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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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How to Speed Caltrain

Uploaded: Apr 3, 2014
Use it. That is the interim answer to speeding Caltrain service from Menlo Park.

As for the long run: support electrification.

Why? Consider today's diesel Baby Bullet trains between San Jose and San Francisco. These expresses take about one hour and average four stops. With fast-accelerating electric trains, the 60-minute run could include 12 stops.

Either way, today or tomorrow, Caltrain will go where the business is. That's why use matters.

Since 2013 the commuter line's ridership has increased by 12%, according to latest passenger counts. The numbers also show where demand is growing fastest. San Mateo, Sunnyvale, San Francisco and Palo Alto saw the biggest leap in passenger boardings. Menlo Park's ridership grew, but at a rate slower than many other communities. For example, boardings at San Mateo were up 17.8% last year. That compares with 9.3% for Menlo Park.

Who cares? Caltrain's schedulers do. What else do they have to go on? The Caltrain schedule reflects the system's use. Menlo Park's station saw an average of 142 more passengers daily. If this relatively small number doubled, ours would be the fastest-growing Caltrain stop.

The more our ridership grows, the more leverage Menlo Park passengers have in thrashing out a new schedule. The current timetable has been in force for about a year and a half.

There's another way for riders to 'vote with their Caltrain tickets:' use the weekend Baby Bullets. Currently, these expresses run from the Palo Alto and Redwood City stations. Operating twice daily, they cut the travel time to San Francisco/San Jose by about 40%. If you find yourself using these Saturday and Sunday express trains, north or south, let Caltrain know via email. Tell them you rode a weekend Bullet, and you're from Menlo Park.

Saturday and Sunday expresses are also pleasantly uncrowded, except for ballgame days. That can't be said for the weekday rush hour trains, of course. Many expresses are now standing room only. With the system bursting at the seams, Caltrain is reportedly searching for new cars. It's also working with employers to vary start times, spreading out commute hours.

Until Caltrain electrifies – within the next few years – the rail service will operate under strain. Meanwhile, be patient. Keep riding the rails. And whenever possible, ride them from Menlo Park.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of another community,
on Apr 5, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Good post. The same is true in Palo Alto where I live.

Use is growing and we can support electrification and an independent funding source for CalTrain and, in the meantime, vote with our use as Paul suggests.

Posted by peninsula resident, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School,
on Apr 5, 2014 at 2:33 pm

> Use it. That is the interim answer to speeding Caltrain service from Menlo Park.
> As for the long run: support electrification.

There are so many other, better, ways to accomplish improved caltrain travel times and service:

1) Caltrain's funding plan depends on money from Prop 1a. That funding looks very unlikely, and as a result Caltrain is doing the Bay Area a real disservice by intentionally making that their plan A, B, C and D for improving Caltrain service (primarily improving travel times, among other things). No Prop 1a = no HSR = no Caltrain electrification.

2) Caltrain can improve travel times by replacing their cars with lighter cars, and do the same for the trains. They already have equipment that is at/near end-of-life, so it's no like this will require new monies, unlike Electrification;

3) Caltrain can improve travel times by modifying stops so boarding is at-grade. That will making boarding/unboarding faster for everyone, particularly for the disabled.

4) BART uses diesel trains in parts of the East Bay, and saw a 40% reduction in costs.

5) Instead of trying to get money for electrification, Caltrain should try to work with communities to:
a) (partially) trench the tracks;
b) add a 3rd track;

The 3rd track will make it easier to run bullet trains while still supporting local service; trenching will help promote traffic flow throughout the peninsula and south bay. Our traffic problems are only going to get worse, even with improved caltrain service (actually, more caltrain service will make traffic worse, by stopping traffic through crossings more often).

6) The loss of thousands of trees is indefensibly stupid;

There are much better ways to improve caltrain than the approach promoted by caltrain.

Posted by casey, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks,
on Apr 7, 2014 at 8:59 pm

I really don't understand why the electrification of CalTrain is held up as the salvation for the well used, but poorly financed (or managed as many could argue). Peninsula Resident makes many excellent points about some of what I consider to be the myths of an electrified CalTrain. Peninsula Resident also accurately points out that much or most of the $1.5B CalTrain wants to electrify, may never appear, then what? CalTrain and their fan club would have us believe that they will continue to suffer, pollute, be slow, noisy etc. When electrified, I doubt they will be managed any better than they are now, more trains will mean more gate down time, more cross traffic congestion, more horn and bell noise and probably more train/car and train/person collisions. Why?? Well, as anyone, except Caltrain apparently, knows, faster trains run in dense urban environments cry out for a fully separated system which means grade separations all along the Peninsula. Expensive, sadly yes, but personally, I would rather see a fully grade separated Caltrain than an electrified CalTrain any day.

Posted by peninsula resident, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School,
on Apr 8, 2014 at 10:15 pm

> I would rather see a fully grade separated Caltrain than an electrified CalTrain any day.

Exactly. Trenching and adding a 3rd track is a good compromise in my book. The 3rd track makes the logistics of running more bullet trains and local service feasible, and the trenching allows traffic to flow.

I agree it's not cheap, but the economic and quality-of-life costs will be much higher in the long run.

And besides, it's not like digging would be unique to the peninsula. If caltrain (and HSR, though that's unlikely) goes to the Transbay Terminal, trenching in comparison is a pittance. Tunneling under a metropolis is much, much more expensive than surface trenching.

Posted by peninsula resident, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School,
on Apr 8, 2014 at 10:19 pm

Also, trenching makes blowing the horn unnecessary.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Apr 9, 2014 at 2:04 pm

There is an interesting power point from the "India Railways Fan Club" comparing diesel to electric trains:

Web Link

One surprising conclusion they had was that diesel was significantly more efficient than electricity, due to transmission losses. I'd like to see that evaluated with California's grid, but it's a surprising conclusion. (I think India generates electricity with coal, so that may impact the results.) Diesel really is electric, but with the generator on-board.

If it's true, then I'm rather hesitant to cut down that many trees in order to accommodate electrification.

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