Sunday, May 08, 2011


To put it bluntly, the CAHSRA board has a history of being intentionally stupid.

As a case in point: in dismissing the Altamont route into the Bay Area, they cited environmental concerns, cost of construction, and NIMBY opposition in the Livermore/tri-valley area. Instead they prefer to run trains through central valley wetlands, and have stirred up a hornets nest with their proposal to build an expensive viaduct through Palo Alto.

The board's response to the recently proposal by peninsula representatives to begin quasi-HSR service with incremental improvements to the CalTrain infrastructure seems to show a willful misunderstanding (from an SF Gate article)

The authority board told engineers and planners Thursday not to study a phased-implementation plan, which would electrify the Caltrain tracks and use them as a quicker, lower-cost way to bring high-speed rail up the Peninsula to the Caltrain station at Fourth and King streets in San Francisco.

No one has suggested that the trains stop at 4th and King. This seems to be an intentional misreading of the Eshoo/Simitian/Gordon proposal to begin HSR with using the existing CalTrain infrastructure--nobody has suggested that it shouldn't be extended, just that service can begin without ripping out existing tracks and building a new railway on top of them.

High speed rail is an important project that needs to be put in better hands. Perhaps people with actual experience in running passenger railways with perpetually inadequate budgets, and dealing with sometimes indifferent or hostile public opinion would be the most qualified; I suggest we draw veterans of CalTrain, Amtrak California, ACE, and Metrolink.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Train Robbery or Pragmatism?

Several of our local representatives, Anna Eshoo, Joe Semitian, and Rich Gordon have recently released a joint statement on High Speed Rail and CalTrain. The jist of it is that the CAHSRA should drop plans for building a viaduct through the peninsula, and use the CalTrain right of way as-is, with electrification (which would mean running at conventional train speeds).

There seem to be several points to all this:

  • They are representing their anti-viaduct NIMBY constituents.
  • Get HSR financial support for CalTrain's infrastructure.
  • Combine and improve existing commuter rail systems with true HSR in the Central Valley, to get much improved, if not true HSR service.

Certainly the second and third points appeal to me, if not the first.

I would really be quite happy if the state could string together some sort of system that could get us to LA in less time than driving, sometime in my lifetime, instead of doing nothing while it spins up plans to make the trip faster than flying, someday, maybe...

Anyway, I sneakily feel like if HSR trains began running in the corridor at reduced speed, the right of way could be incrementally upgraded, with grade crossings removed one-by-one with an overpass here and an underpass here, and speeds could be ramped up with careful attention to mitigating noise, and we could covertly get true HSR on the peninsula without ever stirring up a fuss.

The proposal has come under fire from Tracy assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, an author of the HSR bond issue, who characterizes it as a "train robbery" to siphon funds from a statewide project to a local one. I haven't seen this in mainstream media sources, but here it is in the Menlo Park Almanac and the Merced Star.

I don't think this is a very fair complaint since upgrades to the peninsula line were part of the advertised HSR project from the beginning. And presumably parallel improvements to Metrolink would be involved at the other end of the line.

I favor a compromise that means something actually gets done.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Easter Pie

We had company for Easter, so I was feeling festive and seasonal--so I made a carrot pie. Basically: just follow a pumpkin pie recipe, but substitute carrots--microwave the heck out of them first, and then put the whole filling mix in the blender long enough to make sure it's not stringy.

It's pretty good (it actually tastes remarkably like pumpkin though, or maybe butternut squash).

The carrot pie was a success, and disappeared quickly, so I decided to bake another pie. I decided to try something I've been meaning to try for a long time.

This is ube. It's a purple yam from the Philippines. It's dull and gray on the outside, but bright purple on the inside. It's available at Asian markets--I stopped by the Mountain View Market, on Castro in Mtn View, on the way to the station after work.

Don't confuse it with Japanese purple yam, which is purple on the outside and white on the inside!

Peel it, chop it up, and steam it in the microwave for 10 minutes or so. Then mix up everything in the blender, as with the carrots, and pieify.

It comes out purple,

and yummy!

Ok, for a transit connection--if you like ube, you need to try ube ice cream at Mitchell's in San Francisco, an easy walk from the J line. Long-time readers may recall this picture:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Simple Clipper Suggestion: Stencil Reminders onto the Platform

Last night I went down to Kepler's with the kids. Despite the fact that Wini knew she needed to tag off (the Clipper Card is finally working), and I knew, and we had been talking about it the whole time, we all forgot.

It was no big deal, since when we went home we were still in the tag-off window, so she could just tag-off and instantly re tag-on.

