By Noel T. Braymer
I wasn’t in the mood this time to ride buses for 2 night in a row for this year’s meeting in San Francisco. So I got a flight out of San Diego at 7:56 AM for an arrival at 9:35 AM at San Francisco. Since the first Coaster Train to San Diego on Saturday morning arrives at 9:36 AM it clearly wasn’t an option for getting to the airport on time. Both of my flights which flew when there was no rail service were full. This was an example of yield management at work which discounts tickets to fill seats when needed. Empty seats means lost money on planes and trains.
The meeting started at 10:30 AM. I knew I would be a little late getting to the meeting from the airport to Pier 40. It only takes 25 minutes to get from Milbrae to San Francisco by Caltrain. But to get from the airport to the Caltrain Station requires a transfer on BART. On weekends Caltrain runs once an hour and I would have to make the 10:08 AM departure for a 10:36 arrival into San Francisco.
My other option was to just catch BART at the airport and stay on it to San Francisco. To get to BART from Terminal 3 would require a ride on the AirTrain airport people mover. On Saturday I could catch BART at either 9:47 AM or 10:07 AM. On my flight we arrived into San Francisco early and then had to wait for a gate to open for us. I just missed the 9:47 BART and had to take the 10:07. This got me to the Embarcadero Station by 10:40 AM. Since my knee has been bothering me lately, instead of walking I transferred to a Muni Metro Train to get to 2nd and Townsend by the baseball park. By the time I got to the meeting it was almost 11:00 AM. Although the actual fight time was only 1 hour and 12 minutes, the time from when I left my house just before 6:00 AM until I got to the meeting was 5 hours. How I wish there was a train to get from Oceanside to San Francisco in 6 hours and get some sleep while I traveled too.
The first speaker of the morning was Dan Leavitt of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. He wears many hats working to improve service on the San Joaquin Trains, the Altamont Corridor Express or ACE Trains in the northern San Joaquin Valley and helping create the Northern California Unified Service. This will better connect the San Joaquins, ACE and Capitol Corridor trains to each other and improve tracks that they share for faster more reliable service. Mr Leavitt gave an overview of what was happening on these trains.
Next was Marian Lee who is a planner at Caltrain. She gave a presentation of Caltrain’s Modernization Program.This included plans to blend future service on Caltrain’s tracks with California High Speed Rail. She also discussed work which is starting to upgrade Caltrain’s signalling which will improve rail safety, meet Federal requirements for Positive Train Control and increase Caltrain’s track capacity. She also discussed Caltrain’s other major capital project the Electrification of Caltrain between the Transbay Terminal and Tamien Stations.
After an hour break for lunch the next speaker after 1:00 PM was Dan Richard, Chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority. Mr. Richard gave a funny and charming talk which included how he found out he have been appointed to the High Speed Rail Authority by the Governor who is a long time friend without being asked. He admitted that the High Speed Rail Authority wasn’t ready in 2008 to take on the job of building High Speed Rail. He compared the authority to a stickball team that overnight found it playing major league baseball. It was because of this that to save the High Speed Rail Project that many changes were made in the Business Plan in 2012.
A major part of the change was to incorporate improvements to other State Rail projects with High Speed Rail funding as a State Wide Rail Improvement program. With High Speed Rail also came electrification of Caltrain, improvements for ACE, the Regional Connector subway for Light Rail in downtown Los Angeles and the run- through tracks at LAUS among others.
Mr. Richard is confident the once built High Speed Rail service in California will be a success. He pointed out that Prop 1A which created the bonds for High Speed Rail calls for the trains to make an operational profit. Making enough money to pay off capital costs is a much higher bar to reach. Mr. Richard pointed out that High Speed Rail services around the world make an operational profit despite what the opponents of High Speed Rail claim. Once there is a High Speed Railroad in California operators will be willing to pay the State to run such trains according to Mr. Richard.
Mr. Richard was candid that the State can’t count on additional Federal funding for High Speed Rail. Other options to raising money are being considered. One idea being explored is to share right of way and capital expenses with the Freight Railroads to improve freight service in the Tehachapis. The plan all along has been to use mostly private financing not tax money once the High Speed Rail Project got started. Mr Richard also noted that some of the biggest supporters of High Speed Rail are the airlines. With traffic constraints at major airports, airlines are more interested in flying transcontinental and international flights than corridor services which can be run more economically with High Speed Rail.
After Dan Richards we had a discussion by consulting engineer Jerry Cauthen on solutions to bottlenecks on the East Bay. A big problem is road and BART connections between the East Bay, Peninsula and San Francisco are at capacity and new tunnels or bridges will be very expense. One cost effective solution would be to repair and upgrade the existing Dumbarton rail bridge crossing to run ACE, Caltrain and Capitol Corridor Trains.
The last but not least speaker was Bob Stewart, Chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP). Mr. Stewart went to great lengths to emphasis that NARP was interested in the future of Long Distance Trains and was a national organization, not just a Northeast Corridor organization. He talked about the problems of the Southwest Chief that the BNSF doesn’t want rerouted through Amarillo or to pay to continue paying the maintenance between Albuquerque and Newton. He criticized Amtrak for their cost estimates for extending the Sunset from New Orleans to Florida which greatly discourage efforts to bring the Sunset back to Florida. Mr. Stewart introduced Larry Scott of NARP from San Diego. Mr. Scott gave his opinion that he thought Amtrak knows they are failing.
After 3:00 PM when the meeting ended I planned on having plenty of time to catch my plane to San Diego at 7:31 PM. I met with people after the meeting and took pictures of rail service in San Francisco and had some dinner. My best bet was to catch Caltrain at 5:15 PM at 4th and Townsend to get to Millbrae by 5:39 PM. If I waited for the next train I would get to Millbrae at 6:39 PM and to be safe I’d rather be at the terminal before 6:30 PM to make my boarding time at 6:56 PM for my 7:31 PM flight home.
What was amazing was how crowded Caltrain was on a Saturday. Also Caltrain is part of a dying breed that locks passenger out of the platforms in San Francisco until shortly before train times. Then a single crew member checks each ticket before allowing passengers to head for the train. Many of the passengers were fans of Washington State which played Stanford that evening and were on their way to the game. The train had standee even before the train left San Francisco and the crowding got worse by the time the train got to Millbrae.
One thing I’ve learned the hard way is in the Bay Area is there are no provisions for transferring on a single ticket between Caltrain and BART or BART to MUNI. I am use to riding Metrolink where my ticket is good for transfers to all of LA Metro trains and buses as well as many other transit providers sharing areas served by Metrolink. In my case after getting off of BART in San Francisco I bought a separate ticket to ride Muni to 2nd and Hill by the ballpark next to Pier 40. Coming home I rode Caltrain to Millbrae for $5.00. When I transferred to BART which is my only choice to get to the airport from Caltrain I ended up paying $4.05 just for a short trip between 2 stations to the airport. I doubt few people transfer to BART from Caltrain to the airport let alone use Caltrain to go to the airport. I wouldn’t doubt if this wasn’t BART’s plan although that doesn’t work for people living south of Millbrae. What I found amazing is from the train near the San Bruno Caltrain Station I could see the Blue Line of the airport AirTrain people mover serving the Rental Car Center at the airport. AirTrain should have been extended to Caltrain.
Again coming back to San Diego the flight was full and loading the plane caused it to leave about 20 minutes after the scheduled departure time. But because of padding in the schedule the planes arrived a few minutes early. But this didn’t help speed up unloading which stops when every person trying to get their carry-on bags out of the overhead bins blocks the aisle which prevents everyone else from going around.