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.

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