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The Green Caltrain blog is sponsored by BayRail Alliance, an all-volunteer non-profit organization supporting green rail transit in the Bay Area. This blog and BayRail have no affiliation with Caltrain.

Archive for the ‘Friends of Caltrain’

Might Caltrain trains have less room after electrification?

At the last Caltrain board meeting, Caltrain staff reported results of technical investigations into the potential for rail cars allowing compatibility with High Speed Rail.   The good news is that it looks to be technically feasible, and High Speed Rail is offering to contribute funds to enable compatibility. The worrying news is that the resulting system might have less room for passengers than before electrification, and it could take ten or more years to catch up.
Electric train
The main reason that transit supporters – riders, employers, and anyone concerned about congestion and the environment – want electrification is more room on the crowded train line.   Caltrain and High Speed Rail need a better solution when electric service goes live.
Even in the best of circumstances, the new cars were going to have less room per car than today’s cars, because instead of a locomotive upfront, each self-powering EMU has mechanical gear on board.   Today a 5-car Caltrain train has about 650 seats.    Electric trains would only have 600 seats each.  (But Caltrain would run ~20% more frequently and stop at more stations, carrying overall more passengers.)   The double-door approach would remove 78-188 seats per 6-car train.
The result could be that in 2020/2021, when Caltrain starts electric service, there could be less room on the train than before (!)  While Caltrain can compensate for the loss by more quickly moving to longer trains – and eventually make it almost all back when the extra doors are removed – Caltrain staff say that Caltrain might not be able to get the room back for well over a decade (since it would take many years to raise and extend all the platforms)
The reason for Caltrain to do the double-door compromise was that High Speed Rail claimed that it would be difficult for it to procure lower level trains that could travel at the needed speed.    And High Speed Rail would advance money – somewhere between $600Million and $1Billion – to get the upgrades done, including longer platforms.
On a corridor that is starving for transit space, with a system that will need voter funding it will be a very hard sell to explain why to spend more money for improvements that won’t add more passenger space sooner.
There will be more details forthcoming at the upcoming board meetings for Caltrain, HSR, and the Transbay authority.  Hopefully staff will provide the boards the important information needed to evaluate decisions:
* How many people will Caltrain be able to carry per peak hour when electrification goes live?
* How many passengers will fit on the train, both standing and sitting?
* How will the double-door configuration affect “dwell time”, and therefore overall corridor travel time?
* How soon will Caltrain be able to provide longer platforms to carry more passengers?
There are important questions to answer very soon, before Caltrain and HSR spend money on trainsets.
* Might the state and taxpayers be better off if High Speed Rail looked harder for compromise-height trains?
* Electric trainsets are shorter because there’s no locomotive. Could Caltrain fit a 7-car electric train set in the same space as a 6-car diesel set, immediately adding 17% more passenger space at the cost of 17% more cars (see slide 14 here)
* Could the platform upgrades happen sooner?
* Could Caltrain run more frequent service sooner, and how would communities deal with the impacts on at-grade crossings?
* Should Caltrain and HSR give up on compatibility? What would that mean for service to Transbay, which would be the most-used station in the corridor?
Less room on the trains in 2021 is the wrong answer.   Caltrain and HSR need solutions that will give Peninsula corridor riders, employers, and tax payers more room on the trains.

VTA offers pilot bulk pass to downtown Palo Alto workers, democratizing discount program

At an organizational meeting for Palo Alto’s emerging Transportation Management Association, lead consultant Wendy Silvani reported that the VTA would allow the TMA to aggregate it’s member-participants.  Historically, the bulk-discount programs have been available to large employers and educational institutions, but employees at smaller retail and service businesses have been locked out of discount transit pass fares.

This is not the first time that VTA has made the program available to a pool of workers.  At San Jose International Airport, workers, including workers at retail shops, are also eligible for bulk-discount passes as are employees at Sunnyvale’s Moffett TMA.

This is important news, because a growing number of cities on the Peninsula corridor, including San Jose, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Redwood City, and San Mateo have recently or are in the process of setting up TMAs to run programs to reduce single-occupant car trips, traffic, and parking demand for congested downtowns and major job centers.

