Caltrain service driven by data, not gut

Census distribution of jobs and population along Caltrain

Census distribution of jobs and population along Caltrain

The current operation of Caltrain is, to put it mildly, inefficient. With 35 separate station stopping patterns in the broad categories of Local, Express, and Baby Bullet, it is a confusing mess to the uninitiated.

There are a number of reasons for the mess, but Clem Tillier of Caltrain HSR Compatibility Blog thinks there’s a better way.

“By simple observation of the features of the census population and job distributions along the peninsula corridor, it is possible to infer the desirable features of train service patterns that will maximize commute ridership.

  1. Transbay has more than 100,000 jobs within a half-mile radius (more than every other station in the system combined). The concentration of jobs near San Francisco’s Transbay Transit Center cannot be understated. This station absolutely must be served by each and every train, and it would be highly counter-productive to terminate any train at 4th and King.
  2. Silicon Valley shows up in the jobs distribution as a broad hump, mostly homogeneous and stretching from Palo Alto to San Jose.  To serve this rich but diffuse commute market, all trains should make every stop in Santa Clara County.  There should be never be any skip-stop service here, and the wider spacing of stops (relative to San Mateo County) will result in only minor trip time penalties.
  3. San Mateo County has numerous stops, spaced more closely together and with middling jobs and population density.  To enable faster service to and from San Francisco and Silicon Valley, it makes the most sense in this portion of the corridor to operate skip-stop express service alongside local service.
  4. South San Jose, while south of Silicon Valley, has a massive and untapped residential market that can serve as origin to jobs further north.  Tamien currently functions as a slow and infrequent addendum to the peninsula service, but should be sped up and extended to Blossom Hill.
  5. Oakdale in San Francisco opens up a new residential market for Caltrain.  The distribution of people nearby is even denser than at 22nd Street.
  6. The Gilroy extension doesn’t make much sense.  There are so few jobs and people here that Caltrain (as primarily a commuter service) should not run to this area.  Serving Morgan Hill and Gilroy is best left for a long-distance operator such as Amtrak California.

Putting all this together, what would a service pattern look like that is tailored to the census distributions, to maximize commuter ridership?” Continue reading on Caltrain-HSR.


Written by David Edmondson

David Edmondson

David is a native Marinite working in Washington, DC. He writes about how to apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of his home.

2 comments to Caltrain service driven by data, not gut

  • […] A Look at the Commute Data Behind Caltrain’s Service Patterns (Caltrain-HSR via VBA) […]

  • Hi David-

    There are a great many factors not considered here, as I’m sure you’re aware. Many of the limitations we struggle with in planning and operating the service have more to do with the limitations we face in track and equipment constraints. Balancing the demand for service to highly desirable locations with the demand for more express and limited-stop schedules against the limitations of our aging system is often our greatest challenge. We look forward to 2019 when the delivery of electrification will allow Caltrain to provide more service to more stations along the corridor while maintaining, or even improving, travel time.

    Jayme Ackemann
    Communications Manager