Road Trip #4: Railtown 1897

About two hours east of Alameda, in the foothills of the Sierra mountains is a small town with a big focus on trains. Not modern trains though. Steam trains mainly, and one old diesel loco.

Railtown 1897 is part of the California State Park system, but the trains are operated by volunteers. Entry into the park comes with a ticket for a train ride, and includes a walking tour of the roundhouse, the old machine shop and part of the train yard, as well as a brief history of the Sierra Railway system, and its relationship with Hollywood for both movies and TV shows.

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EasyJet vs Eurostar

As part of our recent trip to the UK we took a three day excursion to Paris to let the kids experience something a little different, and see a new country. It is also a city I love having spent a year living there back in the 1990s.

For various reasons, it worked out simpler for us to fly into Paris from Gatwick on Easyjet, but on the return we had a choice of flying back or taking the high speed Eurostar train. Given that the kids have not experienced high speed rail before, I opted for the train. The timing was also a little better for the kids, getting them home before their normal bedtime, even with the train ride from St Pancras across London and down to East Grinstead, the nearest train station to where we were staying.

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For those not living in the San Francisco area, BART is a regional train service here that connects many of the East Bay cities with San Francisco and the cities on the SF peninsula down as far as the international airport (although connecting to the airport was something of an afterthought that was only added in the time I’ve been living here).

With the ending of the shuttle I was taking from SF to San Bruno, where Devicescape‘s headquarters is located, my only option from Embarcadero to San Bruno is BART. Now, over three months into that commute, I have some observations about BART that as an infrequent user I hadn’t really noticed all of.

OK, it would be a lie to say that I had not noticed the screeching BART trains make through the tunnels as an infrequent user of the service, but now I am on their trains for an hour each day (30 minutes each way), the screeching is unbelievable. I’ve never been on a train service anywhere else in the world that is so loud. Most of the time a conversation with the person sitting next to you is impossible. My noise canceling headphones only managed a small reduction in the noise level.

Choosing cloth carpets for a commuter train in a place where rain is not that uncommon has to rank up there as one of the most stupid decisions ever made. And now the cars have been in service for many years, those carpets are stained and disgusting. Granted, there are a few cars with new hard floors in use, but some of them are labeled as “demonstration” cars, and they are clearly getting old themselves, so unless the demonstration period was measured in decades, it looks as though no plan to upgrade the remaining cars was ever agreed upon.

Cloth seats were also perhaps not the best choice, but at least that is more common on trains that serve cities as far apart as BART does. The problem is that most train services clean them, or replace them when they become too soiled. Apparently not BART; frequently I see seats that are so badly stained I would rather stand than go near them. And that’s just what I can see. A recent report found all kinds of unpleasant stuff hiding in the BART seating.

No Food & Drink
Even more bizarre for a regional train service with journey times of 30 minutes to over an hour, food & drink is banned. They even interrupt useful next train information announcements with warnings about large fines for consuming food or drink on board.

Most train services are happy to have concession stands and/or vending machines within their stations selling food & drink because they get much needed revenue from such stands. Some train systems even have carts being pushed through the trains, or specific cars where food & drink is sold. Not BART.

The reason? They want to keep the trains clean. Clearly that’s not working. They’d be better off selling food & drink in the stations & actually cleaning the trains.

Inconsistent Announcements
I mentioned in the last section that the no food & drink announcements frequently cut off information announcements about the next train (sometimes even the one about the train currently at the station). It is not just the food & drink ones though. BART has a plethora of poor audio quality (often complete with office noise in the background) announcements that are played from the central control centre and will always override the station specific train information.

Bad announcements are not just limited to the stations though. On board announcements are made by the operator. Some are really good at this, others not so good. Either way, it appears that there is no script for what should be said. I often catch a train in the mornings where the operator announces the destination station name at each stop – very disconcerting if you weren’t paying attention. Others give a little more detail, like “This is Daly City; Millbrae train,” which makes it much clearer.

BART frequently stops mid-tunnel, especially the evening trains for some reason, and once again the operator information varies from total silence to a clear reason. This sort of thing should be consistently clear.

Escalators & Ticket Barriers
Everybody understands that escalators & elevators break down, but not daily. Embarcadero station, it seems, has its escalators out of service more often than in service these days. Shopping malls manage to keep their escalators running most of the time, why is it so hard for BART?

Even more annoying, when the escalator is out of service, they chain them off, forcing everybody into the narrow staircase next to it. An escalator can still be used as stairs when it is not running, but it seems BART is unaware of this.

Delays on train services (at least outside of Japan) are not uncommon, but BART seems to have them more frequently than I would expect, and without reason. We will frequently stop between stations for minutes at a time with no more explanation than “there is a traffic jam ahead” (I kid not, that was an actual operator announcement from a few weeks ago).

Indicator Boards
Finally, the overhead indicator boards that are on each platform have 4 lines of text on them than could be used to continually advise about the time for the next train. Instead, BART has chosen to fill them with more of their pointless announcements most of the time, or have them all show just the current time (something I can get from my watch or cellphone).

There is enough space on these boards that they could easily reserve one or two lines for next train information all the time, and scroll their other messages in the other portion of the screen. The current usage of these displays is just another indication that BART management knows very little about running a train service.