Longer Trains May Be No Match for Growing Caltrain Crowds

Photo: danieljsf/Flickr

Caltrain’s rush hour trains have never been more crowded, which isn’t just uncomfortable for riders — it also discourages potential commuters who instead drive along Peninsula highways, and makes rides more difficult for elderly passengers and riders with disabilities. Commuters could see some relief in 2015, when Caltrain plans to extend the length of some of its trains, but the crunch won’t end any time soon if ridership trends continue.

During a typical weekday on Caltrain, the number of trains with more passengers than seats (with passengers left standing) has increased from just two during summer 2010 to over ten trains in summer 2013. The agency estimates that standees account for 10 to 20 percent of passengers on the busiest winter trains, and 30 to 40 percent during the summer.

Caltrain lacks dedicated areas for standing and has no rails or handles to hold on to, so standing on Caltrain is more difficult than on other rail transit systems such as BART. Caltrain’s cars are designed to maximize seats, with about 650 on each train, making it easy for commuters to read or work on laptops.

With Caltrain attracting about 4,300 new weekday riders every year since 2010, ridership will reach almost 60,000 on weekdays this summer, and could surpass 75,000 by 2018.

The number of passengers using Caltrain on weekdays has doubled over the past decade. As with many transit services, ridership peaks in the summer. Source: Caltrain

Weekday ridership on Caltrain has more than doubled since 2004, when it began running “Baby Bullet” express services that travel between San Francisco and San Jose in just one hour. Caltrain runs just a few more hourly trains now than it did then, but more of its mid-day local trains have been shifted to rush hour expresses to keep up with the surge in peak-hour, longer-distance demand.

Caltrain most recently expanded service 18 months ago, having cut service in 2009 and 2011 due to budget problems. “In October 2012 we added four trains, going from 86 to 92 weekday trains, which included two trains on the shoulder of the peak,” said Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Ackemann. “The goal was to shift people out of the most crowded trains, and to provide some later express trains for tech workers.”

Caltrain plans to purchase surplus train cars like these from LA Metrolink to extend its trains. Photo: Steven Cuevas / KPCC

To alleviate crowding in coming years, Caltrain is planning to run longer trains using 11 to 16 used train cars to be purchased from Los Angeles Metrolink for $8 to $10 million. By 2015, Caltrain riders could see some five-car trains extended to six-car trains. Those additional train cars would burn more fuel and require more maintenance, but would also boost seat capacity from 650 to 780 seats. Caltrain’s two busiest trains started seeing more than 780 passengers per train on typical weekdays since February 2013.

While the 20 percent increase in those trains’ capacity would help reduce crowding, the relief won’t last long. It took just two years (2011 to 2013) for weekday ridership to jump by 20 percent. That means the upgrade will bring crowding on rush hour trains in 2015 back to 2013’s crowding levels.

Caltrain’s real capacity boost is poised to arrive in 2019, when the system is converted from diesel to electricity. The new signaling system needed to operate modern electric trains is currently being installed, with workers laying a fiber-optic cable along the length of the railroad. When complete in 2015, Ackemann said that the signal upgrade would allow Caltrain to safely increase the number of trains per hour from five to six.

With electrification in 2019, Caltrain can take advantage of electric trains’ faster acceleration and deceleration, allowing it to increase the number of weekday trains from 92 to 114. The number of trains serving the morning rush hour (6 – 9 am) would increase from 27 to 38, and the number serving the evening rush hour (4 – 7 pm) would increase from 30 to 36, according to a proposed post-electrification schedule created by consulting firm Fehr & Peers that has not been released to the public. Nearly every Caltrain station would be served by more weekday trains than today.

But in planning for an electrified system compatible with and shared with California high-speed rail, some transit advocates say the agency isn’t giving a close enough look at opportunities to maximize the capacity boost — key to attracting commuters away from driving on congested Highway 101.

“We want to see Caltrain address the capacity crunch strategically,” said Adina Levin, Co-founder of Friends of Caltrain. “Caltrain should be planning for expected ridership based on demand from cities and employers, and proposing capacity improvements to address the demand.”

Wider electric Caltrain train cars could fit five seated passengers per row instead of today’s four per row. Image: Clem Tillier

Levin says level boarding platforms and wider trains could provide major increases in Caltrain’s capacity. The agency hasn’t sufficiently analyzed those measures’ costs, timelines, or most importantly, their potential for meeting future ridership demand.

