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Express Train Set to Leave Traffic Behind

The 'Baby Bullet' is expected to trim 39 minutes from San Jose to San Francisco.

June 07, 2004|Marisa Lagos | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Thousands of commuters here will have another alternative to sitting in traffic today: Caltrain's new "Baby Bullet" express service, which promises to nearly cut in half the travel time from San Jose to San Francisco, and hopes eventually to lure as many as 15,000 drivers off freeways.

Though it will operate no faster than Caltrain's other lines -- top speeds are 79 mph -- the state-funded Baby Bullet will make only six or seven stops on the San Francisco Peninsula, breezing past the other 22 stations on Caltrain's main line. Aiding in the change are two new "pass tracks," in Brisbane and Sunnyvale, which will allow the locomotives to bypass local trains sitting at the stations.

That will slash the San Jose-to-San Francisco trip from an hour and 36 minutes to 57 minutes, saving everyday riders 6 1/2 hours a week, said Caltrain Chief Communications Officer Rita Haskin. And because years of Caltrain surveys show that people want to shorten their commute, Haskin hopes the new train will catch on quickly.

"We haven't given a projected ridership number; we know a lot of local train riders will shift over and save a lot of time. We also anticipate attracting new riders," she said.

The new train will shave a "significant" 20 minutes each way off Woody Gonsalves' commute from Mountain View, about 40 miles south of San Francisco, to his job as a computer department manager in the city.

"I won't be able to sleep in, but I will be able to have some more time in the evening," he said during a recent ride into San Francisco. "I'm happy about it."

Debuting about 6 a.m. today, five Baby Bullets will run every 60 minutes during morning and evening rush hours. Each train can carry more than 700 riders and will stop at six stations: San Jose Diridon, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Hillsdale, Millbrae and San Francisco. An additional stop in San Francisco will serve those commuters returning to the city each evening.

But Baby Bullet riders aren't the only ones who will be affected: Caltrain veterans also will have to change their schedules, Haskin said, as the agency restructures its schedule to accommodate the express service.

On a recent morning, several Caltrain passengers said that they would not be able to take the Baby Bullet from their station, but that the schedule changes were negligible.

"I don't think the time changes matter; you can't please everyone all the time," said David Schmittdiel, a marketing associate who travels on Caltrain about 40 minutes each way daily from San Mateo to San Francisco. And though he would like a shorter commute, Schmittdiel said he wasn't too disappointed that the Baby Bullet wouldn't stop in San Mateo.

"It's more important to me to have the right times," he explained. "I'm not going to wake up a half-hour earlier to save 10 minutes."

Jorge Velaco, who commutes to Menlo Park from the city, said the new schedule means that he will "leave 10 minutes later in the morning and have a few more options in the evening."

"Personally, I'm disappointed I can't take the new train," he said, adding that eventually, he would like to see other trains running on similar schedules to alternate stations.

In the works for about four years and under construction for the last two, the Baby Bullet is the brainchild of state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough).

Speier wanted to decrease traffic congestion within years, not decades, and in 2000 she secured $127 million in state funds for the project. That money -- from the Traffic Congestion Relief Program -- paid for construction of the pass tracks and provided $53 million to buy the Baby Bullet's six locomotives and 17 passenger cars.

Other local and grant money went toward improvements in the line's signal system, track upgrades and an overhaul of two stations along the line.

Speier said she coined the term Baby Bullet to give people an idea of what the train could do. "Absolutely, faster is better," Speier said. "While it's not high speed, it's the baby version of that .... I think that if we make these things available and as the economy recovers, we're going to see ridership increase dramatically."

The completion of Baby Bullet construction also meant that Caltrain's weekend service, shut down since 2002, resumed Saturday. To thank riders for their patience during the 23-month hiatus, the agency offered free rides Saturday and Sunday and next weekend. Caltrain held a promotional festival Saturday.

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