Posts Tagged With: Caltrain

Why is Caltrain spending $2 billion on electrification & closing SF on the weekends?

Caltrain is spending $2 billion to electrify the entire railway from SF to Tamien, and buy new train cars. This is expensive and painful - weekend headways are 90 minutes, and the 4th and King/22nd St. stations won't get trains on Saturdays and Sundays for about six months. Why is Caltrain doing this? There are a few reasons.

  • Faster trains. With the diesel trains the only car that can accelerate is the locomotive. With the new cars, every car will be capable of pulling electricity from the overhead line - they are called "electric multiple units" because you have multiple cars that can each accelerate independently. This means the trains can accelerate and decelerate much more quickly a diesel engine can — the riding experience will be similar to riding BART.

  • Faster boarding. The old Caltrain "Gallery" cars, representing most of the fleet, have a floor height of 50 inches, which means passengers and bikes need to ascend/descend multiple stairs to embark/disembark. The new train cars (and the Bombardier cars) have a floor height of 25 inches, which means it's a lot faster for passengers to get on and off the trains. These combine to mean...

  • Shorter trip times. If you can accelerate and decelerate more quickly, and you can get passengers on and off more quickly, you can get from SF to Diridon faster, or you can make more stops in the same amount of time. Further, if you have shorter trip times, you can have...

  • More frequent service. If the trains can get from end to end faster, you can run more trains. Further, since every train is capable of being the "engine", it's less painful to run shorter trains, more frequently during off-peak times. Think "not having to worry about catching the Giants Special, because the trains run every 15 minutes no matter what."

  • Less respiratory disease. Diesel trains burn, well, diesel, in order to operate, which means the air gets pretty dirty. Pollution is a leading cause of respiratory diseases like asthma and bronchitis, not to mention permanently accelerated aging of the lungs, and killing plants along the railway. Burning diesel also contributes to the slow warming of the planet, which causes more fires and flooding.

    Electrification means the trains need less energy to run and also that energy burns cleaner, which should lead to cleaner air and healthier communities.

Those are the main reasons to spend $2 billion on electrifying Caltrain. You might be saying, the US is not great at delivering infrastructure projects for a reasonable budget, is $2 billion a reasonable amount to spend? The answer is largely, Yes. The San Mateo County grand jury just investigated the contract award and decided that Caltrain was implementing best practices in both the award of the contract and the oversight.

We are not out of the woods yet. Last year the California Legislature passed a twelve-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline, which is being used to fund road repairs and transit improvements up and down the state. Caltrain is depending on this revenue to help fund the electrification project. This fall, voters will vote on whether that tax should be repealed, which would hurt Caltrain's ability to fund electrification on time and on budget. Please vote no on Prop 6 this fall.

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Proposed SSF East Side Station Exit Prioritizes Cars, Not Caltrain Passengers

Previously I wrote about pedestrian/bike improvements for the east side of 101. There's now a proposal for the east side exit of 101, shown in this slide at a recent Caltrain board meeting.

It's not ideal to have pedestrians and cyclists on the north side of East Grand for two reasons: ped/bike crossings will hold up shuttles merging onto East Grand, and peds/bikes have to go out of the way up to the East Grand/Grand intersection and then cross two signals - one with a 30 second wait time and the other with a 42 second wait time. If one of the sidewalks in that photo is supposed to be a bike path, it's currently in poor shape and it's not clear there are plans to repair the surface.

It's pretty easy to imagine instead that cyclists will try to get across 2-3 lanes of traffic here, instead of waiting for two WALK signs at East Grand:

In an ideal world, bikes/peds could just cut straight across to the Gateway/East Grand intersection like this. This would cut at least a minute off of pedestrian travel times and extend the walkshed that much further. I believe SSF owns the right of way where the bottom red line is located.

Could SSF, Caltrans, and SamTrans staff advocate for a ped/bike crossing on the south side of East Grand, that would allow ped/bike to travel on the south side of the intersection, saving a circuitous route for bikes and pedestrians? Ultimately this will require a decision that it's more important to prioritize Caltrain riders, even if it means a slightly longer delay for car traffic.

The city of South San Francisco is the ultimate decision maker here, but they would appreciate your input on good design outside the station area. Contact the City Council: and the Bike/Pedestrian Advisory Committee:

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Research on railway suicides and steps Caltrain could take

It's Rail Safety Month and last month at the Caltrain CAC we got a presentation on suicides on the Caltrain line. I've added some key papers that study railway suicide to this Github repository. At a high level, they show:

  • There are several factors that predict suicide incidence.

  • There are several factors that have been demonstrated to reduce suicide incidence.

