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written by andy on

Once you’ve been in the advocacy and transportation business for so many years, it is hard not to have an opinion. So this is my home for now and thank you for reading.

Because of my involvement in various committees and groups, it is important to note that the opinion expressed here does not necessarily represent the opinion of the groups and committees that I belonged to, as well as the Transit Unlimited Wiki.



Reimagine SamTrans comments

written by andy on

Every decade or so many transit agencies re-evaluate its routes. SamTrans is no exception. This time, many transit agencies carry the theme of frequency vs. coverage, which is promoted by a well known transit consultant Jarrett Walker. SamTrans is offering 3 alternatives with one heavily favors improving frequency, one promoting coverage, and one in between favoring connections. Despite offering 3 alternatives, SamTrans staff emphasize that the recommend plan would be a combination of the 3, after considering public feedback.

Coming off of this COVID-19 pandemic, I hope that transit agencies would focus on services that better facilitate “essential” trips, along with school trips as campuses reopen.

Frequency vs. coverage was also one of themes for the last service plan SamTrans implemented. Some of the service added to improve frequency ended up taken away when ridership increases didn’t pan out. The lesson appears that it is faster to lose ridership but slower to grow. Transit agencies should do more to preserve riders.

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SB 742 Amtrak bus implementation

written by andy on

Last year, the California state legislature approved and the Governor signed SB 742 into law, which allows bus only tickets to be sold on Amtrak Thruway buses in California. This bill overturned a previous law passed 20 years ago that prohibited sale of bus only tickets on these buses due to complaints of unfair competition from private bus companies, notably Greyhound.

The law originally proposed a blanket permission for the entire bus network, but later amendments from the State Assembly created requirements to address the concerns from private bus companies.

The amendments basically require the joint powers authorities that oversee the state Amtrak routes and connecting bus services to evaluate impacts of opening up bus only ticket sales on private intercity buses and require board approvals from the JPAs.

The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority will be first to implement the law at its January meeting, by approving bus only ticket sales on two routes. The authority staff chose these two routes because it would have minimal conflicts and require no schedule or route modification. Approval of this plan may well set a precedent of how bus only ticket sales would be implemented on other routes in the future.

Routes being considered to open for bus only ticket sales in January:

  • Bakersfield – Oxnard – Santa Barbara
  • Bakersfield – Lancaster – Victorville

For each route, the San Joaquin JPA has picked various route segments or stop pairs available for bus only ticketing, based on availability of Greyhound or local bus service. For instance, on the Bakersfield-Santa Barbara route, Oxnard and Santa Barbara segment is not offered because Greyhound provided service on the same segment. Also on the same route, the Carpinteria and Santa Barbara segment is not offered because Santa Barbara MTD provides local transit service in the area.

On the other hand, the agency is proposing to to offer bus only tickets along a segment served by another Amtrak rail line, such as between Carpinteria and Oxnard. The bus fare proposed for that segment would mirror the train fare. If the board approves the plan, the fare for the shorter trip from Carpinteria to Oxnard ($10.50) would be higher than a longer trip to Santa Paula ($6.75).

Under the proposal, tickets would be available for the first time on segments that do not have any transit or other intercity bus options, such as between Bakersfield and Ventura, and between Lancaster and Victorville.

How could this be played out on other routes?

If the ideas behind this proposal carry forward, some of the routes would appear likely to remain only for rail connecting passengers. For instance, the SF-Emeryville route is well served by AC Transit. Tickets for travel between stops within the same city or even county may likely not be offered if there’s wide availability of local transit.

However it would open up other routes and improve travel in key corridors, such as between Bay Area and San Luis Obispo County. Currently Greyhound buses only passing through and not stopping in San Luis Obispo County, versus Amtrak buses that make several stops. It would also improve travel between the Bay Area and Stockton. There are Amtrak buses operating between Stockton and SF and between Stockton and San Jose. All of these buses serve Dublin/Pleasanton BART. They would function well as a BART feeder to/from Stockton and would supplement the regional bus provided by San Joaquin RTD particularly during midday, evening, and weekends.

