Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Caltrain 1, shwu 1

I have a love/hate relationship with Caltrain. Some days, we're good - really good. It makes me want to be a better person, and I can't imagine my life anymore without it. Other days... well, I'm left utterly disappointed, disillusioned, and - dare I say it? - inconvenienced.

For those unfamiliar with Caltrain, it's the regional rail line that runs between San Francisco and San Jose (it extends to Gilroy, but most people outside of California who don't follow the garlic industry don't care about Gilroy). On peak hours on weekdays, it mostly serves Bay Area commuters who like saving the environment and their cortisol levels, much like NJ Transit or Amtrak regional does in the northeast.

Caltrain is great, as a concept, but they have some serious implementation flaws, the biggest one being their "proof-of-payment" system. Rather than have turnstiles or some other way of checking whether you have a valid ticket before you board, they assume you've bought one, and do random checks onboard (very infrequently). What this means (besides tempting you into cheating the system - which often happens unintentionally because their ticket punching machines are pieces of crap) is that tickets are timestamped and must be used within a certain timeframe - 4 hrs for one way, by 30 min past midnight the day you buy them for day passes, and within 60 days for 10-ride passes (which you must validate using aforementioned crappy ticket punchers each time you ride). This means you can't just buy single tickets or day passes ahead of time; if you want to stock up, the 10-rides are probably the best bet, but only if you are going to use them. The other bad thing about Caltrain is that it isn't BART. BART is the rail service for the entire rest of the bay area - East Bay, North Bay, and San Francisco too. This means if you want to get to the East Bay, or even to the San Francisco airport, you need to transfer to BART, which uses a different ticketing system. Argh x 2.

Anyway, all that said, I can't really bash Caltrain too much, because it does have some cool stuff going for it. One is that they have bike cars - cabins where you can store bikes while you ride - which is great for people like me who like to bike to/from the train station. And it doesn't cost extra, which is nice considering that the bikes take up the space of seats for paying passengers. Plus, their express and limited stop trains make travel much faster for certain commuting trips (Palo Alto to Mountain View, chaching). The other nice thing is that when a train is stopped at a station, they often aren't covering up the track crossings, and so they'll raise the crossing bar while they're stopped to let people who got there just a second too late to cross anyway and get on the train. W00T! ... Except when they don't let the bar up.

On two occasions, this morning being one of them, I've arrived at the station just as the train arrives, and thus can't cross. Usually, the bar rises while the train is stopped to let latecomers cross, but not either of those two times. Once, the train was physically stopped over the crossing, so the bar couldn't go up, and I was angry because the train isn't supposed to stop over the crossing! This time, the train was stopped about 25 feet from the crossing, but they still didn't raise the bar. Double $!*@!!

(Actually, there was another time, a week or two ago, where I got there, saw the train was already there, saw the bar was up, quickly crossed the tracks, but as soon as I crossed and got on the platform, the bar went back down and the train started moving, right past me. So maybe the score is really Caltrain 3, shwu 1.)

So where does my victory come in? Ok, after telling about those other incidents, I really see that Caltrain wins by a landslide. My, let's say, 1/2 point comes from one of the conductors giving me a "destination tag" for my bike the other day. Bikes on Caltrain are expected to have tags saying where they're going so that people can stack the bikes accordingly. My bike didn't have one because I was told you can only get those tags at San Jose or San Francisco (or make them yourself). But the other day one of the conductors actually had some, so I scored one. Too bad that Chris had already made us much nicer looking tags the day before (that I forgot to bring with me). Hmm... make that 1/4 point.

Caltrain 3, shwu 0.25. (>_<)


Dan said...

Just as a heads-up, those pedestrian crossing gates that you referred to are automatic -- we can't let them up. If we stop too close to them, or the track circuit senses that the train is still moving even though it isn't (for some reason), the gates will stay down.

As for why we stop too close to the crossing sometimes... well, let's just say that stopping a train and keeping it on schedule is very tricky business, and some of the spots at the stations are very close to the crossings as-is... So if we misjudge just a little bit, we end up crowding the crossing and thereby keeping the gates down. Weather (wet rail, leaves on the track, etcetera) causes problems too. Sorry about that!

--Your friendly Caltrain engineer

shwu said...

Hi Dan. Very cool to see your comment - I had no idea anyone with answers would read my blog! I'm glad to hear the reason for the crossing bars, though a little sad that even if the train operator saw me standing there forlornly, s/he could do nothing about it. I guess I should just plan a little better and get there earlier, but you know how it is some days.

Thanks for your work on Caltrain, I do appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

i think there's no shortage of people complaining about how the newer cars have way less bike capacity, and there's no way to predict what kind of car will arrive at a given time. i guess (according to caltrain) this is unavoidable, but it still sucks. i've had to wait for the next train because the first one's bike car was full, which sucks. i've wondered: will they hold the whole train for you to give you time to lock your bike in the bike racks after finding out the bike car is full?

the complaint i haven't heard before, but certainly want to make myself, is that those bike tags are so handy, but seemingly impossible to get! why only have them at two stations, during business hours? why give so few to the conductors that they run out instantly? they can't be that expensive or that much of a theft target... why not just put a whole bunch on the trains?? the logical place to look for them would be along with the plentiful schedules and pamphlets in the bike car on the train.

i really want one. :-)

Anonymous said...

The idea behind proof-of-payment is that the fine is so large (over $100) that the expected return to riding without a ticket is zero. Of course, actual implementation may differ -- if the fare checks don't come often enough, or if they are somehow predictable, then the system breaks down.

Considering how poor a job NJ Transit does on fare enforcement, I'd rather not be paying the assistant conductor dudes their wages + medical benefits + retirement contributions. (Half the time, Princeton Junction to Trenton is free, because half the conductors are too lazy to bother checking. And the new double-decker cars just make them lazier.)

Fare gates work, but are a pain for luggage, or for changing your mind once you're past the gates.