Together these suggest that Caltrain may be able to take steps to reduce the incidence of suicide. Caltrain has no dedicated source of funding, and staff time is extremely valuable, so it's understandable that this hasn't been a focus area, and it's also extremely likely that it won't be possible to make improvements in these areas for some time.

What factors predict suicide?

  • Psychopathy/psychiatric hospitalization. An above average number of victims have a documented psychiatric history.

    One paper suggests that track areas near psychiatric facilities are higher risk areas for attempted suicides. We could map Caltrain's passenger strikes against psych facilities on the Peninsula corridor, and invest in fencing in those areas.

  • Easy access to train tracks: In many cases railway suicide attempts are impulsive and not very well thought out. "24% of the people who made near-lethal suicide attempts took less than 5 min between the decision to kill themselves and the actual attempt, and 70% less than 1 h," according to Miller and Hemenway (2008).

  • Frequency of train service: The more trains that run the more suicides there are. This is a risk factor for electrification, which plans to increase rail frequency.

  • Knowing someone who has committed suicide: there is a contagion effect where one suicide may lead to others; either sensational coverage of a suicide or a community member committing suicide may prompt copy cats.

What are the costs of suicide?

  • Loss of life: Branches of government like the US DOT assign a statistical value between $5 million and $10 million to a single life when evaluating safety improvements. This suggests an investment of $3-4 million in railway safety is a net positive if it saves a single life.

  • Loss of railway service: Train strikes frequently result in death, and trains cannot begin moving again until a coroner can come on site to evaluate the cause of death. This can result in delays of several hours. This results in lost revenue — commuters may choose not to ride the train if the arrival time is unpredictable — and lost productivity from missed meetings, work time and so forth.

  • Employee trauma: The psychological effects of striking people on the railway have not been as well studied, but some drivers experience severe reactions to striking people. This increases the cost of hiring and trauma management.

What measures can prevent suicide?

Highly effective:

  • Platform Screen Doors: Subways in Singapore and Hong Kong saw a significant reduction in suicides - 59% - after installing screen doors at some stations. Suicides did not increase at other stations without screen doors, either, which fits with a characterization that suicide is an impulsive behavior, and deterring people with a suicidal impulse is enough to lower total rates of suicide.

    Tasha Bartholomew suggested that on the Caltrain line about half of suicides occur in station areas and half do not. The requirement to have freight traffic on the corridor and potential FRA regulations around such may also make it impossible to add platform screen doors. Still, we could evaluate the possibility of platform doors at new stations or identified hotspots.

  • Media Training: Between 1984 and 1987 there was dramatic coverage of subway suicides in Austria and a corresponding spike in suicides. In 1987 a group developed media guidelines for suicide coverage and the suicide rate promptly dropped by 80%. Suicide rates by other means also declined suggesting no substitution.

    Media coverage is more likely to lead to suicides when:

    • Lurid details about the method are provided

    • The more it's reported as being inconceivable ("he had everything he could have wanted")

    • If it's reported as having a romantic motive

    • If it's on the front page, the word suicide is in the headline, a photo is provided

    These steps can reduce suicide incidence:

    • Telling the audience where to find help, providing background information about suicidal behavior, and what to do with people with suicidal thoughts.

    The Caltrain social media team should be praised for speaking about passenger strikes and trespassers in generalities - never providing details and only providing photos/video in incidents that did not lead to injury.

    There are only a few reporters and outlets that cover Caltrain regularly so working with them may pay dividends if we are not already doing it.

Somewhat Effective:

  • Reducing access to the railway more broadly: This can come in many forms besides platform doors - grade separations, more fencing, ticketed station areas, identifying hot spots like mental hospitals and increasing fencing there.

    Several places on the Peninsula are considering grade separation projects — Palo Alto, Burlingame, others — and reducing pedestrian access to tracks should be a key consideration above and beyond grade separating cars and trains.

  • "Suicide pits" (deep channels between rails): Some stations in the London Underground have a pit three feet deep between the rails at stations. This allows people who have second thoughts to duck below the train, and reduce the potential for the train to drag people along with it, and thus cause further injury. Strikes at Underground stations with pits are less likely to lead to fatalities than stations without them.

    This may be worthwhile to install at new stations such as the Hillsdale station (if it is not already being considered).

Needs More Study:

  • Train design: Fatal pedestrian/car accidents have been on the rise due to Americans buying larger cars with a higher front profile. Similarly, the design of the train engine may make strikes more or less deadly depending on the design. A lower point of impact and a skirt which makes it impossible for a body to go underneath the train may reduce the likelihood of a fatal injury.

    An airbag that was deployed concurrently with the emergency brake could also reduce the impact of a collision. There is not enough research into the effect of these changes, though they may be cheap to implement relative to grade separations or screen doors.