Amtrak buses make more “milk runs” in California that Greyhound already abandoned many years ago. By making bus only tickets available, intercity connections would be improved in smaller communities with no threat to Greyhound, which is focusing on key express corridors with other private carriers like Megabus and Flixbus. Other states have already started statewide publicly sponsored intercity bus programs with integrated branding. With the legal barrier has been removed, it is time to implement the law and make these buses open to all.


Street capable rail vehicles on Dumbarton Rail Corridor

written by andy on

The Dumbarton Rail project, now a public-private partnership effort sponsored by Facebook, is going through a more detailed study to further define the project and elevate the project into construction ready status, building upon a earlier effort (with a $1 million grant from Facebook) to study the corridor, which proposed a bus and rail element.

In this study, the partnership is focusing on rail exclusively (basically abandoned the concept of busway on rail corridor and let other agencies to study and implement highway elements). The planners are considering three modes (regional rail, light rail, and “other mass transit” – not specifically defined, but may include automated people mover).

There are concerns from the rail advocacy community why should transit mode be a consideration when they thought it had been long settled. Studies as far back as in the 1990s concluded running a few commuter trains during the peak hours from Union City BART station along the UP line to the Dumbarton Corridor, then onward to San Francisco or San Jose when the corridor meets Caltrain on the other side of the Bay. The Dumbarton trains would connect with Amtrak and ACE in Fremont.

This original vision of regional rail has a few issues:

  • Low score received from regional planning agency MTC and low TOD opportunities due limited nature of the service.
  • UP ownership of the right of way between Newark Junction and Union City BART.
  • Communities on the west side of the Bay want more local stops and a commuter rail service would likely to “pass through” their communities.

I believe that in order to receive higher points from MTC and make the project more favorable from the TOD perspective, the planners are pursuing a plan that can provide all day rail service with more local stops. However, because SamTrans only owns the right of way up to the Newark Junction, they either have to end all day service at Newark or pursue other options beyond Newark.

While the UP owned right of way seems to be a natural choice when connecting between Union City BART and the Newark Junction, I think running all day service (particularly with alternative-FRA compliant vehicle) would be an expensive if not a feasible alternative on UP owned lines.

What we’ve seen from UP and other fright rail companies in recent years:

  • In other cities, such as Denver and Salt Lake City, all-day commuter rail lines have separate tracks adjacent to the freight rail corridors, with wide separation in case of derailment.
  • The blue line light rail in Sacramento, which ran along side with UP, has closer spacing with UP tracks north of Meadowview Station because it was built earlier. The line south of Meadowview has wider spacing due to liability concerns with freight derailment.
  • On the Caltrain line between Santa Clara and San Jose, UP insisted that one of the tracks it owns would not have electrified wires above, as it would on adjacent Caltrain owned tracks.

If all day Dumbarton service were to run on the UP line, it likely would require dedicated tracks and wider spacing from the existing freight tracks, which may require acquiring adjacent properties to widen the right of way. I doubt that UP would accept a scenario where all day lighter passenger trains would share tracks with freight trains. They may be fine with just a few diesel locomotive haul trains, as it is today with ACE and Amtrak, but such operational restraint is what’s keeping the rail project from going forward.

The planners said that they’re considering on-street rail options to get from Newark to Union City. I think such option in the minimum would give planners some leverage over UP and still be able to provide all day service with high TOD potential. There are plenty of arterial streets in Newark, Fremont, and Union City with excess right of way/auto lanes that could be used for rail. It would have the benefit of added transit access to BART and an improvement over existing local bus service.

As this light rail option addresses the downsides of the original commuter rail alternative, it does raise questions whether it would be compatible with the regional rail network. A benefit of the original commuter rail vision is the ability to run direct service across different properties and provide a one seat side from the Central Valley to Palo Alto or Millbrae, even if it is just a couple of trains a day.

In recent years, while there’s more demand for separation between passenger trains and freight trains from freight railroads, the technical differences between commuter rail and light rail are getting fewer. In the past, the law required heavier equipment to operate on passenger or freight railroad tracks, or require strict time separation. The recent development of “alternative compliance,” crash energy management, and requirement for positive train control open up the possibility of using street capable light rail style vehicles and traditional locomotive haul commuter trains on the same tracks at the same time.

