Beyond Commuter Rail

Clock-face schedules, frequent off-peak service, timed transfers are key to maximizing use of rail infrastructure

A photoshopped rendering of an electric Caltrain. Image: Bay Rail Alliance
A photoshopped rendering of an electric Caltrain. Image: Bay Rail Alliance

Note: Metropolitan Shuttle, a leader in bus shuttle rentals, regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog Los Angeles. Unless noted in the story, Metropolitan Shuttle is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

What is BART anyway?

“Would you put BART in the category of Berlin’s S-Bahn, or New York’s Long Island Railroad, or LA’s Metrolink, or LA Metro, the NY subway, the Paris Métro, the Washington Metro?” asked Alon Levy, transport guru, analyst of transit systems around the world, blogger and Streetsblog contributor, at the ‘Beyond Commuter Rail’ talk yesterday evening at Remix in San Francisco.

“Answering this question is relevant for deciding what to build,” he said. The talk was arranged by Friends of Caltrain, the San Francisco Transit Riders, and Seamless Bay Area, a new advocacy group that aims to better integrate the Bay Area’s disparate transit systems.

The world’s metropolitan transit services, explained Levy, are generally classified into two types: urban rail and regional rail, as seen in the diagram of German “U-Bahn”(urban) and “S-Bahn” (regional) services seen below:

Urban Rail, diagrammed on the left, and Regional Rail, diagrammed on right, with its characteristic branch and trunk lines. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Knowing which type helps planners decide how to emulate best practices from rail systems in other cities.

Urban Rail, he explained, generally has overlapping lines and tight stop spacing. Regional Rail, on the other hand, has several branches with less frequent service in more suburban areas. The branches combine into a single trunk which has frequent service.

The best examples of Regional Rail, he said, are the Paris Réseau Express Régional (RER) and the S-Bahn in Germany.


And BART clearly looks like Regional Rail–with multiple lines feeding into a central trunk–but with one enormous handicap.

Regional Rail such as the RER normally shares track with freights and mainline trains on the branches. Subways tunnels and full grade separation are reserved only for the urban core trunk lines. But to do that means “…regional rail has to be compatible with mainline trains,” he said.

And that greatly reduces construction costs and increases the overall reach of the system into the outer suburbs.

But BART was built using non-standard gauge trains. That’s why BART extensions are extremely expensive, since BART can’t exploit existing tracks.

“BART cannot share tracks, so construction costs farther out are akin to the construction of above-ground metro extensions. Instead of just hooking into Caltrain on the west side or one of the commuter systems on the East side, they are spending quite a lot of money getting to Berryessa,” said Levy.

He added that huge elevated viaducts are ridiculously expensive and totally unwarranted out in low density suburbs. Tunnels, such as those planned for the BART extension into San Jose, are even more ridiculous. “Sorry San Jose, but you’re not that dense,” he said.

Because BART uses non standard trains, its branch lines cannot extend on existing rail systems. Photo: City of Richmond
Because BART uses non-standard trains, its branch lines cannot extend on existing rail systems and it’s necessary to build duplicate and incompatible infrastructure. Photo: City of Richmond

The implication is that moving forward, Caltrain, with its standard-gauge equipment, is going to have to operate more like BART–or the RER or S-Bahn–and branch out onto additional lines, perhaps via a rebuilt Dumbarton Bridge, to become a transit system that operates on both sides of the Bay. “Dumbarton should be as an electrified regional rail corridor. It’s near Facebook!” said Levy.

That also means if San Francisco builds more subway lines, such as under Geary, they should be compatible with Caltrain, not BART.

The Caltrain electrification project will be a first step towards a more Regional Rail-style operation, akin to the RER or S-Bahn, since trains will  accelerate much faster and, it is hoped, run more frequently and reliably.

So Caltrain is moving in the right direction. However, much of it will be for naught if they don’t actually change their operations.

Paris RER trains operate as subways in the urban core, and then branch out onto lines that are shared with freight and intercity trains in the suburbs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Paris RER trains operate as subways in the urban core and then branch out onto lines that are shared with freight and intercity trains in the suburbs. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Key to that, he explained, is going to clock-face schedules all day long–meaning trains will run on a predictable timetable. So if a train leaves at 1:15, there’s also a train at 2:15, 3:15 and so on. And they have to increase frequency–dramatically, especially off-peak. “It helps for planning. The Swiss say we just plan one hour, and then use the same plan every hour,” he said.

