CalTrain: 10 Years Later



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My view on the way to work. CalTrain’s cars are two stories!

I’m enrolled in physical therapy down south so I had to jet out of the office a bit early today to catch the 5 pm train back home.  As I was boarding the train, I just caught the last few rays of daylight.  From October to March I usually count the daylight by which train is the last train when it’s still light.  Come late December, I’m leaving home in the dark and arriving back home in the dark.

Meeting CalTrain

I can remember moving from the mid peninsula down to the south bay and having to commute up to San Carlos.  I’m not a big fan of driving to work in heavy traffic.  Thus CalTrain and I had a first date.  It was my initial introduction to the train.  The train back then didn’t run on the weekends as they were doing a major track upgrade.  Service was slow as the train stopped at every single station and was generally a painful experience. My employer paid for my transit, so every time I rode the train it was $15 in my pocket not having to pay for gas and wear on my truck.

Back in the day, Andy and I used to go swimming out in his pool after work.  We’d eat dinner with his wife and then hit the pool to go work out.  Afterwards was the “CalTrain Sprint” because if I didn’t make the train, I got stuck there at least an hour, if not two.  After a few months riding the train, my legs were in awesome shape as I could accelerate my bike to 30 mph at the drop of a hat.  I’ve gotten soft since those days with some age and after a few years not being on the train, but I’m happy to report, I’ve broken the 25mph barrier again :).

A Word of Caution

A view out of the front car of CalTrain headed south.
Never race the gates. These trains fly down the tracks.

I can remember one night boarding the 11pm train out of San Carlos and the train mysteriously stopping just shy of the next stop, Redwood City.  I’d come to find out that we hit someone on the tracks.  In 2002-2003 the economy in this area tanked.  Suicides by train were way up.  When CalTrain hits something it is usually a 2 hour delay for the whole train system.  If they kill someone, it’s a three hour delay as the police and coroner have to come out and do a full investigation.  In either situation, all trains are brought to the nearest station and held there for an all clear.  After the all clear, the affected train usually stays put while the other trains singletrack around it.  Since that night, I’ve probably seen 7-8 incidents over the years.  The CalTrain staff says 20 incidents is typical for a year. When things go wrong, they really get bad quickly.  All the train schedules get adjusted and many trains go to all local service.  Some trains get cancelled. Thousands of people get stranded or held captive until things start running again.

A good friend was a conductor on another train line.  She educated me that the real losers in those situations are the train conductors.  They can’t stop the train.  They have to see a train under their watch kill someone.  The pain from those incidents don’t go away easily.  The feelings of helplessness for that person really do scar the conductors. Before that I’d never really considered the impact on the conductors.

Don’t ever go around or race the gates at train crossings. The gates are there for a reason. In any altercation, you will always lose. Trains cannot stop.   If you suspect something suspicious or someone in need, call 1-800-SAF-RAIL.

From Silver Slug to Silver Bullet

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Do CalTrain conductors get speeding tickets? 🙂

The “Baby Bullet” service started in June of 2004. My office moved from Redwood City to San Francisco more than doubling my commute.  The all new service was to make the ride to San Francisco 30 minutes faster than it used to be.  It was significantly faster than riding US 101.  The trains are limited to 79 mph as prescribed by law as they are not fully elevated.  The bullet trains don’t go any faster than the other trains.  They just stop less. CalTrain even got all new cars that made it easier to load and unload the train.  With the trains passing each other it required the entire system to be on time.  The on time performance rose significantly.  All was supped to be awesome, right?  After my first ride on the train I ran into a KTVU reporter interviewing patrons about the new service.  Someone at the office said later that day, “I saw you on TV!” The problem was the new cars had less than half the space for the bikes that the old cars did.  Many bike riders got bumped from the express train back to the old trains.  When I had a critical early meeting, the bullet trains were not a reliable option.

CalTrain Today

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The bike car is packed, but there is almost always room.

Working up in the city brings me back to CalTrain.  I live further from the station than I used to, but I still love riding my bike to the train.  It’s a 3 or 6 mile ride depending on how much exercise I need.  It’s fun to get off the train early on a nice day to get more exercise. I was fortunate we didn’t have that wet of a winter this year as biking in the rain (and cold) sucks :(. Many of the conductors are still the same as when I first started riding CalTrain.  Each has their own personality and flavor.  Since CalTrain is 2 hours of my life five days a week, you get to know those around you that ride “the 5:14.”  Some trains have a card games group or a Friday beer group (see Party Car and Club 66). Bullet Service has VASTLY improved as well as other express options to San Francisco.  While I’m not always on the bullet as it’s a packed train, I’ve never been bumped as the train was full.  Even the new cars have expanded bike space to meet the demand.  CalTrain does not have a direct source of funding like other public transit options, yet they do extremely well with what they have.

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With device tethering becoming more widespread, the time on the train becomes much more efficient, but less social.

I recently converted from AT&T to T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans and in many ways the service is a step backwards but it costs me $50 less a month for an expanded feature set at the expense of coverage options.  The best benefit though is 500mb of data tethering a month with reasonable upgrade options.  Being able to use my computer on the train has been a life saver.  When I’m in the zone blogging it makes the time fly by. T-Mo’s coverage is “good enough” in the city and very spotty in the country.

Some things still remain the same: “that guy” still is loud on his phone, people with bikes don’t enter the train with the furthest bike going first, and trans are occasionally late.  That all being said, it’s been a great run.

The next big milestone for CalTrain is electrification scheduled sometime near 2020.  Electrification will make it much faster to stop and start the train.  When CalTrain was considering which stops would be Baby Bullet stops, one of the concerns was that it took almost 5 gallons of fuel to stop the train.  Electrification will make CalTrain much more competitive with systems like BART with the advantage of trains passing one another. It’s been a great ride. Hopefully things keep going well for CalTrain.


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