On Track

When developers talk about building in Redwood City, they consistently bring up the importance of being close to the Caltrain station. Indeed, much of the development up and down the peninsula is similarly focused around a Caltrain station. The millennial generation in particular seems less interested in car ownership and more interested in alternative forms of transportation, such as Caltrain, BART, Zipcar, and Uber.

Me, I love to drive. But commuting on 101 has never been my idea of a good time. Thus, for roughly twenty of the thirty-some-odd years that I commuted to an office, I did it on Caltrain. Although it wasn’t intentional, my wife and I lucked out when buying our house: the station is just over one mile away. The walk to the train, and the associated ride, turned out to be a great way to start and end my working day. And judging by the number of people who get on and off the train in Redwood City, it seems that many other people agree with me, at least about the train ride.

While many peninsula cities have Caltrain stations, we are fortunate in that ours is one at which nearly all passenger trains stop, unlike most others that are skipped by the faster “baby bullet” trains. For instance, of the eleven bullet trains that pass through Redwood City, six of them stop at our station. As for San Carlos, none of them do; the bullet trains just thunder on by. In total, on a normal weekday Caltrain runs 46 trains in each direction; 36 of those stop here in Redwood City.

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Clearly, our Caltrain station is a very important Redwood City asset. But I suspect that a number of Redwood City residents rarely, if ever, ride. Thus I thought I should shine a light on Caltrain, giving you some idea of how it works and just where it can take you.

Perhaps the most popular destination for non-commuters is San Francisco. And likely the reason that most people get off there, other than to get to work, is to go to a Giants game. Caltrain is a terrific way to get to AT&T Park: it is only about two blocks from the station, at the intersection of 4th and King streets. From that intersection, there is little confusion about where you need to go:

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The cost of a couple of train tickets is mostly (if not entirely) offset by the savings in not having to pay for parking. And speaking of savings, how about the savings to your sanity from not having to fight traffic? Of course, AT&T Park isn’t the only place you can get to from the San Francisco Caltrain station. Whenever I had a convention to attend at Moscone Center, I happily took the train north and walked from the station. While the walk to Moscone does take some time—fifteen to twenty minutes—it is extremely straightforward. Simply follow the crowd walking north on 4th Street until you reach Market. Not up for a walk? No worries. There are plenty of taxis and buses just outside the station that will take you wherever you need to go.

Depending upon where you are going in the City, you also have the option of getting off at the Millbrae station and switching to BART. The Millbrae station is not only a Caltrain stop, it is also end-of-the-line for the Pittsburg/Bay Point line and, on weekdays before 8pm, the Richmond-Daly City line. BART can take you deep into San Francisco, or even beyond: to Concord, Oakland, or Fremont, for instance. Closer in, BART can take you to the San Francisco Airport. Switching to BART in Millbrae is simple enough: just exit the train and head upstairs, where you’ll find BART ticket machines. Having obtained your BART ticket, descend to the BART tracks and the waiting train.

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Heading south, Caltrain can help you get to one of the Bay Area’s newest destinations: Levi’s Stadium, where the 49’ers now play. Although the stadium isn’t actually on the Caltrain line (or even within an easy walk of a Caltrain station), it is still very simple to get there: just take Caltrain to Mountain View, switch to the adjacent light rail (buying a ticket before you board), and relax as it carries you to the stadium. When I was commuting I made this transfer countless times. As a regular commuter I of course had a transit pass, which meant I didn’t have to stop at the ticket machine on the light rail platform. But for the occasional user who doesn’t have a Clipper card (a transit pass that can get you onto Caltrain, BART, Santa Clara county’s light rail system, as well as other Bay Area transit systems), getting a ticket from the machines is quick and easy.

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If the 49’ers aren’t your thing, how about the Sharks? The SAP Center, where the Sharks hockey team plays, happens to be right next to the San Jose Diridon station. You need only walk about half a block to get from one to the other. And although you don’t need to go through San Jose’s train station to get there, be sure you do. It is one of the old ones, which recently was nicely restored. For many of us who love trains, it is a destination in its own right:

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I should note that the Diridon station is not actually the end of the line for some Caltrain trains. If you are heading to downtown San Jose, be sure to get off here. Otherwise, you may find yourself in the southern part of the city, or in Morgan Hill, or even in Gilroy!

I mentioned that you can get to SFO through a combination of Caltrain and BART. For those of us who prefer to fly out of San Jose, the process is, if anything, even simpler: just take Caltrain to the Santa Clara stop, and then head to the #10 bus waiting at the curb. This “Airport Flyer” is a no-cost bus run by VTA that continually goes back and forth between the Santa Clara Caltrain station and a light rail station on North First Street, passing through the San Jose International Airport. It runs every 15 minutes or so (from about 6:00am to about 7:30pm; less frequently outside those hours—but check the schedule to be sure) and stops at both Terminal A and Terminal B. My wife and I have taken the #10 on several occasions and I can attest that it works extremely well.

From Redwood City you can thus easily get to BART, SFO, SJC, and VTA’s light rail using Caltrain. There are countless bus connections as well, of course. And then there is Amtrak. For those of you who are really into train travel (like me), I would be remiss if I did not mention the Amtrak connection. The San Jose Diridon station is a veritable hub of transit activity. You’ll find buses and taxis out front, a VTA light rail station out back, and, on the lower-numbered platforms, the Amtrak-run Capitol Corridor trains. These trains are a terrific way to get to Richmond, Davis, Sacramento, Roseville, and even Auburn. I’ve taken the Capitol Corridor on multiple occasions, and between the smooth ride and the onboard snack bar, it puts my car to shame.

