Imagine the furor and tumult that would reign if Muni, BART, and the Valley Transportation Authority suddenly decided to run their trains once an hour instead of every few minutes. That would paralyze the Bay Area and make a farce out of any claim to run a real railroad.
Yet the only railroad that connects each of those train systems pokes along at hourly intervals, sludging up much of Bay Arean residents' trip planning for huge parts of the day. Of the 19 hours that Caltrain serves the Peninsula each weekday, a full 8½ hours — or 45 percent of the time — it offers hourly or longer-than-hourly frequencies. Even though it has never had more business, it has actually cut the number of noncommute hour trains during the past decade.
It comes along so infrequently that many potential passengers can't even consider it for their transport needs. On weekends, it's even worse: 100 percent of the time, there is an hour's wait for the next train, except for two semi-expresses. And there is no service at all on Sundays after 9:15 p.m. This for the prime people-mover in three counties with a population of more than 2.5 million.
Seventy years ago, Southern Pacific used to connect San Francisco and San Jose with nonstop service in 50 minutes. Now, with new tracks and stations, concrete ties, faster boarding platforms, a new signal system, more underpasses and overpasses, modern equipment, and a four-track grid in the north, central and south parts of its system, the best Caltrain can do is 57 minutes and a minimum of four stops. In its new October schedule, it extends running times further.
Could Caltrain improve? Could it draw a whole new class of travelers it doesn't even know exists? Could it be as busy during middays, nights and weekends as BART, Muni and the VTA? Could enough passengers be enticed to such service to pay the salaries of the train attendants? (Most of those people are already employed by Caltrain, but do not spend all their time working on moving stock.) A test would tell.
Caltrain should embark on a six-month experiment of 15-minute headways during noncommute hours, seven days a week until midnight. That would come closer to matching the headways of its three connecting transit systems, thereby making transfers much more attractive and feasible for the first time. Trains needn't be five or six cars long — one or two should do nicely.
Caltrain is now the unattractive, broken link in Bay Area transit during much of the day and week: It could change from that to being a popular and dependable day, night and weekend Bay Area rail partner and passenger-attractor … as it has proven it can be during commute hours.
Stanford M. Horn, a Millbrae resident, writes on transportation and development issues.