As good as a cab ride

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, February 4, 2010

I had some time on my hands in the Oakland, Calif., area the other day. Actually, I had a lot of time to kill. So I decided to take a round trip from Oakland to San Jose on Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains. And when I got to San Jose, I extended that round trip another 48 miles, to downtown San Francisco and back, on the Caltrain commuter line. That’s when things got interesting.
 
Caltrain is a busy railroad, operating 45 scheduled trains each way on weekdays (fewer on weekends). Its trains come in three flavors, starting with all-stops locals that take an hour and a half to make those 48 miles. Next are Limited trains that run express half way and local the other half. Finally, there are Baby Bullet trains, 11 each way, that make four or five stops and run the line in 57 to 59 minutes. The 4:25 p.m. Baby Bullet to San Francisco is loading as I buy my ticket.
 
Northbound, Caltrains run in push mode, meaning the engineer controls the train from the top level of the forward car. So I make for the forward-facing window on the bottom level of that car, figuring I’ll have at least as good a view as the engineer above me.
 
I have no idea what to expect. Least of all do I expect the engineer to crank his Baby Bullet right to 79 mph and keep it there all the way past Bayshore, mile 5.2, except to make the five scheduled stops. But this is exactly what he does, and it’s a huge rush to watch us swoop down on these suburban stations at mothers-protect-your-children speed as gates go down at street crossings and the whistle a few feet from you sounds an almost continual cadence. I’d never been on a 79-mph commuter train, much less with an engineer’s view, and stood transfixed all 57 minutes.
 
The other entertainment on this ride is provided by bicyclists. The lower level of the front half of my car is a bare floor able to accommodate 40 bikes. No sooner do I plop my bags at one end of that floor than the conductor suggests I move them elsewhere. “We’ll start filling up at Mountain View, the first stop,” he says, “and if your stuff is in their way, they’ll be screaming in your face. Our cyclists are really pushy.” Ultimately, about 20 bikers come aboard, and they seem a quiet, unaggressive bunch of folks who just want to get home.
 
Back to the front window: Caltrain has sidings at several locations to permit Baby Bullets to overtake slower trains. We begin picking up advance approach signals (flashing yellow) around San Bruno (mile 11.6), meaning we are closing on the train that left San Jose 20 minutes before we did and is now making all the local stops. But it enters the east siding at Control Point Brisbane (mile 7.1), our signals on the main track snap to green and we pass the stopped train at Bayshore (see the bottom photo).  We arrive San Francisco on the dot, and a minute later, I take a seat on a southbound Baby Bullet for a very boring return in darkness to San Jose.
 
All in all, a pretty cocky performance by Caltrains. I highly recommend that you get yourself to the front window of a northbound Baby Bullet train and discover what the excitement is all about. — Fred W. Frailey          

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