Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Training Commuters is Difficult

Caltrain in Menlo Park
California Bay Area train system Caltrain has received approval from the Federal Railroad Administration to run electric locomotives on the same tracks as their current diesel stock. Apparently this is the first time such approval has been given to any system in the United States. The business case to save the struggling Caltrain was the decisive argument, according to Robert Doty, director of the Peninsula Rail Program which championed the move.

Doty suggested that this result moves the state closer to running high-speed trains on the same tracks:
The same equipment standards that we have qualified for, the equipment we're looking for, are the same equipment standards for high speed rail. So in effect what we've done is we found the process that needs to be followed and we've done it successfully. Now, they can take our process and expand it for high speed rail, so it is absolutely a precursor for high speed rail.
Well, that's a bit like saying that building a Volkswagon Bug paves the way to building a Porsche Carrera.

I suppose one can learn something transferable in the process, and the wires strung to power the trains may work for high-speed too. However, there would be a lot of expense on those particular tracks to achieve the necessary grade separation critical to allowing safe operation.

Still, replacing fossil fuel engines with electric ones is a good step, and if it eases the existential financial pressure on Caltrain it's great. The system has declared a fiscal emergency for the second year in a row, and is projected to lose $36M this year. On the table: fare increases and service cuts. The Bay Area commute is notoriously bad: the average length of time for commuters to San Jose is 23 minutes; to San Francisco it's 34 minutes. Almost 2,250,000 people or 68% of the working population commuted alone by car in the Bay Area in 2000. With an average commute length of 15 miles and a nominal per mile cost of 50 cents, the aggregate daily cost of this commute is more than $16,000,000. By contrast, the Caltrain daily deficit is less than $100,000.

The solution is more and more affordable transit options, not less. Of course, people have to see that public transit is better--faster, lower cost, less stress, etc. Raising fares and cutting service won't do that, but will instead just accelerate the downward spiral.

(h/t Polizeros)
Digg It! Delicious Stumble Technorati Twitter Facebook

No comments: