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Trans Nerdo Express

Blather | Monday, October 16th, 2006 | 10 years, 5 months ago

Just a quickie today since I’m still recovering from a bad cold and haven’t been motivated to write lately.

My business trip to Google was certainly the highlight of my trip to Mountain View, CA, but there is definitely one more point of interest I’d like to share for posterity – Caltrain. Caltrain is a Japanese baby bullet train system spanning about 50 miles from San Jose to San Francisco. These cuties arrive every 10 to 60 minutes depending on the time of day (probably 40 minutes on average), travel over 80 miles per hour, and are phenomenally comfortable. I hopped on Caltrains a few times during my stay – once to go for dinner in nearby Palo Alto (near Stanford U) and once to go to San Francisco – and as nice as my destinations were, I honestly enjoyed the trip even more!

Watashi wa Caltrain, desu! Kawaii!!

Watashi wa Caltrain, desu! Kawaii!!

There are about 25 intermediate stops between San Francisco and San Jose, with a few more limited-use stations extending southeast to Gilroy. Rush hour trains stop at every station, while express trains blaze past as many as 85% of them. It’s well advised to grab a schedule pamphlet since you never really know whether the train you’re on will be stopping at your desired destination. The trip from Mountain View to Palo Alto as well as the ride back each took about 10 minutes. The trip to San Francisco from Mountain view, stopping at every stop, took about an hour and a quarter. The express train back, stopping at about 6 stops (and thankfully Mountain View) took only 45 minutes.

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Stations are classified in numbered zones, and fares depend on the number of zones spanned. My trip all the way to Millbrae Station, near the San Francisco airport, cost only $3.75.

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An automated Caltrain ticket kiosk

The ticket machines were rather nifty, though I emitted the distinct fragrance of eaudenoob as I fumbled trying to figure the thing out. I was ticketing like a pro after the first round of confusion, though. Just insert card (but not Amex – no workey), press the button for the zone of your destination, and it prints the ticket and receipt.

Caltrain works on something of an honour system. Tickets are purchased in the station and must be kept on your person, but my ticket was only verified by a Caltrain employee on the trips to and from San Fran. The ticket checkers were exceptionally courteous, polite, and patient.

So was everyone, in fact. The driver announced each station in a ridiculously chipper demeanour, chittering little witticisms like “San Antonio station next! Not San Antonio Texas, mind you!” and “Brrrrrrroadway station next! If you can make it there you’ll make it anywhere!” He even announced that there were tourists from Germany onboard and asked everyone to assist them in finding their way! The attendants standing at some of the doors were friendly and chatty as well. It was truly refreshing to be in the company of people who certainly enjoy their jobs assisting people so much.

Once on the train I was treated to some very comfortable accommodations. The first feature that became apparent was the double-decker seating. By each door were two pairs of metal staircases leading up to the top floor of single-row seating. A flat metal storage area separating the upstairs seats was perfect for stowing luggage. I was sure to grab an upper seat to and from San Fran and I was not disappointed by the view! Seats on both levels were very comfortable, gave good back support, and were sufficiently moulded so that you don’t squish into your neighbour. Some seating quartets surrounded a little table for in-transit tete-a-tetes. Some cars had huge bicycle racks with bungee cords. Hallways were nice and wide so it was never uncomfortable to squeeze past the small crowds of standing travellers. Surprisingly, there were unisex bathrooms at the front of every car!

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Interior view from upstairs.

Between the screeching brakes and the blaring triple-horn there’s no question when a Caltrain is arriving at a station or speeding through an intersection, but onboard the vehicle is as quiet as a mouse. The ride was exceptionally smooth and not at all bumpy, and I felt very stable in my seat even while braking from full speed.

The passengers on Caltrain were awesome! I didn’t see a single suit-clad soul aboard, and EVERYONE was talking about nerdy computer stuff! No doubt this was due to my embarking in the heart of Silicon Valley, but it was really refreshing and entertaining to hear such candid conversation about local but enormous businesses like McAffee and A9.

Once again, the view from the upper seats was very lovely. I passed through some seedier areas peppered with anti-Bush graffiti and intricately lettered gang tags, but even those areas were rife with architectural and local charm. I passed by community centres, suburban areas, strip malls and mega stores, and they were built in an earthy-peach hue with deco-style patterned trim near the roofs. It was quite charming; especially as the mountains came into view (which they are not, ironically, in Mountain View).

Having lived in Calgary for 10 years I’m no stranger to mountains, but it was really lovely and majestic to see mountains devoid of snow in California. Some mountains were arid and brown with seemingly chiseled details, others were lush and green and the faraway trees appeared as a kind of mossy putting green. Some mountains were speckled with tremendously huge mansions and hotels, juxtaposing my feeling of homeyness with an aire of unattainability. Some peaks were crowned by thick fog, completely obscuring the vertex.

One of the most fascinating and beautiful sights revealed itself as I approached South San Francisco. What first appeared as a couple of neighbourhoods of humble square-ish houses, coloured in bland earthy pastels, became a rolling sea of uniquely coloured dwellings like donut sprinkles topping a wavy cake. I’m incredibly sorry that I didn’t have a camera to capture this sight (and disappointed that I can’t find a photo on Google Images) because it was this poorer suburb, not the towering stores of the city, that really struck me.

If you find yourself in San Jose, San Francisco, or somewhere between, plot a course somewhere along the Caltrain route. Caltrain is public transit done right.

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2 Comments

  1. Although Caltrain is a very good and very popular system, I really hate their use of the term “baby bullet trains”. The “baby bullet” service refers to the express trains added after the multi-year project to upgrade the system with automatic signalling and strategically located passing tracks. The train sets purchased for this service are bi-level passenger cars from Bombardier in Canada and MP36 locomotives made in Boise, ID. Nothing Japanese in sight. The older (20+ years and rebuilt reecently) equipment consists of Japanese built stainless steel ‘gallery’ bi-level coaches and US built F40 locomotives. Not exactly ‘bullet train’ equipment, yet ironically, they are using the older equipment for the express trains now, because they have a higher seating capacity. Oh yeah, one last thing, top speed…. 79 miles per hour. High speed rail systems elsewhere in the world are operating regular service up to 200mph.

    PS: all diesel too! Electricity comes ‘sometime in the next decade’. Probably about the same time we get high speed rail to L.A. (never)

    Comment by Greg — February 26, 2008 @ 4:29 am

  2. Thanks very much for the clarification. You know, I thought I remembered seeing Japanese characters on a plaque inside one of the cars but maybe my mind is playing tricks on me. Indeed, trains with the Bullet designation move at near semi-sonic speeds so the term did seem a little quizzical for these pokey railways.

    Thanks for writing, Greg! Great comment!

    Comment by brian — February 26, 2008 @ 6:52 am

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