San Mateo County Grand Jury critiques lack of rail/bus connections

In July, a San Mateo County grand jury released a report criticizing the lack of timely connections between SamTrans buses and Caltrain trains. The report concludes that “despite the ‘Caltrain Connection’ designation expressed in the logo shown in SamTrans schedules [on 16 bus lines], SamTrans makes no effort to coordinate these buses’ Caltrain station arrival and departure times with the Caltrain train schedules.”

The grand jury focused on the potential for buses to serve as connections for commuters between homes in San Mateo County and Caltrain stations, and from Caltrain stations back home, contrasting the lack of first-mile coordination with the coordinated “last mile” service provided by Commute.org, in partnership with SamTrans, Caltrain, and city governments to provide 16 shuttle routes connecting from Caltrain to and from workplaces in San Mateo County.   Currently, about 10% of 8,000 Caltrain commuters in San Mateo take transit to the station in the morning.

The grand jury found “suboptimal wait times, defined as longer than 15 minutes or shorter than 5 minutes. For instance, in the morning, only 35 percent of SamTrans’ “Caltrain Connection” buses are scheduled to arrive within 5 to 15 minutes of a Caltrain departure. Nineteen percent arrive with less than 5 minutes to make the transfer which, given normal delays in bus schedules, may not allow riders enough time to make the train. Twenty-six percent of buses are scheduled to arrive between 16 and 30 minutes before a Caltrain departure, and scheduled arrival times for 20 percent require riders to wait more than 30 minutes.”

The report assessed the bus and train schedules and concluded that it would be possible to tweak bus schedules to do a better job of connecting with trains.

Working as intended?

SamTrans staff explained to the grand jury that the system was working as intended. “SamTrans coordinates bus schedules only to facilitate transfers between bus lines, not between buses and trains.” 

But the Grand Jury did not find this a satisfactory explanation, recommending that SamTrans investigate the feasibility of connecting bus and train schedules, and survey commuters to determine the level of interest in bus connections to trains.  The report recommends considering the Swiss model of “pulse” scheduling, where local buses swarm to connect to regional rail and rapid bus lines.  

The Grand Jury demands that Caltrain and SamTrans start to consider the value of a feeder network by the end of this year, and for the agencies to study the potential of connected schedules by mid-2020. 

SamTrans is about to embark on a major review of its network, branded “Reimagine SamTrans”, this year and next, so this analysis can feed into that effort.

Barriers and opportunities – Caltrain electrification

A potential barrier to coordination is Caltrain’s gap-toothed skip-stop schedule.  With upcoming electric service planned to start in 2022, Caltrain will be considering more frequent and potentially closer to a “clockface” schedule.    So it may well make sense to have a second phase of the bus connection assessment timed in analysis and rollout to Caltrain electrification.

In it’s “Next Network” redesign, VTA redesigned its bus and light rail schedules to connect to the upcoming BART extension to Silicon Valley. But VTA did not make changes to align with Caltrain, making the case that Caltrain’s schedule was to irregular to design connections. It will also make sense for VTA to analyze opportunities for bus connections to Caltrain, in conjunction with the rollout of electric service.

Then, VTA held up the release of most of its bus network improvements until BART opened service to Milpitas and Berryessa, and that opening has been delayed by about two years.   SamTrans certainly shouldn’t hold off improvements waiting for Caltrain electrification.   

Barriers and opportunities – land use density

While Peninsula residents and policymakers often complain about the paucity of east/west transit service, and the concentration of transit service on the Peninsula’s North/South spine, it is also the case that higher density is clustered around the North/South spine, and East/West connections are lower density, with fewer people in walking distance of bus stops. 

SamTrans’ analysis should look at the residential density on key East/West connections, and partner with cities to consider the potential for changes that could facilitate better transit service over time. 

Barriers and opportunities – fares and stereotypes

One of the barriers to bus/train connections is local culture. Caltrain and SamTrans are run under one roof, with the same management and interlocking boards. But the linked management and government do not automatically result in coordinated service.

In the Peninsula area, many people believe it’s normal for trains and buses to serve different customer bases – trains are used by high-income customers, buses are used by low-income customers, and therefore there is little point in providing bus-train connections.  These beliefs are held by people in boards, on management teams, by transit riders, and by some transit advocates, who accept a transit system where buses and trains are used by low and high income people separately.  

By contrast, in Seattle which is rapidly expanding its light rail network, and continually re-organizing its buses to connect to trains, the transit modes are getting many more riders with greater diversity.

In doing the market research, SamTrans and Caltrain should also consider whether fares are a barrier, in addition to schedules.  Currently, holders of Caltrain monthly passes are provided access to SamTrans local buses at no extra charge, but holders of SamTrans passes get no credit for Caltrain service.  Caltrain riders have an average income of $130,000, and low-income riders are largely priced out. But in Palo Alto, where a Transportation Management Association offered free transit passes to low-income workers, a Caltrain pass was the most popular offering, indicating pent-up demand.

Currently, the region is considering a business case study of fare integration. The Caltrain/SamTrans connection is an example where the lack of integrated and equitable fares may be a barrier to transit ridership and economic opportunity. 

p.s. why is there a Grand Jury report to assess problems with bus/train connections in San Mateo County? These are created by law in the State of California, which impanels County Civil Grand Juries every year to conduct civil investigations of county and city government and to hear evidence to make recommendations. This report is one of several grand jury investigations of various San Mateo County government functions this year. See this web page for more information.