Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Posting from the Library, Cause I Missed my Train--Musings on Schedules

It's my own fault--after enjoying a leisurely breakfast with my lovely wife at Main St Cafe, and then deciding to ride with her to the ice rink and bike to the station from there, instead of heading directly (and responsibly) to work, I missed the train by a few minutes, and now I'm posting from the Menlo Park library, where they have free WiFi.

(Actually I'm outside of the library, because they don't open til noon on tuesdays--and I've already seen half a dozen people turn back disappointedly in the ten minutes I've been here. Anyway, the signal strength is not great, but I'm getting through, and there's a decent shady spot where I can see my screen ok).

It's a bit of a wait til the next train, and this has me thinking about something I've mused over before--why should you have to adjust your schedule to fit the train's? Why can't they just run trains often enough that you can just show up when you want, and expect one to come along in a few minutes?

This is not just an issue for slackers like me. For a lot of people with regular, non-dot-com jobs, this makes or breaks transit as a practical means of getting to work at all. If you're supposed to clock in a 9:00 am, a train that gets you there at 8:40 means you're wasting 20 minutes of your day, and if you take a train that gets you there at 9:20 too many times in a row, you're fired!

CalTrain operates lots of trains, but with all their specialized schedule types--locals, expresses and baby bullets, and mixed express/locals--maybe they're spreading themselves too thin. There are two big plusses to this approach--there are both fast trains for people going long distances, and closely spaced stops for people making shorter jaunts. Most transit systems only provide one type of service or another, with "commuter rail" (think Metrolink, ACE, Capitol Corridor) on one extreme and typical light rail systems on the other. Some systems, like BART, go for speed in the burbs and closely spaced stops in the city, a reasonable compromise.

CalTrain tries to offer both types of service throughout it's entire length, which is a good objective, but service frequency--and the railway's usefulness--suffers for it.

Well, I've killed enough time to head back to the station now!


Fritz said...

More frequent and faster trains are two of the reasons Caltrain would like to electrify.

Outside of commute hours there's not nearly enough traffic to justify more trains than what they do now. I don't have any real problem with adjusting my schedule to fit the transit schedule, and it's a great excuse to my boss at the end of the day. "Sorry! I'd love to stay and work on this but you know I have a train to catch."

295bus said...

If CalTrain electrifies with EMU's *and* can change work rules to reduce the number of people it takes to run each train (ideally, just one operator plus an occasional ticket inspector--so figure 1.5 per train) then it would make sense to run frequent, if short (single car?) trains in off-peak hours, like light rail systems do.

I don't really have any trouble adjusting to CalTrain myself, to be honest. But I think their temporally sparse service pretty much makes them useless to lots of people with "normal" jobs like retail clerks, office assistants, etc, who have set hours, even if their home and workplace happen to be near stations.

For these people, a light rail type of service, with a train every 10 mins, would be better, even if for long trips much slower, than what CalTrain offers.

Fritz said...

In Santa Clara County, you have slow, frequent and cheap on the 22 & 522 bus lines that more-or-less parallels the Caltrain line. Each of 22 & 522 runs every 15 minutes or better during non-peak hours. It's too bad VTA doesn't serve Menlo Park anymore, and I use samTrans only very rarely so I don't know what available.

The VTA schedules for 522 claim about an hour for the trip from the Shark Tank to Palo Alto, but the reality is closer to 90 minutes. The 522 is usually just barely faster than me riding my bike that distance.