“Frequency effect” strikes again as Calif. transit agency adds fourth train, grows ticket revenue 60%!

March 15, 2013

Most people outside California probably don’t know that Silicon Valley has its own fleet of commuter trains and that employees in the digital-technology industry ride them in surging numbers. .

Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) was established in 1998 after it became clear that housing in Silicon Valley itself could not accommodate the exploding numbers of workers joining the computer industry. Priced out of San José, Santa Clara and Sunnyvale, high-tech employees were swarming east across the Sunol Ridge and Altamont Pass into fast-growing subdivisions in Pleasanton, Livermore, Tracy, Lathrop and even Stockton, 86 miles away in the Central Valley.

But although the housing was cheaper, the drive was expensive—and wasteful: Nobody could do any work–or get any sleep–at the wheel of a car.

So in 1997 the San Joaquin County joined with Alameda and Santa Clara counties to form a joint-powers authority (JPA) to fund commuter-rail service from Stockton into San José. In October 1998 a tiny operation—two trains a day in each direction on weekdays only—started up. The trains were popular in the beginning, but the dot-com recession of 2002 devastated ridership, As the industry returned to boom status, a third train was added in 2009, but limited track capacity prevented further growth until additional track was opened in the fall of 2012 and the long-awaited fourth daily frequency began to operate.

And the people came.

“It’s amazing,” Thomas Reeves, a spokesman for the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission told the Modesto Bee. “Our ridership has really gone up.”

A report released by the Commission showed that in January of 2013, fare receipts were running 58.93 per cent ahead of the same month a year earlier, from $394,407 to $626,838.

Before the fourth train began, ACE revenues had been growing about 7 per cent per year. But in the first full month of the fourth train’s operation, October 2012, it surged 26.79 per cent, then relaxed during the holiday period to about 18 per cent before rallying in January to the astonishing 58.93 per cent figure.

What induced all those new commuters to start using ACE trains?

“It’s the frequency, stupid,” said Corridor Capital LLC CEO James E. Coston. “There are many people who would like to switch from driving to a commuter train for the daily work trip, but they’re reluctant because the number of departures is so low that they have a very narrow window during which they can come or go.

“If the boss wants to you to stay late to finish a big project or go out for dinner after work with some important clients, what do you do?”—Coston said. “If the last train has left by the time your overtime work has ended, you either have to book a hotel room near the office or have somebody from home drive out and pick you up. People want choices when they travel, and two or three trains a day is not a lot of choices.”

How many frequencies a day are needed before people sense they have the flexibility to become train riders?

“That can vary according to the way the passengers use the train,” Coston said. “If it’s a short-distance commuter train that people are using for a regular 9-to-5 work schedule, a relatively small number of frequencies can meet the needs of those workers. If the route is a little longer, and if the riders are more diverse and have jobs with open-ended hours, the train system would have to be more flexible and responsive to their schedules.

“Apparently, that’s what happened with the Altamont Commuter Express,” Coston said. “The fourth train was the charm.”

Coston said on a longer, intercity route with fewer commuters, more discretionary travelers and a large city at both ends, it could take six or eight frequencies before the train begins to appeal to large numbers of travelers.

“Illinois currently sponsors four daily Amtrak trips on the Chicago-Springfield-St. Louis route, and Michigan has three trains a day between Chicago and Detroit, but both states are planning to expand the number of daily round trips,” he said. “Illinois wants to go to eight, and Michigan has talked about as many as eleven.”

Coston said those numbers are “reasonable and achievable.”

“When California was trying to build up its Oakland-Sacramento service more than a decade ago, it was the sixth train that broke the game open and made that route a success,” he said. “Now those trains make 15 round trips every day and carry over a million passengers a year.”

Coston said train speed and the number of stations on the route also can affect how popular a route will be.

“In 2006 Amtrak and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania completed an upgrade of the Keystone Corridor between Harrisburg and Philadelphia and increased the number of daily round trips from six to thirteen,” Coston said.. Ridership jumped more than 50 per cent and kept climbing.”

But it wasn’t just the frequencies that improved the route’s performance, he said.

“They also upgraded the track from 79 miles per hour to 110 miles per hour. A trip that used to take over two hours now takes only an hour and 45 minutes.

“I don’t think anybody knows the precise relationship between frequency and speed on any given route,” Coston said. “What’s clear from the ACE experience is that even if speed doesn’t improve, more frequencies will bring in lots more passengers.”

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