Issue 571 June to July 2019

High-speed trains, intercity trains and local trams arrive at Rotterdam Central at the same time on a “pulse.” Real-time travel information and high-quality maps help people find their connecting trains. Within a few minutes, the station will be empty and the cycle will repeat. Implementing these methods in California could transform our transportation system. Photo by Nicky Boogaard.

Giving Old Infrastructure New Life

What networked rail could mean for the Northern California megaregion.

Urbanist Article

In 2018, California set out an ambitious vision for an integrated passenger rail system that would provide its cities with frequent, reliable rail service. As part of the SPUR Regional Strategy, we are taking this statewide vision one step further by identifying some of the major changes needed to implement the state’s vision throughout the Northern California megaregion. The megaregion includes four adjacent metropolitan areas: the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento region, Monterey Bay area and northern San Joaquin Valley. This isn’t about building a new network with major expansions. It’s about using the infrastructure we already have in a new way.

SPUR, with support from the design and engineering firm AECOM, is developing a strategy to transform our disconnected rail systems into a seamless megaregional rail system, as well as a suite of strategies for making station areas transit-supportive and equitable. At the center of the strategy is frequent and reliable service that is available all day. When implemented, the megaregional rail network would connect the major cities of the Bay Area every 15 minutes or better, and the major cities in the Northern California megaregion every half hour or better. The changes would make it possible to get anywhere in the Bay Area by rail in 60 minutes or less and anywhere in the megaregion in 90 minutes or less.1

Integrated service is at the center of this network — timed transfers between rail systems and other travel modes, designed around a repeating and predictable schedule — what is often referred to as a “pulse” network.

First off, the Bay Area’s many public transit services can and should be integrated so they function like one easy-to-use network. This is a big shift, requiring changes in the way we plan, build and manage the network. The key elements of a pulse network (and what it would mean for residents of the Bay Area and for the transit agencies who serve them) are outlined below:

Frequent service

Frequent service, arranged in a regular, repeating train schedule, makes rail travel much more reliable. People no longer have to plan their day around the train schedule and ridership grows. The small but unpredictable events of real life — a sick child, a meeting that runs late, a traffic jam, a missed alarm — do not ruin the entire day. Another train will always be available within a short wait time.

In SPUR’s vision, major cities in the San Joaquin Valley — Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto and Merced — will have service at least every half hour or better in peak periods. Major cities in the Bay Area — San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland — will have service every 15 minutes or better in peak periods.

This would be a vast improvement over the level of service that exists today. Some rail services offer relatively high levels of service during peak hours but that frequency declines significantly in the middle of the day, after the evening peak and on weekends. For instance, Caltrain drops from a peak of five trains per hour in the morning to one per hour midday. Rail services that connect the megaregion and Bay Area are infrequent and currently, there is no convenient way for people to travel from the tri-valley or Central Valley to the Peninsula.

The megaregional rail vision would operate on a repeating “pulse” schedule. When trains arrive at a hub or station at about the same time, people would transfer between them, and then trains would all leave at about the same time.2 The time between the trains, known as headways, would be consistent throughout the day, so arrival and departure times would not be bunched and irregular.


The ability to transfer between systems easily, intuitively and in pleasant stations would make “anywhere to anywhere” travel possible, shorten travel times and give people access to the entire public transit network. Transit would then match up with how people actually travel, increasing its use.

Many of the megaregion’s rail systems were planned decades ago, when the region’s growth pattern looked very different from how it does today. Much of the infrastructure was designed as individual, radial routes that served commuters between the suburbs and one central city. BART, for example, was originally constructed to bring East Bay suburban commuters to San Francisco. The systems were also designed to give people a one-seat ride—a direct connection between point A and point B without a transfer, in hopes that this would make transit more competitive with the car. A one-seat ride is convenient for some, but it also limits the connectivity in the network and people’s range of access.

Today, the Bay Area has not one but three central cities and a large share of jobs and homes are dispersed across many smaller, low-density cities. It is too expensive to build an entirely new rail system to address the region’s growth pattern; instead we have to use our old infrastructure in new ways.

The idea of a network is well-suited to the Bay Area’s spread-out geography, which requires a strategy for suburb-to-suburb travel in addition to city-to-city travel. The network is designed for easy and timed transfers at hubs.

Transfers are good for the network as a whole. Designing connections around the “pulse” reduces wait times between connecting trains, making trip times much shorter and more competitive. It can also reduce overall costs; timed connections and integrated timetables compensate for lower frequencies at certain times of day.

Major investments in new stations and station improvements would be required to help people to transfer quickly, easily and intuitively between trains (routes or lines) and between modes (e.g., bicycle to train). There is no hierarchy of stations in the Bay Area and megaregion network. Salesforce Transit Center and San Antonio Station look the same on regional transit maps though they are very different places with very different levels of transit services. SPUR envisions a megaregional rail network anchored by two types of hubs: major multimodal hubs and regional hubs. Major multimodal hubs are those located in the downtowns of major cities, which would bring together many types of transportation modes, and have the potential to support concentrations of new economic activity and housing. Downtown San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton and Sacramento are examples of locations that are well-suited for major multimodal hubs. Trains would leave from these stations every half hour (or better), all day long. Because hubs are major transfer points, this vision would necessitate short walking distances between trains and between high-capacity modes; fare policies that allow free transfers; and clear maps, signage and wayfinding.

Local transit has to get better as rail gets better

Rail works best for moving people long distances between dense urban areas. It is not well-suited or financially feasible for suburban and rural areas. However, people living in suburban and rural locations need access to the network. The way to provide access to the network is through strong local transit networks that bring people to the hubs and also operate on a pulse schedule with timed transfers. In other countries, each type of place is guaranteed a minimum level of local service (usually buses) to connect them to the rail network. For instance, in Zurich, every settlement with 300 residents or jobs must be provided with basic transit service.3

Historically, however, the Bay Area has often cut services to local transit while simultaneously building and expanding regional systems. This is a false tradeoff. In order to give everyone the access to the rail network, the region will need to reverse this trend and reinvest in local transit by designing routes to feed into the hubs and making service more frequent. Because suburbs are dispersed and there are many origins and destinations, here too there needs to be a network of routes with easy transfers.4

The importance of reinvestment

The northern California megaregion needs to reinvest in its system, fully utilizing its infrastructure investments by offering frequent and reliable service that is available all day. Many people wonder why more people don’t take the train today. The reasons are obvious: it’s too infrequent, unreliable and expensive. An investment in megaregional rail is a calculated gamble: rail will be more competitive when it allows us to travel almost anywhere (comparable coverage to the car) within a reasonable and predictable amount of time (comparable quality to the car) throughout the day (comparable availability to the car). These are the qualities that a pulse schedule and timed transfers — a true network — can provide.



1 This article is the first in a series about what this vision would really mean for the Northern California megaregion.

2 Ratna Amin, SPUR, The Caltrain Corridor Vision Plan, 2017, 2017-02-23/caltrain-corridor-vision-plan

3 Paul Mees, 2010, Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, Earthscan Publishing.

4 Vukan R. Vuchic, Richard Clarke and Angel Molinero, “Timed Transfer System Planning, Design and Operation,” United States Department of Transportation Urban Mass Transportation Administration, October 1981, p.9.


Laura Tolkoff is SPUR’s Regional Planning Policy Director