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the transit imperative

By enelson
Monday, March 17th, 2008 at 8:03 pm in Amtrak, BART, Caltrain, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), Environment, fuel, parking, Transit vs. driving.


Today’s yawner e-mail comes from the Capitol Corridor:

OAKLAND, CALIF., March 17, 2008 — The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA) has announced the highest annual ridership in the history of the Capitol Corridor service. “The February statistics from Amtrak show that our 12-month ridership total hit 1,523,630 passengers last month,” said CCJPA Managing Director Eugene Skoropowski. “This ridership beat our previous threshold that we broke in January when 1,503,210 riders boarded our trains.”

My point is not to belittle the fine work of Luna Salaver, the Corridor’s new spokesperson. It’s just that setting records on public transit systems these days seems to happen every time a new set of stats comes out. That’s especially true of the Corridor.

If you’ve read the blog  before, you probably know that it’s how I sometimes get to work from my quiet Central Valley enclave. I’m like so many other commuters, agonizing over the fact that driving is nearly always faster and hands-down more convenient when it comes to mobility at work.

But this is a different world we’re commuting in these days. I dread driving these days, knowing full well that gas alone will cost me about $17.50 even in my fuel-efficient compact Toyota. Tolls bring the tab about even with train fare, again without counting all the other costs of operating a car. I have trouble including those costs because I know I’m not going to get rid of my car just because I’m riding the train to work.

But it’s getting darned hard to find two unoccupied seats on the train these days.  Corridor riders used to have the luxury of spreading out or laying across two seats and napping. That’s become nearly impossible at peak times.

As I’ve said before, what are we going to do when gas hits $4.50 a gallon? Then they’ll be standing on the train, and there won’t be any new cars to add to the trains, especially in this tight budget year.

Suddenly, the new emergency water transit agency is starting to make sense. At least there’s an area on its way toward a major expansion. When the Bay Bridge closed on Labor Day weekend, ferry riders were left waving at the dock for want of deck space.

BART can expand a little, but its ancient cars are in bad need of replacement and the agency is in court with the company that failed to come up with a system to make trains run more frequently through the Transbay Tube without compromising safety.

Yes, it was a lovely sentiment to think that people would regularly ride transit because they wanted to save the world, but this is about money, which, as they say, makes the planet go ’round.

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11 Responses to “the transit imperative”

  1. david vartanoff Says:

    BART’s cars are not ancient by transit standards. T original cars are 36 at a maximum and have recently had major overhauls. C cars are a dozen years younger. Transit cars regularly last 40 to fifty years on systems that use them more hours per day than BART. That said yes more cars would be useful as BART has been skimping on train length.

  2. murphstahoe Says:

    this is happening on Caltrain as well. Service levels have grown substantially over the past 10 years, and the trains are more crowded than ever (well, I think at the very tip top peak of the dot com boom ridership was close to current levels with less total trains, so they were probably more packed then, but ridership is growing very quickly now and there is very little room left to grow). Hard to say how Caltrain can throw in more capacity at peak time, they are still investing in the system – upgrading platforms at Burlingame and Cal Ave to remove holdout restrictions, but without 4 sets of rails north to south it will be hard to squeeze more into the peak times. I am about to send off a letter asking them to expand peak times – an earlier bullet and a later bullet – but while that works great for the reverse commuters going to Silicon Valley, the peninsula to SF commuters are less flexible, and for every extra train running South, they need one running North.

  3. david vartanoff Says:

    yup, a real, four track main w/catenary!

  4. Capricious Commuter Says:

    What’s wrong with a busway, David?

  5. Berkeley Mike Says:

    “it’s getting darned hard to find two unoccupied seats on the train these days… used to have the luxury of spreading out or laying across two seats and napping. That’s become nearly impossible at peak times.”

    Oh! Too bad! Does the train get uncomfortable when the load factor approaches 50%? Could explain why Amtrak’s website is bragging about fuel economy per passenger-mile that’s only about 20% better than a big car with 1.4 people in it.

  6. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Yes, Mike, it forces us uptight people to get close to other people. As long as you can still buy alcohol on the train, we can adjust.

    So what’s your solution? Buses? Smaller trains? Boxcars?

  7. Berkeley Mike Says:

    The half-empty rail car touched on a couple of issues that bug me: the disparity between Amtrak’s and HSR advocates’ fuel efficiency claims, and the reckless way public transit consumes and accounts for capital (often treating invested money as near zero cost in a country whose consumption habits put a high price on capital).

    I don’t create solutions; I criticize those of others.

  8. Capricious Commuter Says:

    High-speed-rail is the most fuel efficient mode of transportation I can think of. It doesn’t use any fuel at all, unless you count the mileage reimbursed to the high-speed rail authority’s staff.

    I’m not sure I get what you’re saying about invested money. Are you saying the $2 billion set aside for BART to San Jose could be getting a higher return?

    And on the subject of real-life commuter trains’ efficiency, I’ll have you know that when my train got to Oakland Coliseum today (the final stop for that particular trip), there were still 6 people on it. That’s like three times the normal crowd.

  9. Berkeley Mike Says:

    I should have said energy, instead of fuel, efficiency, but in the U.S. an increased electric load from trains would probably mean natural gas or coal.

    The $2 Bil set aside for BART is probably getting a reasonable (market) return now; I’m more concerned about the return on it when they convert it into track, cars and stations.

  10. david vartanoff Says:

    Count the on board operating crew versus full seated load. Buses are low volume solutions. Besides in the case of Caltrain AND uoltimately the Caitol Corridor, my picture is essentially the old PRR now known as the Norheast Corridor. HSR, medium speed (what Atk calls regionals), and commuter trains all zooming along underthe wires. aSo yeah four tracks, someplaces SIX.

  11. murphstahoe Says:


    Caltrain Reaches Ridership Record

    Peninsula commuters seeking relief from driving continue to head to their nearest Caltrain station, setting the all-time record for average weekday ridership: 36,993. Ridership last climaxed during the height of the dot-com boom in early 2001. The results of the rail agency’s annual ridership count were presented to its board of directors at its April meeting.

    This trend will continue. Caltrain added 2 trains in March that will make staying later more feasible for more people. Whatever the Capitor Corridor is doing, Caltrain is starting to get *packed*. Now the Giants are starting up again, the evening NB trains will be SRO. I don’t think they can feasibly run more trains at peak time, but if they could extend peak time a little they might squeeze some more capacity in. And get more riders.

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