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
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
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org and the Bike/Pedestrian Advisory Committee:
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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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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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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
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
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
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
Kevin Burke is on the Caltrain Citizens Advisory Committee.
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