Caltrain #219 fights off his demon dogs

A local commuter train thinks about his lot in life and ponders what might be

📍Bay Peninsula, California

On one of the first genuinely warm mornings last spring, passengers waited just a little more patiently than normal, thinking about birds, and sunshine, and Steph Curry. Caltrain 219 was delayed and no one could tell when he was going to swing on by to pick up his passengers northward to The Great Golden City.

As with every other day (and most of his early bird customers), Caltrain 219 had a difficult time getting out of bed. For years, it had grown more difficult to ease his stainless steel skeleton into slow, but determined locomotion. Today though he was paralyzed. Seasonable depression was settling down and making itself at home. This feeling was more than increasing expectations from the conductor (“faster!”), and growing complaints from passengers who would text co-workers “running late… again”. The station mechanics were the worst though. Caltrain 219 could see posters of younger, sleeker, faster trains pinned up in the repair garage. Things left unsaid can be the most painful of all.

It wasn’t a hangover, though there had been plenty of those lately too. It wasn’t even the emptiness he felt without another train to wake up next to the next morning. He had burned most of his bridges there, winking without discretion at Caltrains 317, 237, and 312 as they all passed each other daily. They’d all find out about each other soon enough, and they did. After a while, Caltrain 219 and his workplace flings were left fake-smiling while they idled next to each other at 4th & King, anxious for their timetables to begin and to shed the awkwardness of poor decisions made long and not so long ago. While there were no explicit rules in the Caltrain handbook about fishing off the company pier, it just seemed to everyone like such an obviously bad idea that nobody had to say anything.

Now 31 years old and with a body less worse off than it should have been, it seemed like Caltrain 219 couldn’t actually distinguish destructive decisions from constructive ones. He was once a gleaming, silver two-story barrel that roared through through the peninsula. You would have called him arrogant if you weren’t distracted by the grace at which he appeared coming out of the Bayview tunnel, smiling but only just so as he looked past you all the way to San Jose.

Constant self-criticism had created a warm environment of selfishness to the point where he didn’t even *really* care about whether passengers arrived on time. If things worked out and they caught him on a good day, well good for them. Other days, he’d arrive late, unapologetic, and unpunished. It was impossibly easy to blame a lack of what Caltrain officials referred to as ‘a sense of urgency’ on plain old bureaucracy. Things could always be someone else’s fault if you wanted it to be.

Part of the problem was that therapy just wasn’t doing much for 219 any more. After so many incidents over the years, officials had brought in professionals to “create a safe space where any Caltrain could talk about whatever they wanted.” Over time though, he could see that his therapist, Mary was growing exhausted as she found herself spread thin, contracted out to create safe spaces at BART and MUNI which, had their own problems. As did Mary which she quietly accepted when the heels came off and dropped to brown ceramic tiles at home that she’d love to replace, if only she had the energy to.

So, Mary and Caltrain 219 opted for complicity. Mary collected the discounted, yet consistently-billed hours. Caltrain collected the opportunity to openly complain inside the thick doors of doctor-locomotive confidentiality.

“Oh dear, what’s the point?,” 219 mumbled softly into his pillow that morning, sunlight now pouring in and missed calls from his boss stacking on his phone with growing periodicity. With his pension, union and tenure though it was practically impossible to be fired.

Sometimes you’re a shinkansen, and sometimes you’re a neighborhood local; it was just a series of cosmic coin flips that separate the two.

Apparently other trains didn’t exactly feel the need for a particular *meaning* or *purpose* in life. They understood the straws they’d drew early on and chose to live with the outcomes. Sometimes you’re a shinkansen, and sometimes you’re a neighborhood local; it was just a series of cosmic coin flips separate the two. That’s just the way things turned out. He took comfort in the idea that in another dimension, maybe he was an orient express. Or anything other than what he was.

Caltrain 219 hadn’t always felt this way though. When he was younger, he delighted in picking up baby boomers, Gen-Xers, and just more people in hats. He liked hats.

People used to talk to each other! Read the paper! Look out the window at a landscape that *he* brought them past with magical efficiency. He was a very important part in the livelihood of Caltrain, but moreseo in the lives of the people he served. It was a stretch, but he saw himself as responsible for the continued success of his passengers as they developed The Computers and made Tech (or whatever). Soon though, people’s conversations about PERL shifted to HTML tables to CSS to JavaScript and now React.

“Heh, React-ing to what?” These people didn’t even talk to each other anymore. “Artificial intelligence? Give me a break.” Laying there, 219 could only turn the other way in his very long bed and complain about others.

Hard truth was, nobody would miss Caltrain 219 if he were gone. He could be replaced at any time and suspected he would be anyway. Cast to the Backup yard in case of emergency. Nobody wants to be used in case of emergency; you just want to be wanted.

Inside the pile of cold rocks of self-worth though still lay a hot sliver of possibility. Caltrain 219 knew things could be different, he just didn’t know how. Actually, there was *a* way, but no train had ever attempted the risky track switch at Millbrae late at night onto BART tracks. Sure, you’d talk about it with other Caltrains while you were shooting the shit, but never seriously. If you were that audacious though, theoretically you could call in that you were going to Oakland depot for a repaint. It rarely happened with these new enamels, but he could make the argument after a weekend bender.

