SPUR Gets Preview of State Rail Plan

A TGV in France, similar to what will eventually run in California. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A TGV in France, similar to what will eventually run in California. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Take Caltrain from San Francisco to San Jose, and it costs $9.75. But come back on the other side of the Bay, to Oakland’s Jack London Square Amtrak station, and it will cost you between $17 and $37 on Amtrak. The tickets are completely different, purchased from different agencies, from different machines.

This is just one of the many small and large problems that limits ridership on Bay Area and California State rail systems–and it’s something Chad Edison, Deputy Secretary for Transportation with the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), hopes to solve as his agency finishes up its California State Rail Plan.

“In Switzerland there are hundreds of operators and they all come together to give one product to the customers that are seamless,” he said, explaining that the state wants to emulate pretty much everything it can from Swiss and some other European rail transportation models. This came as part of a preview of that plan, given at a talk today at SPUR’s Oakland location. “What we’re recommending in the rail plan is a statewide network that integrates, high-speed rail, blended rail, urban transit, and bus connections, focusing on the multi-modal nature of our hubs.”

Today's SPUR panel was hosted by Ratna Amin. But bother her and Matt Maloney were delayed, with a certain irony not lost on the audience, by BART.. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Today’s SPUR panel was hosted by Ratna Amin. But both she and Matt Maloney were delayed, with a certain irony not lost on the audience, by BART. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Travelers want to go door to door, not from major railway stations to major railways stations. So when they purchase a ticket, it should include the fare on the bus that takes them from home to the station, and from the station to their final destination. It should also be a consistent and logical train fare, regardless of which agency is running the train. “We need an integrated booking system with one set of tickets and payments throughout the journey,” he explained. Furthermore, when someone gets to their destination train station, the connecting bus should be waiting for them.

This isn’t something that requires new technology or even huge upgrades in infrastructure, although some are surely needed. As an example, Edison used a station in Wetzikon, a small town outside of Zurich. Trains depend on single tracks to get to and from the station, as seen in the diagram below. But the station itself is designed to facilitate transfers. Trains arrive, even off peak, in predictable intervals–every 30 minutes–at 15 minutes past and 45 minutes past the hour.

Then, he explained, there’s a bit of a transportation ballet, all happening over the course of a few minutes, so that everyone can transfer easily:

This diagram of Wetzikon station in Switzerland. Trains and buses arrive in a coordinated fashion so passengers can continue their journeys without waiting for transfers. Image: CalSTA
This diagram of Wetzikon station in Switzerland. Trains and buses arrive in a coordinated fashion so passengers can continue their journeys without waiting for transfers. Image: CalSTA

“They plan the infrastructure around it,” said Edison. “This is how we want to think as we look forward to a 2027, and 2040 network.” By focusing on the stations and transfers, the California system can actually get people door to door faster than if everything is focused on increasing overall train speed, although, of course, that’s also essential.

This follows the state rail plan’s mission statement:

The mission of the 2018 Rail Plan is to provide a safe, sustainable, integrated and efficient California rail network that successfully moves people and goods while enhancing the State’s economy and livability.

The goal is also to make sure as segments of High-speed rail become operational, those services will also be integrated with Amtrak, Caltrain, and local transit–all on one ticket, and on a schedule where trains come at regular intervals and bus services serve those schedules, instead of leaving everything to chance connections, or expecting people to use a car to complete their journeys.

A look of existing Amtrak services and California High-speed Rail. Image: CalSTA
A look at existing Amtrak services (rail and bus), future California High-speed Rail, and future services to Las Vegas. Image: CalSTA

Edison hopes some coordinating of schedules, improvements to stations, and integration of fares can begin soon. But longer term, there will also be requirements for big expenditures, such as a second Transbay crossing that will allow Caltrain, HSR and Amtrak to cross the Bay. That could be funded from Cap-and-Trade and from diesel fuel taxes that will be increased under SB1, as well as other sources.

