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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.



Trying out autonomous shuttle

written by andy on

Not too long ago, I made a trek to San Ramon to try out the PRESTO autonomous shuttle operating inside the Bishop Ranch business park.

The service runs 2 battery powered autonomous vehicles between the transit center and the shopping mall. For now, each vehicle has an attendant that monitors the vehicle (and takes over with a game like controller if necessary). The vehicle has a footprint of a minivan but can seat up to 11, along with ability to accommodate a wheelchair. The service primarily operates inside the parking lots and driveways of the business park, but crosses a public street (at Camino Ramon). The vehicle operates at level 3 automation and currently at a max speed of about 13 miles an hour.

The service is not particularly fast, and if you’re on a bike (or for me, electric unicycle), this service wouldn’t be attractive at all, but according to my conversation with one of the attendants, people do use the shuttle to go to the shopping center and can get busy. I like the general interior layout of the shuttle, with easy access between the door and each of the seats. It has a feel of a proper transit vehicle versus personal vehicles like sedans and SUVs. The vehicle amazingly has a tight turning radius.

With being autonomous, the technology is not perfect. On 1 of my trial rides, the vehicle made a few sudden stops. Fortunately the vehicle features seat belts. Those quick stops may be an advantage to avoid collisions but the machine generated response of sudden braking seems too much for humans to handle compared to human driven vehicles.

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Millbrae Station – 20 years later

written by andy on

This month (June 2023) is the 20th anniversary of opening of BART SFO extension. Millbrae is the end of the line of this extension & the transfer point between Caltrain and BART. The station was built with an expectation of high ridership & transfer activities, but things changed quite a bit over the past 20 years with changes in economy, transportation/housing priorities, and COVID.


20 years ago I was a young transit activist & a regular Caltrain rider. I was able to see the station being constructed and was there on the opening day.

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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.