Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Proposed Caltrain Schedule Changes

Caltrain has proposed some schedule changes that add three trains in each direction and modify some train schedules.

The proposed schedule can be seen here -I think there is a typo, the schedule indicates an additional Redwood City stop on trains 314/324 which doesn't make sense and does not match their description.

The summary for people who commute N->S in the AM is this.

1) Addition of a train running the same schedule as 275/285 in the 4 PM hour.

2) Reinstatement of train 236 and 256.

3) Addition of Palo Alto to Baby Bullet runs 312/322/332/365/373/383.

Item (1) I think is a great idea. Inserts a solid skip stop train for key but non-primary stations into the schedule. I like adding train 256 back, for the reverse commute this adds an option for midday service and is a limited stop train. Great.

I take issue with the strategy of adding PA to the (then no longer) Baby Bullets and reinstating train 236.

Adding the extra stop to the Baby Bullet trains adds 2 minutes to the run time of those trains, negatively impacting the notably large population that uses Mountain View station, with the benefit of adding more options for Palo Alto riders. Certainly a PA rider who currently can't take those trains gets value from that, but if they want to take the newly configured train, it will be 2 minutes longer than the current bullet trains they are taking. I assume Caltrain's theory is that by shifting Palo Alto riders from trains 314 and 324 to 312/322/332 they can ease the current crush loads on 314/324, but I question the validity of this theory - hoping that PA riders will take a slower train.

Here's my support. Currently train 324 is one of the most overloaded in the system, with a peak season load of 112% of capacity. Reference - Caltrain's annual ridership counts. Meanwhile, train 226 which departs San Francisco 5 minutes later and takes 5 minutes longer in journey time to Palo Alto - is not on the top 10 list of train loads. Anecdotally it runs fairly empty, despite not having much longer run time and serving additional stations (San Mateo, San Carlos, Lawrence). The train departs San Francisco at a very similar time to 324, and has comfortable seating capacity yet it has not drawn riders from 324 - I theorize this is because the riders do in fact care about that 5 minutes.

An additional problem with just throwing in the extra stops into an established schedule is that it does not take into account last mile problems. Trains 312/322/332 have not stopped in Palo Alto before, so there is no shuttle infrastructure ferrying riders to Facebook or Stanford timed to meet this new train. Trains 365/373/383 will now leave Mountain View 2 minutes earlier. This may throw shuttle schedules a real monkey wrench. It's hard to say that VTA has actually timed their light rails to the trains, but customers have established patterns. It may be only 2 minutes, but if you miss the train and are headed to Redwood City, you've just lost over half an hour.

Summary - I don't think Caltrain accomplishes the goal of reducing overcrowding on the trains by adding stops to 312/322/332, and causes other problems they have not accounted for.

Proposal - what I think Caltrain should do, which would be a slam dunk winner, is this. First, leave the current bullets alone. Second, instead of adding back train 236 as a limited, they should bring it back with the same departure time of 9:37 AM from 4th/King, as full local train #136. Then take the current full local train, train 134, departing SF at 9:07, and make it a baby bullet train 334, departing SF at 9:14 and making the same stops as 314/324 - 22nd/Millbrae/Hillsdale/Palo Alto/Mountain View/San Jose. This train would fit into the schedule as it runs with the same symmetry as the earlier parts of the commute hour, and has a schedule familiar to riders. Instead of adding a marginally slower train adjunct to current bullet trains, it adds a brand new bullet train to Palo Alto in a previously empty slot in the schedule for those riders. This will attract riders from train 324 who will "only take bullets", and attract new riders. So instead of just adding capacity, Caltrain would also increase ridership and collect more revenue to offset the addition of the train.

The North to South commute has a lot of riders with the flexibility to take an express train at that later hour, riders who currently do things like childcare dropoff and then drive to work because the peak commute (and thus bullets) have passed. I predict a train 334 would be an instant hit, relieve the overcrowding on trains 324/230, and drive Caltrain's revenue.

Discuss. And if you like this idea, use this use this handy email link to send a message to Caltrain saying so. Caltrain will be having a meeting at 6 PM on May 30 in San Carlos' Caltrain HQ to take public comment on the changes.


Jason Thorpe said...

My theory for 324: Corporate shuttles that take people from MV CalTrain to their offices. Need to get there before the shuttle departs, and the shuttles are usually timed to Baby Bullets.

John L. said...

A 9:37 AM local and a 9:07 Baby Bullet from 4th/King is a dream come true for slackers. Would support.