Tag Archives: Caltrain

Bay Area Transit Efficiency: How Bart, Caltrain, VTA Light Rail, and Muni Metro Stack Up

Over the past few decades, the Bay Area’s four major rail systems–Bart, Caltrain, Muni Metro, and VTA Light Rail–have competed for transit funding on the federal, state, and regional levels.  Overall, Bart and VTA have been the overwhelming winners with numerous new extensions, Muni Metro has received some improvements and one extension, and little has changed for Caltrain.  Yet, Caltrain will receive the most dramatic makeover in the next decade with grade separations and electrification from HSR.  How do these systems stack up against one another and their peers nationwide?  This post will attempt to come up with an answer.

Comparing Nationwide Transit Efficiency

Obviously there are many criteria to judge a rail system by, such as initial cost per passenger, initial cost per mile, farebox recovery, TOD impact, etc., but I will focus on one of the most telling metrics of the efficiency of a mass transit system: the ridership per mile of a given transit line.  Ridership per mile allows for easy comparisons between the ridership of like transit systems regardless of the size of a system–rather than just showing total ridership, it shows the ridership density on a given line or system.  Rapid transit (often subway) systems have the highest ridership per mile, since surrounding population density leads to a highly concentrated ridership base and justifies the higher capital costs.  Compact streetcar systems have the next highest ridership per mile, followed by more spread out light rail systems, and finally commuter rail systems.

Let’s take a look at some comparisons between rapid transit, light rail, commuter rail, and streetcar systems nationwide:

Rapid Transit Systems

System                                                 Ridership      Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    NYC Subway                                7,624,300              229                    33,294
2    PATH (NYC)                                   242,000               13.8                    17,572
3    SEPTA (Philadelphia)                 326,300                 25                      13,052
4    MBTA (Boston)                             470,200                38                       12,374
5    WMATA (Washington D.C.)      987,100             106.3                     9,286
6    Los Angeles Metro                       144,400              17.4                       8,299
7    Chicago ‘L’                                       622,400              107.5                    5,790
8    MARTA (Atlanta)                         254,800               47.6                      5,353
9    BART                                   363,100           104                  3,491
10    Baltimore Metro                           50,900              15.5                        3,284

What’s interesting here is that while Bart has the 5th highest ridership for nationwide rapid transit systems, its efficiency is only 9th as a result of its sprawling suburban lines, meaning for every one mile of rail for WMATA in Washinton D.C. or MBTA in Boston, Bart needs almost three and four miles, respectively.  Bart’s low ridership per mile also means that Bart extensions are generally not nearly as cost-effective as many of its peer systems.

Commuter Rail Systems

System                                                                 Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    Metro-North Railroad (NYC)                   265,000              384                    690
2    Metra (Chicago)                                          316,000               495                    638
3    Long Island Railroad (NY)                     367,500              700                    511
4    Caltrain                                            39,100            77             508
5    SEPTA Regional Rail (Philadelphia)     118,600               291                   408
6    MBTA Commuter Rail (Boston)             149,900               368                   407
7    Trinity Railway (Dallas-Fort Worth)     10,000                 34                    294
8    New Jersey Rail                                           276,000               951                   290

So, while Caltrain’s ridership is noticeably lower than other commuter rail systems, it is still the (just barely) 4th most efficient system in the nation.  However, if you take away the 6 trains to Gilroy (which add 25 miles but only about 500 riders), Caltrain’s efficiency becomes 752 passengers per mile, making it the most efficient system in the nation.  Caltrain’s extremely high efficiency speaks to the fact that Caltrain operates more like a single light rail line than a sprawling commuter rail system (even though Caltrain has never had the capital investment that a light rail line would have).  Electrification, grade separations, TOD, and the Downtown SF extension should more than double Caltrain’s ridership by 2025, putting it on par with other light rail systems:

Light Rail Systems

System                                                        Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile
1    Boston                                                   222,400             25.4                     7,943

Muni Metro                                154,300        29               5,321

3    METRORail  (Houston)                     38,800               7.5                      5,173
4    Buffalo Metro Rail                               23,200               6.4                      3,625
5    Los Angeles Light Rail                     135,800             55.7                     2,438
6    MAX Light Rail (Portland)             103,500               44                       2,352
7    UTA TRAX (Salt Lake City)               43,200               19                       2,274
8    Hiawatha Line (Minneapolis)          26,500               12                       2,208
9    LYNX Rapid Transit (Charlotte)     19,700             9.6                       2,052
10    Denver RTD                                             68,800             35                      1,966
11    Newark Light Rail                               19,050             9.9                        1,924

24    VTA Light Rail                         37,500          42.2            780

Ironically, even with the millions of dollars invested into VTA’s Light Rail system, it is still just as efficient as Caltrain.  Muni Metro’s efficiency is extremely high, and could be higher if not for the routes which originally had light rail but were changed to buses back in the 1950s–the Geary and Mission corridors have 100,000+ daily riders (including adjacent lines), but are stuck with buses, while all Muni Metro lines (except the N-Judah) have less than 30,000 daily riders.  These lines were saved in the early postwar era because of their tunnel infrastructure (to travel to more suburban areas) while lines along Geary, Mission, and Columbus were scrapped.