Level boarding places station platforms and train floors at the same level, eliminating steps and saving another five minutes on the San Francisco to San Jose trip, bringing it down to 45 minutes beginning in 2019. “Extra-wide” electric trains, currently being built for use in Europe, could fit 25 percent more seats than today’s trains.

Some of the scenarios for electric Caltrain service analyzed in the agency’s draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on electrification are perplexingly unambitious. Weekday ridership has been growing by over ten percent per year since 2010, but the EIR predicts 69,151 weekday riders in 2020, an annual growth rate of only five percent from 2013 to 2020. At current growth rates, actual ridership will exceed levels predicted for 2020 at San Francisco 4th and King Station by 2016, Mountain View by 2017, and Palo Alto by 2018.

When service to San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center begins in 2022, Caltrain only plans to run two trains per hour to the grand new hub, while up to four other trains would still stop at the existing 4th and King Station. The Transbay Center will have over 100,000 jobs located within a half-mile radius — more jobs than every other Caltrain station combined.

“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,” wrote Clem Tillier, author of a blog on building a Caltrain system compatible with California High-Speed Rail.

The Caltrain Board of Directors briefly discussed its new ten-year draft Strategic Plan at this morning, but delayed any decision on whether or not to include in it an analysis of the more successful, higher-ridership scenarios described above.

  • Matt Laroche

    As far as I know, Caltrain isn’t planning on running at 110, even with CBOSS (the new signaling system).

  • Despite the obvious crowding, I’ve remained amazed about: 1) how many passengers still spread out with their bags/jackets/etc. on adjacent seats, and 2) how many other passengers are still too timid to ask them to move their stuff. That opens up seating for me, since I don’t mind butting in, but it’s still weird. That amount of seating is marginal, admittedly- the overall points of this article still hold.

    I hate to even suggest it, but I wonder if some areas of some cars should be converted to allow more standing area? I’m not sure if that would work on the Nippon Sharyo gallery cars (since the upper levels don’t allow standing beneath them), but it could add “capacity” on the Bombardier cars. Also, are higher fares at the peak times worth considering in the interim as a way to move some passengers to the shoulder trains with more capacity (and possibly help fund capital improvements like new cars)? Not sure how that would work with monthly/Go passes, or what unintended effects it would have, but it is worth thinking through.

  • theqin

    I don’t really understand why Caltrain still needs 10 minutes headway per train, when I have seen other mass transit systems (like in Beijing) do 2 minute between arrivals on two tracks.

    Honestly it doesn’t sound like Caltrain really has any idea how to increase capacity — they should really be pushing for four rails along the entire system. With the projected ridership increases, by the time HSR starts running they won’t even have any extra capacity for a “blended system.” Caltrain really needs to start raising their standards and looking for dedicated funding ASAP.

  • aslevin

    Caltrain says that track improvements will be needed to go faster than today’s max 79mph. Those improvements aren’t part of the initial electrification project, and aren’t planned or funded yet.

  • aslevin

    The average baby bullet ride is 28 miles, which is a long ride to stand. But average doesn’t tell the whole story – what % of people ride 5-10 miles, and would be ok standing?

  • egoldin

    No? Even with electric trains? That’s disappointing. Though really, would like to see total grade separation at that speed.

  • What Caltrain needs is more frequent service, not larger trains.

  • lukebc

    People on MUNI stand the whole trip consisting of up to 40 minutes.

  • aslevin

    They are stuck with a max of 6 trains per direction per hour (currently they’re at 5tph) per the deal with High Speed Rail. But the latest High Speed Rail business plan shows 2.5 million riders per year travelling a super-express from SF-SJ. So Caltrain could conceivably negotiate for that capacity earlier. http://www.greencaltrain.com/2014/02/high-speed-rail-super-express-from-san-francisco-to-san-jose/

  • Affen_Theater

    I second MrEricSir’s call for increased Caltrain frequency.

    It makes little sense to indefinitely punish Peninsula commuters with jam-packed trains (and roads and highways) by holding Caltrain to a 6 train/direction/hour limit in a deal with an increasingly troubled agency whose trains won’t show up here for at least a decade or more.

  • jd_x

    Agreed, but my understanding was that they literally can’t fit any more trains on the right-of-way during rush hour. There are only limited spots with double tracks allowing faster trains to pass slower ones, so adding more trains starts messing all that timing up. But maybe I’m wrong …

    Regardless, they can certainly add more trains during the shoulder periods since the system isn’t at capacity then.

