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On a Roll

By Paul Bendix

About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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Uploaded: Dec 16, 2013
Caltrain is back in the news ? perhaps the 'right news,' if not exactly good news ? that the line is straining to keep up with demand. Of course, this is hardly news to riders.

Board virtually any rush-hour train these days, and you'll get the idea. Many commuters are standing. Bike spaces are full. Passengers crouch in the baggage and wheelchair spaces, hang out in the vestibule, crowd the aisles. Caltrain's riders are grumbling?and so should everyone else. Believe me, we are all in this together.

Which is a tough sell in this hyper-individualistic era. But, yes, Caltrain's difficulties affect everyone in the region. When the commuter line reaches capacity, its overflow?flows right back onto the roads. The same traffic-clogged roads everyone complains about. If you are a commuter, or simply a local resident, there is no ignoring Caltrain.

Yet many on the Peninsula do. Thousands never board the trains at all. The problem with this appears on voting day. The interdependence of rails and roads isn't always apparent. Nor is it clear that a vote for Caltrain is a vote for quality-of-life.

Not that voters get to have their say on the commuter line very often. Caltrain still has no clear source of funding. While its physical structure keeps advancing, its governmental structure hasn't changed in decades. So ridership booms, funding sags, and every few years Caltrain runs into a very predictable crisis.

Is this any way to run a railroad? I am not sure what a better way is ? only that Caltrain's 60,000 regular commuters hold much of the answer. They know the line, understand its worth and are best equipped to inform the public.

The public needs informing. With Caltrain, a little knowledge is particularly dangerous. Friends who take weekend trains to baseball games, for example, don't know that rush-hour expresses run twice as fast. Few grasp what electrifying the line ? in about five years ? will mean in terms of service. The high-tech signal and control system under construction will allow trains to run faster than today's 79 mph limit. They will run farther too, another mile and a half to the new Transbay Center in the Financial District.

Until the 1990s, Caltrain was the only suburban rail line operating west of Chicago. Most of us don't have much frame of reference for commuter trains. All the more important to stay informed ? and keep dreaming of a better transit future.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Ken, a resident of another community,
on Dec 17, 2013 at 2:33 pm

My wife and I rode Caltrain yesterday from Sunnyvale to 4th and King. We took the 8:13 am up and the 3:37 pm back. The trains were clean and efficient. The staff did their jobs well. Yes, the trains were full but not uncomfortably full.

I ride up to the city two or three times a month like this and usually have a good experience. It is a joy to sit and read the paper while seeing the cars stopped in traffic on various peninsula roads.

Many of us use Caltrain and recognize its value to our community. Hopefully more will come to see the value and get out of their cars. I look forward to the signal and control system upgrade, the possible availability of wi-fi in the cars and the eventual electrification of the system which will make it cleaner, faster and quieter. All of this will increase the value of this system and help pave the way to high speed rail here in California.

As we are approaching the 150th anniversary of peninsula rail service we need to firm up the sources of funding for Caltrain and help to carry the valuable resource into the future for the benefit of us all.

Posted by Richard, a resident of another community,
on Dec 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm

The electrification of Caltrain will bring a host of upgrades. Not only will the trains be quieter, faster, safer and cleaner, but they will be easier to board. The new trains will have level boarding with no steps. That will make it easer for bike riders and the elderly, and will make wheelchair access much faster. Right now it takes 2-3 minutes for the conductors to load/unload someone in a wheelchair via a clumsy elevator that they unlock and move into place. I just hope that problems with the high speed rail project don't delay or kill the Caltrain upgrade.

Posted by Jack Hickey, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Dec 22, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Why not raise fares? That will:
a. reduce congestion to a manageable level, and;
b. raise money for upgrades.

Posted by Norman, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 11:20 am

The trains are scalable, ie another car can be added for a minimal cost. There are usually five coach cars, move it up to six. Ta-da!

Posted by Ed Von Nordeck, a resident of another community,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Are funds available to lease surplus cars from Los Angeles Metrolink?

Same type cars as used on the Baby Bullets.