These TMAs will have the ability to provide transportation benefits to a wider swath of the population. Today, large employers in the Bay Area, such as Stanford, Google, and Facebook, run powerful programs to reduce car commuting. At Stanford, less than 50% employees drive to work, even though Stanford doesn’t run any long-distance shuttles taking employees home.   Stanford provides Caltrain GoPasses, last-mile shuttles, and other programs to greatly reduce driving. The goal of the TMAs is to make many more travelers eligible for Stanford-like transportation benefits.


In our area, the bulk pass programs – VTA’s EcoPass, SamTrans WayToGo pass, and Caltrain’s GoPass play a powerful role at increasing transit ridership. For the transit agency, the goal is to be “farebox-neutral” – because they sell in bulk to the whole population, they ought to bring in the same amount of revenue as if a much smaller number of people had purchased full-price transit passes on their own.

While VTA has already gotten a head start at offering EcoPass to a pool of businesses at the same location, SamTrans and Caltrain have not yet made this offering available.  This would be a logical next step, as the TMAs in San Jose, Mountain View, San Mateo, and other cities get organized.  Making these passes available via TMAs would have equity benefits, since they would be available to lower-income workers at smaller businesses.  And they would help reduce congestion, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions in the areas densest locations.

There are some organizational issues to work out for the Palo Alto TMA EcoPass. The TMA is in the process of getting incorporated as a nonprofit organization, and needs to figure out which entity will purchase the passes during the pilot phase, before the TMA is incorporated. The first year’s budget is being funded by the City of Palo Alto – the plan is to define revenue sources that will make the TMA self-sustaining.

Wednesday night – another chance to help Muni connect 16th Street to Caltrain

On Wednesday night at 6pm, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority is hosting another meeting to gather rider feedback on design choices for major improvements to the 22-Fillmore, which will be electrified and extended to 16th street in the Mission to Mission Bay. The meeting will be held at the International Studies Academy, 655 De Haro Street in San Francisco.

The improvements would adding transit only lanes on 16th and 3rd to make the bus up to 25% faster, add bulbouts for pedestrian safety, creating a safe and attractive bicycle route along 17th street.

People who use Caltrain in San Francisco have been urging Muni to extend the route one more stop, to drop passengers closer to Caltrain at 4th and King. Currently, line is proposed to stop at UCSF, a short bus ride and longer walk from Caltrain. Since the improvements may take 5 years to add the overhead wires, Muni has in the meantime added new diesel bus line on 16th, the 55-16th, which follows the 22-Filmore on 16th, continues on 16th Street, then North on 3rd Street to UCSF. But that doesn’t connect to Caltrain either.

There is an online survey taking rider feedback on design details for the 22 Fillmore. But it doesn’t have an open-ended field to make the suggestion to connect to Caltrain.
If you can attend the meeting, please let us know how it goes. And if you can’t come to the meeting, and want the routes to connect to Caltrain,  send a note to SMTA staff,,, and copy us at

Also, there will soon be information about the San Francisco study of opportunities to make use of the land that Caltrain currently uses to store trains at 4th and King, and potentially more land along the rail corridor, for housing and commercial development. Would it be financially viable for the city? Operationally viable for Caltrain? Help or harm the project to connect the tracks to the Transbay terminal downtown? Stay tuned for more information and opportunities to get involved.

MTC proposes to de-fund bike share on Peninsula, despite demand for bikeshare last-mile

At tomorrow’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission Administration Committee meeting meeting, the MTC is proposing to expand the bikeshare program in San Francisco, San Jose, and the East Bay, but to de-fund the under-utilized stations in Redwood City, Palo Alto, and Mountain View.  Cities can pick up the cost of maintaining the kiosks, or to have them removed.    The decision to de-fund he Peninsula stations is being made despite the fact that Caltrain has a painful capacity crunch, and routinely bumps passengers who use a bicycle for their first/last mile – and survey data shows that nearly 40% of people who bring bikes onboard Caltrain say they could use a bikeshare bicycle instead.

Key missing information from the survey results disclosed by Caltrain is which stations have large numbers of customers who say they could use bikeshare as a substitute to bikes on board.  If there are Peninsula stations, it would make sense for Caltrain to work with those cities, and major employers in those cities, to assess the deployment of bikeshare for last-mile connection.

