Original post made
on Jul 6, 2007
Your editorial caught my attention, especially after enduring a 3 hour Caltrain commute home from the City the day before. I have been riding Caltrain from Mountain View to the City daily for over 15 years, so I believe I have sufficient experience to add a few complaints to your list.
I'll start with their staff. You say that many Caltrain employees are friendly and helpful, but it doesn't take very many who are rude and downright mean to make the ride uncomfortable. There is one fellow who wanders up and down the train making snide remarks that imply that everyone is out to cheat the system, and who generally makes us all feel like we would be doing him a favor if we didn't ride the train at all. Many of their announcements are shrill and piercing. I have watched conductors refuse to wait 30 seconds for a passenger running down the platform to catch the train. Their excuse that they have schedules to keep is hollow because the trains rarely run on schedule as it is. And they creep the last half mile into the San Francisco station at a clip that boggles the mind. I endorse your comment about the ticketing scheme. Any scheme designed to allow their employees to provide less service to customers reflects their attitude about who is the real customer.
Your editorial referred to a complicated schedule. That leads me to another gripe. The whole point of implementing the Baby Bullet trains was to offer a quicker ride into the city. The trip from Mountain View was cut by about 10-12 minutes. But in the process, my door-to-door commute was increased by 20-25 minutes. In the morning, I have to leave my house 15 minutes earlier to ensure finding a parking spot to catch the 6:57AM Northbound. The limited parking means there is no longer any flexibility in catching a later train unless my wife is available to drop me off at the station. Any need to schedule a morning errand must be done around my wife's availability. To top this issue off, they have both northbound and southbound bullet trains arrive at Mountain View within a few minutes of each other. The parking lot becomes grid-locked, adding 10-15 minutes to get out of the lot. Finally, the trains behind the bullets arrive just about the time it takes to exit the lot, backing up traffic at the Castro crossing, adding more time to get home. As far as I am concerned, the bullet trains are a bust. The City of Mountain View should make some adjustment to the traffic patterns around the station during the peak hours. A flashing red stop light at the parking lot entrances for a couple of hours would be a very simple solution.
There are other issues, but I'll just mention one more. Some time ago, they announced that free wireless would be available, and they went through a test period. Then nothing. Have they dropped the plan?
Hi Mr. Rands,
I'm a locomotive engineer on Caltrain and I just wanted to address some of your complaints.
I won't argue with you about our conductors; some of them are wonderful, and others leave a lot to be desired. It's no more fun to work with the miserable ones than it is to ride one of their trains as a passenger. Write letters.
As far as leaving "runners" behind, the "keeping the train on schedule" excuse is not hollow by any means. However, it would more accurately be described as "keeping the train from getting later than it already is". With trains making up to 20 intermediate stops, 30 extra seconds at every stop waiting for runners would make the train 10 minutes late, barring any other delays. Compounding the problem, once trains get late, it throws off their "meets" with opposing trains at hold-out stations (where only one train at a time can board/detrain passengers). Late trains get later, and as ridership keeps increasing, it gets harder and harder to keep the trains on-time in the first place. The schedule is so tight (with trains catching up to others, or overtaking them in some cases) that one train which is a mere 5 minutes late can throw off the entire rush hour commute in one direction for an hour.
Finally, as for the long craaaaawl into San Francisco, once you get around the big sweeping right-hand curve (which is limited to 25mph), the speed limit goes down to 10mph all the way to the bumper at the end of the platform. This is due to deteriorated tracks and switches. The relatively good news is that the construction you've probably seen at the depot will allow an increase in speed from 10mph to 20mph. Certainly not great, but better.
I hope this was helpful!
Thanks for your article. Here are some observations from a Caltrain passenger of 10+ years:
For the most part I love Caltrain although I have a short commute from Mountain View to Palo Alto or Menlo Park. I can walk to the train station so I don't have to worry about parking. The new honor system doesn't bother me probably because I don't have to buy or punch my ticket because I have a Go Pass (provided by my employer). Since the new honor system started, I have rarely shown my ticket as it is rare for a conductor to come through the train asking to see tickets (what do these conductors do now that they don't have to sell or punch tickets like they did in the old days?). The one problem I see with the ticket machines is that they are located in the center of the platforms which means people who are running late, need to run to the center of the platform to get to the machines...it seems that placing the machines at both ends of the platforms would be better (which probably means they would need to reroute the electrical wiring). As for the conductors selling tickets on the trains...they use to do this when stations were not staffed to sell tickets. You could often ride the train for free if the conductor didn't get to you before you got off the train.
The signs are somewhat helpful if a train is running late, however the live announcements that are made are laughable. The last couple of times that I have been stuck waiting for delayed trains, someone would get on the PA system and try to make an announcement. However they wouldn't know what to say and would sound very confused. It seems that whoever is making an announcement needs a script written out for them.
As for knowing the train numbers and reading the schedule...I think it just takes years of practice to figure these things out. I've read plenty of bus and subway schedules...Caltrain's schedule is no different and there is a logic to their system.
My biggest complaint about Caltrain is cleanliness. The seats are filthy as a result of allowing people to eat and drink on the train. I would like to see the trains cleaned more often (not eliminating food and drink on the train like BART). The other issue is cleaniness at the stations especially after the weekends. The Mountain View platform is filthy from spilled beverages and vomit. It would be nice if the station was cleaned every Monday morning and immediately anytime someone gets sick.
I think most of these problems are fixable, unfortunately, Caltrain probably doesn't have the money to fix them. Oh well, I'll keep riding until something forces me to change my transportation habits.
The response from the Caltrain engineer just doesn't fly with me. After 15 years of constant travel on Caltrain, I can attest that trains often run 5-10 minutes late without any trouble with scheduling. The conductors usually announce that they will try to make up the time, or they just apologize for the inconvenience.
Today on the 12:37 southbound, the train was held up in Milbrae to allow half a dozen runners coming down the stairs from the BART crossover, and it worked out great. The engineer's response really sounds to me like the schedule is more important than some good old fashioned customer service.
Thank you Caltrain Engineer for your response. I appreciate that you took the time to provide that explanation. It is logical. It is also good to finally hear why Caltrain chugs along so slowly into the terminus station in SF. This information, along with the info from Mr. Frances's editorial, deserves to be in the FAQ on the Caltrain web site
Mr. Rands, I have to agree with the engineer here. The schedule is posted well in advance, available online, at the station, and often other places such as work places and libraries. I have been the late person running for the departing train but don't have hard feelings for the engineer needing stick to the schedule. I'd rather have a rail system we can depend on being [mostly] on-time than like the bus system in which nobody knows when the bus is coming. Timeliness is one of the biggest complaints regarding public transportation, so I don't think making it worse by waiting for stragglers is an appropriate way to address the issue.
The Caltrain web site has information regarding WiFi (end of 2007), future service to Fremont (2012), and electrification of the system (2012).
I commute every day via Caltrain with a Go Pass, so this doesn't really affect me now, but I wish there was a system in place where you could buy your tickets online beforehand. There was one time where I was coming SFO-Millbrae-Caltrain, and BART got to Millbrae just as Caltrain was there, but there just wasn't time to get a ticket and get on the train before departing. I then had the pleasure of waiting an hour before the next southbound train arrived. Being able to print a ticket online beforehand would have been great.
I second the use of the signs at the stations. While the time of day and safety messages are nice, a little more useful schedule messages would be appreciated.