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[whitespace] The Disorient Express

Caltrain passengers get railroaded into backup cars from the Midwest. It's a big problem, yah.

By Gordon Young

CALTRAIN RIDERS can be a surly bunch, but this seemed a bit much. "Next stop: Auschwitz!" shouted a well-dressed man with nice shoes who was standing next to me on the platform last week as the train pulled into the 22nd Street Station.

That's odd, I thought, he looks so normal.

But then, as I looked down the tracks, I realized real reason for his statement. With brakes smoking and the acrid smell of burning rubber filling the air, a strange collection of aging white cars with aquamarine-tinted windows lurched to a stop in front of us. There was a collective groan from my fellow commuters as the doors opened and no cattle or prisoners emerged.

"God--nooooo," moaned a goth-looking chick nearby as she moved zombielike toward the maw of the train.

Inside, the walls were beige-washed metal, except where the paint was peeling. There was no carpet or luggage rack, and many riders upstairs had given up on all pretense of organization and thrown their bags in the aisle. Tinted windows cast a sickly light on the proceedings, and the other passengers looked like wounded soldiers returning from the front, pale and anemic.

Once the burning rubber smell dissipated, it was replaced by a musty funk that definitely had more staying power. And to make matters worse, the AC wasn't working properly. I wondered if conditions like these sent Bernie Goetz over the edge all those years ago in NYC.

Suddenly, their was a deafening squawk of feedback from the PA system that echoed throughout the car. People covered their ears as the conductor called out the next stop, his deep, disembodied voice cutting in and out between the modulating screech of the feedback. It sounded like Morrissey trying to rap with Radiohead playing backup.

Troop Transport

Around Caltrain headquarters, this mobile assault on the senses is known as a Metra car, one of five leased from Midwest Transit while Caltrain's existing fleet gets an overhaul. Many commuters over the past few months have taken to calling it the POW train. In another life, the cars were part of Chicago's Metra fleet.

"It's true that the cars have had some minor problems," Caltrain's newsletter dutifully notes, "but they have helped us continue to provide for our riders while Caltrain has been short of equipment." The same newsletter, by the way, also tries to put a happy face on impending fare hikes and the upcoming cessation of all weekend service for nearly two years.

Aside from the aesthetic shortcomings of the Metra cars, one of the "minor problems" is their constant tardiness. Apparently, the trains have a different brake system, which forces them to "ease" into stations and lose time. Plus, riders with disabilities must be hoisted onto the train with a manual contraption apparently conceived during the Spanish Inquisition. The process takes about 10 minutes to complete, leaving passengers both in and out of wheelchairs shaken and pale. As a result, trips from San Francisco to San Jose are routinely 15 to 25 minutes late.

But hey, time flies when you're having fun. I was enjoying myself when a large gentleman stood up about halfway to San Jose and announced, "If I don't get off this damn thing, I don't know what I'm gonna do." He then made uncomfortable eye contact with several passengers, including me, before hightailing it out of the car.

He didn't appear to be armed, but I was still nervous. More than a shootout, I feared a SWAT team trying to communicate with the crazed passenger via the PA system, shattering the eardrums of everyone on board.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Metra will be retired from service on May 28 so that seats and other interior components can be placed in other cars. Caltrain spokesperson Jayme Maltbie is counting down the days.

"Everywhere I go, when someone finds out I work for Caltrain, the first thing they ask is when are you getting rid of those cars," she said. Commuters should be careful what they wish for. In addition to the Metra cars, Caltrain will also be pulling a car from 20 weekday trains until September, when Caltrain promises that the retrofit project will be completed. That means fewer seats and a return to those heady, boom years when seats on Caltrain where harder to come by than a tech worker who wasn't making at least $75,000 a year.

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From the May 23-29, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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