Friday, February 25, 2011

Unclear on the concept

Here is a tweet from @CTWkendBullets - as far as I can tell an official Caltrain Twitter Account.

Take Caltrain Weekend Bullet to Disney On Ice 3 pm show at San Jose HP Pavilion. Show Caltrain ticket; save $5.

The one bullet on the schedule arriving before the show - arrives at 1:03 PM - 2 hours before the show. There is a local arriving 10 minutes before the show (probably not enough time for kids) but also one arriving an hour and ten minutes before the show. With young kids, longer on a train is probably better than 2 hours roaming around HP Pavilion to save 20 minutes on the train.

I have definitely changed my position on a lot of the station closures (though Hayward Park? Why?) but Caltrain should have been more aggressive with this pilot and put in MORE BULLETS, and REMOVED some local trains. Say for example going with every other train on the bullet schedule. Optimally increased ridership along with increased support, they could run 30 minute headways on the weekend, with every other train being a bullet.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Caltrain cuts. Unacceptable.

I'm going to San Carlos to spit in the wind tonight.

Caltrain cannot cut *anything*.

A large number of people who take the train do not do so by coincidence. They structured their lives the way they have precisely because the train exists. I live in San Francisco and work in Sunnyvale solely because of the train - roughly as the schedule exists today.

The proposed schedule will not suit my needs. Taking a bike on board will become an exercise in folly, the sum capacity of trains will not fill overall demand and one could find themselves bumped off the last train - stranded. My company runs a shuttle to the proposed to be closed Lawrence Station. They could switch to Sunnyvale, but the shuttle cannot make a round trip in under the 30 minute headway of trains, meaning only 1 shuttle per hour for my company. The only VTA connection is from Santa Clara - also on the chopping block. Missing a train in SF by 1 second would cost me 1 hour - or an entire day of work - and with MUNI's unpredictability, the padding in my schedule would be intolerable. I would have to abandon the train, removing a critical block in my lifestyle. I would be forced to move, and I would not be alone.

If and when Caltrain recovered their funding, they would find that a substantial portion of their ridership is lost forever, having made changes in their lifestyle that rendered Caltrain obsolete. Potential new riders would not be groomed during the down time - residences near Belmont or Burlingame train station would attract solely people who have no interest in public transport. It could take decades to rebuild what was in place.

One could argue that we would be better served if the ridership moved closer to work. This could be true - but I won't be moving to Sunnyvale. I will be moving to Portland or Boulder and taking my tax dollars and job creating entrepreneurship along with me. It would be a big loss if the next Jerry Yang or Larry Page decided to attend MIT instead of Stanford due to the Bay Area's lack of dedication to what could be a great mass transit system. We are uniquely prepared for the future because we have in place a better skeleton of transit than most of the US - let's not throw that away over pennies.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The next stop is your, pardner!

Last week the Bay Citizen published an article listing San Francisco's most dangerous streets for cyclists. They basically collected all the data on accidents including a bicycle and mapped them out.

I'd argue that the analysis is backwards. There's a certain probability of an accident at any given location if you are riding through it. In order to get that number, you have to normalize the number of accidents by the number of trips. The reason that places like Valencia and Market have the most accidents is that they are the most popular roads to ride on - and this is because they have been determined through experience and tribal knowledge to have the best balance of safety and utility. Certainly riding down 22nd Street from Sanchez to Church - a 28 percent gradient - would be a lot less safe, but there are no recorded accidents there!

The article also discusses fault, which brings up the issue of police bias. Over and over again we see instances where the driver made an error, but no citation is made. (Aside - I'm still trying to figure out the legitimacy of an argument made by Burlingame PD that an accident report assigning fault is effectively the same as a citation in terms of insurance *and* points on your license). Generally speaking, cyclists feel that the police often suffer from a windshield perspective and are dismissive of cyclists. The other day, I encountered an officer who doesn't share that perspective.