During rush hour they might run slightly more trains, but they should also look at just running longer trains, to keep those schedules consistent. That will also dictate the design of infrastructure, since planned train frequency tells the planners and engineers where to build passing tracks, how to construct their signals, and where to add more station capacity.

“What is the biggest problem with increasing frequency? Operating costs,” Levy explained.

Running a train that doesn’t have a lot of passengers late at night still generates more revenue than leaving it in the yard doing nothing. But the problem is the cost of “Fare collection, because they have conductors on Caltrain. Traditionally a conductor would sell you tickets, or punch your tickets,” he said.

But in the age of electronic ticketing, this is just a waste of money. “Caltrain still has a conductor and an assistant conductor… Paris and Berlin trains just have a driver.” Levy said the key is to have roving inspectors and a proof-of-payment system. “But civilians, not cops. Save them for investigating murders.”

It’s also essential to integrate the fare collection and prices in disparate systems (and that also dictates station design). He cited Millbrae as an example of how not to build a transit station. Firstly, the Caltrain and BART schedules need to be coordinated so people can transfer. But, he said, the fare gates between the two systems have to go. Fare gates cost money and in the age of electronic ticketing, they just aren’t necessary except in downtown. “If you tore down the barriers between BART and Caltrain at Millbrae it would cost less overall.” (And let’s get rid of the barriers between Muni and BART while we’re at it).

London rail and bus services are run by multiple operators, but the fares are the same–and integrated–across all trains and buses. Image: London Transport

“You need a regional fare system. That means zones,” he said. “Maybe there’s an SF zone, where everybody gets free transfers between BART, Muni, and Caltrain—fares should be the same. Maybe you have two zones for San Francisco, with a downtown and a rest-of-city zone.”

In European cities, that fare integration is almost without limits. In France or Germany, for example, if there’s a long-distance train that happens to be stopping at a station in the suburb, and you have the right zone pass, you can get on it for your journey into the city center. “In some German cities you can even get on a high-speed train with an S-Bahn ticket,” he explained, adding that you might have to stand or pay extra to reserve a seat.

Might it be possible someday to ride an electrified Amtrak from Richmond, pictured three photos above, to Oakland with a Clipper card, for the same fare as BART?

To Levy, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes.’ “Planning should emphasize connections between different things,” he said. “And fare integration applies to everything.”

Levy addressing the crowd on transit best practices as Tuesday evening’s talk. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
  • Andy Chow

    Seems like BART is heeding his advice: BART’s thinking is that if the DMU line runs as frequently as the main yellow line and offers timed, cross-platform, barrier-free connection with it, then it is the yellow line.

  • Sounds lovely and we’ve heard this all before over the past 3 decades, but city leaders/supervisors don’t seem to be on board at all with transit. Heck, we can’t even get Caltrain to the $2B+ delayed, over budget transit center.
    Suffice it to say, it you want stellar transit then live in a place that already has it because it ain’t gonna happen here any time soon.

  • Michael Escobar

    Amtrak has enough trouble sharing track with freight. The Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, Southwest Chief are routinely delayed because of track congestion. Isn’t the Capitol Corridor subject to the same problem? I’ve heard that there is statute providing for Amtrak trains to have priority but the railroads who own the track consistently fail to uphold their obligations. Is this true? And if true, wouldn’t BART’s speed and on-time performance be severely compromised by inter-operation with freight rail?

  • Jeff

    This is pretty much true.

    Further on many freight lines, the volume is not high enough to make the utilization of those freight lines fully economical – this also prevents enabling better dual use because there is a struggle to boost the utilization by giving freight priority.

    One obvious solution: make commuter trains “dual use” for certain types of freight (e.g. not hazardous materials) to increase the commuter and freight utilization by adding “light freight” cars to commuter trains.

    This doesn’t work as well for heavy freight or hazmat freight but there are lots of rail lines that do NOT carry these and need higher utilization as a business economic imperative.