Part of the problem is that the model used to plan Bay Area Bikeshare is an urban model, with stations clustered close together in a densely populated area.   The use of bikeshare as a last-mile connector, playing a similar role as a shuttle, is not being considered.  It is true that a last-mile connector would be more expensive than an urban system that gets used all day; the key question is not whether the cost compares with an urban system, but whether the this last-mile solution is cost-effective compared to a shuttle, which costs $5 or more dollars per fully subsidized ride.

One piece of good news for Caltrain bicycle users in the proposed new bike share agreement, is that pricing will be made available for equipment and services on a per-dock basis. This means that cities and employers wanting to partner on last mile bike share, the way they currently partner on last mile shuttles, will have a package to purchase and a price tag. When Bay Area Bikeshare was launched, employers and transportation demand management programs that wanted to subsidize a bike share kiosk for their employees did not have a package to purchase.

Hopefully Caltrain and partners can assess the opportunity for last-mile bike share and provide funding if it makes sense.


bikeshare lastmile

Caltrain, HSR, MTC negotiating about faster capacity boost

At today’s Caltrain board meeting, at modernization update presented by project lead Dave Couch, Caltrain disclosed new information about the technology compromises that could enable platform compatibility with High Speed Rail, and efforts to accelerate funding for compatibility and increased capacity.

Two options for customized cars are being considered – a two-door car that would serve platforms at two heights, and a “trap door” mechanism that would move to serve the two platform heights.    The two choices have different benefits and drawbacks. The “double door” approach would be mechanically simpler, but would allow fewer seats per train (see last paragraph for estimates). The “trap door” approach would not reduce passenger capacity, but would increase reliability risk by adding customized moving parts.  The double doors would enable Caltrain to serve current low platforms, and new higher platforms compatible with high speed trains.

To compensate for the reduction in train capacity, Caltrain and High Speed Rail are talking to MTC and the financial partners in the blended system, for a plan to accelerate a package of additional investments to increase capacity, including 8-car trains, platform updates to allow for 8-car trains and level boarding, and replacing the remaining 25% of diesel cars that were expected to keep traveling the corridor from San Francisco to San Jose, because of insufficient funding to fully electrify.  These improvements would add more than 33% additional capacity (more than the increase in going from 6-8 car trains), since fully electric service and level boarding would allow Caltrain to run a more optimized schedule that could carry more passengers.


Electric trains

The capacity lost to a double-door system would presumably be eventually regained, once Caltrain has updated all of its platforms to the new height.  At that time, the extra door would be closed up and potentially seats could be added back.

A full evaluation of the benefits and tradeoffs for the board would logically consider the additional blended system capacity provided by Caltrain/HSR compatibility; the additional capital and operating costs and medium-term capacity impacts of compatibility; the dwell time and schedule implications of the nonstandard car design; and an overall schedule for a transition to level boarding and restoring the lost capacity.

The reason that Caltrain and High Speed Rail are considering compatible platforms is because compatibility will increase longterm capacity of the “blended system” with Caltrain and high speed rail at shared stations, especially the space-constrained Transbay terminal, which is expected to be the single most heavily used station on the Caltrain line. (Of course, passengers who use Transbay will also use other stations, so increased ridership at Transbay will mean increased overall ridership and fewer cars on the freeways).

Several public comments at the board meeting expressed concerns that Caltrain may be compromising its service for the benefit of High Speed Rail.  The board and stakeholders will need to consider the compromises, and also the amount of long-term increased capacity and operational improvements that would be gained with compatibility.

At the board meeting, Director Nolan asked for a board workshop to review the full consequences of these decisions that will shape the system for many decades, and GM Hartnett agreed.  A board workshop would happen later this spring, to help the board make decisions for the RFP that is scheduled to be issued this summer.


(The double-door approach would reduce seats by 78-188 seats per train.  Today’s 5-car trains carry ~620 – 680 passengers; the electric trains would be 6-car trains; so the 2-door trains would provide very roughly 10-20% less passenger capacity, depending on a variety of decisions relating to space for bathrooms, bikes on board, and standees.)

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