On Caltrain NB 267, a passenger boarded at Sunnyvale and started ranting, berating the other passengers. "You afraid I'm going to rob you? I should. Kiss my a**. I should kick your a**. You gonna call the po po? I'd f**k your shit up but I don't want to go back to jail."

This was a bad scene. We were in the bike car and there were some strapping guys in there, but this guy was a mean looking character, and young. I started fiddling with my phone trying to figure out if there was a surreptitious way to alert the conductors or police. I wasn't the only one - and the hooligan noticed. "You got your iPhone gonna try to get the po po to save your ass???"

Suddenly, the rider across from me said "OK - ENOUGH. THAT'S IT PARDNER, YOU'RE GETTING OFF AT THE NEXT STOP." I looked over and he was flipping open his wallet to reveal... a Police Badge! He waddled down the bike car in his Sidi's and between him and the 2 conductors who had finally arrived, set this guy straight and evicted him in Mountain View.

Best I can tell he's Menlo Park PD. He gets on at Tamien - as soon as the scene settled down we went back to discussing service cuts and he was concerned about losing his station.

Don't mess with the Bike Cop!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Random non-Caltrain post - Mariposa and Pennsylvania

Perhaps the worst paved intersection in San Francisco - Pennsylvania and Mariposa - has been repaved. I'm surprised that intersection hasn't cost me more spokes than it has and a couple of teeth.

Thanks DPW.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Clipper on Caltrain - stupid, swindling, or both?

Update from the comments via Dan Connelly which is pure gold - I'd love to see someone give this comment at one of the Caltrain forums.

A nontrivial revenue loss from canceling the Gilroy train, as is presently planned in Caltrain's "lay a turd" schedule proposal, is the "swindle" will essentially be over: they'll have only 4 zones with which to play.

From the comments, berk says...

Being charged a ride from SF to Gilroy, by default, is stupid and reeks of poor systems design, swindling, or perhaps both.

A recurring theme on board the trains these days - that Clipper was put in place because Caltrain is trying to "rip off" their customers. A rider on the train the other day had tapped his card twice in San Mateo on the way South, thus tagging on and then annulling his tag on. He wasn't checked on the way South, and "tagged off" at Lawrence - actually tagging on at Lawrence and eventually paying cash for a ride to San Francisco. This put his cash balance below zero, and despite six eight rides on his card, he was unable to board Northbound that evening. The conspiracy theorists came out - Caltrain is doing this because they are greedy! The system was designed as it was because they sat in a room and figured out how best to screw the riders!

I made what I thought was a pretty clear case that Caltrain isn't greedy - it's not like they are Bank of America, enriching themselves and their shareholders at the customers expense by nickel and diming them. And that I really think the people at Caltrain are decent folk, and wouldn't try to rip us off. Of course, the rebuttal to this was the story about Mike Scanlon's salary.

Fun fact - BART charges you $5.20 when you enter the BART system. If you don't "tag off" when you leave, you will be zinged for that fare. The fare inside San Francisco is $1.75 - if you forget to tag off, sorry pal. Of course, this isn't as onerous as charging you the $10.90 fare from Pittsburg to SFO, but it's true nonetheless. People just don't notice it because you nobody "forgets" to tag off of BART - if you skip the fare gates, it's pretty much intentional fare evasion (and you don't have to have $5.20 on your card to enter the system).

People forget to tag off from Caltrain for several reasons. Obviously, the system is not enclosed. We haven't been "trained" to tag off - I've gotten a lot better over time, that's for sure. But Caltrain has not really done its part. There are not enough tag readers at the station, and they aren't exactly in the best locations - as this photo shows...

This is what @caltrain thinks of their @bayareaclipper users ... on Twitpic

More readers, at established places on the platform where the train doors would generally open, near transfer points or exits, would greatly help. Instead Caltrain has just deferred and called it "user error", rather than proactively trying to assist their customers. Signage in the train urging people to tag off is useful, but pretty lame in the whole scheme of things - it certainly hasn't done the trick.