    The better solution for high utilization freight lines would be to modify freight right-of-ways to accommodate both freight and commuter trains on separate tracks. It is 100% technically feasible to use the same right-of-ways with viaducts or tunnels dedicated to commuter trains. The issues are leadership and economics to bootstrap it. This could even enable a mix of freight, local commuter train and high-speed fail lines on existing right-of-ways.

    And mixed-use light freight could still be applied as a buffer to soak up the existing diesel-cost variability that diverts freight between trucks and rail today.

    But these have never been explored because the current owners of the right-of-ways don’t have an incentive for it nor a way of sharing costs to enable it.

    I and some lawyer friends have been studying up on the laws around freight rail and Amtrak as well to see how these could be implemented.

    As to BART, they really need to work on a “density” play in the Bay Area proper right now and let others do the “commuter rail” play at the periphery. BART can’t do it all and shouldn’t try. In the BART space, they need to have more transbay tubes, an express/local system to speed end-to-end transit and greater line redundancy to ease loads and improve system reliability.

  • Alan

    The problem is that the US is still parochial. I don’t see many neighboring regions let alone states collaborating on fare systems. There are minor examples of integration like WMATA which are a good start but could be much better.

  • Michael Escobar

    We already have enough fragmentation of transit in the bay area. Why break up BART into “core” and “peripheral” systems? We need one regional transit brand, one fare structure, and synchronized schedules. MTC should be making sure that ACE, Capitol Corridor, Caltrain, and BART all play nice and don’t duplicate service. Why is there no connection station for transfers between ACE and BART? Why does a transfer from BART to Caltrain at Millbrae take 10-20 minutes?

  • Jeff

    The reason why separation is needed is that economics of each of these is night-and-day different. Note: that’s different from regional coordination – the Bay Area badly needs region-wide coordination but not region-wide control. A tsar will screw it up worse because it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.

    Urban core strategy must be optimized to/with high density (yeah SB 827!) because only with density do you hit the best economies of scales in any transit system in terms of cost and use.

    Suburbs can never generate the same scaling in the same way – density is not the answer. Instead suburbs need maximum connectivity to other systems and networks – that’s the only competitive and economic value possible because of the low density and distance. The entire business model, infrastructure planning and has to be different.

    What is optimal for one scenario is pretty much non-optimal for the other. In general, bureaucracies can barely handle just one model of operation well so it’s better to focus strategy by specific advantages, that coordinates to one vision, but implements with the optimal economic/business model. Expecting a bureaucracy to do more than one thing well is a recipe for failure.

    Loose confederation with a centralized vision and rules to require a handful of key features being “most implements” is best. The shared features include things like universal IC/clipper card interoperability, standards and requirements for inter-ties/connections/transfers, signage/navigation, etc. for all but all doing what is best for the particular system.

    Most of your items are the “interface” and “customer service” issues that should be shared. These indeed should be 100% transparent and convenient to the user. Most other things (including particular fare schedules) have to be economics centric and separately decided by the particular network/system running it. The reason being, economics are different and the price/cost equations are different.

  • crazyvag

    One issue for Amtrak is that some sidings are not long enough for freight train, so Amtrak by default gets to wait.

  • Wanderer

    Before grand schemes, let’s get Caltrain’s many years old electrification project done.

    Also don’t forget that over half of the Bay Area’s transit rides are made by bus.

  • LazyReader

    Instead of spending billions for what amounts to a decade of work; tunnels, transbay tubes, rail overhaul, electrification. San Francisco’s BART runs roughly parallel to the areas too biggest highways, 80 and 580. Silicon Valley already uses buses, to shuttle their employees to and from daily. A single freeway lane carrying 2,000 cars an hour with a rush-hour
    average of 1.1 persons per car, there is no reason why freeway lanes
    have to be limited to cars. A freeway lane dedicated to buses is capable
    of moving 1,200 buses per hour safely spaced six bus lengths apart.

