Unfortunately, most of its problems are technical, which means its equipment needs to be upgraded, which means ... more money.
I've been riding Caltrain regularly for a couple years now, and believe its problems boil down to three main issues: obscure train numbering, bad ticket dispensing, and a schedule so complicated it looks like a periodic table of the elements. All three of these things could be fixed outright by better machines. But the agency can take steps to improve on them (especially the first two) with what they have now.
Take the train numbers: Newcomers to the system have no idea which trains are which, or how to tell. I used to stand on the platform in downtown Mountain View scratching my head as they pulled in. Finally I'd take a guess, figuring it was more or less the right time, and climb aboard. This strategy often got me stranded in Millbrae.
One day a conductor told me the secret: If it's an older-model train, the last two digits of the train number will be written on the engine's side-view mirrors. The newer-model trains have LED readouts on the engines, located near the center headlight, so look there for the train number. Got it?
"I know it's confusing," he admitted. He was very friendly and helpful, as many Caltrain employees are.
I asked him about the electronic signs on the platforms — which currently do little more than give the time of day, or admonish riders to stay behind the yellow line. Why not have those announce the trains as they're pulling in?
"I heard we're working on that," he said.
This was confirmed by Caltrain spokesman Jonah Weinberg, who told me last week that "We do have long-term plans to put in signs that can do more."
Such signs that can do more — like BART's electronic signs, which announce the trains as they're pulling in, and the wait time for upcoming trains — are called "predictive arrival" signs, Weinberg said. As for when they might be installed: "The technology is there. The funding is not there to install that technology."
Until it is, Caltrain could easily do better. The current system could be improved, at the very least, with consistent announcements from the conductor as to which train we're on.
As for ticket dispensing, I'm not the first to suggest that crew members sell tickets on the train. Obviously Caltrain doesn't want to burden its crew with ticket sales, but a "convenience fee" of, say, $10 should act as a good deterrent, while still providing cover for train-jumpers who simply had to catch that train (but didn't have time to buy a ticket at the station's slow-moving machine).
These days, Weinberg said, Caltrain's focus is on upgrading its track system, including more switches and crossovers. These will improve the flexibility of the system, he said, allowing trains to be routed around stalls and bottlenecks.
This led us to talking about the holy grail of commuter railways: electric trains. Caltrain is holding out hope, Weinberg said, that its system can be converted to electric "in about seven years, is the plan."
With electric trains, which start and stop more quickly and cheaply, the schedule could be revamped without cutting into current service levels — allowing Caltrain to simplify its schedule and fix that last item on my list.
But Weinberg said such upgrades won't come without a dedicated funding source, which Caltrain currently lacks. "It's always a scramble year to year for us to balance our budget," he said.
Peninsula residents will continue to use Caltrain whether or not these improvements are made. Its hiccups are no reason to toy with its funding — rather, improving its funding will allow Caltrain to fix the hiccups.