Posted by max, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 7:01 pm

The problem with Norman's comment is that the platforms cannot accommodate longer trains. Some cars would be past the platform.

Posted by Clem, a resident of another community,
on Dec 24, 2013 at 12:56 pm

All Caltrain platforms can accommodate at least six cars. Today's trains run with five cars.

Posted by Ben, a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks,
on Dec 24, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Indeed, there is quite a bit of poorly informed commentary with respect to Caltrain, and the electrification of Caltrain.

First, electrifying Caltrain does mean that Caltrain will terminate in the hole in San Francisco known as the TransBay Terminal. TheTransBay Terminal was in real need of updating, that is for certain. The hugely expensive underground High Speed Rail Station, which Caltrain would get to use, is a classic example of a public works project with little or no public support. Accordingly, the strategy was, and still is, to dig as deep a hole as possible (literally and figuratively), to which the only solution is to fill it in with more money. Since the funds to tunnel Caltrain to the new TransBay terminal never have existed, and still do not exist, it's a multi billion dollar unfunded political fantasy at this point.

Second, the billion dollars needed to electrify Caltrain will not move more people, more trains will move people. More trains will alleviate the overcrowded trains many of us have experienced, not faster trains, though faster trains would be nice. The unfortunate aspect of that solution is that more trains means more train crossing bell noise, more train horn noise, and more traffic congestion at crossings with more crossing gate down time. As pointed out in this thread, adding extra cars could work, if station platforms were long enough to accommodate the longer trains. Menlo Park is a very good example of the potential traffic congestion that would be caused by a long train that extended onto Oak Grove and/or Ravenswood during stops at that station.

The solution to either longer or more frequent trains is a fully separated rail line, like BART. With a fully separated rail system, traffic congestion at rail crossings is eliminated, at least that caused by the train crossings. Station platforms could probably be extended to accommodate longer trains. Unfortunately, this 'solution' is terribly expensive. Electrifying Caltrain is a roughly $1B job, a fully separated rail line between SF and AJ would no doubt be many times that cost.

Third, the much talked about dedicated funding of Caltrain is the rallying cry of Caltrain boosters, and what's not to like? A constant flow of tax dollars at the disposal of the Joint Powers Board to squander as they see fit. I believe that the fact that Caltrain does NOT have a guaranteed flow of tax dollars forces them to use their dollars wiser than most other mass transit operations. In spite of constant budget woes, somehow the leader(s) of Caltrain manage to pull down compensation packages close to $500,000, if I recall news stories from a few years ago. Think about it, half a million dollars to run a train back and forth between only two points, really?! BART is often held up as an operating model Caltrain should emulate, especially the guaranteed revenue part of BART. BART is one of the most expensive rail systems to build and operate anywhere in the country. BART has no incentive to keep costs under control, why would they?, the tax payers are obligated to pay their bills. Perhaps closer to home is the VTA light rail project Championed by Rod Diridon. I believe it's another directly tax subsidized mass transit project that recovers a small portion of its true costs at the fare box. By comparison, Caltrain which recovers about 50% of it's operating costs at the fare box, is a model of efficiency!

Posted by Martin, a resident of another community,
on Dec 30, 2013 at 12:11 pm

6 car trains would fit on most stops. Sure, perhaps not at Menlo Park, but there are few cheap options.
1) Block the street for 1-2 mins when a train stops there (remember, not all do.) In the morning 5/10 trains stop there, and not all trains will have the extra car.
2) Could remove baby bullet stop
3) Close one of the two crossings flanking the station. A crossing was closed in Burlingame, and world didn't end.
3) Encourage Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Atherton to discuss grade separation.

In the end, neither of these 5 options is a showstopper for MP, and would benefit all peninsula riders.

Posted by Lisa, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Jan 31, 2014 at 11:44 am

I don't understand this comment about why we can't add extra cars - trains at the Menlo Park station do not currently take up the whole platform and there is room for additional cars to be added. The engine car doesn't need to line up at the platform since people don't board it, and the street is blocked anyway when trains are at the station, so it can just hang out at the crossing without any additional impact on traffic at all.

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