A Seven-train Trip

By Rick Coates

On January 2nd and 3rd I took a seven-train trip on the San Francisco Bay peninsula, the California Central Valley and the Sacramento Valley.  This was not a tourist jaunt but rather a deliberate investigative project to determine what improvements need to be made to encourage travel by transit.  It was an eye-opener.

The trains that I took were, in order of use, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), CalTrain, the Altemont Commuter Express (ACE), the AMTRAK San Joaquin, the Sacramento Regional Transit (SRT) Gold Line, the AMTRAK Capitol Corridor, BART again and the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART).  A few bus trips and a ferry ride helped connect these segments.

Because my wife was taking a plane to Montana, we took the Airport Express bus from the Santa Rosa’s Charles M. Schultz Sonoma County Airport to the San Francisco International Airport.  After bidding my wife goodbye, I boarded BART at its airport station using my convenient Clipper Card®  to log the fare.

According to BART’s on-line map I could make connection with CalTrain at either Milbrae or San Bruno.  But the southbound line to Milbrae did not operate midday.  So I took BART to San Bruno.

But the San Bruno Caltrain station was not actually at the BART station.  I had a choice. I could wait for the next BART train to Milbrae, wait for a bus to the Caltrain Station or hail a cab.  Rather than wait, I opted to walk the four very long blocks to Caltrain. Clearly BART has not arranged its schedule for the convenience of the traveler.  This is a fundamental problem.

After a short wait for the CalTrain, I once again was able to use my Clipper Card®  to Board the train.  Onboard I discovered that I could not charge my smart phone and there were no restrooms.  And once again I had connection problems, this time with ACE.  The route from San Bruno to Santa Clara was not abnormally ugly.  It was normally ugly.  There were few trees.  Much of the blight was auto-related: parking lots, auto repair shops, muffler shops, auto dismantlers, tow services, transmission shops, tire dealers and fields where old tires go to die.

According to both CalTrain’s and ACE’s website, they shared common stations at Santa Clara and San Jose Diridon.  This is true but with one hitch.  There is no ticket machine for ACE at either station nor does ACE honor Clipper Cards.  Nor were there restrooms at the Santa Clara Station.  I ended up traveling to the San Jose Diridon Station by local bus.  The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus driver at the station was especially helpful suggesting the fastest most direct route.

As I mentioned, there was no ACE ticket machine at San Jose and ACE did not use the Clipper Card® (although there are future plans to implement it.)  In desperation I inquired at the AMTRAK window (CalTrain connects with AMTRAK at the San Jose Diridon Station), and discovered that they sold ACE tickets.  How one would know is a mystery.  There were no signs anywhere indicating the option.  At least they had restrooms.

San Jose Diridon is a true transit center.  It serves CanTrain, Capitol Corridor, Amtrak long-distance lines, VTA streetcar lines and multiple bus lines including Monterey-Salinas Transit, VTA and Greyhound.

Unfortunately, as a commuter train, ACE has very few morning trains to Fresno.  So I had to wait for an afternoon train. At long last I boarded the ACE train to Stockton, special ticket in hand. Because the train started so late in the afternoon, the last portion of the ride was in the dark with no scenery to see. But the first half of the ride was quite beautiful: bayside views, marshes with birds and rolling oak-studded hills.  Fortunately the ACE train did have phone charging outlets and it did have restrooms.  It was a pleasant, comfortable ride to the Stockton Station which serves both Amtrak San Joaquin and ACE .  I stayed overnight in Stockton at the University Plaza Waterfront Hotel adjacent to the beautiful McLeod Lake and Weber Point Park.  The comfortable hotel provided a convenient shuttle from the station.  They did not, however, provide complementary bicycles to ride around the plaza and park.

After breakfast the next morning, I boarded the Amtrak San Joaquin to Sacramento.  Another nice ride with mostly great scenery.  Amtrak California  is financed by the State rather than the federal government which is why this train is not underfunded.

I arrived refreshed early enough in the morning to  to catch the Sacramento Gold Line light rail to Rancho Cordova.  The Sunrise Station is a short walk from three hotels and a multi-use path extends from there to the American River.

If I had brought a bicycle which was allowed on all the trains, I could have ridden the American River trail west back to the Sacramento Amtrak station or east to Folsom.

The El Dorado trail is being expanded toward Folsom.  When it reaches Folsom, cyclists will be able to ride an off-road path all the way from Sacramento to Placerville in the gold country.

Instead of biking, I rode the Gold Line back to Sacramento Amtrak where I boarded the Amtrak Capitol Corridor traveling south to Richmond.  This is a scenic ride through Sacramento Valley farms, along the San Joaquin River, and along the San Pablo Bay.  One of the highlights of this trip is the crossing of the Carquinez Strait on a 5620 foot long Benicia-Martinez drawbridge completed in 1930.  It is the second longest bridge in the U.S. and is 70 feet above the water.

The route runs parallel to the shore line of the Strait and the San Pablo Bay.

At Richmond, I transferred to BART light rail which alternates between aerial and underground segments with stations in Berkeley and downtown San Francisco.

To get from the east side of the Bay to San Francisco, trains travel beneath the San Francisco Bay via the Transbay Tube.  BART is often crowded and exceedingly noisy.  Bring your earbuds to drown out the screeching wheels.  New BART trains will soon be in service which, we hope, will solve these problems.

BART’s Embarcadero Station is but a short walk to the Golden Gate Ferry terminal.

I took the ferry across the beautiful San Francisco Bay with full views of the Bay Bridge, the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.  I landed at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal which will eventually be served by the new SMART train.  This segment of SMART from Larkspur to San Rafael is currently under construction so Golden Gate Bus 31 provides free shuttle service to the present San Rafael SMART station.

The SMART train was the best ride of the entire trip: fast, comfortable, equipped with snack bar, wi-fi, and restroom.  It traverses beautiful estuaries with many varieties of birds, along the Petaluma River, through vineyards and rolling oak-covered hills.  The route presently ends at the Airport Blvd. Station just north of Santa Rosa.  There is a shuttle to the Airport where we originated our trip.

The trip was mostly enjoyable but frequently aggravating.  The limited connectivity, the long wait times and consistent lack of trains would discourage most travelers.  Hopefully these problems will be solved in the next few years.