Meanwhile, he argues that integrating services will reduce operating expenditures. That’s in part because it enables agencies to get more fares from people riding off peak, something that has been elusive as of late. The regularity of the pulse system allows people to use trains for trips besides commuting to work–if someone knows they can get to a shopping area of a nearby city seamlessly and on a single ticket, they are more likely to take the train over driving. In other words, it’s not necessarily the frequency of the services, but the fact that they know it will depart at regular intervals, even late into the night, with connecting services that won’t require waiting around.

There are other ways to reduce costs, he explained. Adjusting train lengths to fit demand and sharing track maintenance with freight railroads on intensely used corridors, and one doesn’t even always have to depend on European examples to find examples of train systems with lower costs. “In Chicago, there’s a very productive corridor that goes to Naperville–it costs 18 cents per passenger mile, where Caltrain costs 28 cents.”

An Amtrak train waiting to depart for San Jose. Take Caltrain back on the opposite side of the Bay, and you get a whole different fare structure. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
An Amtrak train waiting to depart for San Jose from Oakland. Take Caltrain back on the opposite side of the Bay, and you get a whole different fare structure. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Of course, key to making California’s transit system more attractive and cost-effective is making it more reliable. The panel was supposed to be introduced and hosted by SPUR’s Transportation Policy Director, Ratna Amin. But she and Matt Maloney of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission didn’t arrive until the discussion was more than halfway over, thanks to–you guessed it–BART delays (SPUR’s Arielle Fleisher stepped in to host until they arrived). Let’s hope the plan will also help make the Bay Area’s existing transportation infrastructure more reliable.

For more events like these, visit SPUR’s events page.

  • jonobate

    While fare integration is important, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that long-distance express services are priced differently from regional local services, as is the case in the Caltrain/Amtrak example used in the post.

    Services achieve the best farebox recovery when passenger load is even across the length of the line, which allows the operator to best match equipment to passenger load with the minimum of excess capacity. The easiest way to achieve a constant passenger load is to encourage passengers to take trips the entire length of the line rather than just short hops.

    This is why Amtrak from San Jose to Oakland, which is approx. 29% of the way to Sacramento, costs 42.5% of the fare to Sacramento. An equivalent journey might be Caltrain from San Jose to Mountain view, which is approx. 26% of the way to San Francisco, and costs 59% of the fare to San Francisco. Both services overprice short hops in order to maximize farebox recovery.

    You can be sure that the for-profit HSR operator will take a similar approach, and will price San Jose – San Francisco much higher than the same journey on Caltrain. And that’s fine – it’ll be a faster service with a guaranteed seat, so it should be priced higher.

    What’s important is that you should be able to go to one website and buy a single ticket from (say) Los Angeles to Palo Alto, changing from HSR to Caltrain at San Jose; and that ticket should cost less than the cost of both tickets purchased individually. And if you want to travel from San Jose to San Francisco, that website should give you the option of taking either Caltrain or HSR, with the HSR ticket priced higher and probably tied to a specific train, and the Caltrain ticket cheaper and allowing you to take any train.

  • jonobate

    Here’s an example from London. The express train from Heathrow to Paddington costs £25; the local train costs £10.30; both are shown if you search for the journey on the National Rail site.

    http://ojp.nationalrail.co.uk/service/timesandfares/Heathrow_Terminal_3/PAD/041017/0830/dep https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7726d2b2e8da8d835631007753458cdf50e1cb78f45398e1a6e159c9fd12dc17.png

  • jltulock

    This plan is pure blended bull s. It presents a vision that has no monetary backing and no method to achieve implementation. Furthermore the state has fragmented rail planning to local fiefdoms that are eroding the usefulness of intercity rail as a statewide network all the while claiming a state rail plan based on a statewide vision. There is no resolving this fundamental disconnect. Further the plan is based on a high speed rail system as the fundamental backbone of California rail. There is no consideration of a rail future where speed rail is not built. Another fundamental disconnect with the realities of the mounting failures at that agency.