The Capitol Corridor trains are neat, but nothing beats the train that stops on Platform 1 at the San Jose Diridon station: Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. This sleeper train runs between Los Angeles and Seattle, with connections to San Diego in the south and Vancouver, BC in the north. At around 10:00am the southbound train pulls into the station; the northbound train arrives around 8:10pm. My wife and I use this train frequently to visit our kids in Oregon (we have one each in Eugene and Portland). We love getting cozy in our sleeping compartment, and getting to know new folks over breakfast or dinner in the dining car. On our most recent trip I walked from our house to the Redwood City Caltrain station, caught Caltrain to San Jose, and then caught the Coast Starlight to Eugene. It worked out perfectly, and I loved being able to leave our cars safely at home in the garage. The return worked equally well (although I’ll admit to having a friend pick us up at the Redwood City Caltrain station; it saved us from having to make the walk back home with our luggage). I only wish it was as easy to get to the Emeryville station: that is the originating station for the California Zephyr, the train that runs between the Bay Area and Chicago, via Denver. We have taken that train a number of times as well, but I’ve never found a good mass-transit way of getting to the Emeryville station by the Zephyr’s departure time of 9:10am. We’ve instead had to rely on taxis and car shuttles to get there from our Redwood City home. Oh well—you can’t get everywhere on Caltrain, I guess!

For those of you who have never ridden Caltrain, allow me to give you a couple of tips. First off, during commute hours—and before and after a Giants game—the trains can get pretty crowded. Don’t feel obligated to remain in the car you originally boarded; you can walk the length of the train if necessary in search of a seat (or, at least, a more comfortable place to stand). And don’t be afraid to sit next to a stranger: the lower-level seats hold two people, and you are entitled to one of those spots.

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If you are taking a trip, note that there are marked luggage cars: only the appropriately marked cars have racks suitable for suitcases. Otherwise, you’ll likely have to squeeze your luggage on the floor between your legs, or hold it in your lap. While the upstairs level on the older-style train cars does have a parcel shelf, it isn’t tall enough to hold full-sized luggage.

Each train has two bike cars, so it is possible to take a bike on board. Read up on the etiquette, however; I’ve never done it, myself. Also, be aware that during busy hours passengers with bikes may be denied boarding; the bike cars can only hold so many bikes. Oh—and the bike car at the San Francisco end of the train has a bathroom.

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The ticket buying process can be a bit confusing if you’ve never done it before. Caltrain has a page on their website devoted to the process: you’ll find it here. Caltrain has organized their stations into “zones”, and how much you pay depends upon the number of zones you travel between. If both your origin and destination are within the same zone, you pay the lowest fare: $3.25 one way (round trip is simply double the one way fare). If you wanted to travel between Redwood City (zone 2) and San Jose Diridon (zone 4), you would pay $7.25 one way.

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I should note that you do save money if you use a Clipper card, so depending upon how much you plan to use the system you may want to investigate that option instead. Oh—and if you pay for your tickets with cash, note that the change returned is all in coin. The Caltrain ticket machines are an excellent source of gold dollar coins! You’ll find yourself with a pocketful if you buy a one-way ticket with a $20 bill.

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If you park your car at the station (Redwood City has two Caltrain lots: the one immediately adjacent to the station, and the one on the north side of Broadway, along the tracks), be aware that you do not use Redwood City’s parking meters to pay for your numbered space. Instead, note your space number and pay for your parking at the red and white Caltrain ticket machine (which is in the station, if you are heading southbound, or in the shelter on the platform near Pizza and Pipes if you are heading northbound).

Pay attention to the schedule, and note which train is entering the station! Bullet and limited trains, as I mentioned earlier, don’t stop at every station. Make sure that the train you are boarding actually stops at your intended destination. On more than one occasion I wasn’t paying attention and got on the wrong train, only to find myself sailing past where I had hoped to get off. The only recourse is to get off at a later stop and take a train back in the opposite direction—again making sure that that train stops where you are trying to go. Fortunately, electronic signs on the platform—which weren’t in place when I was commuting—announce train arrivals and make it harder to get on the wrong train these days.

Be aware that trains usually only travel in one direction on each track. If heading south towards San Jose, stay on the side of the tracks where the station and parking lot are located. When heading northbound, towards San Francisco, you’ll need to cross the tracks (there are crossings at either end of the platform) and stand on the downtown Redwood City side.

Once you have purchased your ticket—which must be done before boarding—don’t be surprised if you are not asked to show it. Except at the San Francisco station, where you must present your ticket to gain access to the platform, conductors walking the train only sporadically ask for your ticket.

Caltrain—particularly with its numerous connections—is a great way to get around. While it does take more time than, say, driving, the ability to do other things—reading, texting, working—while you travel is a nice counter to the stress you would be experiencing if you were sitting in your car, stuck in our increasingly heavy traffic. Whenever you need to go somewhere more than just a couple of miles away, consider Caltrain. Then hop on board, relax, and enjoy the ride. It really is a great way to go.

6 thoughts on “On Track

    • It really is a fun way to go. Like the airlines, the price varies depending upon what day and what time of year you travel. But we enjoy the ride enough that we find it well worth both the cost and the time it takes vs. an airline.

  1. How appropriate, I logged on to read this weekly blog update while riding the Caltrain San Carlos express home from the Giants game. Thanks for another informative post.

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