How to take the Caltrain in 10 easy steps

I take the Caltrain to and from work every day. Pros: it’s pretty clean and quiet. It’s air-conditioned. It gets you from San Francisco to places in the Peninsula that are not San Francisco (questionable pro, but venturing to the Peninsula is often a necessary evil). Cons: um, it had better be pretty clean, quiet, and for God’s sake air-conditioned because it costs a fortune. It also had better get you out to the Peninsula because there is no other viable form of public transportation that can. Apparently, all the technology in the world cannot remedy the Bay Area’s explicable but unacceptably shitty public transportation.

After having ridden the Caltrain at least 60 times, I feel eminently qualified to provide the following distillation of the Caltrain riding experience:


You start by downloading the app CaltrainMe, which you will need like water if you depend on the Caltrain for work slash sustenance. And that is because the Caltrain is reliably unreliable. You will need to get reeeal comfortable with CaltrainMe’s icon of doom, which roughly translated, means “do not for the love of God get on the Caltrain anytime within the next hour” and looks something like:

(To be clear, if there’s no icon of doom, that does not mean the train will not break down mid-track; it only means that the train has not yet broken down. Big difference; you are forewarned.)


Assuming no icon of doom, you may proceed. If, say, you want to make an 8:14 am train, then come hell or high water, you had better be on the platform by 8:13. You need to be, at the latest, a little early in order to get to your destination only moderately late. (More on this later.) “Baby, I’m not always there when you call, but I’m always on time,” cooed Ashanti circa 2001 and the Caltrain circa 2015. Accept that the Caltrain is like a demanding mistress with zero incentive to reciprocate; being at her beck and call is a necessary but woefully insufficient condition for actually reaping rewards. Unfortunately, such one-sided relationships do not just exist in the sad realm of your personal life.


If you pass Step 2, then at 8:13 am, you congratulate yourself for having gotten two feet on the train. Your reward is being slapped in the mid-thigh region by a bike or scooter or two, in response to which you have no response (in fact, you don’t even blink) because your thighs are already calloused from such regular slappings. You avert your gaze up. Your stomach leaps into your throat with excitement when you see that one of the coveted second-level single seats appears empty. You eagerly ascend the spiral metal staircase designed for a person much smaller than you (and this is coming from a tiny 5'3" person) and practically run to the empty seat — only to find that it’s occupied. You scold yourself for feeling surprised. Rule of thumb: that empty-looking seat which, from your vantage point below, looked like it was marked for you, will always be occupied. Period. As you descend back down the claustrophobic metal staircase whence you came, it occurs to you that what you just experienced — hope, ascension, disappointment, descending, trying again — is kind of a perversely obvious metaphor for a life in the living.

As you descend back down the claustrophobic metal staircase whence you came, it occurs to you that what you just experienced — hope, ascension, disappointment, descending, trying again — is kind of a perversely obvious metaphor for a life in the living.


Settle. Find an empty seat next to the one person left in all of San Francisco who still smokes cigarettes (or at least, smells like he does). Admire him as he deftly balances his Philz coffee between his thighs and simultaneously sends out emails from his 15" Macbook. Clickety-clack, go his fingers on the keyboard. Contemplate, with private horror, how even the most minor disturbance could cause his coffee to splatter all over his Macbook, and oh how devastating this would be; not only would the spill wreck his computer, but it would also waste some really good third-wave coffee. (Shudder when you hear “third-wave” in your own head. Dismiss this bit of meta-yuppie guilt and instead anticipate disembarking the Caltrain and beelining to one of your newly acquired uniquely SF-yuppie pleasures: Philz.)


Observe that half of the commuters on the train are working or at least clickety-clacking away on their keyboards, just like your talented neighbor. There is, in particular, a lot of coding going on. Consider whether there is another city in the world whose public transportation is responsible for shuttling so many software engineers to and from work. Decide based on zero empirical evidence that San Francisco must be it, being the epicenter of, like, all tech and stuff.

Inspired to soaring heights, decide that you too, are going to pull out your work-issued Macbook, tether it to your phone, and be productive so-help-you-God.


But alas, the internet is too damn slow, so you give up on working. Opt instead to read the NYTimes, because even though you’ve lived on the west coast for years now, there is only one NYT.


Just shy of Milbrae (that beacon of SF public transportation hope, where two lines — the Caltrain and the BART — unite in holy matrimony and suddenly all the world’s possibilities simultaneously explode and implode), the train stalls. Fear creeps up from your stomach to your chest when this happens, but you really should have known better. You should have known better because your default presumption when riding the Caltrain should always be that the Caltrain is never, ever on time.

From personal experience, for example, last week I was an hour delayed 3 out of 5 days. Sadly, a 60% failure rate for the Caltrain is not rare. The reasons for these failures vary. Often times, the train fails due to a “vehicle strike.” The first time I experienced this, the director’s announcement (“vehicle strike up ahead!” in a cheerful tone more befitting a holiday party at a nursing home) brought to mind an image of a line of drivers picketing on the tracks. The image did not quite make sense, but made more sense than a car being either (a) permitted to stall on the tracks or (b) voluntarily striking a train. (Hashtag-things-that-would-not-happen-in-other-developed-countries-see-e.g.-Japan-insert-awkward-ellipses…) But surprise (!), “vehicle strikes” have nothing to do with labor strikes. They are, in fact, cars that actively crash into the train. For reasons I will perhaps never quite understand, these run-ins happen all the damn time.

Suicides also commonly cause Caltrain failures. When these happen, the announcer updates passengers on the status of the body every quarter hour (“folks, there has been an injury;” “folks, I’m sorry to say there has been a fatality;” “folks, we need to clear the ‘debris’ off the tracks;” “folks, the ambulance is arriving”). I am told that in New York, the trains resume almost immediately post-incident; this makes me sad. Sorry, folks, someone just died, but we are moving riiiight along here, I imagine the conductor saying to a train full of indifferent passengers who could not care less, who just want to get home or to work or from A to B.

You know what else makes me sad, though? When someone jumps in front of the Caltrain and you happen to be in the car with the view, and people get up to gape at the drama unfolding before them. Anna Karenina, move over; some rando guy just jumped in front of my train! Their gawking — the gaudiness of it — makes me immensely, ineffably sad.


Twenty minutes have passed, and you’re still stuck on the tracks just shy of Milbrae. You check Uber and Lyft for rates going to where you need to go, and audibly gasp when you see that it would cost you a Franklin to reach your destination. You’re not made of money, so you resign yourself to checking Facebook and Instagram repeatedly on your phone, until finally you have nothing left to do but swipe left, left, left, on whatever unfortunate dating app you’ve got on your phone.


Nearly an hour goes by. Smoky coffee man has sent a million emails, while you’ve read a couple NYT food articles and exhausted all available dating options. The announcer says that the train is finally cleared to move — but only at 10 mph (ALWAYS at only 10 mph). Still, this is worth celebrating, so you give your smoky coffee neighbor a smile. He does not notice; he’s too busy clickety-clacking away.


Patience is a virtue, said people way wiser — and, come to think of it, probably better at exercising said virtue — than I. It’s also exactly the thought that will carry you from the beginning of your Caltrain journey to the end (unless you’re one of the lucky bastards talented enough to conk out upon seating and wake up at exactly the right time. If you’re one of these people, I very much want to be you). Sometimes the journey is so bumpy that your knees jam up against strangers’ body parts; sometimes you get slapped by a couple scooters; and sometimes you just get stuck. But eventually the doors open and you emerge at your destination:

Palo Alto!



<Rinse and repeat steps 1–10>

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