Streetcar Systems

System                                                                    Ridership    Route Miles    Ridership per Mile

1    F Line (San Francisco)                   20,000          5.1               3,884
2    Portland Streetcar                                           12,000              3.9                     3,000
3    Tacoma Link                                                         3,100              1.6                      1,938
4    South Lake Union Streetcar (Seattle)         1,780              1.3                     1,369

5    RTA Streetcar (New Orleans)                      13,900             21.5                    647

6   TECO Line Streetcar System (Tampa)         1,082              2.3                     470

Comparing Transit Efficiency in the Bay Area

So we’ve got that Caltrain is very efficient for a commuter rail system, Muni Metro and Bart are mediocre, and VTA light rail is pretty bad.  But, the biggest variable in this analysis is cost–Bart costs more than more than Muni Metro, which costs more than VTA Light Rail, which costs more than Caltrain.  Would it be possible to eliminate cost as a variable?  Here are some estimates of cost per mile for some recent and future projects to get a feel for what it would cost to build a brand new line in each of the four systems:

Project                                          Length               Cost            Cost per Mile

Bart to San Jose                            21              $7 billion       $333 million

T-Third Muni Metro Line         5.1           $648 million     $127 million

VTA extensions*                        15.6             $334 million    $69 million

Caltrain Upgrades**                  53.2         $3.378 billion    $63.5 million

*Vasona, Capitol, Tasman East, Capitol Expy extensions

**To be shared about evenly with HSR, which applied for $1.647 billion worth of HSR stimulus funds.  Caltrain’s share could be viewed as $1.731 billion, or $32.5 million per mile.

Now, here’s where the calculations get a little shaky, and highly theoretical.  Let’s establish an arbitrary base cost of $100 million per mile, and adjust ridership for each of the four systems accordingly.

(Base cost per mile/actual cost per mile) x (riders per mile)=adjusted riders per mile

Bart: (100/333) x (3491)=1048.3

Muni Metro: (100/127) x (5321)=4190

VTA Light Rail: (100/69) x (780)=1130.4

Caltrain: (100/63.5) x (752)=1184

Before I discuss what thse calculations mean, there are many ways in which this analysis comes waaaay short:

1. Different types of projects: I am comparing apples to oranges with some new future ROW aquisitions (Bart), existing past ROW but new rail (Muni Metro and VTA Light Rail), heavy future modifications with some ROW aquisition (Caltrain), future subway vs. past surface costs (some for Bart and Caltrain vs. hardly none for VTA and Muni), and different years of completion (all).

2. Ridership impact: the T-Third line and three of the four VTA lines have already had their ridership impact.  While these new lines are more or less consistent overall with the system’s ridership per mile, new ridership from Caltrain’s improvements has not even been factored in (as I’ve said, likely doubling ridership and perhaps putting the adjusted figure in the 2300s, and assuming half the cost goes to HSR puts the adjusted figure in the 4600s!).  While Bart to San Jose’s ridership numbers are questionable, either way both the system impact and the impact of the individual line wouldn’t affect Bart’s numbers very much.

3. Frequency of trains: Of the four systems here, Caltrain is currently at a major disadvantage when it comes to frequency of trains, which has a significant impact on ridership.  Systems with greater frequency hands down get more riders.

4. Operating cost: this analysis ignores operating cost, which for rail systems is fairly low compared to initial capital costs, but can add up over time.

Is this post just a bunch of wild estimates and speculations? Yes, but I think this is about as good of a comparison as is possible under a multitude of constraints.

So what on earth can this comparison tell us?  Well, in spite of the murky details, it appears that Muni Metro blows other Bay Area transit agencies away when it comes to cost-effectiveness, and Caltrain will probably be on par with Muni Metro’s efficiency within the next decade.  VTA Light Rail and Bart are the least efficient systems in the Bay Area for their price (only 1/4th as efficient as Muni Metr0) and therefore are using inappropriate transit modes for the ridership needs.  Nationwide, Muni Metro is extraordinary, and Caltrain performs extremely well for a commuter rail system.  Investments in the next ten years will put Caltrain on par with many light rail systems at a fraction of the cost.  Bart performs poorly nationwide compared with its peers, and spends a lot more money to get its riders than other rapid transit systems as well as other rail systems in the Bay Area.  This means that for Bart to become more efficient, it must look at improving station capacity (such as the horrible configurations at the 16th & Mission and 24th & Mission stations) and infill stations (30th & Mission, San Antonio, and Albany)  rather than the fringe eBart and Livermore extensions and the questionable and very costly San Jose extension (please check out Bart Boardmember and Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich’s article for more on improving transit sustainability).