CalTrain has been putting in some effort to reminding people to tag off, but the results of this effort are pretty underwhelming.

Menlo Park is a nice "barrier-free" station where you can just get off (at least from the SB platform) and start walking to where you want to go. This is a good thing in terms of usability, but means there's no specific exit locations to put up tag-off reminder signs.

So here's an idea: How about stenciling reminders to the platform? And to make the reminders more useful, include an error to the nearest Clipper Card reader? Like this:

(I'm drawing this from the point of view of someone getting off the train, but as you can see it's designed to be double-sided and work for people about to get on, too).

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sulky Tween, Train-Obsessed Toddler

Me: Do you think it's going to snow tomorrow?

Wini: No way, it's not gonna snow.

Me: It's totally gonna snow! It's gonna be just like The Snowy Day.

Wini: Dad.

Me: There's gonna be drifts piled up on E Street!

Other Kid (we carpool to school): Wanna bet?

Me: Sure. The bet is, whoever looses, gets a snowball thrown at them.

Other Kid: But if it doesn't snow...

Wini: If it doesn't snow, I get to throw a stick at you!

Me: You won't even be able to find a stick under all the snow!


Me: Nathan, look at that big rainbow!

Nathan: Tracks!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kid Clipper Working

Wini's card has been successfully tested on BART, CalTrain, and SamTrans.

Frequenters of the Bay Area Transit Blogosphere may be amused that she has already asked about how the transfer works between BART and CalTrain at Millbrae.

When I explained about having to tag off CalTrain before tagging onto BART she agreed that that was silly but pointed out that it might be difficult to rewrite the software so you wouldn't have to.

She's been learning about scripting on Roblox (a kind of online virtual reality "lego" world where you can build things and then program actions for your creations) so I guess she's got some appreciation for the fact that it's not always trivial to just make computers do what you want.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Clipper Card: Still Confused

As related in the last post, my daughter now has a youth Clipper card, and I thought I had autoload all set up, after some finagling.

So tonight we went down to Sequoia Station to ride the train, I showed her where to tag on, and the machine read that the card had no funds. Whaaa?

So we bought a paper ticket, like usual.

I think it said on the web site that it takes 3-5 days for an autoload to take effect. Are we still just waiting for it to hit? So now I'm logged into; I see no record of the autoload I thought I set up. So I try to set it up again. But for some reason, on the autoload type-selection page (cash, monthly pass for CalTrain, SamTrans pass, etc) the checkbox for "cash" is just kinda broken--I can't select it.

I was using IE, since that's my "alternative" browser for when I want to access a different account than my usual. So I tried switching back to trusty Firefox, but there's some cookie confusion--I log out of my clipper account, log in as her's, but it asks me to re-enter the card number, and says it's registered to someone else.

As a fallback, I'm trying a one time online fund cash upload to her card. But after I think I've completed it, I see this message:

Please note that when you add value online, it can take up to 3-5 days for the value to be available to be loaded onto your card, and you must tag your card to a card reader to load the value. Your card balance will not be updated until you have tagged your card and loaded the value

Huh? In 3-5 days my money won't be transferred til I use it? The balance still shows as $0. I think this means they haven't actually taken my money yet, but in 3-5 days they'll be ready to take my money, if we use the card. So maybe the autoload I thought I set up is also floating out there, ready to take effect in (now) 2-4 days, when we use the card...

We were planning to ride BART to Union Square this weekend. Maybe I need to go to the nearest Walgreens and add some money directly to the card?

Lame! The MTC spent 10 years and $150 million on this.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Finally Got my Kid a Clipper Card

It's a little more complicated than you'd think:

  • Go to SamTrans HQ, during business hours, with kid. This means finding a day that I have off from work, but she doesn't have ice-skating, girl scouts, or get invited over to a friend's house.
  • Fill out form--make sure child passenger has an ID. School ID works (although the minor/senior application form has checkboxes for every other kind of ID--driver's license, passport, etc--except school ID, which seems the most likey--anyway, they accepted it).
  • On the form, there's a blank to put an email address, so we put hers. Maybe that's a mistake?
  • SamTrans folks mail it to Clipper people. Wait a week.
  • It comes in the mail.
  • Try to register it for autoload--but website says it's already registered.
  • Call customer service number on the back of the card. At least they're open late, and are friendly. They can set up a temporary password for the new account, so you can log in. It works, but it seems awkward--I just wanted this card listed on my account. Maybe if you put your own (parent) email address on the application form that will happen? It's not what they said to do. Maybe it's best to leave the email space blank on the application form? Then you could probably register the card under your own account.
  • Now I can log in, with my daughter's email, and a password which I just set and will keep myself, and set up autopay from my credit card. Not quite the way I wanted to do it, but at least the card won't run out on her unexpectedly. (Until my card expires, at least. Since Clipper has all the expiration dates for the CC's we use to autoload, conceivably they could send us warning emails when they're about to expire. That'd be handy, but I doubt it!)

