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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.

Senator Jerry Hill, Palo Alto City Council discuss next-generation Caltrain

At Monday night’s Palo Alto City Council meeting, the Council invited Senator Jerry Hill to discuss, among other things, Caltrain’s next phase after the retirement of CEO Mike Scanlon. Senator Hill observed that according to the Joint Powers Agreement crafted when Caltrain was formed in 1991, the SamTrans CEO is designated to run Caltrain – but that provision was required until San Francisco and Santa Clara County repaid San Mateo County for the original purchase of the right of way. That repayment was made several years ago, bailing out San Mateo County for the 2010/11 fiscal crisis.

So is it time to make changes?

The priority, according to Mayor Shepherd and Council Member Scharff, should be funding. Mayor Shepherd commented that 2016 could be the magic year for Caltrain dedicated funding. San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties both have transportation ballot measures planned, and San Mateo County could also raise funding at the same time.

Council Member Burt suggested that it might be a good time to consider changing the affiliation with SamTrans. Council Member Scharff observed that Caltrain board members are appointed by the three counties, disconnected from from direct public representation – should Caltrain instead look to an elected board like BART? Senator Hill reflected that it may indeed be time to make a change – JPAs tend to lack direct transparency and accountability.

Electrification creates opportunities for more frequent service at lower operating cost. Level boarding would make coordinated service with BART and other transit services feasible. There are important discussions and decisions in the coming months to determine the leadership, structure and funding of next-generation Caltrain.

VTA proposes next BART phase – Downtown and Diridon only

This morning, VTA staff proposed to the BART SV board subcommittee a scaled back Phase 2 of the BART to Silicon Valley project which would include Downtown and Diridon stations, but not yet stations at Alum Rock or City of Santa Clara. Staff had evaluated project options against the criteria for federal funding and found that the two-station project would maximize the chances of getting the federal funding critical to complete the project. VTA would still perform environmental review of all four stations, but would seek federal funding for the 2-station option.

BART SV options ranked by federal funding criteria
BART SV options ranked by federal funding criteria

The full 4-station project would cost $4.7 billion, (with $1.1 billion or more from federal New Starts funding) and would need a full $3 billion out of the proposed $3.5 billion upcoming transportation tax that VTA is considering for 2016, eliminating most other projects, or depend bonds with very high debt service costs. By contrast, the 2-station project would cost $3.4 Billion, and would require up to $1.7 billion of the upcoming sales tax measure and/or additional funds. Federal criteria: mobility improvements, environmental benefits, cost-effectiveness, and land use, together favored the 2-station version over the 4-station version, and also potential 3 station versions.

There were other differences in the proposed project, compared to the version reviewed earlier. Staff proposed that the Alum Rock station be moved from near 28th street near the 101 freeway 23rd street, and a parking garage, opposed by the community, would be removed. VTA staff member Gonot expressed concern that removing the parking would greatly hamper ridership, however General Manager Fernandez noted that the area would be served by BRT, and was relatively near Berryessa’s park and ride.

The 23rd street alignment would allow BART to use a bridge over 101, saving money with less tunnelling. Another difference is that the full 4-station project would include a maintenance facility at Newhall, while the 2-station project would have a storage yard at Newhall, to be used to store cars from BART’s larger fleet, but not the full maintenance facility.

VTA staff wants to get the project into the queue for Federal New Starts funding by the end of the year, so the final decision could be made by 2016, before the conclusion of the Obama administration.

At the meeting, board member Cindy Chavez expressed concern about reaction from Alum Rock/5 Wounds community, which had engaged in a comprehensive planning process for the station area. Chavez expressed a strong interest in more public outreach, so that community members do not feel like decisions are a “done deal” without community input. Chavez also mentioned that the Silicon Valley Leadership Group had discussed options, and agreed that Downtown/Diridon were the highest priorities.

And board member Ken Yeager expressed concern about City of Santa Clara, which has been eager to get a BART station of its own, although the Caltrain station at the same location currently serves about 800 riders. Yeager also mentioned the benefit of the Santa Clara station as an airport connector. However, given the multi-modal station at Diridon including eventual high speed rail, Diridon has been mentioned as a potential primary airport connection location.

Board Member Yeager made a salient point – stakeholders were concerned that if Phase 2 were broken up into 2a and 2b, then there would be a risk that 2b would never happen, due to the land use in those areas. If there is a lack of supportive land use and land use plans, that would seem like a good reason to refrain from building a station. Community member Roland Lebrun expressed concern about the proposed delay of the Alum Rock station which had substantial community support.

This decision will be presented for the VTA board approval at its upcoming November meeting.

Given the need to consider cost-effectiveness and land use to receive the federal funding, and the focus on the critical BART-Caltrain connection creating a continuous backbone transit route around the bay, this seems like a prudent approach. San Jose readers and transit supporters – what do you think?

