Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some Musings on CalTrain, HSR, etc

A few years ago, there was an optimistic buzz that:

  • Pretty soon, we would have an HSR system from SF to LA.
  • HSR would use CalTrain's right-of-way, in the process rebuilding it, electrifying it, and providing access to a downtown SF terminal.
  • By becoming faster, more efficient, and improved ridership from providing an overall more appealing service, CalTrain's operating funding problems would go away: either ridership would increase enough to make it more cost-effective, or the service would be so awesome that the public would be willing and happy to provide more funding.

Today, we're looking at a worst-case scenario:

  • CalTrain will go out of business, or atrophy into a handful-of-trains-a-day type service, like Ace or Capitol Corridor (useful in their way, but overall, so marginal to be almost irrelevant to the larger transportation picture).
  • HSR will build an initial proof-of-concept segment from Fresno to Bakersfield, run fast trains up and down the central valley, and run out of money leaving a disconnected "railway to nowhere" that Californians will get mocked about for decades. (Btw, here is an interesting historical parallel).

Last fall, I went to an informal friends-of-CalTrain gathering, a preview for this Saturday's summit. One of the themes of the discussion was this conundrum:

  • Peninsula residents support CalTrain, and would generally support improvements like electrification.
  • They are wary of HSR.
  • Nobody knows how long it will take before work on the peninsula segment of HSR actually begins.
  • But does it make sense to electrify CalTrain in its current state, if that means all that work has to be ripped out and redone when grade separation is built for HSR at some point in the future?

My answer is yes, and here's my thinking:

  • A complete statewide HSR system may take decades to build.
  • The best way to make use of a partial HSR system it to give HSR trains access to SF and LA terminals via electrified, but slower, local commuter lines. So if you want to travel the length of the state, your train will poke along at 88mph or so (CalTrain's current speed limit) on the way out of town, haul ass down the central valley, and slow down again as it gets onto Metrolink for the last couple of miles. It won't be faster than flying but it'll still beat driving.
  • Grade separation and realignment in the peninsula (and elsewhere) can be accomplished piecemeal. Each grade crossing can be designed with time for community input, etc.
  • Train speeds can be increased with conditions that make them more palatable to neighbors--specifically, I think the HSRA should commit that their trains will not make more noise than some dB/distance threshold.
  • This still leaves NIMBY types with a hope of undergrounding HSR (or rerouting it to the median of the 101, which is actually not such a bad idea). They can accept electrification but keep some control over future development of the right-of-way.
  • Conversely, HSR-boosters can hope to incrementally ramp up speed, and get people used to living next to HSR bit by bit, diffusing the current opposition.

Summit to Save Caltrain, Sat Jan 29th

This will be taking place this Saturday, at SamTrans/CalTrain HQ in San Carlos (it's the modern-looking glass building you've probably noticed from the train at San Carlos, with the digital clock/thermometer).

Here is more official information from the Green CalTrain/Bay Rail Alliance blog.

I'll be there (maybe not the whole day).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Got a Clipper Card

I have a CalTrian GO pass, so I don't really need one, but SamTrans is starting to take them, so it might come in handy.

Nathan and I go on BART once in a while too. Kids always like BART trains, I guess because they look cool. At least he likes them in principle--like everyone else he finds the noise level in the tunnels kind of oppressive.

Anyway, I've been reading up on how to use clipper, and about all I can say is, WTF? Consider:

  • On CalTrain, you tag on before boarding, and have to tag off at your destination--or Clipper will assume you rode all the way to the end of the line.
  • But on VTA, you better not tag again when you get off, or this will be counted as another fare, on the assumption you're transferring to another bus or train.

And consider these issues of dysfunctional clipper reader placement at Milllbrae, and this botched-up mess of interagency transfers. I feel like what's going on here is that the MTC, realizing that Bay Area transit is a disorganized mess, went on some junkets to see what other cities were doing about similar problems, and were wowed by technology (like Hong Kong's Octopus card), but really couldn't grasp what the fundamental underlying problems are. They gave us something that looks like a well organized system, but it's just a flashy workaround to the same mess.

They would have done better to learn from Z├╝rich, which has multiple operators, but a fare zone system allowing passengers to think about where they're going and what line to take--but to be totally oblivious to what operator provides the survice. Instead of emphasizing technology (which, from a government perspective, is easy--just spend money) they actually did real work to make the system work as a coherent whole.