Baby bullet a big drawBy Renee Koury
Chuck Gasperi has a tip for Caltrain riders who want to avoid parking hassles and crowds on the popular Baby Bullet trains, which whisk passengers between San Francisco and San Jose in less than an hour.
Wake up earlier.
In its first six weeks, the earliest Baby Bullets -- departing San Jose at 5:45 a.m. and San Francisco at 6:11 a.m. -- have been wide open while the three later morning trains have been packed.
The Mercury News counted 249 passengers at various points during Tuesday's first Bullet from San Francisco in a train that seats 675. The 7:45 a.m. northbound train out of San Jose carried about 1,300 passengers -- more than five times as many. Caltrain, which has no gate and doesn't regularly track riders, had similar results when it tallied riders on June 7, the Bullets' first day.
That's fine with riders like Gasperi, an information technologist who climbed off the train at 6:48 a.m. in Palo Alto Tuesday in time for a 7 a.m. meeting at Stanford University.
"If they didn't have it this early, I'd have to take the local and get up even earlier," said Gasperi, who would have to board a train before 6 a.m. and sit through 12 stops instead of just two.
But other commuters who say they would be attracted to the express service are grumbling about the limited options.
"If I catch the first Bullet train in the morning, I'm the first one in the office, and I don't need to be in the office that early," said Cary Tucker, a paralegal who commutes from San Francisco to Palo Alto.
There are only 10 Baby Bullets a day; five in the morning and five in the evening. Some commuters also complain that the evening Bullets leave too early to accommodate the business crowd -- the latest leaves San Jose at 5:45 p.m. -- especially those who want to stick around the office or catch a game or dinner after work.
Caltrain is noticing, and may rejigger its Baby Bullet schedule in October after a formal ridership survey when most people are back from summer vacations, said Caltrain spokeswoman Janet McGovern.
"People seem to not want to get up at dawn and get on a train, and, similarly, they want to stay later at their jobs," she said.
When it comes to scheduling, the long-anticipated Bullet service, which opened to great fanfare about its speed and efficiency, isn't too flexible.
Baby Bullets share the same tracks with the local trains that stop up to 24 times between the two big cities. The Bullets make only four stops, but can bypass local trains only at Brisbane and Sunnyvale.
"You can't just move a train by 15 minutes without it affecting everything else along the line," McGovern said. "It's like pulling a thread on a fabric and the whole thing unravels."
In rolling out the service, Caltrain had enough funding for only three Baby Bullet trains, which are a sleeker, more comfortable version of the older gallery trains, with worktables and computer plug-ins. But the size of the fleet limits the potential number of Bullet runs. And Caltrain officials said that the trains must be taken out of service in the evenings for maintenance, fueling and lining them up for the next morning's runs.
Caltrain settled on the early departures after rider surveys showed many passengers needed to get to work by 7 a.m., McGovern said. Caltrain engineers composed 100 different versions of a schedule before deciding on the current slate.
The trains can run only every hour, because they need to get to the other end of the line and turn around, so riders get a choice to arrive at 7, 8 or 9 a.m.
After the October ridership survey, Caltrain may consider moving the early train to later in the morning, possibly at 8:45 a.m., though that gets people to the city about 9:45 a.m. -- well past the peak hour.
Rolling out more of the express trains has its trade-offs, because it would bump some slower trains out of service. Riders at smaller stations served by local trains, such as Atherton and San Antonio in Mountain View, already feel slighted because the express trains skip by them, and fewer local trains serve their towns.
Also a factor is Caltrain's goal of creating a schedule that riders can easily remember. For example, people using the San Antonio station know most local trains depart there at 29 minutes after the hour.
McGovern said the Baby Bullet system so far has been on time 97 percent of the time.
It appears new riders have started taking Caltrain since the Bullet service began: In one indication, the ticket vending machines in June took in an average of $44,000 a day, compared with an average of $38,000 a day before the service opened.
Finding a seat -- and a parking space at the stations -- during peak hour Baby Bullet trains is becoming more difficult.
"I arrived a half-hour early and I was surprised there was no parking anywhere," said Sean Lin, an Applied Materials engineer, who was surprised the final Bullet train to San Francisco was so packed Tuesday morning. "I thought I'd miss the train."
Copyright ©2004 San Jose Mercury-News. Published 07/19/2004.