Let's get right to the meat.
The 7:44 and 8:44 trains are a disaster. They are always late. This delays the 7:59 and 8:59. Why are they late? Dwell time is through the roof. Caltrain is surely blaming the cyclists. The conductors are surly. What is going on?
Gas prices have attracted a lot of new cyclists. The trains are packed. The new cyclists aren't really well vetted in the etiquette, they board and then block the vestibule, don't have tags, run to their bike at the last minute to de-train. These problems didn't exist as badly in the dot com era because with all trains stopping at all stops, the load was more distributed and people offloaded in pieces instead of all at once. And there was more padding in the schedule with all the stops. Caltrain, in my opinion could fix this stuff with some simple modifications.
The problem with the 8:44 is thus. It's loaded with bikes for PA and Cal Ave. And I do mean LOADED. This is the most popular train of all from what I can see. The previous train is a local to PA, and no other train stops at Cal Ave, a very popular spot. The next train stops at Menlo - some cyclists are smart enough to know that it's 5 minutes from Menlo to PA, but surprisingly most don't. I've seen PA cyclists bumped off the 8:44 wait for the 9:07 local! Or they go home and drive - even worse.
When the train gets to PA and Cal Ave, there is no way we can hit the dwell time. So many riders are getting off at PA that it takes too long. Also, riders from the other half of the split local are transferring at PA instead of Redwood City, because trying to board at RWC means you will get bumped. If you wait on the split to PA, and board there, you can get on because so many people are getting off. The train is still half full, mostly with Cal Ave bikes. The people boarding are mostly going to San Antonio and Sunnyvale, split local only stops. They can't rack their bikes because the outside bikes are all Cal Ave. The Cal Ave riders are now scrambling on because they know what a disaster getting off at Cal Ave is. So we get to Cal Ave and miss the dwell time as well. Disaster. This train is always 10 minutes late. I used to be able to set my watch by Caltrain. No more.
How to deal.
1) Do the needful to put 2 bike cars on this train EVERY day. I hear all the stories about rotation of train sets. This is a known problem train. I'm not saying put two bike cars on all trains. Just make sure there are 2 bike cars on the trainset that needs it. That is the 7:44 and 8:44.
2) Add Cal Ave to the 7:19/8:19 train. Cal Ave is a very popular stop that could use more service. I'd personally remove Menlo Park. Menlo has bullets before and after serving that population. Burlingame is another candidate. Even if the overall passenger demand for Menlo is higher than the cyclist demand, spreading the cyclist demand will get Caltrain back on time which is a win for everyone. Those who lost a train will adjust.
3) Either add a 9:14 SB bullet to PA, or switch the pattern of the 8:59 to go to PA instead of Menlo. Caltrain did all this analysis to select the bullet stops for the "A" pattern, yet they run 3 on the "B" pattern and 2 on the "A" pattern. I think the ridership and SB commute patterns would justify a 9:14 bullet and then run the 9:37 as a full local, just running the :07's as skip stop to San Bruno and the :37's full local.
4) Take advantage of the twitter feed that Ravi Pina has setup to alert cyclists to 2 bike car trains 30 minutes before departure. This is enough to sero-sort cyclists to the 2 bike car trains and spread the load.
5) For crying out loud, find the money to improve the electronic signage. The story I am told is that all signs must show the same message - they can't run individual messages. Who in the hell did they hire to do this job? Signboards like that were done as a senior project by 20% of my graduating class at Illinois - in 1986! They should be able to indicate what train is coming and what the bike car setup is. If the cyclists KNOW there are 2 bike cars, they can line up distributed and dwell time will be reduced. As it stands, the engineer holds up 2 fingers as he pulls into Mountain View, but it takes us forever to get to that train car because of the crowds on the platform, saving zero time.
6) BIKES BOARD/DETRAIN FIRST FROM THE BIKE CAR. This will get the non-cyclists to use the other doors. The nature of the bikes is that they back up in the vestibule which delays boarding. If all the cyclists were smart enough to board the rear first, it would not be so bad, but some don't know any better and some don't care (it's really nice to have your bike by the door when we arrive 22nd St at night, detraining there is a nightmare). This is a simple idea that I think would pay huge dividends. But all Caltrain can come up with is "ENTRY/EXIT" signs for the bombadiers that don't make one lick of sense and have been universally ignored.
This costs Caltrain very little money and would have huge impact, IMHO. Certainly with conditions improving, Caltrain would attract more ridership and much like widening the freeway, the problem could reappear. But to do nothing is ridiculous. I defended Caltrain tooth and nail for the last few years because I had seen them make big changes for the positive (24-32 bikes per gallery car, Baby Bullet I, Baby Bullet Reinvention) but they are sitting on their butts right now at a time when service is being demanded.
Some of these examples are specific. Some are not. None have made it into the tiny brains of the Caltrain staff, which I am now convinced is really into big capital projects (Ponderosa, Baby Bullet, Bayshore (waste) Station, new platforms at Burlingame, PA, Cal Ave) all of which have paid big dividends but could care less about simple things that would make service so much better. I almost doubt anyone working for Caltrain other than a conductor would even understand my analysis of the 8:44, let alone come up with it themselves. The conductors? Maybe 50/50. But they don't get to vote.
Public safety and the bike commute
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