Bicycles and Caltrain electrification

The Joint Powers Board that governs Caltrain has started the process of planning for electrification, which they anticipate will start in 2019. They’re taking public comment on bike car capacity, among many many other items under consideration.

Caltrain Electrification - Bikes on Board

Caltrain ridership has doubled over the past five years, and they anticipate another doubling over the next decade. Because commute time trains are now packed wall to wall to 125% capacity, the board wants to increase capacity with electrification, which allows more capacity and more frequent service over the current diesel sets they currently run. Currently, northbound commute time headways range from 5 minutes to 27 minutes between 5:45 AM and 8:03 AM from San Jose, with an average headway of 11 minutes. Electrification can apparently improve that, allowing Caltrain to push more trains (and people and bikes) up and down the San Francisco Peninsula.

Caltrain plans to purchase EMU (Electric Multiple Units) to augment and eventually replace the diesel trains. Unlike traditional trains, which have a locomotive pulling a set of passenger cars, the EMU combines a locomotive and passenger car into a single, self-propelled unit. The plan currently is to have these self-propelled EMUs on both ends of a six car set, with the four cars in between providing no motive power. The train operator controls the train from a cab at the head-end, similar to how BART and VTA light rail trains are operated. Conductors and passengers can travel from one of the train to the other.

Part of the planning process is designing for Caltrain’s Bikes on Board program. I believe Caltrain still has the highest capacity bikes on board program in the United States and possibly in the world, with room for 48 bikes on the Bombardier sets and 80 bikes on the Gallery sets. 6000 people bring their bikes on board Caltrain each day. Please leave a comment if you know of a train system with a higher capacity.

During staff presentation on electrification issues at the August 7 Caltrain board meeting, several minutes were spent discussing the tradeoffs between seat capacity, bike capacity and bathrooms. Obviously, adding bathrooms and bike capacity removes some seating capacity. Each bathroom, for example, removes eight seats.

The staff presentation on August 7 makes me believe Caltrain doesn’t plan to add to the current bike capacity. Because the Caltrain board has a policy of no new car parking at their stations, a lot of the new ridership will come via the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) now taking place near a few South Bay Caltrain stations and some of the transit lines that feed into them. Maybe more people will walk. This year’s ridership report, however, showed bikes contributed more to recent ridership growth than any other mode.

Bikes present a very convenient first mile and last mile means of transportation to and from the train station. As Caltrain staff notes, providing for bike storage does result in tradeoffs, but so does accommodating other transportation modes to and from the station. If Caltrain plans to double ridership with electrification, then bike capacity should also at least double. Retaining the current capacity for 6,000 bikes per day should not be acceptable.

Caltrain is taking comments via email, written communications, and various public meetings during the electrification planning process now taking place. You can find further details, contact information, and meeting schedule here. Electrification and bike capacity will be discussed at the Caltrain Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting on September 18, 2014 at 5:45. BAC meetings take place on the 2nd floor of the SamTrans Administrative Offices, 1250 San Carlos Ave, San Carlos, CA which is just a block away from the San Carlos Caltrain station. This location is also well served by local SamTrans transit service.


  1. Hopefully expanded bikeshare will eat into the demand for bikes being carried on Caltrain. Ultimately, it may also be more sensible for people to keep a bike at each end — this (I hear) is frequent in the Netherlands. We should be prioritizing carrying people, not bicycles, in limited space on trains. (And I say this as someone who does take a bike on Caltrain once in a while.)

  2. I would have to mostly agree with fmanin, if we are at capacity then we need to maximize the number of seats. But I think there real problem is headway in the first place. Caltrain’s new signaling plans seem to be underwhelming as far as the maximum number of trains per hour. if we had trains every two to three minutes like some other metropolitan areas, then we wouldn’t have to be thinking about this bike/seat tradeoff.

  3. Caltrain is just not very well run. We need to stay on them to even have the bike capacity needed that their own studies suggest.

    We need to be ready the many hundreds of new cyclist passengers for when electrification slowly arrives.

    Caltrain already admits they dump 68,000 tons of carbon pollution each year into neighborhood air with the current smoky and noisy locomotives.

  4. Things are changing rapidly in the bay area, so projections of bikes onboard demand are all subject to high error. The new cars could be in use for the next 50 years?, so its not smart to lock-in a per car bike capacity. There are way too many unknowns. The important thing at this point is that the EMUs are flexible with regard to adjusting the number of bikes they can carry.

    Some questions for the EIR might be…

    (1) What is the maximum retrofittable bike capacity of the EMU.

    (2) What specifically is the limiting factor for maximum retrofittable bike capacity. ADA, train design limitations, etc.

    (3) What are the costs associated with adjusting bike capacity and will these be budgeted.

    (4) Is the maximum bike capacity of the EMU in-line with the local area General Plan bike mode share goals.

    Similar questions could be asked about train station fully secure bike parking (bike stations). Don’t rely on others to ask these types of questions. Caltrain will typically try and wiggle out from providing real answers, but if enough people ask similar questions, it make it harder for them to do avoid the questions.

    Rather than everyone having to do their own research, it would be nice if SVBC would hold a letter writing party, maybe once the next EIR rev goes up for public comment, which should be soon. People could bring their laptops and they could review and discuss the issues, followed by lots of letter writing.

  5. There is a definite need for 1 or 2 cars with toilet facilities. We are talking an hour for a full run or longer. Also many, most, stations have no facilities for use.

    I would also like to see a second luggage car. This can also double for folding bikes instead of taking up a full bike space.

  6. A truly expanded bike share would no doubt help, but we are a LONG way away from it having anywhere near enough coverage down the Peninsula for it to be useful for a significant number of Caltrain bicyclists. There are no plans in the near future to expand bike share in the Peninsula to the levels needed to significantly reduce bikes on Caltrian, so to depend on this would be poor judgement on Caltrain’s part. Caltrain needs a solution for bikes-on-board for probably at least the next decade; there is no way around this.

    To me, the fix is easy: more cars on each train. Some stations will clearly have to have their platforms extended, but this cost is relatively small. Besides, one of the great things about trains (long recognized in the freight train world) is that they are easily customizable: just add as many cars on of whatever type as you like. Passenger rail like Caltrain needs to learn from this and add more cars if needed. You can then add more luggage cars as well. Caltrain should plan on being able to support 6 or even 7 cars per train.

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