    Using 80-seat, double-decker buses such as those used in Las Vegas, that
    lane could move 96,000 people per hour, without even counting standees.
    San Francisco can help alleviate it’s traffic problems with various measures NONE OF which requires decades of construction.
    – charging single occupancy driver congestion fees in it’s most
    congested roads particularly during Rush Hour and use the money to
    repair their crumbling roads and bridges and tunnels and have fixed
    legislation so this money won’t be pilfered by the Rail Transit agencies.
    – Improve traffic signal coordination to move more vehicles per hour.
    – Deregulate the transit industry and allow private sector services options to move passengers.
    – Convert County’s HOV lanes into HOV/HOT lanes. Carpool lanes are poorly utilized in the US and California allows single occupancy electric car drivers to use the carpool lanes.
    – offer tax incentives for lower income residents who use their cars to shuttle people (Slugging)
    – Let private engineering firms build their own tunnels and toll lanes.
    – Encourage urban cycling, 1,000 cyclers means 1,000 fewer cars.
    – Buses on light rail schedules: Paint a boring bus in fancy livery and run them at the 5-10 minute intervals………paint is cheaper than trains

  • Michael Escobar

    Thanks, I wasn’t aware of this. Would it also be correct to say that freight railroads are operating trains which are too long for available sidings, therefore artificially creating the “necessity” for Amtrak to be delayed?

  • crazyvag

    Yes, that’s also the case. And I’m sure not all sidings are too short either since freight trains do need to pass each other as well.

    One example is the siding in Newark, CA (west of Fremont, CA and north of Alviso, CA). There are two sidings there – both short – and I’ve had the pleasure of waiting there on Amtrak while a longer freight train passes.

  • donnie drumpf

    This is all fine and good but the jurisdictional regulations around the bay area will never allow BART to be extended without much fanfare.

    This is what SHOULD’VE happened:

    And the fair system on caltrain is super dated. Who needs to “tag on” and “tag off”… Why can’t they go the way of NYC/London/Wash DC and print fare cards that u could slide in a turnstyle?


  • John French

    Proof of payment, with tap-on/tap-off for farecards, is widely considered to be the best practice for regional rail where stations are often simple (and inexpensive!) platforms on a surface rail line. It is much cheaper to put a few fare card readers on each platform than to design an entire station around keeping the pre- and post- fare zones separate. Compare a typical Caltrain station (a parking lot, two platforms, and a ticket machine) with a suburban BART station (a huge brutalist multistory monstrosity with a staffed ticket booth, escalators and elevators, etc.)

    London’s DLR (a “light rail” system, though it doesn’t resemble American light rail much at all) uses tap-in, rap-out proof of payment, as does most German passenger rail. BART could learn from this (perhaps following MUNI, with faregates at major/underground stations and tap-on/off on the branch lines).

  • Great logical response – I certainly can agree with your assessment. Having been a caltrain customer for yrs..I was trying to think of a way to avoid the snafu if one “forgets” to tag off (monthly pass holders), and then your card becomes not usable.

    To me, that’s a huge snafu that needs to be addressed. Also, I know its not possible in the current configuration, but putting bart/muni/caltrain on the same fare system would be a godsend.

  • John French

    I wasn’t aware that forgetting to tap off when loading a monthly pass could leave you with an unusable clipper, that is quite bad. Back when I had a caltrain monthly, I was tapping on in zone 1, so there was no ambiguity as to which zones I wanted and it would load the pass immediately.

    The solution to that is simple: instead of selling a “3 zone pass”, caltrain should sell separate “zone 1-3”, “2-4”, etc passes. That would eliminate the whole first-of-the-month charade entirely.

    Completely agree that a fully integrated zone fare system for the whole Bay Area should be the goal. A caltrain ticket which includes the SF zone (zone 1) should allow free transfers to Muni. If you instead decide to transfer to BART at Millbrae that should be the same fare too. There is no technical reason this couldn’t be done – so long as muni’s service area is all within a single fare zone (since Muni does not track tap-off). It’s a purely political problem.


The front of Kyoto Station, Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

SPUR Talk: How to Get More out of Rail

Note: Metropolitan Shuttle, a leader in bus shuttle rentals, regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog Los Angeles. Unless noted in the story, Metropolitan Shuttle is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content. “Who has been to Kyoto Station in Japan?” asked Kate White with the California State Transportation Agency during a SPUR panel this afternoon about how […]