The problem is user error. That's what we expect out of Redmond, not Cupertino.

The upshot is that Caltrain has produced a PR debacle at the exact moment where they are also asking their ridership to help them campaign for new taxes to support the train.

Stupid and reeking of poor system design, swindling, or both?

create free polls | comment on this

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Caltrain sucks at Jenga

Pablo writes in the comments...

Interestingly, the Sunnyvale station would get much better service. On the other hand, Intel/Yahoo/McAffee/Mission College/etc employees would be 5 miles away instead of 3 miles today. I wonder if they considered the increased cost in time and otherwise for the shuttles.

I doubt it. I have seen few examples of Caltrain making decisions based on how that decision impacts the entire system. Nothing operates in a vacuum. If you see a very pretty Jenga tile, you can't just pull it out without disturbing the whole stack.

Example: Caltrain cut SB train 236 from the schedule based on total ridership of that train. Fair enough. What they didn't understand was that train was very popular with cyclists. The train left San Francisco at 9:37 AM. At that time of day, there are few options for travelers to get from the station to their destination once they get onto the Peninsula - the Corporate Shuttles have stopped running, VTA and SamTrans limited frequency has become even more limited. But a bike will get you there.

By displacing these riders, capacity in the bike car of the surrounding trains was strained. Train 138, a local departing at 10:07, absorbed a lot of those riders, and has been bumping customers who then have to wait one more hour to get onto the train. Nonetheless, Caltrain did not predict this effect and make sure that train 138 ran with a 2 car gallery consist. This move also displaced Stanford riders who actually can take the Margarite Shuttle all day long - many of them switched to train 230 - due to a preference for a train with a skip-stop schedule. 230 is now full of cycling and walkon passengers going to Palo Alto - the most popular stop in the system outside SF. Caltrain could have adjusted to this demand by modifying bullet #332 to stop in Palo Alto instead of Menlo Park - at 9:35 the Menlo Park stop will only serve those who can walk directly to their office, and train 230 serves Menlo already.

Speaking to the shuttle issue. While I worked at AMD, once the bullets came in a petition was circulated amongst the shuttle ridership requesting that the shuttles start running from Mountain View instead of Lawrence. This was a very popular idea - a savings of 30 minutes on the train was easily worth a 5 minute longer shuttle ride. In theory, the Intel shuttles could use Sunnyvale - with the skip stop service the door to door time for riders might even be faster. Except that I can't really figure out where at the Sunnyvale Caltrain station the shuttles will park. The Mountain View station has a shuttle bay designed in - but it is already oversubscribed with Bauer buses lining Evelyn Street. There is also the issue of the length of the headways - it is not a slam dunk that a bus could drop off passengers at the (homebound, evening) train, get back to the office, pick up more passengers, and get back to the train in time - 30 minutes if they use Sunnyvale. SV to Intel, half a dozen stops, and then on to Sunnyvale? Doubtful that it could be done reliably. If not, then shuttle service can only run hourly. On the way home this might not be so bad, but if you are relying on something like MUNI to get to the Caltrain, and you miss the train you need by one minute, you get to work an hour later.

Other issues. When I don't have my bike, and am on a train that doesn't have company shuttle service, I can use Santa Clara station and the VTA route 60, directly. Without it, there is no manner I can go from Caltrain to VTA and get to work within 90 minutes and some convoluted transfers (Sunnyvale is a 12 minute bike ride). VTA's system map was in part designed based on Caltrain stations existing. Remove the stations, break the bus system. (Sunnyvale is a 12 minute bike ride).

As far as the beloved bike cars - would you try to get the "last train" knowing that trains at that time occasionally bump cyclists already? Getting bumped would be.. 21 hours delay! With this "off the cliff" unreliability - cyclists will abandon Caltrain. While this might put a smile on Mike Scanlon's face in the short term, the cyclists won't be finding an alternative that involves the train - in most cases there ARE NO alternatives other than driving. That's a decent chunk of Caltrain's ridership already.