Well, we're ready to ride, now. No more paying adult fare on BART just because BART doesn't sell child tickets at stations. Unfortunately tonight it's bwrw glaw fel hen wragedd a ffŷn, as the say in Wales (raining like old ladies and sticks), so I think we'll stay in.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Fresno HSR Station Plans

Very preliminary plans for the Fresno HSR station and nearby developments have been published at

Not knowing Fresno well, I can't comment too much, but I'm glad to see that the station is planned for the middle of town (right next to the historic SP station)--some of the valley stations have been envisioned more like airports, outside of town, with plenty of parking but no connection to their city.

There is a story about the plan in The Fresno Bee. A few threads in the comments in the online article are:

  • This is all a waste of money (yawn).
  • This will help revitalize downtown Fresno.
  • This is another doomed scheme dreamed up by politicians to revitalize downtown Fresno.
  • A fun surprise: several readers say what Fresno should really be working on is a light rail system. One even linked to map of his proposed system.

At least with the low opinion of downtown Fresno, held by locals and others, nobody is objecting that elevated tracks will ruin it.

About all I can think of to say pro or con these plans themselves is that it seems a shame not to reuse the historical SP depot.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Roads, Transit, and the Constitution

Some republican wanker from San Diego has gotten some attention in the transportation blogosphere for commenting that highways are mandated by the constitution, but transit must pay for itself.

When I say that he's from San Diego, in fact naturally he's really from the inland desert swath of exurbia next to San Diego. And when I say he's a wanker--well, click on the link a take a look at this doofus.

So what does the constitution actually say? Here is the so-called Postal Clause:

(The Congress shall have power) ... to establish Post Offices and post Roads;

Of course, to adherents of original intent, this can only mean dirt roads for walkers, horses, and wagons--since cars and asphalt hadn't been invented yet.

The postal clause is cited as the federal government's authority to build nationwide highways, especially the interstate system. Of course, the basic interstate system being long complete, the money the feds pour into highways now is really for local transportation. The 80 may be national infrastructure, but most of the traffic on the 280 are commuters--for that matter, so is most of the traffic on the 80, from about Roseville on west.

The usual progressive pro-transit argument that follows this point is that, if the federal government supports local car travel, it should support local transit as well.

It seems fair, but is the best answer? Is routing transportation funding through Washington optimal? Hardly. It motivates regions to fight to "get their share" of money, instead of solving problems in ways that are sustainable. And I'm pretty certain that in the current arrangement, those of us who live in older metro regions (which tend to be disproportionately donors to the federal budget) taking transit, or at least driving relatively shorter distances, are actively subsidizing new freeways out in the boonies, paying a bunch of freeloaders to drive their monster-truck SUV's across vast swaths of exurbia...

If regions had to pay for their own transportation, we would probably see more effort to coordinate transit and development, so that their investment (of their own money) would show a better return. Proposals to dig tunnels anywhere some NIMBY objected to hearing to trains would probably receive the laughing dismissal they deserve. Some cities might even figure out they could solve their "transportation problems" without spending money on infrastructure at all, just by making it convenient for people to live close to where they work.

Of course there are reasons to keep the federal government involved in local transportation--one of the more important practical ones being that it's the part of the government that we pay most of our taxes to, so that's where the money is. There are plenty more. (This article was inspired as an answer to a smug, overly simplistic view of the constitution. I don't want to oversimplify on my part--I'll freely admit, transportation funding is messy and complicated, and probably has to be). But given the state of the national budget, local funding for transportation is becoming more and more of a reality anyway, and transit advocates should look for ways to turn this to their advantage.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

How to Make Clipper not Suck for CalTrain

For details of the suckage, here are clipper-related posts over at the Holierthanyou (bike/transit) blog--or see what everyone's saying about clipper + caltrain via!/search/clipper%20caltrain. Heck, even CalTrain's own instructions are confusing.

I think the crux of the problem is that Clipper tries to make CalTrain work like a "user-operated virtual faregate system". I.e., it's designed for BART, and users are supposed to pretend they're on BART. There just aren't any actual gates, you just have to remember. This is a bad fit to a proof-of-payment system.

