27 October 2013

Census Driven Service Planning

The diagram at right shows where people live and work along the entire length of the rail corridor from San Francisco to Gilroy, as extracted from government census population and jobs data sets.  The diagram is also available as a PDF.

Implications for Rail Service Patterns

By simple observation of the features of the census population and job distributions along the peninsula corridor, it is possible to infer the desirable features of train service patterns that will maximize commute ridership.
  1. Transbay has more than 100,000 jobs within a half-mile radius (more than every other station in the system combined). The concentration of jobs near San Francisco's Transbay Transit Center cannot be understated. This station absolutely must be served by each and every train, and it would be highly counter-productive to terminate any train at 4th and King.
  2. Silicon Valley shows up in the jobs distribution as a broad hump, mostly homogeneous and stretching from Palo Alto to San Jose.  To serve this rich but diffuse commute market, all trains should make every stop in Santa Clara County.  There should never be any skip-stop service here, and the wider spacing of stops (relative to San Mateo County) will result in only minor trip time penalties.
  3. San Mateo County has numerous stops, spaced more closely together and with middling jobs and population density.  To enable faster service to and from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, it makes the most sense in this portion of the corridor to operate skip-stop express service alongside local service.
  4. South San Jose, while south of Silicon Valley, has a massive and untapped residential market that can serve as origin to jobs further north.  Tamien currently functions as a slow and infrequent addendum to the peninsula service, but should be sped up and extended to Blossom Hill.
  5. Oakdale in San Francisco opens up a new residential market for Caltrain.  The distribution of people nearby is even denser than at 22nd Street.
  6. The Gilroy extension doesn't make much sense.  There are so few jobs and people here that Caltrain (as primarily a commuter service) should not run to this area.  Serving Morgan Hill and Gilroy is best left for a long-distance operator such as Amtrak California.
Putting all this together, what would a service pattern look like that is tailored to the census distributions, to maximize commuter ridership?  First, it would not look like today's Baby Bullet, which severely under-serves numerous stops.  It would also look very different from Caltrain's latest planning fad, the "peak-period skip-stop zone express," used as the basis for all operational simulations in the blended service analyses published to date.  It would look like this, with distances drawn to scale:

  • The Silicon Valley express links the major employment centers of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, highlighted in orange, providing a faster and better alternative to fleets of white luxury buses stuck in traffic on US 101.  It would run every 15 minutes.
  • The San Mateo local serves all the minor stops throughout San Mateo County, terminating and originating across the platform from the Silicon Valley express at Redwood City.  This provides fast and penalty-free transfers between Silicon Valley and cities all along the peninsula.  The local turns back in Redwood City, minimizing crew and fleet requirements while still providing service every 30 minutes.
  • Stops in San Francisco and San Jose that have very large residential markets are served in the peak commute direction only.
This service pattern is also well-suited to future blended HSR service: a southbound high-speed train and a closely-following Silicon Valley Express can overtake and catch up (respectively) with a San Mateo local by using a four-track mid-line overtake facility constructed from San Mateo to Redwood City.  Because the local turns back at Redwood City, it does not impede traffic in Santa Clara County.

The time has come to fundamentally rethink peninsula rail service patterns.  Caltrain's "peak-period skip-stop zone express" is almost certainly not the best solution for meeting future demand; a much wider range of options must be considered.

16 October 2013

Level Boarding Forum

A few days ago I participated in a panel discussion hosted by Friends of Caltrain on the topic of level boarding and platform compatibility with HSR.  Here are the slides I presented to stimulate the discussion, available either as a 7 MB PDF file or on Scribd:

It was a good discussion, and I came away with the following impressions.

Things that surprised me in a good way:
  • Caltrain is finally considering the possibility of level boarding, although no funding has been identified.
  • Bryan Dykes, from the Transbay project, was quite supportive of shared platforms and further pointed out that a bigger constraint on capacity comes from the excessively long platform dwell times requested by Caltrain and HSR.
  • The escalator pits on all three platforms of the Transbay Transit Center are built to accommodate any platform height.
  • Ben Tripousis of the HSR Authority stated that fare collection and security issues were not necessarily show stoppers for shared platforms, and that platforms could conceivably be shared provided they are built to HSR specifications.
Things that surprised me in a bad way:
  • Caltrain has not started the waiver process for CPUC General Order 26-D, although they have acknowledged the potential need to do so.
  • Marian Lee of Caltrain stated that Caltrain's reasons for wanting to terminate some trains at 4th and King is to serve certain markets there (presumably in reference to Giants games).  I didn't have a chance to question further, but they seem to be missing that every Transbay train would also stop (underground) at 4th and King-- it's not an either-or, it's one or both.
  • Caltrain seems eager to roll out the red carpet for any "tenant railroad" that comes calling.
  • The three agencies are clearly not communicating enough about this issue to support the important decisions that Caltrain needs to make very shortly for its new vehicle procurement.
Things that didn't surprise me:
  • HSR is going with high platforms, period.  That particular train has already left the station, and there will be no turning back from the joint procurement with Amtrak.  If platforms are to be shared with HSR, they will be high platforms.
  • HSR cites as justification for the massive station complex in San Jose that numerous tenant railroads (the "downstairs folks" such as ACE and the Capitol Corridor) plan massive expansion that will need a lot of track and platform space.
  • People in the advocacy community are not in agreement on the need for platform sharing.  Some believe that Caltrain needs low (~25") platforms more than it needs platform sharing with HSR at Transbay or anywhere else.
It all came down to this in the end: high platforms, or segregated platforms--pick your poison.  I happen to believe that high platforms will be the lesser of these two evils.  What do you all think?