Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sometimes, You Just Gotta Know

I went for a ride on the Altamont Commuter Express train the other day, and from a user's perspective, it was a very frustrating experience, because absolutely everything about it is set up for the person who already takes the train every day and has been doing it for years, and thus knows everything about it. For a new customer, though, there's a distinct lack of information about certain important details, some of which the customer may well end up learning the hard way, by getting them wrong in ways that have a major impact on their trip.

The frustration starts with tickets: you must have a ticket to ride the train, but while some stations, such as Great America, have a convenient ACE-branded ticket booth where you can buy one, others, like San Jose, have no such booth and absolutely no information on how you can buy an ACE ticket. There are no ACE vending machines, though there are ones for Caltrain and Amtrak. There are absolutely no signs telling riders where to buy tickets, or indeed any signs related to ACE at all. Customers Just Gotta Know that they can buy ACE tickets at the Amtrak ticket window, unlike Caltrain tickets, which are only available from the Caltrain ticket machines. I'm not sure if you can buy them from Amtrak ticket machines too, but I wouldn't be surprised either way. I'm also not sure what one does at the Santa Clara station, where there are no station personnel at all.

But, assuming you actually managed to get your ticket and get on the train, the confusion and frustration is not over. Suppose you are going to Livermore and happen to be in the front car of the train. The train pulls into the platform... and then pulls past it! And then the door you're at doesn't open. Because, as everyone who takes the train every day knows, Livermore has a short platform and the front two cars don't open. And because everyone knows this, there's no need to announce it to everyone, so you don't find out until the train actually stops and you realize that it was in fact supposed to stop there, at which point you have to run through the train to hopefully jump out right as the doors are closing. And if you don't make it in time? I'm not sure what happens then, because the return train isn't till next morning (or Monday morning, if it happens to be a Friday), and the next stop has no public transit of any kind to let you get back to Livermore.

Things like station signage about tickets, or onboard announcements may seem like minor details, both to the commuters who use the service regularly, and to the people running the service. But they are crucially important to the lost and confused newbie who just wants to buy a ticket for the train, or to get off at the right stop. And while newbies are a small fraction of the customer base, everyone was a newbie themselves at one point. If ACE wants to keep maintaining a healthy ridership base, they need to make it easier for new customers to figure out how to use their service. You can't find out how great the train ride is if you never figure out how to get a ticket for it!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Caltrain's Weekend Baby Bullets

Caltrain has decided, amidst threats to cut weekend service entirely, to try a new approach to weekend service, by running express trains on the weekends. This service has been quite successful, helping considerably with a 21% increase in weekend ridership. The most probable explanation for this is quite simple: the old local service was slow, and the new express train is fast enough to be a plausible competitor to driving.

The two busiest stations outside San Francisco, on both weekdays and weekends, are Mountain View and Palo Alto, which are 36 and 30 miles away from San Francisco respectively. On weekends, it takes 77 minutes to get from Mountain View to San Francisco and 65 minutes to get from Palo Alto to San Francisco, for an average speed of 28 mph, which is no better than driving all the way on local streets. The new express train, on the other hand, does the trip in 49 minutes from Mountain View and 41 minutes from Palo Alto, for a speed of 44 mph, over 50% faster, and much closer to the speed of driving. If you manage to take the express train both ways, you save a whole hour on transportation. Even taking it in one direction and a local in the other potentially saves you half an hour, which turned out to be significant enough to increase ridership on the local trains.

This is a perfect example of the principles of normal speed rail in action. This service improvement required no new infrastructure at all, and not much extra spending on operations either. Yet it led to a significant improvement in the public perception of the service, which is reflected in the increased ridership. More ridership means more fare revenue, and in a virtuous circle, this provides more money for further service improvements. Hopefully Caltrain will learn the right lesson here, and increase the express service rather than cancelling weekend service altogether.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Saving Caltrain

There has been a lot of talk recently of Caltrain being in a financial crisis, which will result in significant service cuts, possibly leading to the system being shut down entirely if nothing is done. The Caltrain management has even asked for suggestions from the public on how the system can be saved. I think that there are steps that Caltrain can take to drastically reduce its operating costs without degrading service, and thus ticket revenue, too much.

Caltrain is a Joint Powers Authority, which is operated and funded jointly by the 3 counties through which the line runs. The root of the crisis is that Caltrain's revenue will be considerably lower than its expenses, because the counties can no longer afford to provide the current level of subsidy. The only way to resolve this problem is by increasing revenue or reducing expenses, and the single biggest expense in running Caltrain is labor. In order to save money, ways must be found to reduce the labor force.

Fortunately, there is one very glaringly obvious target for such cuts: Assistant Conductors. Their job used to be assisting the Conductor with ticket sales, but Caltrain has had Proof of Payment for years now, and it seems that most of the time, the Assistant Conductors spend their time chatting with the Conductor and not doing anything useful. Firing all of them can save several million dollars in annual operating costs, with very little impact to the quality of service. There's precedent for running with a single conductor too: Metrolink in Southern California has been doing so since the beginning. There are other possibilities for operational savings as well, including cutting (or at least re-thinking) Gilroy service, re-designing the schedule and focusing the capital program on maximizing operational cost savings, and I may explore these further in subsequent blog posts. But getting rid of the Assistant Conductors is the elephant in the room in terms of cost savings here, and I'm surprised Caltrain hasn't even mentioned this option yet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An example of Normal Speed Rail

In the UK, Virgin Trains cover the 200 mile distance from London to Manchester in about 2 hours (with the fastest express being 1:58), for an average end to end speed of 100 mph. And this is done on a railway that mostly runs on a 19th century alignment, and has a top speed of 125 mph, and which is shared with all manner of local commuter and freight trains.