Multiple unit TexRail trains share tracks and stations with locomotive haul TRE and Amtrak trains in Fort Worth, Texas.
New Jersey River Line trains are street capable and operate on a freight line outside of Camden.

In this scenario, frequent service (every 15-30 minutes) on the Dumbarton Corridor would be provided with light multiple unit vehicles between Union City BART and Redwood City, with on-street alignment between Union City BART and the Newark Junction. During the peak hours, some ACE trains from the Stockton would jump from the UP line over to the Dumbarton Line, and continue south on Caltrain at Redwood City, to provide that one-seat ride to cities like Palo Alto and Mountain View. Since the Dumbarton Rail corridor is publicly owned, the law gives the public agency the ability to set the rules and share the corridor between different passenger rail services, without having to ask for expensive favors or accept unfavorable operational constraints from freight railroads.

The concept of street rail vehicle sharing tracks with mainline trains is not foreign in Europe.

The end of a modern light rail line

written by andy on

Over the weekend, VTA’s PR team has been promoting the agency’s new bus network that is redesigned around the new BART stations that have yet to open due to numerous construction related delays. Part of the redesign also involved elimination or service reductions of unproductive routes. One of those routes eliminated is the Almaden light rail branch.

The light rail branch was constructed with the southern portion of the Guadalupe main line in the early 1990s. That right of way is part of a former rail spur coming off of what currently is the Caltrain mainline on Monterey Highway. That spur line went all the way down the Almaden Valley. There was another spur line coming off what is currently the Vasona light rail line, following down the path of what is currently Camden Avenue. Those spur lines were built to serve the mercury mines in the valley, as well as the Almaden Winery.

Highlighted is the original rail spur, as recorded on the USGS maps from 1889 (above) and 1916 (below)

The southern portion of the line (south of Almaden station) was closed around 1930s due to closure of the mines, but rail traffic continued on the rest of the spur up to and through the 1970s and it was formally abandoned in 1981.

1950s USGS maps

After the closure the rail spur has been included in the planning for transit on the Gaudalupe corridor (Highway 87). In a 1981 study, planners proposed a light rail alternative, along with other alternatives such as bus lanes on expressway or freeway. The light rail alternative was chosen and built along with a new freeway. The initial light rail alignment on North 1st Street was opened in 1987. The rest of the light rail in downtown San Jose and South San Jose was opened in the latter years until completion in 1991. At the same time, Caltrain service was extended from San Jose Cahill Street to Tamien to connect with the light rail.

The present State Route 85 and 87 rights-of-way that comprise much of the Guadalupe Corridor have been designated for proposed freeways since the 1950s and 1960s. The state and county purchased a large amount of property within the designated rights-of-way. Pursuant to the freeway designation, title to all property purchased by the county was transferred to CALTRANS ownership in July, 1970. By 1972, right-of-way purchasing was suspended due to lack of funding and the implementation of new environmental legislation…

Planning for mass transportation in Santa Clara County began in earnest in 1974 with the “Rapid Transit Development Project”. The County Transit District contracted a study to investigate alternative transit system technologies, delineate high ridership demand corridors, and identify the financial costs and environmental, social and economic impacts of large scale rapid transit systems capable of attracting 30 percent of all daily person trips made in the County.

Guadalupe Corridor Transportation Project, Santa Clara County: Environmental Impact Statement

The idea of the corridor was to bring commuters from the bedroom suburbs in South San Jose to the suburban office parks of early Silicon Valley up north, and turn Downtown San Jose into a shopping and entertainment destination. The downtown’s Fairmont Hotel and Convention Center were all built with the support of the city’s redevelopment agency in the late 1980s. The city tried hard to put a shopping mall in downtown, but that “Pavilion” mall didn’t last very long.

The Almaden branch had always been operated as a shuttle route from Ohlone/Chynoweth with a single light rail car. While the service provided was efficient and frequent (every 10 minutes back in the day), ridership had always been poor for many reasons. In numerous times VTA proposed to end the Alamden service, first in 2003 (when it proposed a 21% service cut) and 2009. Both times the line was saved but not this time.