  • John Murphy

    Comparing Caltrain to the Naperville line is amusing. That line runs very one directionally and almost all AM destinations are at the end of the line (there are nonstop trains from naperville). Caltrain runs full in both directions and with longer windows of use. This means that freight can’t run with anywhere near the frequency as seen on the Naperville line.

  • John Murphy

    not to mention freight coming to/from Chicago through Naperville can be coming from all sorts of places that ship a lot of stuff, very seamlessly. Caltrain’s line runs into a single big trunk going south

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Handy hint: any example of anything from the English-speaking world is an example of Doing It Wrong.

    In particular, it is hilarious to hold up anything associated with the UK’s rail “system” as an example of anything, aside from “they speak English, just like me, and they’re marginally less insane the USA in some marginal ways.”

  • ZA_SF

    I fondly remember leaving a friend’s flat in suburban Fribourg, walking to a bus stop, having an interactive touch-screen credit-swipe ticketing system with my language of choice, and purchasing a fully integrated ticket for the day’s trip to suburban Zurich over a bus-train-tram-bus combination. It wasn’t particularly expensive either, and I wasn’t subject to shut-out times in case my trip plan changed.

    Folks, this was over a decade ago.

    I’d like to think all our Silicon Valley talent can sort this out, too bad they’re more fixated on ‘disrupting’ transit than weaving together a solution for all.

  • ZA_SF

    The real question is whether the rail services are reliable enough to make good on the 11 minute/UKP14.70 difference.

  • Vooch

    video of Munich commuter stations which has similar integrated system –


    compare to video of a SoCal commuter station which is a dystopian nightmare of car storage


  • Michael Escobar

    And also, where is the heavy manufacturing or shipping activity on the Caltrain corridor? If anything, the Naperville example is more relevant to Capitol Corridor, what with the Sacramento area’s manufacturing and the Port of Oakland.

  • Harris

    And yet here you are, in the land of the free with its crappy transit, rather than this impossibly perfect socialist world over the ocean.

    Funny that. I guess maybe you don’t like paying 60% taxes and having a nanny state tell you which doctor you have to see.

  • Harris

    It’s 12 minutes difference and yes they are reliable. But if you need T5 (BA) then the Express is direct while the Connect means a change, so in practice it takes twice as long

    If you need T4, the “slower ” Connect can actually be quicker

  • ZA_SF

    Nice Jon Snow impression.

  • DrunkEngineer

    You can be sure that the for-profit HSR operator will will price San Jose – San Francisco much higher than the same journey on Caltrain. From their point of view, every passenger who rides between San Jose and San Francisco is taking up a seat they could otherwise sell to someone who wants to ride between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

    People traveling between LA and SF will be on the non-stop express, which doesn’t stop at SJ. There is no issue with a Caltrain passenger taking one of those seats, unless they board the wrong train.

    The train that does stop at SF, SJ, etc will (in most cases) be a milk-run train, making local stops. The “for-profit” operator is going to have a hell of a time filling those seats as it is,. So it would be idiotic to turn then away Caltrain commuters for the tail-end of the route just because there is a different logo painted on the side of the train.

    that website should give you the option of taking either Caltrain or
    HSR, with the HSR ticket priced higher and probably tied to a specific
    train, and the Caltrain ticket priced cheaper and allowing you to take
    any train.

    Here’s a much better idea: the customer has a ticket good for SJ-SF travel and they board the next available train. One single ticket, one single fare scheme.

  • Harris


  • jonobate

    No. With realistic ridership and service levels, it won’t make financial sense to do non-stop SF-LA runs, as the passengers who decide not to take the service due to the additional dwell time will be less than the passengers gained from making the additional stops. That won’t be true for every intermediate station, but it will be true for stronger ridership stations such as San Jose.

    If the for-profit operator has a hell of a time filling seats on the “milk-run”, it simply won’t run the train. But, there is a middle ground between all stop “milk-runs” and no-stop expresses, which is where most trains will fall. A lot of trains will make all stops in the Bay Area and LA Basin, where the time penalty for stopping is less due to slower speeds, but express through the lower ridership/higher speed stations in the Central Valley.