The proposed schedule is simply unworkable - suicide. I do think it's mostly a draconian threat in order to bring a call to arms, but this sort of passive aggressive corporate management isn't really befitting a CEO that makes 400,000 per year.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Caltrain rider forgets to tag off, stranded in Mountain View for "3 to 5 days"

Anecdote related to me on Caltrain today.

A rider I know got his brand new Clipper Card. He set up autoload for 8 ride passes, and put $5 in cash onto his card, per instructions from Clipper, that you need to have at least $1.25 in cash in order to use your 8 rides. This is because (insert broken record) the system deducts the full fare for the longest trip possible, and refunds you when you tag off.

He tagged on this AM in San Francisco, and Clipper charged him $12.50 - the fare to Gilroy. In Mountain View, he forgot to tag off. Had he tagged off, the $12.50 would be refunded, and he would have one of his 8 rides deducted. Since he forgot, he was not refunded, and his cash balance went to negative $7.50.

That evening, when he tried to tag on - he saw "TRAVEL INVALID". This was because he didn't have "at least $1.25 in cash on his card". With no Clipper Kiosks on the platform, he was forced to add value online - and wait 3-5 days for that cash to appear on his card, before he could use his 8 ride tickets.


His only option was to buy a 1 way paper ticket from the machines. Well, not his only option, he basically bullshitted the conductor into letting him on (The conductor's reader was broken anyway), but his card is dead unless he finds a live kiosk or waits 3-5 days.

The High Value Ticket would prevent this problem.

Caltrain service/fare cuts release.

From our friends in San Carlos

Media Contact: Christine Dunn

Caltrain Sets Public Hearings: Proposed Service Reductions, Station Closures, Fare increases and Declaration of Fiscal Emergency

The Caltrain Board of Directors today set two public hearings to receive comments on possible service and fare changes, station closures as well as to declare a fiscal emergency.

Caltrain Executive Director Michael J. Scanlon called the board’s action “the first step in the process” and said, “Hopefully, we will be able to come up with additional funding sources before we are forced to implement drastic service changes.”

Operation of the current 86 train schedule would result in a $30 million deficit. With projected available funds, Caltrain would be forced to operate 48 trains only during weekday peak-commute hours. In addition, service would be suspended at up to seven of the following stations: Bayshore, South San Francisco, San Bruno, Burlingame, Hayward Park, Belmont, San Antonio, Lawrence, Santa Clara and College Park.

All other service would be eliminated, including weekday service outside the commute peak, service south of the San Jose Diridon station and weekend service.

Service for special events, including baseball games and Bay to Breakers, also would be suspended.

A 25-cent increase to the base fare also will be considered.

Caltrain’s fiscal year begins July 1 and changes to service would take effect July 2.

The public hearings will be held at the March 3 Caltrain Board meeting at 10 a.m. at 1250 San Carlos Ave. in San Carlos.

In addition, four community meetings will be held throughout the Caltrain service area to give the public additional opportunity to review proposals, ask questions and provide comment.

Feb. 14 – 7 p.m. San Jose City Hall
200 East Santa Clara St., city council chambers
San Jose

Feb. 16 – 6 p.m. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
1 South Van Ness, Atrium
San Francisco

Feb. 17 – 6 p.m. Gilroy Senior Center
7371 Hanna St.
Feb. 17 – 6 p.m. San Mateo County Transit District

1250 San Carlos Ave., second floor auditorium

San Carlos

Comments also can be e-mailed to; sent by regular mail to District Secretary, Caltrain, P.O. Box 3006, San Carlos, CA 94070; or telephoned to 1.800.660.4287 (TDD for hearing impaired only 650.508.6448).

­­­­­­­­­­­Caltrain relies on contributions from its three partner agencies - the City and County of San Francisco, the San Mateo County Transit District and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority – to balance its budget.

