The Baby Bullet we know and love does San Jose to San Francisco in as little as 57 minutes (by the timetable, which is generously padded at the end of the run to make on-time performance statistics look better). In practice, diesel bullets can and do make the run in 55 minutes.
How can this possibly be? $6 billion later the best commuter service will be 10 minutes slower?!?
How can a timetable, the very root of years of painstaking planning and carefully apportioned capital investment, the embodiment of a grand vision of improved commuter service, the next coming of the Baby Bullet, fall so terribly short of what could have been?
How many microseconds will it take for the entire NIMBY universe to latch on to this inconvenient truth?
- The proposed timetable, towards which every Caltrain capital investment ought to be targeted in tangible and measurable ways, is presented almost apologetically, and seems almost an afterthought;
- Caltrain plans to give up (that's right, give up!) commuter trains overtaking each other, despite the presence of a third and fourth track in what is nominally a "shared corridor", and henceforth operate on just two tracks. The reason offered is that overtakes are operationally unreliable--but that is only so because Caltrain's existing passing tracks are very short, and Caltrain's existing gallery cars turn station dwell times into a game of Russian roulette. By 2025 both of those reasons will have vanished.
- Confining Caltrain to a separate, 2-track system does not take advantage of any synergy with HSR, and perpetuates a false choice between speed and frequency. Today this trade-off is biased in favor of speed, but the Baby Bullet limits throughput to 5 trains per hour. In Caltrain's proposed 2025 timetable, based on the BART model, the trade-off is biased in favor of throughput (one train every six minutes!) but average speed suffers just like BART's. In a fully HSR-compatible system with a mid-line overtake, this constrained trade-off would be removed entirely, freeing Caltrain to provide both speedy AND frequent service with cross-platform transfers.
- The underlying assumption appears to be that with HSR in the mix, Caltrain will no longer need to provide express commuter service. Even as Caltrain is starved of operating funds and teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, it appears perfectly willing to cede its highest-yielding ridership to the HSR operator, with no guarantee that service will mesh together with convenient timed transfers and a common fare structure.
- Some might say, if there will be a high-speed train every five minutes in each direction, how could there possibly be any spare track capacity to allow Caltrain to overtake on the high-speed tracks? This question is ill-posed: a portion of that ridiculously frequent HSR service would no doubt be used to serve intra-peninsula demand that Caltrain could not tap into if it were stuck on two tracks with slower trip times. The track capacity should be re-allocated to better meet demand.
- The fundamental issue here is one of flexible and dynamic allocation of a scarce and valuable resource: track capacity. If you build two separate systems that are not designed to inter-operate (freely sharing tracks and stations), then you cannot adjust service patterns to meet the demand that actually develops. You're stuck with guessing what demand will be 25 years from now, and quite literally casting it in concrete. The outcome, more likely than not, is sub-optimal, with demand under-served and resources under-used.
- The same platform height as HSR, so station platforms can be allocated to actual demand, making optimal use of a scarce resource;
- The same train control system as HSR, so commuter trains and high-speed rail can freely mix and track capacity can be dynamically allocated to actual demand, again making optimal use of a scarce resource;
- An improved timetable that provides both speed AND frequency through the implementation of a mid-line cross-platform overtake.