To check out the situation, I spent a half-hour riding the shuttle one recent afternoon. It was mostly empty, though we had a brief moment of excitement when eight people — two couples, three teens and an old man — got on at Oakridge station.

Scott Herhold – June 2009, A little rail line in jeopardy

In 2009, VTA thought about integrating the Almaden branch into mainline service, which could help boost ridership. However lack of funding, and lack of a staging/turnback facility (pocket track) in downtown basically put the idea off the table. VTA did implement express LRT (as extra trips from Santa Teresa to Baypointe) in 2010 but discontinued in 2018.

This time VTA decided to kill this route after a more methodological approach was taken to redraw the network, which helped brought politicians to come to terms of whether to keep or kill the service, and also without express intention to massively reduce overall service, but rather to reallocate service hours where there’s more ridership potential. Transit service will still be available along this route, but it would be with a bus (as part of a longer route from Downtown) at a 30 minute headway.

On one hand, while there’s no dispute that this line had terrible ridership, cutting this line is no way progress, because we remember back in the day when streetcar lines were discontinued in San Jose and across the country and buses were promoted as a superior substitute when they were not.

On the other hand, there are no easy solutions to save this line. Being in the suburbs, riders can easily access Ohlone/Chynoweth and board the main line there directly. Plenty of parking is available at that stop. Ohlone/Chynoweth is also within a short biking (and scootering as I did on the final night) distance away from other stops. The increasing wealth and access to automobiles in the community also negatively impact ridership. The line lacks captive destinations (like airports, universities, or stadia) where parking is expensive and people have a financial incentive to take transit. Suburban malls like Oakridge have free parking and that mall is not anywhere unique enough for people from outside of South San Jose to take light rail and shop there.

Another factor not well mentioned is that, VTA, like many transit agencies throughout the Bay Area and beyond, has an operator shortage. In the last day of the Almaden line, VTA had cancelled a trip on the blue line during peak hours, turning a 15 minute wait into a 30 minute wait.

Throughout the 2000s VTA used these lcons to represent light rail lines. The icon of orange grapes represented the Almaden line, which was supposed to pay homage to the old Almaden Winery. I guess this is time to get some boxed Almaden wine to celebrate the end of a decade now. Cheers.

Image result for almaden boxed wine

Ubers and Lyfts belong in parking garages

written by andy on

SFO recently implemented a policy to relocate TNC pick ups from the curb right outside the terminals to the top floor of parking garages.

The reason for the relocation is that the curbside pickup has slowed down traffic for everyone, and at times traffic has backed up onto the freeway.

While overall the relocation has worked well, there have been times where sudden increases in demand for TNC pickups have caused significant delays.

The major flaw with the Uber/Lyft business model, which is a major cause for the congestion, is the need to match the exact passenger with the exact car. Rather than operating on a first come first serve basis, the passengers have to look out for a specific car to get on.

While exact match may work fine in the suburbs where density is low and where prior arrangement is needed for any type of pick up anyway, this exact match method is inefficient and unsafe in places with limited curb space and high demand, which besides the airports include after concerts and sporting events.

Passengers on the streets have to split attention between the phone screen and the street for cars. Drivers also have to split attention between the screen and the road. Drivers often get distracted by cancellations and phone calls/text from impatient passengers.

Because of the inefficiencies and congestion, these cars are directed to the parking garages. At the end these companies need to change their booking/matching method to eliminate these inefficiencies.

Some people will always complain for not having curbside pick up, but if you choose a particular method because of price, shouldn’t convenience be part of that trade off. For example, people who want to save on parking can park at off-site parking lots and take a shuttle bus.

When the volume of TNC pick ups is clogging the driveway, and when price of the TNC service is what drives the volume, relocating the pick up to where it has less impact is reasonable, and still very accommodating. Taxis, which have existed for decades and operates on a very efficient first come first served basis, are still accessible curbside. Licensed limos can also pick up curbside. They are no different than premium/valet parking available within walking distance from the terminal.