Board virtually any rush-hour train these days, and you'll get the idea. Many commuters are standing. Bike spaces are full. Passengers crouch in the baggage and wheelchair spaces, hang out in the vestibule, crowd the aisles. Caltrain's riders are grumbling?and so should everyone else. Believe me, we are all in this together.
Which is a tough sell in this hyper-individualistic era. But, yes, Caltrain's difficulties affect everyone in the region. When the commuter line reaches capacity, its overflow?flows right back onto the roads. The same traffic-clogged roads everyone complains about. If you are a commuter, or simply a local resident, there is no ignoring Caltrain.
Yet many on the Peninsula do. Thousands never board the trains at all. The problem with this appears on voting day. The interdependence of rails and roads isn't always apparent. Nor is it clear that a vote for Caltrain is a vote for quality-of-life.
Not that voters get to have their say on the commuter line very often. Caltrain still has no clear source of funding. While its physical structure keeps advancing, its governmental structure hasn't changed in decades. So ridership booms, funding sags, and every few years Caltrain runs into a very predictable crisis.
Is this any way to run a railroad? I am not sure what a better way is ? only that Caltrain's 60,000 regular commuters hold much of the answer. They know the line, understand its worth and are best equipped to inform the public.
The public needs informing. With Caltrain, a little knowledge is particularly dangerous. Friends who take weekend trains to baseball games, for example, don't know that rush-hour expresses run twice as fast. Few grasp what electrifying the line ? in about five years ? will mean in terms of service. The high-tech signal and control system under construction will allow trains to run faster than today's 79 mph limit. They will run farther too, another mile and a half to the new Transbay Center in the Financial District.
Until the 1990s, Caltrain was the only suburban rail line operating west of Chicago. Most of us don't have much frame of reference for commuter trains. All the more important to stay informed ? and keep dreaming of a better transit future.