Amtrak California Transit Adventures

Taking a Late BART Train to Millbrae via the Airport to Just Making Caltrain to Mountain View to Finish the VTA Light Rail and the Amtrak/ACE Santa Clara Stations

Bay Area Needs, Introduction:

For my day in the Bay Area I debated just riding BART around a bit (for under three hours, the maximum time your allowed to ride on a single fare) to finish some things before heading into San Francisco to enjoy the evening before taking the bus to a Capital Corridor Train back to Sacramento (and getting the full AGR quafecta) or actually going down to San Jose and (taking the Capital Corridor there or back) and getting some stuff done there. A few days before I left I finally got serious about figuring out what stations on the San Jose Light Rail I really needed. I knew a couple stops I didn’t quite get to on my first couple trips down two years ago (Day 1|Day 2). The photos had been a mess because of hard drive issues but I managed to recovery previews (good enough for the website but not for printing) except for the stations from Middlefield to Old Ironside (inclusive). The issue with these stops is that there on the Mountain View – Winchester Line that only operates every half-hour on weekends (with the same awful frequency during weekdays except during rush hours) unlike the other higher ridership Santa Teresa – Alum Rock Line that is every 15 minutes all day weekdays and weekends (supplemented by a few rush hour express trips). I spend some time on Google Maps and realize that it would be only a six mile walk to get all the 10 stations, most are quite close together. It’s something I can clearly pull off. When I did my Downtown Santa Clara and San Jose upload just before I left I realized I also want to try and revisit all three of the Amtrak stations in the Santa Clara Valley including San .

On BART, the main stations on the revisit list (plus some in the East Bay on the line out towards Pittsburg/Bay Point) are the San Mateo County extension stations. I also notice that the historic Millbrae Station is now a museum only open on Saturdays from 10:00am to 2:00pm, even better. The plan for the afternoon becomes obvious, shoot for the 1:39pm Caltrain trip from Millbrae with the 11:05 arrival time of the San Joaquin train I’m arriving on should give me enough time to make a BART few stops, make a quick visit to the railway museum and get to Mountain View with a reasonable amount of time to do the VTA light rail. The Capital Corridor 50% off weekends sale requires 3 day advance purchases. The train choice  back to Sacramento is obvious, the 7:50pm train from San Jose is too late (and it will be two hours of darkness in San Jose anyway), the 5:50pm it is, and I might has well stop at Emeryville for an hour (an extra 100 points) to visit the public market there for some dinner (this second train originates in Oakland). I can’t believe a full-price ticket from San Jose to Sacramento is now $40. I, at least, only pay $20. I book from San Jose to give myself the option of getting on there, I have a feeling it will be one of the Santa Clara Station. The price difference is 50¢, worth it for options.

In Actuality – Running an Hour Late from the San Joaquin

Unfortunately my San Joaquin Comets train is an hour late. This cuts down on my BART plan. I’m done with getting the Cameros going down Jack London Square not until 12:07. Each of the 5 BART routes runs every 20 minutes on Saturdays but at least this includes the Fremont – Daly City, and Richmond – Daly City trains that don’t operate during the week (during the week Richmond – Daly City trains are extended to Millbrae, but not on weekends), so on weekends (along with evenings) Pittsburg/Bay Point – SFO Airport trains are extended to Millbrae instead running round-robin service (changing ends at the stub-end SFO Airport Station) to serve both of the San Mateo County Terminals (originally service for the first year were separate branches and a special shuttle train – colored purple on the maps – ran just from Millbrae to SFO, ideally the SFO Airport Bus station wouldn’t have been built and the SFO AirTrain would connect with both BART and Caltrain at Millbrae, like Jamaica Station in New York. The SFO Airport station and wye is a long story about politics.)  My original plan is to walk to the Lake Merritt Station for BART (a stop with unique looking entrances) but to get the Comets going down the Embarcadero I’m now much closer to the 12th Street/Oakland City Center Stop. I decide to go there. I check Google Transit and realize I’m not going to make the 12:20 Millbrae-bound train that would get there with a half-hour to spare. Plenty of time to check-out the railway museum but instead the 12:40 that will give me a reasonable ten minutes to make the connection. A Richmond – Daly City train will come in between so at least I can enjoy some of the wait at Daly Center.

I reach the entrance to 12 St/Oakland City Center(1 Photo) at 12:22 and walk downstairs. I have issues finding a working vending machine to refill my clipper card. I get annoyed that BART lacks countdown clocks on their mezzanines. I then here the computer voice announcing “San Francisco, San Francisco Airport, Millbrae train, now boarding platform 2.” The 12:20 train was late! I then hit myself in the head feeling dumb for not checking BART’s mobile website for real time departure information and instead just relying on Google’s schedule data. I finally get the $7 I need for my trip to Mountain View since Caltrain allows Clipper Cards to run negative balances and head down to the lower-level platform. Signs inform passengers that construction is delaying trains on the Pittsburg/Bay Point line 5 to 10 minutes.

The Daly City-bound train (from Richmond) soon arrives on time at 12:30. I get on and have an uneventful ride through the trans-bay tube, finding it strange that I will just pass beneath San Francisco and not actually set foot on its streets. I see daylight for a little bit of it when BART emerges south of Glen Park. I get off at the last stop of Daly City were we arrive on time at 12:59 and do a photo essay without leaving fare control, not worth an extra $3.10!