In the US, that sort of speed would imply a travel time of somewhere around 4-4.5 hours for LA to San Francisco, 9 hours from New York to Chicago, 10 hours from Denver to Chicago. The latter two city pairs are particularly interesting: it's unlikely that high speed rail will be built over such distances, at least not anytime soon. But with enough incremental improvements, it's possible to get travel times down to a point where overnight trains are a reasonable option for getting across one-third of the country.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

How to plan rail service

Those who have been following the California High Speed Rail process will have noticed that there's been quite a lot of recent controversy about the proposed route between San Francisco and San Jose. Leaving aside the propriety of a government authority board member deciding on train service to a station named after himself, there's plenty of worry that the High Speed Rail will bulldoze through towns, destroying homes and leaving huge ugly structures with noisy trains in its wake. Emotions are high on both sides, there's a lot of uncertainty, and not much fact to go on, so arguments are based on differences of assumption, and tend to devolve to name calling. Unfortunately, the High Speed Rail Authority hasn't done nearly enough in the way of planning, mostly because they haven't had money to until now. In particular, I haven't seen pretty much anything in the way of joint planning with Caltrain regarding track sharing, service levels, station design, and improvements to the line. This strikes me as a crucial omission, and I suggest Caltrain and HSRA work together to remedy this at once.

What would a planning process look like? I suggest the following:

  1. Start with ridership forecasts for both Caltrain and HSR. These already exist, the only potential caveat is to not double-count riders when combining them.

  2. Determine a service level that will adequately serve this demand, and make a conceptual service pattern for the line. This has been done on some level for HSR and Caltrain individually, but not jointly

  3. Find the minimal set of improvements to transform the service plan into an actual timetable. This is basically a matter of straightening curves to get sufficient line speed, and providing enough passing tracks to allow express trains to pass locals.

  4. Finally, this process might need to be iterated several times, to account for the fact that ridership is somewhat flexible and it might be much easier to produce a workable timetable if some riders are convinced to move to adjacent stations.

This doesn't seem like it would be that hard. The respective agencies already have ridership forecasts, they just need to combine them and produce a joint service plan, and start devising potential timetables. Caltrain should probably take the lead here, since they own the ROW and will still be the majority operator. And this is something that absolutely needs to get done, to make sure that all the agencies are working with a common set of assumptions. It would be bad if, for example, HSRA was planning for almost exclusive use of two tracks with only occasional incursions by Caltrain Baby Bullets, while Caltrain was planning more significant track sharing, or even a line that wasn't four tracks for the entire length.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


In computer networking, there's a heuristic known as Metcalfe's Law, which says that the value of a network is proportional not to the number of users, but to the number of connections between users, which is proportional to the square of the number of users. Each user gets some benefit from being able to communicate with each of the other users. Now that's not quite accurate when you look at the details, since not every pair of users is equally likely to want to talk, but it's still a super-linear function of some sort.

The same thing can be said of transportation networks. What matters is not the number of stations but the number of origin-destination pairs connected, or the number of potential trips served. In mass transit, it's impossible to take everyone directly where they want to go, since presumably different people want to go different places, and you can't give everyone their own vehicle. So the key to a successful mass transit system is providing good connections. Connections inherently require walking, waiting, and there's always a risk of missing your connection, so for an effective connection, they have to be minimized.

Switzerland is one place that gets connections very right. The entire rail network runs to a single hourly timetable, which is carefully designed to maximize the number of timed transfers between different services, including local and express trains on the main rail network, as well as a multitude of minor lines. Everything is absolutely coordinated, even across different rail operators, and connections are not only timed but in many cases guaranteed, with trains waiting for each other when possible.

The same applies to high speed rail systems all over the world. They all have either extensive through running from the high speed lines onto the conventional network, or else an extensive system of connecting rail lines. France's TGV network is extensive, but much of that extent lies outside the high speed lines themselves. The TGV trains run on the conventional network for part of their journey, and use the LGV as a shortcut to significantly reduce trip time on the final leg to Paris. Even in Spain, there is through running between the AVE high speed network and the conventional lines, with special gauge-changing trains to overcome the difference in track gauge. In Japan, there is only limited through running due to the incompatible track gauge and loading gauge, but the conventional rail network has very extensive and frequent service to provide connections.

Even the rather small intercity rail network in California is augmented by extensive connecting service (with through ticketing). This service is mostly provided by Amtrak buses, but in some cases also by local transit services, and even via the ACE commuter rail. Of course, much more can be done here, especially in terms of integrating Metrolink, Caltrain, and Coaster into the intercity rail system.

But what of High Speed Rail? From my understanding of the proposal, there is no thought at all given to through-running to non-HSR network, which is unfortunate, as it means that passengers travelling, for example, from Sacramento to Los Angeles will be forced to transfer until the line is extended to Sacramento. And those in Redding or Palm Springs are never going to get direct HSR service. There's also very little in the planning documents about how HSR will interact with the existing intercity rail system. Of course, it would help if the patchwork of existing rail services could be better integrated too, which is a matter for a future post.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

HSRA already in trouble

It's only two months since the bond authorization passed, and the high speed rail authority is already in trouble. They're running low on cash, since the state hasn't managed to sell any of the bonds yet. An interesting, and somewhat disturbing, factoid from that article is that the whole Authority has a staff of 6 employees, wedged uncomfortably between the governing board of 9 politicians, including Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon, and the vast engineering/construction companies who will presumably be doing all of the design, construction, and project management.