  • jd_x

    … and then there’s the whole bicycle capacity issue.

    For the extra cars being bought from LA, any plans to make some of these a third bicycle car?

    For the new electrified cars, does anybody know what Caltrain’s plans are for bicycle capacity? More or less? I hope more. Are they considering different ways to rack the bikes so you don’t have to play this whole game trying to get them in order (though it is pretty compact this way)?

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Haha as if there is any upper bound to a Muni trip. I once spent over 90 minutes going from Montgomery to Embarcadero.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Why does Metrolink have spare cars? Are they losing riders?

  • aslevin

    If high speed rail goes down, the region will need to replace $600M to complete electrification. And/or find ways like financing and factory trains to reduce the cost.

  • davistrain

    SCRRA Metrolink has just received a large number of new cars, and some of the older ones have been in service since 1992. And no, if anything, they are gaining riders. Many of the peak-hour trains on the San Bernardino Line (which mostly follows a Pacific Electric route from North Pomona to LA) are standing-room-only by the time they get to Covina

  • murphstahoe

    Raising peak fares is the “obvious” but bad solution to getting people to shift to off peak.

    The “correct” solution to getting people to switch to off peak is more trains in the off-peak, including bullets. There are plenty of commuters who could go to work an hour later, but aren’t willing to have 2x the commute time in order to do so.

  • Kid Charles

    Bike share expansion is probably the best way to reduce the necessary capacity for bikes on the train.

  • Kid Charles

    Yonah Freemark once suggested taking out seats on double-decker NJ Transit trains and the image that came to my mind was a tight bunch of people all hunched over periodically hitting their heads on the 5 foot ceiling. I don’t think he’d ever ridden in one of them.


  • Drew

    Actually, Metrolink has been losing ridership on the order of 3% annually the last few years. They are about to dip under 40,000 annual boardings.

  • Andy Chow

    Extra secure on-station bike storage will also help for those who can have a bike at each end of the ride.

  • Affen_Theater

    Yes, but if it doesn’t go down and just keeps plodding along looking to finance and construct its way to the Peninsula piecemeal, it could easily take a decade or more during which it makes no sense to hobble Caltrain frequency for what may or will eventually someday be “blended” operation with HSR.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    CBOSS is purely a way to take $250+ million of your dollars ($250 million is just the start …) and give them to limitlessly corrupt agency insiders and contractors.


    The same piddling little signal project, undertaken anywhere else in the world, would cost half to a third as much.

    Ask yourself: what the FUCK is a tiny, infrequent, low-capacity, low-ridership, nowheresville little shuttle line like Caltrain doing inventing its own super-wonderful globally-unique signalling system, when entire continents full of passenger trains run by people who know what the fuck they are doing aren’t coming to San Carlos for advice.

    It’s like the Half Moon Bay harbormaster deciding that he needs to direct a cruise missile design and construction program because the special sensitive defense needs of western San Mateo County just can’t be addressed by anybody else.

    CBOSS It’s worse than insane. It’s criminal. And, as you see, it will not be delivering more trains, faster trains, more reliable trains, cheaper trains, cheaper to ride trains, or better trains. It will just be delivering hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of the most incompetent railroad contractors on the planet.

  • Jim

    Peninsula town don’t want a 4 tracks because they erroneously believe that it would be unsightly, separate neighborhoods, and lower property values. However, they would much rather have an 10-lane freeway in their backyards.

  • Jim

    Caltrain should install standing seats or back rests. Although no one likes a crowded ride, Caltrain could increase capacity if people were given an option to comfortably stand.

  • tungwaiyip

    Between the doubling of caltrain ridership and the incredibly popular Google bus, I wonder if we are seeing any tangible reduction of car number on 101.

  • murphstahoe

    Or really just needing a bike on one end of the ride. A lot of riders bring their bike on board despite a close destination on the other end just because of security.

  • thielges

    Since HSR is years away, couldn’t Caltrain get an exception to run more trains until HSR starts running? And once HSR begins operations I’d expect it to absorb some of Caltrain’s commute load.

  • murphstahoe

    Nope. Nature abhors a vaccum, even on a road.

  • aslevin

    Right, that’s why as @thielges says Caltrain should get a dispensation to run extra trains before HSR gets here.

