High Speed Rail expects to compete with Caltrain between San Francisco and San Jose

UPDATE from High Speed Rail below

The High Speed Rail’s Ridership Technical Advisory Panel  discussed plans for High Speed Rail service to compete with Caltrain in a workshop conducted in January, 2015 in San Francisco.

The report was quite clear about the intent to compete in the market for commute trips between San Francisco and San Jose. “In this instance HSR will compete with the Caltrain express service, as noted previously.”   The panelists sought to model the service attributes that would enable High Speed Rail to compete most effectively with Caltrain.  In order to estimate how successful the yellow trains will be at attracting riders from the red trains, the panelists recommended looking at the relative appeal of Caltrain’s fast express baby bullet service to the slow local service.   The panelists also talked about bicycle capacity as a feature that would favor Caltrain trains, since the High Speed Rail service does not plan for bikes on board.

The discussion focused on the intent to compete most effectively for riders, rather than to provide the most attractive overall service pattern for commuters who travel between San Francisco and San Jose. This travel pattern that would likely attract more riders in 10-15 years when High Speed trains start to serve the corridor, because of planned transit-oriented development growth in jobs and housing in San Francisco and San Jose on the corridor, and because a commute trip faster than the current hour might even attract more people to live in one city and commute to the other.

The ridership forecasts are being prepared for a 2016 update to the High Speed Rail business plan. The 2014 High Speed Rail business plan predicted that High Speed Service from San Francisco to San Jose would generate 2.5 million riders per year.  If Caltrain doubles ridership from last year’s 17 million, that would be 15% of the local market.

The workshop included a handful of transportation planning experts, representatives of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the High Speed Rail Authority, Parsons Brinkerhoff, the mega-consultancy working on the project. But no representatives from Caltrain were present, nor were representatives from the cities of San Francisco or San Jose, which would benefit the most strongly from super-express service.

Will designing for competition provide better or worse service than designing for commuter convenience?   High Speed Rail is expected to re-start planning for service on Peninsula corridor in the next few months, with schedule and blended service among the topics that will be discussed.    The corridor is expected to carry 10 trains per direction per hour between San Francisco and San Jose, with six Caltrain trains and four high speed trains.

A schedule designed to maximize rider convenience might logically have 3 express and and 3 local Caltrain trains, with super-express high speed trains spaced in between the Caltrain expresses to give longer-distance riders the most choice, but a schedule designed for High Speed Rail to compete might have the High Speed train departure starts closely timed to the Caltrain baby bullet starts, to encourage riders to choose the fast train.   There are going to be other considerations like train passing. Readers with transit schedule planning expertise would be welcome to add thoughts in the comments about what schedule choices would provide the best service for commuters.

Update: We talked to Ben Tripousis, head of the High Speed Rail Northern California program, who added more context about the workshop held in January.

Tripousis explained that the panelists are academic experts on ridership modelling who are giving technical advice on how to estimate the number of riders who will take the High Speed Trains.  The reason to compare with Caltrain service is to make predictions about the number of riders who will be attracted by services of different speeds and types.

Their goal, said Tripousis, was “not to create strategies to compete for market share” on the SF-SJ corridor. “Our goal was never to compete with Caltrain service,” said Tripousis.  “That choice of words [in the memo] was unfortunate. It was not talking about competition between the services.”

Tripousis reports that the High Speed Rail Authority plans to start outreach on the Peninsula corridor for the next phase of planning with the first meetings expected in September. One of the objectives of that planning process will to discuss schedule options “in order to create a complementary blended service.”

Hopefully as part of the planning process, Caltrain corridor commuters, city and employer stakeholders will speak up as part of that process, seeking a schedule pattern that provides the most commuter convenience, meets cities’ economic development goals, and takes the most cars off the road.


High Speed Trains