by Will Reisman, @reismanw

With nearly five years of consecutive monthly ridership increases, Caltrain is reaching capacity on many of its peak-hour trains. The popularity of the system has unfortunately had an adverse side effect—customers are finding it ever more difficult to find a seat, with some riders forced to stand for lengthy commutes.

To help address that issue, Caltrain increased capacity on its Bombardier trains in May, adding an extra car to the train sets, which are used for the agency’s busy Baby Bullet service. By adding a sixth train car to the Bombardiers, Caltrain has helped temporarily alleviate some of the overcrowding issues on the system. Still, the new alignment is not a panacea for the long-term capacity issues facing the agency.

Caltrain passengers using the Bombardier trains noticed a little extra breathing room as a result of the six-car trains, but many of them said the changes have not been groundbreaking.

“You know, it’s still pretty crowded,” said Mark Bousouler, who was travelling on Caltrain’s #314 train on his way to Palo Alto from San Francisco on the morning of July 16. “I have noticed that the evening commute home has gotten a little less crowded, but it can still be hard to find a seat.”

Kristy Ip
Kristy Ip, Caltrain Commuter

Bousouler’s sentiments where shared by other passengers using Caltrain’s Baby Bullet trains that day.

“I think I’ve picked up on some small changes,” said Kristy Ip, who takes the train from Hillsdale to Palo Alto every day. “The train has felt a little less congested recently.”

Brian Lawler, who commutes from Palo Alto to Millbrae, said he stopped taking the Baby Bullet #323 train because he could never take his bike on board due to the lack of storage room. He recently resumed taking the train, which departs Palo Alto at 8:05 a.m., after he stopped using his bike as part of his commute. During his time away from the train, Caltrain increased capacity on the #323 from five cars to six cars.

“It’s a little better, but things still get pretty packed after Hillsdale,” said Lawler. “Maybe it seems a little less crowded, but it’s still tough to find a seat on both sides of my commute.”

For riders like Lawler, commuting with their bicycle will get a bit easier in the next year as Caltrain converts some of the new cars that will operate on the Baby Bullet express trains to a third bike car, adding some desperately needed bicycle capacity.  The third bike car on the Bombardier train sets will increase capacity on those trains from 48 bikes to 72 bikes per train.

Passenger Sanjay Varma, who was standing during his commute from Palo Alto to San Francisco, said he appreciated the effort being made by Caltrain to increase capacity.

While these initiatives are making impacts, the real solution to Caltrain’s growing capacity issues lays with electrification.

Caltrain is in the midst of a transformative project to electrify its railway from San Jose to San Francisco. When the system is electrified, trains will be able to slow down and speed up in a more efficient manner, allowing the agency to run six trains per hour during peak commute. This increase in service will allow for significant capacity increases on the system, because passengers will have more travel options during their morning and evening trips.  The electrified trains will be able to serve more riders at more stations without adding travel time to the overall trip between San Francisco and San Jose.  Conversely, some trains may continue to serve a very limited number of stops allowing them to travel between terminal stations more quickly than they are able to today.

By 2020, the entire Caltrain corridor is scheduled to be electrified, an upgrade in performance that will allow the rail agency to meet the needs of its customer base, which is expected to grow to 110,000 daily passengers by 2040.  Electrification is also expected to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions along the rail corridor by 97 percent by 2040.


1 Comment »

  1. 1. On the six-car trains, I usually find space in the Metrolink car even when the other cars are very crowded.
    2. Many of the most crowded trains still run 5-car gallery sets. For the “reverse” commuters because there is so much bicycle demand, most of the baby bullets use gallery trains.
    3. If you are willing to be flexible, taking some of the other trains can work. I often take NB 267 or 387 instead of 365 or 385 because there is more breathing room.

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