In-depth: Caltrain riders say overcrowding has become an issue on trains

 

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — KRON4 is taking an in-depth look at the crushing commute many people experience in the Bay Area.

On Monday night, KRON4 looked at the problems BART riders deal with. On Tuesday night, we turned our attention to Caltrain.

The popular train service, which for decades has seen steady increases in ridership, recently saw a dip.

It is possible Caltrain is a victim of its own success.

On Tuesday night, KRON4 tagged along with riders who say overcrowding has become an issue.

For Mike Spiegel, the day starts dark and early in Redwood City.

It’s a 3-mile bike ride from his home to the Caltrain station before jumping on board the bullet train.

Two days a week, Spiegel uses Caltrain to get to work in San Francisco, then back home.

It is about an hour commute each way, compared to possibly 2-plus hours behind the wheel.

“In the morning, it can definitely be crowded and hard to find a seat,” Spiegel said.

And, he’s not alone.

Caltrain consistently rides above capacity. Passengers without a seat are left standing in the aisles.

Usually sitting on steps and in the corridors for the entire ride, Karen Stevenson got a seat this time.

But she says she’s not always this lucky.

“I usually eat my breakfast on my train ride in, so that’s not very pleasant trying to eat standing up and I’ve had to do that a few times,” Stevenson said.

Since 1997, Caltrain’s average weekly ridership has increased by about 137 percent.

And, until recently, it had a six-year stretch where ridership grew every month.

But that stopped in August through November.

During that period, Caltrain says ridership took small dips each month, compared to the same period in 2015.

And frustrations with overcrowding may be to blame.

“At some point, we knew that it might level off,” Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said. “Are we concerned? Absolutely, because we want to keep as many riders as we can on our trains.”

Bartholomew says the small ridership slide ended in December when, unlike the previous four months, ridership shot back up.

“Our average weekday ridership for the last, you know, six years has been over 60,000, you know, average weekday riders,” Bartholomew said. “And I mean, even now with the dip, it’s slightly under 60,000. So, we still have a lot of riders on board our trains.”

And, they’re loyal, like Spiegel, who says overall, the system is reliable.

“I feel like if they had more evenly spaced bullet trains with maybe a couple more cars, that’d probably help some of the crowding,” Spiegel said.

Bartholomew says Caltrain will, in the coming months, add more stops to the baby bullet train service.

Thinking long-term, Caltrain plans to electrify the system by 2021.

“And that means more service per hour and added capacity,” Bartholomew said.

It’s music to Tyler Conrath’s ears. Conrath takes the train down the Peninsula for work.

And he says he dreads the typically packed evening ride back up home to San Francisco.

“It’s not ideal, I mean riding home,” Conrath said. “Half an hour on the train standing up is never fun after a long day.”

But what all riders KRON4 spoke with agree on is that a congested train still beats a crawling car in the bottlenecked boondoggle that is Bay Area traffic.

“I really like riding the train,” Conrath said. “I never got the opportunity before I was a grown up….It’s kind of a neat experience.”

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