I can think of two ways of making Clipper actually work well for CalTrain:

  • Use RFID on trains to automatically scan cards as people get on and off. (That would actually be a problem for people like me that have a GO pass for CalTrain but keep a Clipper card for other systems, but I think the solution would be to tie GO in with Clipper). This way you really wouldn't have to think about tickets at all (if you set up autoload).
    • Or: At least automatically scan cards for exiting the train, so no tagging off is necessary.
  • Instead of the simplistic tag-on/tag-off interface, connect Clipper with regular ticket machines that allow you to load up the virtual equivalent of any regular ticket type (one-way to zone X, day pass to zone X, monthly pass, etc). It's a more complicated interface for getting on the train (but the same as buying a paper ticket, anyway), but no tagging off necessary.

Of course, all this would cost money to implement. CalTrain doesn't have it, but the MTC always seems to find the money for nifty gadgets.

Library Automat at Millbrae BART

I saw this machine at the Millbrae BART machine last night:

I figured it was for downloading eBooks to readers, but in fact it's a machine that dispenses physical library books:

A touch screen, similar to an ATM screen is used to display and select from over 800 books that are delivered through an opening in the front of the unit by a robotic arm.

It'd be nice to see this at CalTrain stations but I suppose the library likes the security of putting it in view of a station agent.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Some Musings on CalTrain, HSR, etc

A few years ago, there was an optimistic buzz that:

  • Pretty soon, we would have an HSR system from SF to LA.
  • HSR would use CalTrain's right-of-way, in the process rebuilding it, electrifying it, and providing access to a downtown SF terminal.
  • By becoming faster, more efficient, and improved ridership from providing an overall more appealing service, CalTrain's operating funding problems would go away: either ridership would increase enough to make it more cost-effective, or the service would be so awesome that the public would be willing and happy to provide more funding.

Today, we're looking at a worst-case scenario:

  • CalTrain will go out of business, or atrophy into a handful-of-trains-a-day type service, like Ace or Capitol Corridor (useful in their way, but overall, so marginal to be almost irrelevant to the larger transportation picture).
  • HSR will build an initial proof-of-concept segment from Fresno to Bakersfield, run fast trains up and down the central valley, and run out of money leaving a disconnected "railway to nowhere" that Californians will get mocked about for decades. (Btw, here is an interesting historical parallel).

Last fall, I went to an informal friends-of-CalTrain gathering, a preview for this Saturday's summit. One of the themes of the discussion was this conundrum:

  • Peninsula residents support CalTrain, and would generally support improvements like electrification.
  • They are wary of HSR.
  • Nobody knows how long it will take before work on the peninsula segment of HSR actually begins.
  • But does it make sense to electrify CalTrain in its current state, if that means all that work has to be ripped out and redone when grade separation is built for HSR at some point in the future?

My answer is yes, and here's my thinking:

  • A complete statewide HSR system may take decades to build.
  • The best way to make use of a partial HSR system it to give HSR trains access to SF and LA terminals via electrified, but slower, local commuter lines. So if you want to travel the length of the state, your train will poke along at 88mph or so (CalTrain's current speed limit) on the way out of town, haul ass down the central valley, and slow down again as it gets onto Metrolink for the last couple of miles. It won't be faster than flying but it'll still beat driving.
  • Grade separation and realignment in the peninsula (and elsewhere) can be accomplished piecemeal. Each grade crossing can be designed with time for community input, etc.
  • Train speeds can be increased with conditions that make them more palatable to neighbors--specifically, I think the HSRA should commit that their trains will not make more noise than some dB/distance threshold.
  • This still leaves NIMBY types with a hope of undergrounding HSR (or rerouting it to the median of the 101, which is actually not such a bad idea). They can accept electrification but keep some control over future development of the right-of-way.
  • Conversely, HSR-boosters can hope to incrementally ramp up speed, and get people used to living next to HSR bit by bit, diffusing the current opposition.

Summit to Save Caltrain, Sat Jan 29th

This will be taking place this Saturday, at SamTrans/CalTrain HQ in San Carlos (it's the modern-looking glass building you've probably noticed from the train at San Carlos, with the digital clock/thermometer).

Here is more official information from the Green CalTrain/Bay Rail Alliance blog.

I'll be there (maybe not the whole day).

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Got a Clipper Card

I have a CalTrian GO pass, so I don't really need one, but SamTrans is starting to take them, so it might come in handy.

Nathan and I go on BART once in a while too. Kids always like BART trains, I guess because they look cool. At least he likes them in principle--like everyone else he finds the noise level in the tunnels kind of oppressive.

Anyway, I've been reading up on how to use clipper, and about all I can say is, WTF? Consider:

  • On CalTrain, you tag on before boarding, and have to tag off at your destination--or Clipper will assume you rode all the way to the end of the line.
  • But on VTA, you better not tag again when you get off, or this will be counted as another fare, on the assumption you're transferring to another bus or train.

