18 December 2011

The Baby Bullet Effect

 For many years prior to 2004, including throughout the dot-com boom, Caltrain operated an all-stops a timetable with less stop-skipping (see February 2000 example) that fairly well revealed the underlying ridership demand at each station.  In 2004, that all changed with the advent of the Baby Bullet.  While the Bullet was a marketing triumph and remains a successful source of ridership and revenue, there was an under-reported flip-side to this new service: many small (and not-so-small) stations lost service.

Caltrain publishes annual ridership counts for each station, which can be distilled into a single table of historical counts of weekday boardings for each station reaching all the way back to 1992 (download 55kB Excel spreadsheet).  This data reveals interesting patterns.

The share of ridership at each station, which was fairly stable over several years leading up to the 2004 launch of the Baby Bullet, settled into a new pattern that has shown itself to be fairly stable in the years since 2004.  The change in each station's share is shown in the figure at right (also available as a 141kB PDF file), where 100% represents each station's average ridership share over the period 1999 - 2003, or the initial size of its slice of the ridership pie back in the pre-bullet days.  Following 2004, some slices got bigger, while other slices got smaller.  The entire pie also got a bit bigger, although that is not shown in this figure of the proportional trends for each station; ridership has only recently exceeded the 2001 peak.  The Baby Bullet Effect has divided stations into two groups: winners and losers.  Most of the losers were small and could justifiably be dispensed with.  Some were not, and are under-served to this day:
  • California Avenue in Palo Alto, 1376 weekday boardings in 2001, down to just 895 at last count
  • Lawrence in Santa Clara, 1309 weekday boardings in 2001, down to just 531 in 2011
  • Santa Clara, 1124 weekday boardings in 2001, down to just 656 in 2011
  • Burlingame, 985 weekday boardings in 2001, down to just 675 in 2011
  • Belmont, 892 weekday boardings in 2001, down to just 369 in 2011
  • San Bruno, 844 weekday boardings in 2001, down to just 403 in 2011
All of these places have more residents and jobs than implied by today's poor ridership, and are consistently under-served by Caltrain.

Planning for the Future

The future timetable plans revealed so far by Caltrain, including their notional electrification timetable and the timetables evaluated in the blended operations analysis, consist of an all-skip-stop service pattern as illustrated at left which "bakes in" the ridership pie slices as they exist today.  While the Baby Bullet is slated to be discontinued, its negative impact will live on at the places listed above, which will continue to be served by only two trains per hour (out of six).  Stakeholders at those stations should not allow this to happen.

As they plan their future operational concept, it is important that Caltrain base their stopping pattern on raw population and jobs data and not on the highly distorted ridership patterns induced by the Baby Bullet Effect.

06 December 2011

Holiday Required Reading

HSR Done Right

Sometimes, it's useful to look beyond the peninsula for context on what works best locally.  Here's a graphic from Richard Tolmach (in the latest TRAC Newsletter) that pretty much says everything that needs to be said about the California High Speed Rail Project.

As can be observed, the route that Tolmach and other organizations (including the plaintiffs in the Atherton lawsuits) have been advocating for years is very different from the route that the CHSRA is stubbornly advancing through the environmental clearance process.  In the Bay Area, the notable departure from the official plan is that HSR would branch off from the peninsula rail corridor at Redwood City, head over a new Dumbarton crossing, and zoom across Altamont Pass along the SETEC Alignment.

What does this have to do with anything peninsular?  Plenty, as it turns out.  Read on.

Caltrain's Blended Analysis

Caltrain recently published its analysis of the "blended" proposal, where Caltrain and HSR would share the peninsula rail corridor using less ambitious and expansive infrastructure than the four-track viaducts originally envisioned by the CHSRA.  This analysis concludes that it's feasible to run mixed Caltrain / HSR operations, although Caltrain service would be bunched up (with irregular skip-stop service patterns limited to six trains per hour) and HSR would need to slow down (about 40 minutes, rather than the planned 30 for SJ-SF) and be limited to 4 trains per hour.  On page 46, the document mentions that
The increased two-track shared use corridor distance from Whipple Avenue to San Jose Diridon, makes it very difficult for a 110 mph train to leave San Jose without encountering delay prior to reaching the overtake, and for a southbound HSR train to keep from being delayed by the Caltrain train it follows after the overtake.
Translation: sharing tracks should be done for the bare minimum distance, and certainly not 50 miles from SF to SJ.  Branching HSR off the corridor in Redwood City is a scenario that was NOT analyzed because it runs against Pacheco orthodoxy.  There is little doubt that it would make for an operationally superior solution (as computed by our free service pattern generator) with more Caltrain service, more Caltrain expresses, better transfer opportunities, easy-to-memorize clockface service patterns, and 125 mph HSR speeds... better in every way than the best scenarios LTK could come up with given the flawed assumptions of the study.

Speaking of better service planning...

The Swiss Take On California

Switzerland arguably has the most advanced, integrated and optimized rail service planning in the world.  The Swiss rail operations consultancy SMA+Partners supported a doctoral thesis analyzing the California rail network (including HSR) from an operations perspective.

Ulrich Leister's thesis (see executive summary) "applies a lean and rational approach to planning that is network and schedule-based.  A precise computer model is used to test different ideas such as infrastructure layouts or train types.  Gradually, the schedule is refined and optimized until the required rolling stock and the minimal amount of infrastructure needed to operate all the scheduled trains is determined."

This operations-first approach will likely come as a breath of fresh air to readers bewildered by our local experts' cost-maximizing ways.  A full copy of the thesis will be linked here as soon as it is made available.  Note in the network diagram at left that the Altamont route is identified as operationally superior, which will come as a surprise to CHSRA consultants who stubbornly insist Pacheco is the only way to go.

The Japanese Take On California

About a year ago, the East Japan Railway Company gave the CHSRA a peer review of their operations and maintenance approach.   Section of this document addresses mixed service with other rail carriers.  It is reproduced in full below, with links added to relevant articles that echo the exact same points on this blog.
Based on JR East's experience of operating conventional train and Shinkansen train on the same track, following three aspects should be carefully considered.
First, the timetable should be carefully planned. The shared operation segment is likely to be the bottleneck of the high speed train timetable since delay in the conventional line will affect the entire high speed trains network. Therefore, if transport capacity is required, 'parallel' timetable (that is, High Speed Train and conventional train operate at the same speed) or increase the capacity of the commuter trains and reduce the frequency will be the solution. To establish a more flexible timetable, additional facilities will be required both in high speed train and the conventional lines. For example, siding tracks are required in stations in this segment, commuter train vehicles with good acceleration should be implemented, speed restrictions on curves should be reduced, more signals should be allocated, etc.
Second, rolling stock should be taken account. If the High Speed Train vehicle width is different from that of conventional trains, platforms must be trimmed, and/or boarding steps must be installed either on the high speed train or on the commuter train. These boarding steps may exceed the loading gauge at some areas, so they should be stowed away while the train is running. The difference in height of the doors of the rolling stock should also be taken into consideration. Finally, compatibility of Automatic Train Control system for high speed train and conventional train should be considered. Since the safety equipment is indispensable for either train, multiple safety equipments must be installed on the rolling stock, and radio communication system must also be shared. These must be switched at the border station. Preventing malfunction both on the wayside and on-board is also important.
All this good advice has clearly fallen on deaf ears.  For example, platform interface coordination is not even remotely on Caltrain's radar, and the HSR project is actively working against it.