Caltrain and High Speed Rail announce plans to work together on level boarding, platform compatiblity

Last night, at a Friends of Caltrain forum in Mountain View City Hall, Caltrain and High Speed Rail said publicly that were working together to explore solutions for level boarding with common platform height. Level boarding will not only deliver faster, more accessible Caltrain service, but would allow Caltrain to run a smoother service pattern that can carry more riders with the same number of trains. A common platform height has the potential to help Caltrain and High Speed Rail get the most capacity from the “blended system”, where the two rail services will be sharing tracks – especially in the constrained space of the Transbay Terminal.

Ben Tripousis, Northern California Regional Director of High Speed Rail also said that to foster a compatible solution, the High Speed Rail Authority would consider including including compatibility expenses as part of the package of next phase investments. These expenses include changing platforms to a new platform height, and replacing the remaining Caltrain diesel trains (Caltrain’s current plan for electrification calls for replacing only 75% of the diesel trains). Tripousis mentioned that a High Speed Rail package for Northern California might also include funding for grade separations, which prevent traveling at faster speeds, and increase community acceptance of more frequent train service.

Dave Couch, who is leading project management for the Caltrain electrification project, said that Caltrain would refrain from sending out the request for proposals for rail car procurement in order to work with high speed rail on a compatibility solution.

In a panel discussion, Lou Thompson, chair of the High Speed Rail Peer Review Group, talked about the groups recommendation that High Speed Rail and Caltrain study compatibility options with a strong goal to achieve compatibility. Based on research of blended systems in the United States and elsewhere in the world, Thompson explained that there are multiple ways to solve the problem technically. While there will be no equipment that can be bought exactly “off the shelf”, and the solution might not be ideal for either, a workable solution is very likely feasible, which would deliver better service and reliability.

Brian Dykes of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority talked about how providing compatible platforms would allow more trains to serve Transbay, which could otherwise be a bottleneck for the capacity of the entire system. Gillian Gillett, Transportation Policy Director from the San Francisco Mayor’s office, talked about the city’s growth goals, which will focus new jobs and housing even more strongly around the Caltrain corridor; capacity to serve San Francisco, already Caltrain’s largest market, is essential.

Adina Levin of Friends of Caltrain (your blogger) presented background information about Caltrain’s capacity challenges and ridership growth. Ridership has doubled over the last decade – if longterm demographic and land use trends continue, Caltrain will need to serve more riders than predicted in the agency’s forecast, and it will be critical to get the most capacity from the tracks shared with High Speed Rail.

Notable in the presentations and panel discussion was the absence of explanations of why compatibility would be very difficult and/or not necessary. In the past, Caltrain and High Speed Rail have provided explanations regarding the difficulty of finding suitable equipment, the fact that Caltrain and High Speed Rail will share only a few stations, and that Transbay would not present a capacity constraint on the system.

In answer from an audience member question, Gillett talked about the city’s assertive response to the efforts of developers to renege on a deal to contribute funding for the Downtown Extension of the Caltrain tracks to Transbay. The developers are now threatening to sue the city. “The first buildings are being built, and they need an occupancy permit from the city. Other buildings haven’t started construction yet, and need building permits. They can sue, but we have their permits. It would be mutually assured destruction.”

Dave Couch also talked about the regulatory hurdle required for level boarding – the PUC would need to change an obsolete rule, and Union Pacific – a tough negotiator – would need to agree.

Caltrain and High Speed Rail did not make any commitments regarding compatible platforms, but they did talk publicly and optimistically about their efforts to work together on a shared solution.

Transbay deal implodes, litigation likely

Developers who are building big buildings near the Transbay transit center, who had promised to contribute funding to the infrastructure including the Downtown Extension of Caltrain to Transby, backed out of a compromise funding deal. The San Francisco Supervisors approved the original deal for the, and the developers are expected to sue.

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.

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  • Interactive Caltrain schedule

  • Calendar of events

    • November 5, 2014

      SamTrans Board meeting

      Starts: 2:00 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos, CA

    • November 6, 2014

      Caltrain JPB meeting

      Starts: 10:00 am

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • November 11, 2014

      TJPA CAC Meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: 201 Mission Street, Suite 2100 San Francisco, CA

    • November 13, 2014

      TJPA Board Meeting

      Starts: 9:30 am

      Location: City Hall, Room 416, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102

    • November 19, 2014

      Caltrain CAC meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • November 20, 2014

      Caltrain BAC meeting

      Starts: 6:30 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos, CA

      Description: Bicycle Advisory Committee

    • December 3, 2014

      SamTrans Board meeting

      Starts: 2:00 pm

      Location: 1250 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos, CA

    • December 4, 2014

      Caltrain JPB meeting

      Starts: 10:00 am

      Location: Location: 2nd Floor Auditorium San Mateo County Transit District 1250 San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos

    • December 9, 2014

      TJPA CAC Meeting

      Starts: 5:30 pm

      Location: 201 Mission Street, Suite 2100 San Francisco, CA

    • December 11, 2014

      TJPA Board Meeting

      Starts: 9:30 am

      Location: City Hall, Room 416, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, San Francisco, CA 94102