Information about the proposed declaration of fiscal emergency and service and fare changes will be posted on the Caltrain website – - by Feb. 9.

Last year, SamTrans was forced to reduce its annual contribution to Caltrain. As a result, four midday trains were eliminated, staffed ticket offices were closed and zone fares were increased 25 cents.

This year, SamTrans is expected to reduce its annual contribution to Caltrain to approximately $4.8 million, a reduction of approximately $10 million. If the other partners follow suit, the budget shortfall is expected to be $30 million.

More on Millbrae BART Caltrain Clipper transfer

Pictures tell 1000 words.

Line for one of two @BayAreaClipper readers at Millbrae. Half... on Twitpic

This line was to tag off the Caltrain at Millbrae before we could enter the BART system. 10 people had already tagged off before I took this photo. 8 people in total could not complete the tag off transaction, go 30 yards to the BART faregates, tag into the BART system, before finally the BART train that was on the platform when we arrived, departed without us. Instead, we waited for the next train, 15 minutes later. 2 hours of lost time from one Caltrain, for lack of more readers, more appropriately placed readers, or a better software setup that would tag us off Caltrain when exiting BART. Multiply this by dozens of trains per day, 200+ work days per year.

I hadn't seen lines like this before - but February has brought with it the end of the paper eight ride tickets.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Down with 8 ride tickets!

Now that I think about this...

Caltrain is ending paper 8 ride tickets. They should just end *all* 8 ride tickets.

An 8 ride ticket gets the rider a 15% discount on their rides, when purchased in bulk. The simplest answer for Caltrain would be to just sell "Caltrain Cash" at a 15% discount. So for $17, you can get $20 in Caltrain value. Done. Tag on, tag off, pay the cash fare, same as anyone - but with discounted dollars.

With that, the Caltrain clipper system is greatly simplified. Buy a pass, or buy "Caltrain Cash". As it stands, I currently have 3 different 8 rides loaded onto my card, to cover my most likely trips. It was annoying to load them all because the Clipper readers can only "load" one product at a time.

This will really benefit riders - and Caltrain. Currently if I have a Zone 1-3 8 ride, I can't use it to ride from Zone 4-2, even though the cost of the ticket is the same. This is an artifact of the paper system - you couldn't buy a "3 zone ticket" because it wasn't clear where you got onto the train for citation purposes (with the Validators, in theory the Conductor could figure it out, but that's not very efficient). With a Clipper Card, all the tag reader needs to know is "Did you tag on". With the conductor issue solved, they can go to a seamless system.

This would greatly simplify the software on the Clipper end, and the user interface as well. It solves various issues like "Why can't I use a zone upgrade with my 8 ride" - because you effectively can.

This has the benefit to the rider of being able to get the volume discount even though they take an atypical trip. Right now, with my 1-3 8 ride, going from San Francisco to Sunnyvale is $5.53. But sometimes it might be more convenient for me to use Lawrence (zone 4) but since I don't have an 8 ride, the fare is $8.50. I'd be much more likely to take that extra zone if I automatically get to pay the discounted rate of $7.22.

In a perfect world, the "Caltrain cash" could be applicable to the purchase of a Monthly pass, allowing people to more easily move between 8-rides and passes for months where they ride more, and ones where they ride infrequently.

The $20 denomination is the same as a 1 zone 8 ride ticket now, but would allow riders who go longer distances to purchase volume tickets for fewer rides, allowing them to try out the system without as much commitment.

Convenience. Simplicity.

The only downside is that this would probably reduce the amount of "shrinkage" that Caltrain benefits from, but that should not be the goal of a ticketing system - Caltrain is not Bank of America, they are a public agency and nickel and diming should not be their strategy. But with a simpler, more user friendly system, they are likely to make up the shrinkage in increased ridership that comes from a happier ridership.

The monthly pass product needs to stay for now - because of the dearth of Clipper readers at the station.