My Caltrain scheduling dilemma in Mountain View

While most people are rushing to get on/take a tram, I’m rushing to avoid them.

I live and work in Mountain View. I work graveyard shift, usually 2200 (10pm) until 0600 (6am). My workplace happens to be on the opposite side of the railroad tracks as where I live, so twice every day I have to cross these tracks.

Trains aren’t a big deal… but everything changes when you realise just how completely buggered this particular Mountain View intersection is. The pair of tracks (one for northbound trains, one for southbound) make things worse.  Anyone who travels this route will know the pain of this intersection. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pedestrian, a cyclist, or in a vehicle: if you’re trying to get on to Castro, you will get screwed by this.  And there’s no easy way to schedule/account for it either, as you’ll see.

For the past week I’ve been trying to perfect my schedule so that I arrive at the intersection at such a time where I can cross within 1-2 minutes, avoiding all the trains.  Leaving earlier does not help, because Caltrain’s schedule is a clusterfuck during specific times of the day: times that align with my schedule perfectly.  Here’s the train schedule:

2138, heading N
2149, heading S
0557, heading S
0603, heading N
0615, heading S (does not stop)
0623, heading S
0633, heading N

There is one tip: southbound trains only cause the guardrails (thus screw the lights) to come down once, while a northbound train causes them to down twice. I doubt people have figured this out though, but it plays a huge role.

So I’ve an 11-minute window to cross Central: between 2238 and 2249.  That means I have to leave home at exactly 2230 every day (see below for why the precision matters).

But going home is the worst part, given that mornings are usually when the trains are running late. The best window there is between 0603 and 0615, especially given that since the 0615 train only causes the guardrails to come down once, not twice.

The holidays, however, will be requiring me to work different hours: 2300 to 0700. So let’s take a look at what Caltrain’s schedule is there. Hold on to your hats, because when you see the morning schedule, you’re going to shit yourself:

2238, heading S
2249, heading N
0657, heading N
0705, heading N
0707, heading S
0715, heading N (does not stop)
0723, heading N
0725, heading S
0737, heading N

Honestly, I can’t even figure out how they can run this kind of schedule without the trains smashing into one another. The best window there appears to be between 0707 and 0715 — an 8-minute window. EIGHT MINUTES! Are you fucking kidding me?!

And even with all of that said, there are still two points which should illicit an “you’ve got to be kidding me” outburst:

  • Caltrain reserves the right for each train to be up to 5 minutes late
  • At night only, classic boxcar trains use the same tracks!  These bastards will literally fit themselves into 10 minute windows (I’m not making this up), and due to their variable length (physically), you could be stuck at an intersection for 20 minutes. I don’t know why they can’t run later, where there’s an entire hour between standard trams

This shit has practically made me neurotic at times. For example:

Just yesterday I attempted the above. I was feeling like shit (I got sick later at work), and I had a panic attack while biking to work. Not good, but I still arrived at the intersection exactly as planned. It was all working in my favour… until I heard the blaring horn of a boxcar train, which fucked everything right up.

I would love to wring the neck of whatever prick came up with this schedule.  I mean seriously, do we really need that degree of granularity? Can we not just have them run every 20 minutes?  This would provide a larger window for people to cross at intersections (not just in Mountain View), but also a larger window for trains being late or emergency situations (it’s incredible how many people commit suicide by jumping in front of trams…)

There are two alternatives: avoid the intersection entirely and instead take Shoreline.  This is annoying on a bike, believe me, but Shoreline is immune to this problem.  The other option is to take the pedestrian overpass, which is before the intersection — but that isn’t an option given that during fall and winter, the overpass is quite dangerous (wet or icy wood + shoes or tires = regret).  Not to mention one would have to take Villa, which has 3 or 4 sets of lights to screw you (especially downtown).

I think taking Shoreline is the better choice when encountering a boxcar train, since you’ve no idea how physically long the train is…  Ah well.