It was a welcome change to see Caltrain's transformation from a plodding public transit operator to a more strategic, business-oriented organization putting passenger service first. As evident in ridership statistics, Baby Bullet express trains consistently score the highest passenger load factors and are the greatest source of fare revenue for Caltrain.
Meanwhile, the California High Speed Rail Authority intends to transform the peninsula corridor into a four-track operation, with the slow pair of tracks shared by Caltrain locals and freight trains, and the fast pair of tracks shared by Caltrain expresses and high speed trains. The Memorandum of Understanding signed in April 2009 between the CHSRA and the Peninsula Corridor JPB (Caltrain) envisions "mixed traffic from Caltrain commuter rail and the high speed train service capable of operation on all tracks".
What exactly does that mean for Baby Bullet service?
Some Numbers To Connect
- 31% of ridership: Baby Bullets are Caltrain's highest-revenue trains, accounting for 31% of weekday ridership but only 22% of trains. There is a demonstrated market for rapid commutes along the peninsula. Will a private HSR operator attempt to cherry-pick this market away from Caltrain, leaving the publicly-funded agency on the hook to operate less profitable local trains?
- 4.8 million passengers: The CHSRA is under great pressure to show that its business plan "pencils out" and will allow funding of system extensions (to Sacramento and San Diego) partially through revenue bonds. The Authority estimates in its ridership and revenue forecasts that by 2030, 3.7 to 4.8 million passengers a year will ride HSR between peninsula destinations (San Francisco, Millbrae, Redwood City / Palo Alto and San Jose), accounting for about 9% of the entire system's ridership, and 2% of its fare revenue. That level of intra-peninsula ridership amounts to nearly half of Caltrain's entire 2008 ridership. Does this imply HSR intends to take over Caltrain's express commuter service and associated revenue?
- 9 or 10 tph: According to the same ridership and revenue forecast, which serves as the foundation for the analysis of design alternatives, the peninsula corridor will be sized for a traffic of 9 or 10 high speed trains per hour, each way, by the year 2030. When all trains travel at the same speed, a pair of tracks can support about 20 tph each way, but when speeds differ (as they might between HSR and express commuter trains) the capacity can drop into the low teens. With little spare capacity assumed for express commuter trains, will the CHSRA conclude that sharing tracks is not beneficial after all?
- 2'1" platforms: The CHSRA and Caltrain have so far shown no intention of coordinating on the crucial issue of platform height. Quite the contrary, details emerging from the Transbay Transit Center project in San Francisco indicate that the two systems will operate with different and incompatible platform heights (3'6" for HSR and 2'1" for Caltrain--a difference of two steps). The implication is that high speed trains will be unable to use Caltrain platforms, and vice versa. Will this restrict the number of locations where express commuter service can be provided?
- 2 dedicated tracks: The environmental impact work in southern California is a bit more advanced than on the peninsula, and a design alternatives analysis has already been released for the Los Angeles to Orange County section. (By the way, we should see one for the peninsula before 2009 is out... that's when the can of worms officially gets opened!) The LA - Anaheim route is similar to the peninsula in that it will have a mix of HSR and commuter traffic. The CHSRA analyzed several scenarios involving mixed commuter - HSR operation, and rejected them all in favor of dedicated tracks for HSR, stating on pages 36 and 37 that "the Dedicated HST Alternative was identified as the only alternative capable of accommodating the peak demand forecast for all classes of train service at acceptable levels and on-time performance." In other words, commuter trains can't be allowed to gum up the HSR timetable. In case there was any remaining doubt, they really drive it home: the dedicated alternative "provides for a safer environment (no mixing of FRA-Compliant and Non-Compliant trains), and does not require a waiver from the FRA." The result is a train-size Jersey barrier between the high speed tracks and lesser trains, as shown in the figure at right. Will the same, unimaginative "Dedicated HST" logic be applied on the peninsula?
- More than 4 tracks: Before the wording of the MOU between the CHSRA and Caltrain was altered, it stated that the peninsula corridor would be four tracks wide and that "In some places the corridor may consist of more than four tracks." Does this amount to leaving the door open for the possibility that HSR tracks could be completely segregated from Caltrain, with additional tracks (beyond four) as required to operate express commuter service?
- 70 minutes: If Caltrain service were operated by electric multiple-unit (EMU) trains, an all-stops local would need 70 minutes to travel between San Francisco and San Jose. (Refer to a presentation describing Caltrain's Project 2025, made by their "Rail Transformation Chief" Bob Doty last September: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) While this is much faster than 91 minutes achieved by diesel locals today, it is still 13 minutes slower than today's best Baby Bullet timing of 57 minutes. Express service will be needed even with the fanciest EMU technology if today's run times are to be preserved, let alone improved upon. Might Caltrain settle on 70 minutes as "good enough"?
- 9 board members: The nine-member board that governs Caltrain is composed of appointed county officials with little knowledge of rail operations and greater allegiance to the interests of their home county than to the specific interests of Caltrain. In practice and through no fault of their own, their accountability to current or potential commuters is limited to little more than good will and personal dedication. Furthermore, funding sources for Caltrain are unreliable. In political clout or financial wherewithal, the PCJPB is far outclassed by the CHSRA. Supposing they tried, could Caltrain protect its own interests with much vigor? Will the CHSRA wave the electrification bill over their heads to get whatever they want?
- 30 days: while the MOU signed between the CHSRA and Caltrain envisions "mixed traffic from Caltrain commuter rail and the high speed train service capable of operation on all tracks," either party can unilaterally cancel the MOU upon 30 days' notice.
- Zero: the CHSRA's desire to navigate the byzantine process to obtain from the Federal Railroad Administration a "mixed operations waiver" is likely zero. Such a waiver would be required if HSR service were operated on the same tracks as heavy trains that are fully "compliant" with FRA crash safety regulations. Caltrain is taking the lead on this complicated issue and making good progress, but what if this effort falters? Will the lazy answer be dedicated HSR tracks, strictly off-limits to Caltrain?
One doesn't need to wear a tinfoil hat to view the above points as possibly suggesting a "Dedicated HST" scenario on the peninsula corridor, with high speed trains operated entirely separately and independently from Caltrain. Why would this be bad for peninsula commuters?
- There would be no flexibility in adapting the stopping pattern of express trains to actual demand. If express service were taken over by HSR, the intermediate stops would be Millbrae and Redwood City / Palo Alto, due to platform incompatibility. Need to get from San Mateo to Mountain View in a hurry? Today, there's the Baby Bullet. Tomorrow? Forget about it and take the local.
- The opportunity to create transfers between local and express commuter service, across a common platform, would be lost. The HSR tracks would occupy a large portion of the right of way, making it difficult to create a four-track, cross-platform commuter interchange station. Cross-platform transfers are extremely useful in creating feeders for express service and cutting journey times even for riders who do not live or work near an express stop.
- Any spare capacity of the HSR tracks, such as might result if the ridership forecast was optimistic, would be wasted since it could not be taken up by other services such as express commuter trains.
- Incidents (e.g. suicides) would cause more disruption and reduce operational flexibility, since commuter / HSR trains could not use each other's tracks to circumvent the location of the incident. "Single-tracking" around an incident is far more disruptive to a timetable than detouring four tracks into three, as would be possible in a shared-track scenario.
- A common fare system where a single fare covers the trip from point A to point B, regardless of the transit operator or speed of service, would be less likely.