What Makes Caltrain Great
For those of us living in the Bay Area, there is often a feeling that public transit sucks and is a failure because there are so many agencies, necessitating endless transfers and high fares. Many people point to the uncleanliness of BART, the slow travel times of Muni, the poor frequency of VTA light rail, or the exorbitant cost of Amtrak and ACE; yet there is one agency that has often gained universal praise: Caltrain.
Extending for 77.2 miles connecting San Francisco with San Jose and Gilroy, and running over 100 trains per weekday, I am proud to call Caltrain my home railroad. As a daily weekday rider commuting on Caltrain to and from school, I have ridden in nearly every rail car, seen nearly every engine, used nearly all the stations in the network, ridden at all times of the day, and engaged with many of the friendly crew members. Across all my trips, I’ve seen a commuter rail system unlike any other in the nation. The juxtaposing rolling stock (1980s Gallery Cars mixed with early-2000s Bombardier Bi-level) is sure to confuse many, and the three different service types are a unique trait unshared by most commuter rails. The system takes time to get used to.
Caltrain as a whole is quite unique in the way that it runs services. Most commuter systems around the country operate mostly local services with the occasional rush hour express train — this is common in places like Boston, New York, or Chicago — but Caltrain has a variety of service patterns. Caltrain’s three-tiered system of local services making all stops, limited services making most, but not all, stops, and Baby Bullets making very limited stops, allows the system to cater to all passengers albeit while occasionally obfuscating wayfinding if delays happen or if a tourist is looking for how to get to their stop.
I have been fortunate to ride Caltrain every day to and from my school, and I have reveled in the people-watching, scenery watching, and rail fanning that commuting has provided. My most common trip on Caltrain is the 10-minute hop from Burlingame to Hillsdale. For most of my time taking this trip throughout high school, this has meant two intermediate stops in San Mateo and Hayward Park, and often very minimal delays. I have experienced the ebbs and flows of ridership, seen passengers return from Covid, experienced everything from fare evasion being caught to drunk passengers, and in between it all, grown to love the agency closest to my heart.
This article is part of a larger series analyzing the role that different Bay Area transit agencies play in connecting the region. What makes Caltrain great is that it really does integrate so well with other agencies. Of course, it would be nice if all transit in the region could be operated by one all-encompassing agency, but Caltrain sure does a nice job at not only connecting two of the largest cities in the United States, but also in making it easy to hop off the train and onto a bus, onto BART, or onto VTA light rail. Caltrain does its best with its limited fleet and financial reserves to run the only true frequent inter-city rail corridor in the Bay Area. While still designed for commuting, many Caltrain riders are not commuters. With half hourly off-peak weekday service at some stations, and minimum hourly service at all stations on weekdays and weekends, Caltrain defies the stereotypes of traditional commuter railroads. On days where sports teams are playing in San Francisco, Stanford, or San Jose, Caltrain adds more service. With its recent service adjustments in August 2021, Nightly service was upgraded from local service every hour to local service every 30 minutes! Though the frequency could be better at times, as a rider I have felt that I can take Caltrain anywhere, and anytime, without worrying about needing to take an alternate mode of transportation home if it is too late or if I miss the train.
Caltrain’s service is equally matched by its ambition. Many of you might recognize that Caltrain is undergoing a massive modernization program to electrify the tracks and acquire new Stadler Electric-Multiple Unit (EMU) trains. Many of you might be jealous, but know that the upgrades Caltrain is receiving is well deserved. Indeed, ridership was around 75,000 per weekday in 2019, and with new EMU trains, not only will travel times be reduced, but frequencies can be expanded, allowing the system to operate at more times all-day long. With the corridor having employers, residents, and attractions dispersed all throughout the line, there is no need to have service in peak hours in only one direction; there needs to be service in both directions, at all times, because the Bay Area is a unique area necessitating unique transit. An electrified Caltrain is what residents deserve. Caltrain hit a rough patch during the pandemic — voters had to approve Measure RR in November 2020 to increase the local sales tax by 1/8th of a percent in order to provide stable funding — and in these trying times one can only hope that Caltrain continues to rebound and recover. Weekend ridership has returned at very swift levels, with many trains, which only run hourly on weekends, being very packed. As baseball season resumes, more people will fill the seats to go to Giants games, or even Warriors playoff games. Truly, Caltrain is a service for all, and quite possibly could be the best intra-region, intercity, commuter rail service in the nation.