The State Rail Plan and the Caltrain network

A “pulse system” with precise, timed rail and feeder bus connections. Much greater capacity in constrained corridors, with a new tunnel carrying conventional rail from San Francisco through to Oakland. Focus on “hub” stations with connections to many places. A big-picture strategy to disentangle passenger and freight rail, to the advantage of both. One-step ticketing with coordinated fares.

The State of California’s grand vision of a coordinated statewide rail system was presented in public for the first time at SPUR Oakland on Wednesday, with Chad Edison of the California State Transportation Agency and Matt Maloney of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

These principles could potentially be transformative for Caltrain service and connections across the region and the state.

  • Investing in capacity in constrained corridors could provide the big-picture vision and funding needed to meet demand on the Caltrain corridor – with the Downtown Extension connecting the tracks to Transbay with many more jobs and transit connections
  • The presentation explicitly called out adding a second transbay tube including conventional rail; running trains through SF downtown and storing them across the Bay would greatly increase the capacity of the service – a best practice that metros around the world have been doing
  • A pulse system, as used in Switzerland and other places around the world, sets up a coordinated, regular schedule for transfers among services that are less frequent.
  • The presentation cited practices from around the world to get much higher utilization of assets, including service for a much wider variety of trips than peak hour commuting. These practices generate more ridership and revenue. Frequent, all-day service could be transformative for the Caltrain corridor.
  • Standards and leverage from the state for funding and interagency cooperation could help overcome innumerable barriers that are currently prioritized over smooth passenger connections, including freight conflicts that look intractable from the perspective of a single transit agency and subregion
  • Standards and leverage from the state to improve turnaround time and other productivity improvements could enable much greater capacity and service at hub stations including Transbay and Diridon
  • The ability to make effective connections would open the door for more efficient and cost-effective service patterns, for example Dumbarton service connecting East Bay, Central Valley and Sacramento to West Bay.
  • A mandate for effective connections, clockface service, and corridor capacity could drive more sensible and effective schedule designs for a “blended system” with HSR long-distance service and Caltrain local/regional service.
  • A vision for high-capacity service could help drive funding and timeline to fully grade-separate the Caltrain corridor
  • Effective multi-agency coordination. The presentation gave example of multiple regions around the world that have meticulously coordinated and integrated service delivered by dozens of separate operators.


The State Rail Plan wasn’t just presented as a long-term vision for projects requiring big funding and long planning. There are elements that could move forward quickly; including pushing toward service coordination, and planned investments to improve capacity on Caltrain, ACE, and Capital Corridor.

The Q&A at the event raised a number of important questions.

  • There is an election for governor in 2018. The priorities of the next governor will play a huge role in whether this strategy will be implemented or sit on a shelf. Will transforming the state’s transportation system be a priority for the governor’s race, along with health care and education? Will high-capacity backbone rail play a key role? Can advocates get the issue on the radar screen? Or will the next administration wait and hope that autonomous vehicles will solve all transportation problems?
  • Will the plan’s vision for coordinated ticketing be helpful or relevant for regional transit? The plan envisions integrated ticketing. That could mean being able to book a single ticket from LA Metro through to a destination near a Caltrain station, but could leave the Bay Area with its current tangle of 30,000 fare rules.
  • How will land use be considered in prioritizing goals and investments? The presentation suggested that the draft plan prioritized long-distance trips to serve the needs of long-distance megaregion commuting, as residents displaced from the core Bay Area seek less unaffordable housing. Even if rail has a tiny sliver of the market of, for example, commuting from Merced to the Bay Area, rail will displace long trips generating many car-miles and lots of carbon emissions. However, a strategy that prioritized support for exurban housing and long-distance commuting over infill development supporting much lower rates of driving might create a self-fulfilling prophesy; much larger numbers of displaced people with very long commutes, most of them driving. Clearly, some of each is going to happen, the question is relative priorities.

A vision for much better passenger service could be helpful for raising regional funding – and might provide a more compelling case than the “food-fight” process for RM3 where cities and agencies fought over many favorite local projects, without needing to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

If the strategy in the state rail plan is given power and money, it could result in much better service and much higher ridership for rail and transit in the Bay Area and around the state.

The full State Rail report is expected to be published shortly. There will be more public meetings and a comment period.