Caltrain 219 thought for a while about the timetables. He didn’t have to think about them too long though. Heck, he’d thought about it eleven times a day (six times north, five times south) when he stopped at Millbrae. Theoretically, he knew it could be done. Station attendants had other things to worry about. “Come on, they were just trains!”

Just trains indeed.

Mary had some real gems over the years though, and one of them came about in the years post-Rhonda Byrne. Caltrain 219 could change the universe and his outcome by believing that he could. This was less, stay positive and more, be the change you wish to see in the world.

“Be. The change. You wish. To see. In the world.,” Caltrain 219 thought to himself. Most of the time it felt like bullshit, other times though… maybe she was onto something.

If he did it, Caltrain 219 would be on his own after Millbrae. Would Daly City bridge hold him and the weight he’d gained over the years? Would a delayed ten-car BART put a certain delay to selfish intentions? And there were plenty of BART delays recently to worry about. Nothing but negative sentiment in the bay area for public transport.

Bitch, bitch, bitch was all that citizens could do it seemed and plenty they did. It became something one of the few things for passengers to talk about.

– “MUNI’s too crowded!” Actually, recent studies had shown that ridership had recently slightly declined on two of seven lines. It was unanimous opinion at the Caltrain coffee machine that it was the media’s fault.

– “BART’s always delayed!” Well to be fair BART wasn’t delayed that often, but a few recent voices sure made it seem so. Bay Area Rapid Transit’s recent social media efforts didn’t help the situation.

– “Caltrain’s never on schedule!” Again, Caltrain suspected negative historical experience bias here, but admittedly he wasn’t not a part of the problem. 😏🚊

But Caltrain 219 remained still in bed.

Whine, whine, whine. Detroit barely had public transport! Want to see crowded? Try Shenzhen at rush hour. Or so he’d heard his passengers remark as he eavesdropped on their every conversation.

Caltrain 219 hadn’t even been to Oakland. It wouldn’t work, couldn’t work. Even if you got across the bay, it’d be a big fat chance you’d get any further. Once there, maybe you could find a way do do a quick switch on to Amtrak at Emeryville, but that was the wild west er, wild east. That was some real cowboys and indians shit over there.

It was all standard gauge though, so maybe it could work. Diesel tanks filled to the brim. Keep the speed low to stay quiet, but not too low so as to raise suspicion. Find a night with a young skeleton rail traffic crew who didn’t know any better. It could be done.

By It, Caltrain dreamt of third-hand stories from Amtrak’s California Zephyr. God, even their names were cool. So cool they literally never had to be on time. Stories of Sacramento. Of Reno. Of desert flatlands so straight you could fall asleep. Of 4% mountain declines that would make your main transformer unit sink and heart soar!

It could be done.

If Reno, then why not Salt lake? Why not Denver? Then why not Chicago!?

In every city, Caltrain 219 could make up a new story, a new name, and a new reason. He’d heard from an uncle’s cousin’s train sister twice-removed that every authority from Philadelphia to Staten Island ran Nippon Sharyos like him on their lines. Not cheap, but they were reliable.

Reliable? God damn right they were.

Reliable enough to ride the rails like a bat out of hell on his way to freedom across an entire continent! Just like Casey Jones, Andrew Carnegie, and Leland Stanford had intended. With no small amount of help from immigrants, politically incorrect as the subject were even 180 years after that final, golden spike was pounded at Promontory Summit.

And if New York, then why not the Chunnel? Why not be the lone Californian in a Paris railyard filled with young, thin, long French TGVs lighting eachother’s fancy cigarettes? For once, he could be the exotic outlier in Munich with buxom DeutscheBahns. Or he could pass himself off as a mystery American train playing coy with high-speed Sapsans from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. Moscow. Ulan Bataar.

With some gauge-switching, then Beijing. Shanghai. Hong Kong. A train could do anything in life, whenever they wanted. There was always a place for trains like Caltrain 219. Most trains never thought to question. Questioning brought unhappiness, but could you even imagine the looks on the faces of 317, 237, and 312 when they heard one day that he was just… gone?

“The greats never got anywhere without being a little crazy,” California Zephyr slurred one night after too many beers. A couple of bolts knocked loose upstairs can go a long way if they were the right ones.

Technically, he had traveled when he was brought over from the rail yards of Nagoya where Nippon Sharyo was located. Other than that first journey though, from the day Caltrain 219 was delivered to South Beach shipping terminal, he’d never seen anything other than the 47 miles of rail up and down from San Francisco to San Jose.

He could think about his mission as a one-way journey back to his homeland or… close enough.

The next morning, Caltrain 219 put in his formal request for a switch to the evening shift. There’d be no way to deny his request, however unorthodox it might be. He was a train with a plan. They knew he didn’t have any train family to come home to late at night. He’d reinforce the argument by joking that maybe he’d even be on time once in a while. Probably not for long though because one day, he’d be gone.

He’d argue they could just make a simple switch with a existing schedule. Passengers wouldn’t even notice. “Someone, I don’t know, like… Caltrain 279 for instance? I’ll pick up for him. He’s a morning guy anyway.” A train that’d done their service and deserved to see their baby bullets more often.

Just a simple switch.

This post is published as one part in the series Little Layovers, a collection of sometimes-true accounts of meeting people and landscapes both near and far.

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