  • aslevin

    The freeway is by office parks and lower income neighborhoods – the freeway is causing asthma for those other people. Also I drive a Tesla so the pollution isn’t my fault. (impersonating the point of view I don’t agree with).

  • Caelestor

    It appears as though nearly every NB peak train in the morning is over capacity. While the entire schedule needs to be overhauled and more infrastructural improvements (electrification, level boarding) should be completed in the future, there are some quicker fixes that can be implemented in the meantime.

    – Easiest solution: 211, 221, and 231, which definitely have capacity, need to stop at Palo Alto. This will close a 30-minute gap in service there and divert riders from 217, 323, and 233.
    – Add another Bullet train in the 8am hour, which is almost guaranteed to accommodate 500 new riders.
    – More controversial: close Hayward Park, which can be accommodated by San Mateo and Hillsdale, both of which have superior service. This speeds up all local trains.
    – Even more controversial: Baby Bullets should consider skipping Millbrae. The primary purpose of the Baby Bullet trains should be to get riders to SF as fast and comfortable as possible; more riders disembark than embarking at Millbrae, which causes overcrowding on the stretches right before this stop. Replace with a stop at higher-running Sunnyvale, Mtn View, or RWC, all of which are adding riders faster than Millbrae.

  • No, that may not be the case. Caltrain is foremost a commuter RR. It’s peak ridership occurs at the peak commute hours and the shoulders. I take mid-day trains back to Peninsula from SF. Yesterday, the young man in the adjacent seat remarked, “Are we the only ones on this train?” I answered that since we were in the second bike car, fourth from the station gates, most folks were sitting behind us….but his point was effective nonetheless.

  • aslevin

    The extra capacity over 10tph total won’t be needed immediately. By the time High Speed Rail gets here (2029 if all goes perfectly, which it is not), the most vociferous opponents to improving track capacity will no longer be alive; millennials who prefer to drive less will be on city councils; and the world will be different.

  • What you’re describing is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Of course nobody takes CalTrain during the day — you have to wait up to an hour to catch a train!

    Look at BART for a contrast. It’s also primarily aimed at commuters, but it’s always busy during the day because of the (relatively) frequent service.

  • murphstahoe

    If only leadership could see “Well, I would never ride such a train, but by the time it’s running I’ll be dead, so that doesn’t matter. And when the bond payments kick in, I’ll be dead too, so that doesn’t matter. What would my grandchildren want?”

    Me, I’m going off to transplant a bunch of 1 foot high oak trees in the backyard. They will look really great 30 years after I die.

  • murphstahoe

    True this. Really sad the parking issues Palo Alto has – because their Noon-Nine retail workers really can’t make decent use of Caltrain.

  • Michael Mathews

    If the last time we drove south in the morning is any indication (10 days ago or so), traffic is considerably heavier than it was in 2004. The bad traffic conditions are what is driving people to switch to the train and the private buses.

  • aslevin

    The good news there is that Palo Alto is starting a Transportation Management Association which will have responsibility for analyzing the transportation needs of downtown workers and providing alternatives to driving and parking. You can provide a lot of discount transit passes and connecting shuttles for the tens of millions of dollars you’d need to spend on new garages. The TMAs in Palo Alto, and Mountain View, and San Mateo, and (probably) San Jose can’t control Caltrain service, but they can be much stronger advocates for better service because they will have data.

  • aslevin

    Gah! I hate speculation about questions for which there are answers. Caltrain should actually ask people who take bikes on the train why we do this, and which if any of the following options would enable them (us) to not bring the bike onboard and help uncrowd the trains: a) bikeshare at their destination b) reliable secure storage at their origin station c) leaving a cheap bike in a locker for the last mile d) better shuttle service to destination e) some other option f) need my own bike for other purposes with no good substitute

  • Michael Mathews

    This. My time is equally valuable to me at 7 am, 10 am, 2 pm and 5 pm.
    I will say this, during baseball season I won’t take any NB train earlier than 287 on a game night. It’s worth a slightly longer train ride to wait for one with a seat and far fewer noisy people. I wish there were more trains in mid day and the evening with a stopping pattern like 287.

  • Michael Mathews

    I was going to say: a cross-city ride on the N Judah often takes more than an hour and maybe you’ll get a seat if you get on at the first stop or two or stay on past Embarcadero.

