At an lunch forum at SPUR San Jose on February 20, representatives of Caltrain and Caltrans talked about how the State Rail plan was supporting more passenger capacity on the Peninsula Corridor, and much better regional and megaregional connections to the East Bay, Sacramento, and Central Valley.
More peak-hour frequency on the Peninsula Corridor
Liz Scanlon, Caltrain’s director of planning, said that with the support of the State Rail Plan, Caltrain was exploring how to move beyond the 10 trains per direction per hour service level that was considered in initial planning for the blended system, where Caltrain would share tracks with High Speed Rail between San Francisco and San Jose.
That blended service concept envisioned up to 4 high speed trains per direction per hour, heading between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and up to 6 Caltrain trains per direction per hour – the level of Peninsula Corridor service planned for when Caltrain starts running electric trains in 2022.
Meanwhile, growth along the corridor is continuing, with San Francisco and San Jose planning tens of thousands of new jobs within walking distance of the 4th and King and Diridon stations, Central Subway connections now expected in 2021, BART connections planned for the mid-2020s, and more growth happening in between. Even with longer platforms and longer trains, Caltrain seems likely to run out of room at 6 trains per hour.
Achieving higher frequency will take good designs for the blended system, allowing long-distance fast trains to pass local/regional trains without causing the locals to wait, and separating many more at-grade crossings, enabling higher train frequency with greater safety and lower impacts on local crosstown traffic. Over the last year or so, representatives of CalSTA have been quietly doing “family therapy” with the squabbling state and regional rail systems, encouraging them to work together rather than to insist on separate preferences that resulted in a worse-performing system, and using the leverage of state funding to motivate cooperation.
Liz Scanlon said that as part of the Caltrain business plan, the agency expected to explore the capital and operating requirements for more frequent service. For Caltrain supporters following the business plan, this is something to watch and support.
Sacramento support for a second transbay tube with conventional rail
Taking a broader view of regional and statewide connections, Shannon Simonds, Transportation Planner for CalSTA on the State Rail Plan team said that CalSTA strongly supported concepts for a second transbay crossing that accommodated conventional rail in addition to BART. The next phase of study is in the works under BART’s auspices.
A big strategic question is whether the second tube should focus on BART, which is overcrowded at peak, or should also support conventional rail. “Through-running” – extending a line initially conceived as commuter rail and built to stop outside downtown, so that it connects into downtown and out to the other side of the metro, is an international best practice that provides much better metro and regional service with higher ridership.
Simonds said that there would be much greater state financial support for a project that included conventional rail, because it would foster additional core bay area service (think Redwood City to Oakland in under 60 minutes instead of 90 minutes) along with much better connections between the Bay Area, Sacramento, and the Central Valley. Such a project would be costly, but would add much more value, in the perspective of the State Rail Plan. The additional connections would attract new sets of riders, and offer more benefit to justify the expense.
The State Rail Plan does not have the power to compel BART or the Bay Area to choose an alternative. Instead, within the decentralized structure of California transportation planning, the State Rail Plan expects to foster more coordination and higher ridership by using the state’s influence on funding to incent better connections and higher ridership.
Bay Area and California rail and transit supporters will want to follow the next steps of the Second Transbay Crossing study. Transit supporters should also look to engage in the planning for a regional “megameasure” that could provide substantial amounts of funding large, potentially transformational projects including a second tube. Megameasure planning is currently shadowy with funding attention focused on passing Regional Measure 3 in June, and defending the SB1 gas at the ballot, but is expected to surface after that.
In summary – the state rail plan is supportive of much greater capacity on Caltrain and on the corridor as part of much more robust megaregional and state connections. There are more steps ahead with the Caltrain business plan, funding, and regional coordination.