On this day two years ago, Caltrain held a contest to get people in the right mood for Valentine’s Day. Caltrain accepted submissions of poems and selected a few winners. Since it was for Valentine’s Day, the poems were supposed to be about love — either a poem describing some sort of romance on the rails, or a love poem to Caltrain or to trains in general. I am no poet, but I nonetheless felt an urge to enter the contest, and it seemed fitting to reproduce the poem here today. Of course, it is no ordinary love poem:
Oh Caltrain, my love, I cherish you dearly,
Though on weekends, your trains seem to run but yearly.
When I climb up your steps, my heart turns to light;
Even though the last train to catch is merely at midnight.
To run with smaller headways, electrify you must:
Then your competitors you will leave in the dust!
You need a subway extension under San Francisco’s Second Street,
So that at last, the train and Transbay Terminal may fondly meet.
Heed this advice, dear Caltrain of my heart,
Or forever you shall hold a second place to BART.
A highly ironic subtext underlies the last line, which was intended make whoever read it indignant — as a call to action, you might say. Okay, I admit it: I was pushing buttons. Caltrain often gets the short shrift of popular opinion when compared to BART, because the latter operates more frequently, provides direct subway service to downtown San Francisco, and has a more modern, polished feel. But Caltrain is poised to become an increasingly dominant force in the Bay Area’s regional rail network, while BART — as the latest under-performing extension to Millbrae demonstrates — has essentially put itself out of date. Local bus service, like that provided by SamTrans (and watch out, VTA, coming to a theater near you) has been cannibalized to pay for prohibitively expensive extensions, but the custom technology is ill-suited to the suburban and exurban extensions that BART has singlehandedly pursued. BART’s 5’6″ broad gauge prevents integration with other local rail systems, and it demands wholly new infrastructure with each expansion.
Current service patterns and headways might give the impression that BART is a superior system that we should continue to extend around the Bay, but the service that Caltrain offers now is only a shadow of what it could offer. One day in the future, we will have an upgraded and electrified Caltrain that operates on headways comparable to BART, and as funding sources emerge, service will be extended northward underground from Mission Bay to a new terminus at the reconstructed Transbay Transit Center. Caltrain would become an increasingly popular way to travel throughout the Peninsula and South Bay, providing direct service to the whole string of Peninsula downtowns — which by this point will hopefully be denser, more lively and walkable locales with plenty of apartments, jobs, and entertainment options within walking distance of stations. The corridor would be shared with high speed trains traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Of course, Caltrain would continue to offer its own diverse service, ranging from local trains to the popular “Baby Bullet” peak hour express trains, a service that BART cannot offer with its mostly double-tracked configuration. And when it comes to completing an entire ring of the Bay with frequent train service, standard gauge technology — not BART — should be pursued as the natural tool for the job, both to dramatically reduce cost and allow for greater flexibility.
Oh, and the poem? Basically, it’s tough love: I am excited that Caltrain’s best days are ahead. But you probably will not be surprised to learn that the poem did not win any prize.