  • murphstahoe

    Unfortunately the pattern for Caltrain has been to sit in a room and think of an answer and say “Voila! Here you go!” Sometimes part of the answer is right (Warm Planet) and sometimes it’s bogus (More racks at 22nd Street).

    I don’t think they’ve ever really sent someone out to collect data for “Why do you take your bike on board” even though it’s easy to gather up the focus group.

    The A/B pairing Adina posits is good. A bike at your origin end you use for other things is useful, a bike that mostly sits in a locker at the destination end is less useful – especially given Caltrain’s schedule that has different stop patterns. And when you say “bikeshare at their destination” that doesn’t just mean at the station – there has to be a dock at your *final* destination.

    Better shuttle service – sort of. My company makes massive use of the shuttles, but for a lot of my co-workers, if their schedule deviates a tiny bit, they drive, because the shuttle window is narrow and VTA is 2-3x the time (and a shuttle is 2x the time of biking!)

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Right on every point.

    1. No train in any direction at any time of day should skip Palo Alto. (Or Redwood City, or Mountain View for that matter. Or Sunnyvale.)

    3. Hayward Park needs to go, no question. Not only does it not have ridership and never will, not only does San Mateo have three stations within its modest city limits; not only is Hayward Park sited exactly where track curve realignment could have significant payoff; but most importantly the infinitely-deferred (because pissing away $180 million making San Bruno hugely worse, forever was more important to the negative-achievement cash-guzzling “carreers” of Caltrain’s staff and contractors) reconstruction and relocation of Hillsdale Station to the north would put Hillsdale station within sight of (and within walking distance of) Hayward Park.

    Of course, Caltrain’s genius “planners” plan exactly the opposite: make more trains stop at Hayward Park, because of some crazy backroom agreements with the city or something.

    America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals, at “work”.

    4. The over-serving of Millbrae is, as you know, purely political, driven by “intermodal” BART bullshit (never mind that you can’t pay people to take a slower ride with an extra fare; nothing is actually about riders, ever) rather than by demand.

    If and when we can ever get rid of the current crazy Caltrain “bullet” timetable clusterfuck (with a million different arbitrary stopping patterns and hour headways at peak hours) and move towards simple, regular, memorizeable, customer-friendly, connection-friendly, ridership-attracting rational timetables, then every train should stop of Millbrae, which is one of the highest-ridership stops.

    But in the current insane “bullet” timetable environment, no question that Millbrae station is over-served relative to other stations (Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Redwood City,

    A point you didn’t mention: every “reverse peak” (southbound AM northbound PM) train should stop at 22nd.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Metrolink is getting rid of perfectly serviceable and perfectly legal rail cars as a result of insane, irrational, non-economic, non-analytical, purely political/emotional “response” to the passenger fatalities in Glendale in 2005 and Chatsworth in 2008.

    Sadly, expect the same sort of insanity (“Something must be done! This here is something! Therefore this must be done!”) if and when Caltrain goes off the rails. But until then, we can land Metrolink cast-offs at fire sale prices.

  • Anandakos

    Dude, hyperventilate much?

  • Anandakos

    The San Bernardino line has about twelve miles of single track that simply can’t be doubled. Well, not without stacking the second track above the first which would be a huge chunk of change. These are FRA trainsets, not light rail cars.

  • murphstahoe

    This I like, though I’m not so sure about SB AM trains stopping at Sunnyvale, I use it occasionally but Lawrence has a lot more ridership. Certainly this is in part because 2 trains/hour stop at Lawrence, one of which is skip-stop, but there really isn’t a lot of employment near SV compared to Lawrence.

    The largest contingent using Sunnyvale SB in the AM are bike riders who then ride past Lawrence on their way to work, in order to save the zone charge of going to Lawrence, the closest station to their destination. Which opens the discussion of eliminating the zone based fare structure since we have an electronic fare medium (of course since it’s so flawed and almost certainly has a zillion dollar change order cost, we’re screwed on that I suspect).

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Sunnyvale (like California Avenue, Lawrence, Santa Clara, and others) has both good potential and had high ridership. It’s unquestionably underserved.

    See Peninsula Rail Corridor Census (nice summary in Figure 8) and “Baby Bullet Effect” and other well-researched articles linked from there.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Piss away $250 million to corrupt rent-seeking scumbags to get worse service much?

    Three choices: public sector corruption doesn’t bother you, you’re on gravy train yourself, or you’re stupid. Choose one or more.


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