A Faster Train to the Airport

Article published Spring 1996

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CalTrain downtown SF extension | Electrification of CalTrain

BART's route between downtown San Francisco and SFO airport is 23% farther and has twice as many stops as CalTrain's. In addition, CalTrain, unlike BART, operates express trains that skip some intermediate stops. Extending CalTrain to downtown San Francisco has the potential to provide a faster link between the airport and downtown San Francisco.

See the map of CalTrain and BART routes

The estimated time from the Montgomery BART station to SFO is 44 minutes. This is via the favored BART-SFO extension alternative 6X, with a station adjacent to the new international terminal, accessed via an elevated wye. (Source: table 6-6, page 6-9 of the September 1995 BART-SFO FRDEIR/S2DEIS.)

The current CalTrain schedule shows the trip from CalTrain's terminal at Fourth and Townsend, about 1 1/2 miles from downtown, taking 25 minutes for all-stop local trains, and 19 minutes for express trains. This roughly approximates the time it would take between the airport and downtown on CalTrain if it were extended to downtown and related track improvements were made.

The February 27 Parsons-Brinckerhoff High Speed Rail report prepared for the California Intercity High Speed Rail Commission envisions nonstop trains running every 15 minutes between downtown and SFO. These trains would reach a top speed of 150 km/hour, or 94 mph, and would make the trip in about 13 minutes.

"This info just came out, and for over a year now, BART has been hinting that with the BART-SFO extension in place, CalTrain should not go to San Francisco at all and only operate south of Millbrae [the southern end of the proposed BART extension]," says Peninsula transit activist Adrian Brandt.

Peninsula train commuters opposed using the BART routing to reach the city when it was first proposed as a replacement for the Southern Pacific commute service, the predecessor of CalTrain, in the early 60s.

In view of this, BART's ridership projections for the SFO extension may raise some eyebrows. According figures cited in environmental studies for BART's airport extension, 80% of the San Francisco-bound CalTrain passengers will transfer to BART to reach the city. These projections assume that 19,000 CalTrain riders per day would get off CalTrain at Millbrae and wait for a BART train to take a 44-minute ride to downtown and pay $3 more for the round trip to San Francisco.

Ridership studies conducted by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) in 1991 on which these projections are based assumed that CalTrain riders would pay no extra fare to ride BART instead of CalTrain for this leg of their journey. Unfortunately, BART's extension to SFO and Millbrae requires the 19,000 transferring riders to pay the extra fare in order to attain fare revenue to make the extension economically justifiable.

SamTrans and BART officials have yet to address this inconsistency between the 1991 figures and the current BART FRDEIR/S2DEIS in assumptions about extra fares for transferring CalTrain riders.

The 1991 studies also assume no CalTrain extension in San Francisco to arrive at the 19,000 CalTrain transfer figure. According to BART-SFO critic Jim Wheeler, who has monitored these studies, this is in violation of a key agreement between Bay Area transit agencies reached eight years ago. In that agreement, known as MTC Resolution 1876, a compromise was reached to give equal priority to a specific list of rail extensions, including the CalTrain downtown extension in San Francisco and BART-SFO.

The projected cost per new rider figure for the BART extension is well above levels normally considered acceptable by federal funding agencies. By using ridership projections based on the absence of direct CalTrain service to downtown San Francisco and the absence of a fare surcharge for CalTrain transfers, BART can claim higher ridership, lowering the cost per rider figure.

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Last updated: November 8, 1999

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