Tips for Caltrain riders, or: “We’re all in this together”

I’ve been commuting on Caltrain five days a week for eighteen months, usually taking my bike on board. To San Francisco from either Sunnyvale or San Mateo.

These are suggestions for how to be courteous to other riders. They’re more important on busy rush hour trains, and even then they’re not strict rules—use common sense (e.g. standing in an aisle is obviously fine if you’re waiting in line to detrain).

General tips

If you’ll be riding more than a few times, use a Clipper card. It’s way easier than buying paper tickets. Just be sure to tag off. Set a countdown timer or alarm on your phone if you’re afraid you’ll forget.

When standing on the platform preparing to board, leave a generous amount of room for people detraining, especially when boarding a bike car.

Avoid standing in the entrance/exit area if you’re not getting off at the next stop. This blocks the way for other people which slows the boarding process which delays the train. This is especially true for the bike car.

Rush hour trains are busy—be ready. Make your way toward the door before the train arrives at your station.

Avoid sitting on the steps or any other walkway or on the floor of the bike car. Especially true for the gallery cars because the walkways are narrower. This blocks the way for other people which slows the boarding process which delays the train. No one should ever have to ask you to allow them to get by.

If the train is standing room only and you’re standing, move all the way to the back of the car. Otherwise there will not be enough room for people to board which slows the boarding process which delays the train. In extreme cases this might prevent someone from boarding. No one wants to get bumped to the next train—we’ve all got somewhere to be.

Avoid sitting in a bike car if you don’t have a bike. Cyclists should be allowed to sit near their bikes. Why, you ask? So they can keep an eye on them as a theft deterrent. So they don’t have to go as far to find a seat or retrieve their bike when getting off. So they can help organize bikes, if needed.

Talking on a phone is officially allowed, but please speak softly.

Don’t put your feet, shoes, or socks on seats. Shoes are filthy—they step in streets where animals pee and poop. No one wants to sit in pee and poop.

If the train is crowded, don’t put your bag in a seat. Seats are for people.

Be kind. If the train is full, you have a seat, someone looks uncomfortable standing, and you’re a strapping young buck or doe, consider standing.

For cyclists on busy trains

All rush hour trains are busy, especially in spring, summer and fall. The train might be empty when you board, but it’s going to be standing room only by the time it gets to SF. Be respectful to people boarding after you. The following suggestions are more important for Gallery cars. Many of the busier rush hour trains have switched to Bombardier trains with three bike cars and congestion is greatly improved.

If you’ll be taking your bike on the train more than a few times, ask a conductor for a yellow bike tag, label it in large, clear, writing, and attach it to your bike.

When deciding which rack to put your bike on, check the yellow bike tags and avoid blocking in a bike that will be getting off before you.

Don’t stop and leave your bike at the first rack when boarding if there’s a line of cyclists behind you waiting to board. Move further into the car to allow those behind you to board.

Be conscientious when putting your bike on a rack. If you need to, flip your bike around so the handlebars fit better. Rotate the pedals so they fit through a gap in the frame of the bike they’re leaning against instead of the spokes. Avoid smashing other people’s derailleurs (they’re somewhat delicate). Don’t be sloppy. Neat racks can fit more bikes. Messy bike racks mean someone else is going to get bumped to the next train, and no one wants to get bumped to the next train—we’ve all got somewhere to be.

If you’re getting off soon (other than the last stop), make your way to your bike early because you might need to shuffle some bikes around or navigate your bike out of a crowded car.

If you’re sitting upstairs and detraining at the last stop and your bike is against a window, please stay upstairs until most people downstairs have gotten off. Otherwise you’ll just get in the way and slow the process for everyone.

If you’re sitting upstairs and detraining at the last stop and your bike is blocking other bikes, consider making your way downstairs early so you can move your bike out of the way. Use your best judgement based on how many bikes you’re blocking and how crowded it already is downstairs.

When detraining at the last stop, avoid shuffling bikes around to get to yours if another bike is on top of it. This slows the detraining process for everyone. Just wait a few minutes for the owner of the other bike to come get it.

When there’s an incident

If a train breaks down, sometimes two trains will be combined into one. It’s a disaster when this happens during rush hour. Especially for cyclists. Rush hour trains are already standing room only—doubling the number of people just isn’t possible. If you have an alternate form of transportation, consider taking it.

If there was a fatality, due to a pedestrian or a car being struck by a train, trains tend to be delayed for one to two hours. It’s a slow process. A coroner must go to the scene, investigate, and decide when it’s OK to start allowing trains through again. Typically only a single track will be opened initially, which means trains can only pass through in one direction at a time. And typically they’re only allowed to move through the area slowly. When there are four trains waiting to pass from each direction it can take a while before your train gets through.

From past experience conductors tend to say things like, “we’re hoping it will be just 10 more minutes.” Sometimes they’re correct, sometime they aren’t. Sometimes it will take significantly longer.

Another thing that happens is northbound trains get blocked south of the accident and can’t make it to SF, then later there won’t be enough trains or conductors or engineers to fill the schedule, so they’ll delay leaving SF until trains arrive. Or they’ll combine trains. Or both. I imagine the same scenario plays out in reverse in San Jose, depending on where the accident is.

You can check Twitter for potentially useful status updates. My public Caltrain twitter list follows the relevant accounts. You can also subscribe to alerts on the Caltrain website.

If your train gets stopped and you’re close to your destination, consider getting off and taking another form of transportation (Uber, Lyft, have someone pick you up, bike the last few miles, etc).

If there are delays and you’re not on a train yet, consider staying where you are. Work from home. Stay at work longer. Grab dinner before heading home. There are many better uses of your time than sitting on a train.

Terminology

Conductors sometimes state that Caltrain is a “proof of payment system.” This means that you must purchase a ticket before boarding, and you must keep the ticket with you while on the train.

Clipper – A convenient card-based payment system used by Caltrain. Clipper cards can also be used for BART, SF buses, and a few other public transit systems.

When paying for a ride with Clipper, you must “tag on” before boarding and “tag off” after detraining. “Tagging” is done by holding your card against a Clipper card reader for a second. There are a few Clipper card readers at each station.

A “protected” crossing – Trains must go through a road or sidewalk crossing slowly, possibly because a crossing gate is broken.

Limited service – The train doesn’t stop at all stations—check the schedule.

Baby bullet – A train operating on the most express schedule (fewest stops) between San Jose and San Francisco.

This train will express to [some station] – The train will skip at least one station before stopping at the named station. Though conductors occasionally accidentally say this out of habit even when it isn’t true.

Gallery – The shiny metal train cars. One door per car per side. Two narrow walkways upstairs each with a row of single seats.

Bombardier – The light gray and red train cars. Two doors per car per side. Many pods of four seats, some with tables. Smoother suspension.

Consist – The type of train car making up a given train. For example, “#SB370 is running with a 5-car gallery consist instead of a 6-car Bombardier consist. #Caltrain.

Rolling stock – The cars and engines used on the tracks.

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