Monday, April 25, 2016

CALTRAIN Pro Tips From A Rider

CALTRAIN Pro Tips From A Rider

Today I thought I'd chat about different ways to interact with Caltrain (On the Peninsula in the Bay Area) and trying to help or improve your Caltrain experience, based off my own in-train experiences.

Here I talk about apps to use for figuring out what train you need, how to figure out how to find live reports about delays, or just how to make the train ride a little more comfortable and safer.

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So you ride the Bay Area's Caltrain system. Whether it be part-time or regularly, there are some things you can do to help your experience.

Now admittedly, if something goes horribly wrong on your transit, like one of a dozen annual suicides, you can expect massive delays in every direction to accommodate the suicide investigation, period. And there's nothing you can do about it.

Aside from that and a train break down here and there, Caltrain can be a pretty consistent performer.
But there are ways to be more willing to accept issues with Caltrain. Or at least be prepared for them!

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Be prepared


Always have something to read. Period.

To be safe, make it something that can be read offline, considering that there are huge blind spots in Verizon's coverage along the tracks. (Looking at coverage maps, it seems T-Mobile has much better coverage than Verizon up and down the Peninsula.)

Also, bring a bottle of water. Just in case.  I've been in two to three hour delays and it is nice to have it instead of wanting it.

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Caltrain Schedules and Apps



If you're trying to figure out when to take the train, there are several apps that can help.

Caltrain does not put out a specific app for schedules. They have their own web page and an interactive portal on their website you can use to see when your train is coming.

But if you want something beyond the website, there are a few cool apps.

I LOVE Caltrain Droid by Valencia Labs.  In it you put your start and stop destinations the information you are supplied is relevant to what you need, exactly. Period.

No more scrambling through complex matrices of schedules and scrolling up and down and/or left and right to find your train times and the right train.

Other apps include CityMapper and Transit App.

I did find a flaw in CityMapper where it skips some Caltrain options that should clearly be presented on certain trip requests, but that should not impact most transits where you are looking to take the train.

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Social Media Real Time Reports


OK, I said it. But it is not what you think.

Caltrain has a few social media accounts, specifically, I'm focused on Twitter here. And to be honest you don't have to be a heavy Twitter user to take advantage of this process I'm about to describe.

This morning I saw someone trying to get something going where folks can use a specific hashtag to report problems and they called it crowd sourcing.  But no one seemed to be consistently using it.

Me, on the other hand, I will pull up Twitter, then do a search for Caltrain. That's it. Most folks will use the word or hashtag Caltrain in their raving, ranting posts, and you can get pretty good TIME updates from that source.

I specify time because folks tend to pass on info that sometimes isn't correct, but at least the timing of how late they are while they vent can be fairly reliable. Especially when you see multiple reports from different Twitter users.

But beware! Some of these folks vent while spouting nonsensical suggestions or blame in their tweets.But sometimes it is nice to see when folks are chiming in that the train hasn't even left the train yard yet. Then I have the option of stepping over to the bus stop and taking a bus in-lieu of waiting for a very late train, or just wait. Because I like the peace and quiet of a train station sometimes.

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Can't Train Seats Be More Comfortable?


I'm just over six feet tall and these train seats in the older train cars suck. At least for the longer rides. I find for me that I can't sit and have any kind of decent neck support.

But then I grabbed a 6x12 piece of shipping foam from a box that is about an inch thick and slipped that behind my lower back and wow, what a different an inch makes!

What I found important for me with this is that it was not hard or stiff foam, but rather, nice soft foam. I don't know why but it not only seemed to support my back from the hard seats, but it also pushed my back out and away from the seat just barely enough to make the seats a lot more comfortable on my neck.

Suddenly I'm sleeping much better on the train ride. Almost too much better!

All because of a tiny piece of foam.

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The Train Is Too Loud!!!


Yep, this old bucket of bolts can be pretty loud. Sometimes it is just loud enough to drown out most other sounds, and at other times, not.

Most people stuff their earplugs or music in their ears but the only way for that to work is to turn the music way up, and in the end, that means probably too loud and potentially damaging to your hearing in the long run.

But I was lucky enough to get some sound suppressing headphones from Beats (Beats Studio Wireless headphones) and boy, do those make a huge difference. In fact they almost work too well on the bullet trains with the smoother suspension. They do squelch a lot of background sounds and I also learned that my sense of motion came from a lot of the noise from the train ride.



If you use these, SET ALARMS on your phone so you don't sleep past your stop!

If headphones aren't your thing, I get it. It's harder to sleep with them on.

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Keep Your Camera At The Ready


Hey, most of the scenery during a ride is pretty standard, but there are spots here and there that are nice to see, or the time of day could give you nice sunrises or sunsets. But if you find yourself inside a window that seemed to have been missed by the squeegee man, well, never mind!

But every now and then you will see some fascinating things that ranges from nature to the humanity that tend to live along the side of the tracks.

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Train Security


I'm Paranoid, AKA I don't trust people. Especially when I nap on the train. Anyone could grab my backpack and make off with it. The last thing I want to do is wake up and find my backpack gone.

I tend to put it under my legs and not in the rack above. I also tend to loop a loose cord around my ankle so if anyone tugs on my bag, I will feel it, wake up and Bruce Lee all over them.

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Where Is There More Leg Room


So depending on where you sit can make a difference, but there's a price.

There is more legroom on the first level of the older cars where there are pairs of seats, stuffing you in with everyone else or all your fellow commuters.

The upstairs single row of seats will leave you less packed in with people, but the there is one extra "row" of a seat and that makes for a slightly bit less leg room. If you are tall like me, your knees will be really close or pushed against the seat in front of you.

One more suggestion...

If you sit upstairs, and have a long enough of a ride, sit in the back. That means fewer people will be walking past you and not literally head-butt you!  LOL.

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Pick Your Side


Depending on your tolerances, you may wish to pick and choose where you sit.

In the summer, I try to sit in the easterly row of seats. These seats are away from the hot summer sunsets. And at times, when the AC isn't all up to par, you will appreciate that.

But in the winter, sitting upstairs and and changing sides gives you different views and mixes up the ride.

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Oh, and if you ever think you are getting sick of taking the train , take a look out the window at the gridlock on the freeway you would otherwise be stuck in as a nice reminder about what you're missing, in addition to the gas you are but burning all by yourself.

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Do you have any tricks up your sleeves for using Caltrain?


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Hi - sorry for the confirmation but I need to weed out the noise from the well intended comments. Thanks for leaving a note... - Bruce