    You don’t need to take my word for this. The 2016 HSR Business Plan assumes fares of $23 between SF and SJ, and no non-stop express trains between SF and LA.




  • DrunkEngineer

    Yes, we are all quite aware of the CHSRA “plan” which has been heavily criticized for this very reason. It is a prime example of what happens when an insular transit agency thinks only of its very narrow needs — as opposed to a more holistic approach that looks at the entire transportation system.

  • jonobate

    You’re not making an argument simply by saying “CHSRA sucks”. Can you point to a non-US example of end-to-end non-stop HSR service? If it’s done anywhere I suspect it will only be on very high ridership/high capacity lines, or lines without any significant intermediate cities.

    The original CHSRA plan, before they revised down their ridership and service projections, had non-stop trains between SF and LA. It was not surprising to me that those were eliminated because of the reasons noted previously. I would suspect further modifications to the CHSRA plan might include elimination of the trains terminating at San Jose, which also don’t make much sense economically and clearly only exist due to capacity limits on the Caltrain line.

  • Affen_Theater

    The Port of Redwood City is home to the Peninsula Freight Rail Users Group (PFRUG).

    Here’s a 2009 press release: http://www.redwoodcityport.com/p7iq/html/TrackImprove_pressrelease.htm

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Man, you are even dumber as “Harris” than you were as “RichLL”. One thing is clear: you’ve never been anywhere near Switzerland. You probably think “ein ticket fur alles” was the Soviet national anthem.

  • Harris

    Au contraire, asswipe, I lived in both Basle and Zurich.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Can you point to a non-US example of end-to-end non-stop HSR service?

    I’m not sure what you’re asking…there are gazillions of examples; i.e. if you take a TGV out of Paris (say to Grenbole or Lyon) it usually does not make any intermediate stops within the Paris metro region.

    The original CHSRA plan, before they revised down their ridership and service projections…

    Well that’s what happens when there is no connection southern Calif (at least within our lifetime). It will now be just a central valley commuter train, with HSR promoters openly boasting about turning Fresno and Madera into Silicon Valley commuter cities. Despite what Prop 1a might say, this will require large subsidies. Meanwhile. Peninsula commuters don’t get subsidized — in fact they have to pay extra to use the train.

  • Comparing SF to SJC on Caltrain to OKJ to SJC on Capitol Corridor is not apples to apples. Caltrain is a purely commuter service, while Capitol Corridor is a traveler and commuter service. If you travel from SAC to SJC, it adds only $11 ($29 to $40) to the SAC to OKJ fare, comparable to the Caltrain fare. On Capitol Corridor and other Amtrak services, the further you go the less it is per mile. SAC to DAV, a 15 minute ride, is $9 (!), but I use it because it is the only public transportation option early morning and evening. @ jonobate also talks about these issues.

    Otherwise, good post with a lot to think about. Integrated service is something we should always be moving towards, even if all the kinks haven’t been worked out yet. I have mixed feeling about single fare station to station, no matter the carrier. Makes it simple for the rider, but different services cost different amounts to operate. If it is a single fare, how does that difference get handled?

  • Dan Brenner

    Could anyone tell me why is it that Golden Gate Transit cancelled the 40/42 service from Richmond BART to the San Rafael Transit center? Especially since it was a nice and easy link between these two transit areas? Especially since here is this article about transit coordination? This is very frustrating, especially if I want to connect to SMART to go to Santa Rosa and Marin, and even more so when SMART runs earlier trains on the weekends!!!!

  • You nailed it. Somehow, products of the tech industry see public works projects like transit as the enemy of free enterprise and seem to loath any investment that might compete with their model of perpetually disrupting any given market to make new fortunes on the backs of consumers. Rail transit, it’s proven, it works, don’t disrupt it, make it better.



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