a forum - click to RSVP and read on for more on the upcoming decisions.

The good news is that Caltrain is thinking seriously about migrating to level boarding. Level boarding is expected to provide 50% again as much speed improvement as electrification itself, above and beyond to improving accessibility for disabled and elderly people.  It will take funding and community support to get the level boarding improvements done.

However, Caltrain and High Speed Rail are leaning toward platform incompatibility, which could impact capacity for the blended system for the long term. There are other important decisions that will affect service for riders for many years to come, including: standing room, space to allocate for bicycles, and bathrooms.

Rail car decisions impacts on Caltrain’s growth needs

How do the short-term decisions about car design and platform height affect Caltrain’s capacity and ability to keep up with expected growth in years to come?

Level boarding will make the system faster – up to 50% additional speed increase over basic electrification.  It will also make the system more reliable, able to make closer  connections to BART and other services – and also to have better timed transfers between express and local trains.  Caltrain has a capacity crunch today -and riders are bunched up in the fastest trains. By making more trains fast, and better connections between express and local, Caltrain will get more riders for a given number of trains.

Compatible platforms with High Speed Rail would maximize capacity and schedule options. The “blended system” with High Speed Rail, where Caltrain and HSR share tracks, allows HSR to be built at lower cost, but imposes capacity constraints on the system.  Enabling Caltrain and HSR to “mix-and-match” platforms can maximize capacity and schedule flexibility without baking the schedule literally into concrete.

Growing ridership and longterm capacity needs
Caltrain notes that the current proposal for non-compatible platforms does not reduce capacity compared to Caltrain’s current forecasts.  

BUT Caltrain’s current forecasts are based on ridership growth slowing down, even as the region concentrates growth in major transit centers including downtown San Francisco and San Jose.

In the draft Environmental Impact Report for Electrification, Caltrain forecasts a total ridership of 69,000 in 2020 and 110,000 in 2040.   Caltrain average weekday ridership was already 60,000 as of last month, and has more than doubled over the last decade.  

So, Caltrain is assuming that ridership growth will decline to a compound annual growth rate of 2.5%.   Caltrain is forecasting much slower growth than the cities depending on Caltrain, including San Francisco (which expects ridership to SF to triple by 2040), and San Jose (which expects ridership to nearly triple by 2040).

The service plan modeled in the Environmental Impact Report assumes that in the 2040 forecast year, only two of Caltrain’s 6 trains per direction per hour will start and end at Transbay, even though the area around Transbay has more jobs than the rest of the line combined, and will have massively greater transit connections than 4th and King.

Caltrain’s forecast represents a significant slowdown from growth trends over the last decade, and is at odds with the region’s land use plans to concentrate development around transit, and consumer transportation preferences to drive less. It would be prudent to prepare for growth with similar assumptions as the cities, and valuable to plan for a future in which the state achieves goals for vehicle trip and carbon emissions reductions.

Caltrain Ridership - Past and Forecast

Concerns about platform height compatibility

Currently, Caltrain and High Speed Rail are leaning against compatible platform height, since local trains more commonly have lower platforms (Caltrain is planning on 25″), and high-speed trains historically have had higher platforms (High Speed Rail was planning on 50″ – but could change now that they’re not planning to jointly buy trains with Amtrak).

In presentations to date, Caltrain has provided several explanations of why compatibility with High Speed Rail may be less important.  Here’s why we’re still concerned.

Explanation:  The system will deliver as much capacity as is forecast in Caltrain’s projections.

Concern: Caltrain’s current EIR forecasts a compound annual ridership growth rate of only 2.5% between now and 2040, which is much lower than the 4% compound growth rate predicted by San Francisco and San Jose.

Explanation. The only stations that will be affected are stations where High Speed Rail will stop: Transbay, Millbrae, Diridon, only 3 out of 29 stations

Concern. These major stations are likely to represent a third or more of the ridership of the system.

Explanation. Transbay will not be a bottleneck because most Caltrain trains will not terminate at Transbay

Concern:  Given ridership drivers, all Caltrain trains should logically start/end at Transbay except for a few ballpark specials.  There are more jobs near Transbay than the rest of the Caltrain line combined.

On Monday September 29, Friends of Caltrain is hosting a forum with Caltrain, High Speed Rail, and experts who will share global examples of how to create level boarding and effective blended systems;  discuss the pros and cons of various approaches, and how you can support getting the best system. We’ll also talk about bikes, standing room, bathrooms, and space on the train - click here to RSVP. Mountain View City Hall at 7pm.