And consider these issues of dysfunctional clipper reader placement at Milllbrae, and this botched-up mess of interagency transfers. I feel like what's going on here is that the MTC, realizing that Bay Area transit is a disorganized mess, went on some junkets to see what other cities were doing about similar problems, and were wowed by technology (like Hong Kong's Octopus card), but really couldn't grasp what the fundamental underlying problems are. They gave us something that looks like a well organized system, but it's just a flashy workaround to the same mess.

They would have done better to learn from Zürich, which has multiple operators, but a fare zone system allowing passengers to think about where they're going and what line to take--but to be totally oblivious to what operator provides the survice. Instead of emphasizing technology (which, from a government perspective, is easy--just spend money) they actually did real work to make the system work as a coherent whole.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Clipper Card for Kids: They're not Making this Easy

You can't get a Youth Clipper Card online (because anyone could pretend they're a kid, I suppose--just like you can't get Youth BART tickets in stations, because TVM's can't see you). In San Mateo County, you have to go to SamTrans HQ in San Carlos.

Since Wini and I are both on vacation today, we went over to fill out the form, etc. We distracted Nathan by giving him a brochure about busses.

The catch is, you need to bring photo ID (drivers license (!), school ID, passport...), which we hadn't. Guess we'll try again after Christmas.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Biking in the Rain

It's not very far from my house to the station, so I went for it. I brought an extra pair of socks, and put them on at work. Being generally a bit damp from the rain is not so bad, but if your socks are wet, you'll be miserable all day. Another trick: I put my shoes under my desk by the "warm air vent" at the back of my computer, and they were dry in no time.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Woohoo! Weekend Baby Bullets Begin Jan 1st!

Here's the schedule, and here's a story and list of things to do at each stop posted by Green Caltrain.

This is a case of CalTrain listening to its riders--and rider/bloggers! (I first mentioned the idea here (and I emailed them too) back in 2009). Props especially to Murph who went to JPB meetings and got them to pay attention and actually do it.

A weekend trip from RWC to 4th & King will take 35 mins on a bullet instead of 55 mins on a local. For outings with kids, I think that pushes us into "Dad's taking us on the train" territory, vs "Dad's making us ride the train"... Should be fun.

It's officially just an experiment. Hopefully it'll run long enough so that we get some warm weather, where recreational ridership should really take off.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Pedestrian Tunnel at Santa Clara

I meant to get on the 9:18 SB at Redwood City but mistook the 9:12 for it, and the 9:12 skips past Mountain View. (This situation always makes me think of this book). I ended up having to catch a train back from Santa Clara. Not a long wait, and made less annoying by the fact that I ran into fellow CalTrain-rider/biker/blogger Murph. I also got to get a look at the progress on the Santa Clara pedestrian underpass project:

This project is exactly parallel to what was done at Cal Ave a few years ago: in the original arrangement, to board a NB train you have to cross the SB tracks and stand on a narrow platform between the tracks. A tunnel is being built from the station (in the nominally west side) to a full-width northbound platform. This will improve safety and remove a constraint against southbound trains passing through when northbound trains are at the station. This will also allow ACE, which gave up on dealing with this complexity and has for several years just run it's trains past without stopping, to start serving this stop again.

Annoyingly, the tunnel does not appear to be going all the way under all the tracks, to the nominally east side (geographically northeast). Here's a Google maps view of the area:

View Larger Map There are a few workplaces over there. In the past I've seen people trespass across the tracks, but fencing seems to have been beefed up. The only legal way to get there is a via long detour to a road overpass several blocks away. Tunneling all the way through, and providing station access on the other side of the tracks, could also take several minutes off of the schedule of VTA's #10 SJC airport flyer bus:

All that crazy looping around on the south (nominally west) side of the tracks could be dropped, and the bus could stop more or less where that gray circle is.

Granted, extending the tunnel under the tracks would involve coordination of CalTrain, the UP, and future plans for BART and HSR, and anyone who expects that level of cooperation in US transit planning is clearly operating under the assumption that Proposition 19 has already passed.

I also noticed this odd stencil on a piece of rail:

Must be a story there.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The World's First Game of Scroggle

Ended in a tie.

Scroggle is like Scrabble played with Boggle blocks. You can flip over blocks already on the board to put a different letter up if you need to, to make a new word, as long as everything left facing up makes a word. I made a rule that you can only flip a block to use a side that's currently visible, just so there's no incentive to pick up every block to see what letters are hidden.