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.


  1. I invite you to compute your own travel time equation.

    Measuring your own travel time situation opens the door to understanding the service - resource - expense saddle that constrains every public transportation provider.

    I like your blog, and I will read more of it.

  2. The San Mateo County Transit Authority is managing CalTrain by means of a contract. I don't know entirely what this means.

    I am working on seeking some structural changes to the SamTrans bus system. One element of great importance I hope to address is the transfer process between CalTrain and SamTrans.

    Come on over and visit my blog, I am looking for quality analytic and system analytic writers and thinkers.

  3. The Weekend Baby Bullet service success is partly counterbalanced by the cancellation of weekend bus service to Half Moon Bay and the San Mateo coastside.

    On the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin festival weekend I wound up driving 111 miles for 3 trips from El Granada to San Mateo Caltrain via Sharp Park Road and the 280 freeway. The fourth trip, with me alone in the car following Highway 92 took 3 hours due to families, kids and congestion at the Pumpkin farms.

    The SamTrans public bus system has done the classic service trimming to reduce organization expenditures in the face of limited revenue to maintain bus operations. In my blog, see above, I call this the resource and service economic saddle. All transit agencies experience this saddle that eventually forces cutbacks.

    So what is needed here: Aggressive ride sharing Internet based dynamic search technology with built in solutions to the payment, safety and stranger-in-your-car problems.

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