Caltrain discusses electric service improvements – 15-minute all-day soon, 7.5 min peak by 2027ish

Caltrain is starting to discuss ideas for service improvements – 15-minute all-day service as soon as when electrification goes live in 2022ish, and a next set of improvements with 8 trains per direction per hour as soon as 2027.    

Funding needed for all-day service

For all-day service, the big variable is money needed to run the service.  Caltrain’s business plan analysis has shown that there is pent-up demand for ridership all day – if Caltrain provided a more BART-like all day service, it would see more BART-like all day ridership.   One option would be a local-express pattern that provided 15-minute service at top stations, 30-minute service at other stations, with express options all day.

More frequent peak service and level boarding as soon as 2027 

With growth in the region, the additional trains at peak period – frequency increasing from 5 to 6 trains per hour and trains increasing from 6 to 7 cars long – will fill up quickly.   Caltrain is investigating options to improve service and carry more riders by running more frequent peak hour trains, as soon as 2027.

It turns out that running more frequent trains sooner may be more feasible than running longer trains, because Caltrain doesn’t yet have space to store and maintain longer trainsets.  

The improvements enabling more frequent service would  include level boarding – upgrading platforms to allow people with wheelchairs, strollers, luggage and bikes to roll on and roll off instead of climbing stairs or needing assistance with ramps and lifts.

What service pattern?  

Caltrain is investigating potential service patterns for more frequent service.  Considerations include customer convenience, comfort, and better connections. It seems counter-intuitive, but a “skip-stop” pattern may perform better in the medium term than a 2-zone service with express and local trains.  

The reason is that without another passing station in the middle of the line, a zone/express pattern won’t actually do better at providing connections, reducing wait time, and carrying more passengers.

A Redwood City passing station would likely unlock the ability to have better connections with a more intuitive schedule.  Last week, the City of Redwood City approved working with Caltrain on the potential for major station improvements in conjunction with development at Sequoia station. But that planning is technically complicated and intertwingled with Redwood City’s plans for the next generation of infill growth in its downtown area. 

If you have questions about the details of Caltrain’s analysis, see the last few slides in this presentation and you can send specific questions to businessplan@caltrain.com

More riders for a less extravagant price tag

These improvements could help move another 20,000 people by the end of the decade.  While not cheap, the price tag would be in the $1B to $2B range. Hopefully this more incremental step will get a better rating in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission PlanBayArea assessment, enabling the program to be included this year in the Regional Transportation Plan, since this is a requirement to qualify for federal and state funding. A more detailed roadmap of improvements and funding needs will be presented in February, according to Caltrain staff presenting at January’s Local Policymaker Working Group.

The price tag for the full buildout of the Caltrain business plan service vision, including full corridor grade separation, major improvements to Diridon station, and downtown extension to Salesforce Transbay in SF, and passing infrastructure to serve High Speed Rail, was over $20B, and didn’t score well in the first round of PlayBayArea assessment.  

What about my station?

The specific service for every station is not yet decided – and because of physical constraints, some stations may not see service improvements, or even see worse service. Caltrain will go through a planning process with public outreach before making service decisions. So watch for Caltrain’s schedule planning as soon as next year, and pay attention to what’s being proposed for the stations you use. 

Grade separation motivation

The prospect of more frequent peak service is also relevant to local city decisions about grade separations. Cities up and down the corridor are working on local plans to separate the Caltrain tracks from local streets. These projects are very expensive ($150M and more), and involve challenging local debates about design, benefits and drawbacks on local circulation, and the cost of local funds needed to match county and other funding. In some cities, discussions about the difficult decisions have been ongoing for decades.   The prospect of more frequent peak service before 2030 may prompt some more attention to the timeline of local grade separation decisions.

Funding for improvements as soon as November 2020

Regarding funding for service improvements soon, there are several options in play for potential ballot measures in 2020 – either a large regional measure, or a Caltrain-specific measure if a large regional transportation measure doesn’t yet move forward.  

These ideas for more frequent all-day service, more frequent, better-connected service before the end of the decade, and fewer cars clogging highways, could be the start of a package of improvements that could be appealing to voters in November.