    Given the lack of research here, perhaps a rail safety study sponsor could fund a modified skirt design on half of the new engines that Caltrain is ordering. We could then measure the injury and fatality rate of train strikes with the modified skirt and the original design.


  • Blue lights: A study in Japan got attention for saying that blue LED lights at station platforms led to a lower number of suicide attempts. A later study found that the effect of blue lights was not measurable.

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Bike and pedestrian improvements east of the South San Francisco Caltrain station

For the past month or so I've been commuting to a biotech office east of 101 in South San Francisco. I've gotten a little depressed about how car-centric the infrastructure is and I wanted to share some small wins that could improve the bike and pedestrian experience.

Why bother? Well, the roads get really full at commute time and it's not easy to expand them. People biking and walking (5 sq ft and 2 sq ft) take up less space than they do in a car (150 sq ft), so you can fit more people on the roads. They're also faster - I routinely get to Caltrain faster on a bike than I would be able to in a car, because the bike lane is empty.

However, the experience is currently not great, which means it's scary for a lot of folks to bike. Here are some small things that South San Francisco could do to make it easier for pedestrians.

  • Put WALK signs in front of the limit line: This WALK sign at Forbes and East Grand is behind the limit line.

    If a bus or truck is in the first spot - which is common, Genentech runs shuttles quite frequently - you can't see the sign or figure out when the WALK sign is on. Moving the WALK sign in front of the limit line would increase visibility, and also...

  • Put pedestrian crossing buttons closer together. It's at least 20 feet between these WALK buttons at East Grand and Gateway.

    If you are trying to cross the street diagonally - which will become more common when the Caltrain station moves - you have to walk a long way to press both buttons. Better would be to put the buttons on the same pole. This would also move the WALK sign ahead of the limit line.

  • Prioritize pedestrian traffic. Often you have to wait a long time to cross the street after pressing the button. The crossing could stop the flow of cars soon after a pedestrian signals their intention to cross the street, or stop more often in the minutes before a Caltrain is scheduled to depart from the station. If we want to encourage pedestrian traffic we should not make walkers wait as long at intersections.

  • Narrow car lanes and make better bike lanes. If you want to encourage cycling you want to have networks, where people can bike places and feel safe the whole way. There are some bike lanes east of 101, but they don't form a network, or allow you to go where you are trying to go.

    The bike lane starts at the bottom of the bridge over the train tracks. The outside lane of East Grand at this point is 21 feet wide. This is enough room for a 2 foot gutter, 4 foot bike lane, 2 feet of protection, and a 13 foot car lane. Adding a bike lane in this stretch would make bicyclists feel safer.

    Between Gateway and Roebling St. the outside lane of East Grand is 16 feet and the inside lane is about 13 feet. Making each of those 11 feet would give enough room for the gutter and a 4 foot bike lane. 11 feet might feel cozy for a "main arterial" but again - cars aren't going that fast on this road anyway due to the high number of stoplights and other cars on that road.

  • Integrated plan for getting walkers/bikers from the new Caltrain undercrossing to Verily/Genentech/Pfizer etc: There are plans for a new station platform and a undercrossing which comes out near the Poletti Way offramp, but after that there are lots of unresolved questions. The SSF "Downtown Station Area Specific Plan" merely says "design will need to consider safe access" without specifying what the design will end up being.

    If I am biking from downtown South San Francisco to Verily, Pfizer or Genentech, should I take the undercrossing - is the undercrossing wide enough for both cyclists and pedestrians? - or is the Grand Ave bridge still the recommended way to go?

    What is the plan for getting pedestrians and cyclists across the Poletti Way offramp and to the biotech campuses? Some ideas:

    • Extend the tunnel under the Poletti Way offramp. Otherwise, add a speed table and a wide curb bulbout to make it easier and safer for pedestrians to cross Poletti Way. Here's an example of what this could look like:

      A scramble intersection could also work there.

    • Extend the bike lane on Gateway north of East Grand, a bike lane that's in the Bicycle Master Plan. Does the city own the land east and west of the roadway? This could be used to add bike lanes without making changes to the roadway.

    • Remove the eastbound parking lane on East Grand near the Caltrain undercrossing, then add a bike lane + pedestrian path next to the tree line, straight across East Grand to Gateway.

  • Remove setback requirements: Most of the offices and stores are set back from the street across acres of parking.

    These are unfriendly to pedestrians, since you have to walk further to get where you are going. Allowing stores and offices to be built right up against the property line will reduce walking times, allow pedestrians to stop to shop on their way to and from work, and encourage walking and cycling.

Kevin Burke is on the Caltrain Citizens Advisory Committee.

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