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My train to SFO Airport/Millbrae is, of course running late because of track work and finally arrives at 1:15, 6 minutes late. This is going to be a tight connection!


We make quick stops at Colma, South San Francisco, and San Bruno, arriving at the San Francisco Airport at 4:30 and I run off ahead of the crowds for some photos as the train switches ends. I like the on platform destination signs that say Millbrae/Caltrain, a legacy of the Shuttle service that was designed to operate and lasted a year (discontinued due to low ridership). There is another operator already waiting at the opposite end of the station and the reverse move takes maybe a minute. The driver screaming “This train is now departing for Millbrae.”


I share a moment with a some other transferring travelers trying to catch the 1:39 Caltrain with her saying “We have 3 minutes”. Our arrival at the back of the platform (I was near the front of the train when I boarded in Daly City) takes me by complete surprise. We arrive at 1:36. No sign of the train yet. I quickly snap some photos of the ridiculously long SFO Airport / SF / Pts Bay Point sign and get annoyed at the crowds of passengers trying to tap and out of the BART fare gates and hear the bell of the entering Southbound Caltrain on time. Unforchunately its only a same platform connection to BART from San Francisco-bound Caltrains, to go to San Jose requires crossing the overpass. I finally get a free faregate and run up the stairs and down the otherside of the overpass. Clipper in hand, passing it over a clipper reader but not waiting for the beep. I run on after the conductor as stepped back onto the train (at the nearest car) but hasn’t quite closed the doors. The conductor looks at his watch, hoping all the sprinting passengers didn’t make his train late. It’s actually the second time I’ve run across the overpass here, the other time was making a tight connection when I was finishing my station to station of Caltrain over the summer on my last trip to San Francisco.


I head upstairs and sit down, trying to catch my breath and become worried if my Clipper tap registered or not. We start making all local stops. Just before Hillsdale I notice brand new streets, still under construction but no buildings yet, getting paved out over what was once the Bay Meadows Racetrack with a special Caltrain station with trains stopping until it closed on August 17, 2008. The conductor keeps passing through the car as we make the various stops but not checking for tickets. I’m nervous that my tap card didn’t register and this could be up to a $353 Caltrain ride (the maximum fine is $250 and  but their also surcharges, although according to Google after the ride, your basically required to show-up in traffic court and if you do it gets reduced to $75, don’t know what they do if your out of state and can’t make the date). He finally decides to do the ticket scan of the entire train (it nearly always happens once somewhere between San Francisco and San Jose in route), just before San Antonio (the stop before Mountain View). As I hand my Clipper Card down to the aisle to pit it up to his reader (the checker) I say a disclaimer “I really hope, this went through, I was running from BART!” It beeps successfully and response is just “Got It!” I final relax between the final two-stops and get off at Mountain View at 2:29.

The connection to the VTA light rail isn’t ideal and the next one isn’t scheduled to depart until 2:54. Much to my surprise there is a VTA Light Rail car sitting in the station. The next terminating train is scheduled for 2:44 and I assume that this train will just make a same day turn. I head over to the light rail station and bite the bullet and buy a $6 day pass that includes the bus. I could also buy a $4 8-hour light rail pass that will do the trick but have a feeling I’ll end up on the light rail. I then look around and try and find an employee to ask when this train will be departing. My plan for the 25 minute layover is to quickly buy something to eat but perhaps the schedule is wrong.


The Train doesn’t leave. I end up getting off to take a walk and find departure monitors in the transit center. I don’t have time for a snack. These say 511 Departure Monitors but are in a terrible format, instead of just listing the next Caltrain trips (or perhaps the next three for rush hour service) they list all possible service patterns for Caltrains stopping in each direction separately including a bunch tomorrow since its a weekend. The light rail isn’t even on the monitor.

At 2:44 the next inbound train arrives leaving two LRVs in the station. Passengers can wait on a stationary train for over 40 minutes!

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My light rail car leaves on time at 2:54 and start looking at the schedule, I got the closest two stations to Mountain View on my Caltrain to Gilroy day. I realize that Moffett Park is a great stop to go to and double-back. I immediately remember I need to become vigilant at pushing the stop request button since VTA Light rail trains don’t make all stops. I have the 3 minutes I need at Moffett Park and double-back from there two stops to Middlefield, I then have a nice walk to Bayshore/NASA

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The next train arrives at Bayshore/NASA and I take it to Fair Oaks, from there I start walking, getting Crossman as an intermediate stop and then Borregas. The next Mountain View-bound train comes and I take it to Lockheed Martin where I manage just a few photos before the following half-hours train comes. I’m right on schedule. I glance at my phone and realize that from Vienna to the Great America Amtrak/ACE Station is less than two miles and decide to just walk it and stop worrying about the light rail schedule.
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I get my photos of Reamwood, Old Ironside and Great America as a huge new stadium starts looming in the distance. I realize its Levi’s Stadium finishing construction that will be the new home next football season of the San Francisco 49ers. At least its suburban Santa Clara location will have some public transit access with the ACE (not applicable unless special service is run) and the Capital Corridor plus VTA Light Rail that is already planning a few new sidings for service improvements. I assume parking will also be shared with the Great America Theme Park.
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I keep walking to get more photos and complete my photo essay of the Great America Train Station(35 Photos). There I notice new signs calling the station a ‘transit center’ and photograph southbound Capital Corridor Train #741 that will go down to San Jose and after just a 27 minute (I believe) become my train northbound in push mode.


I then have about an hour before the northbound train I need will stop at the Great America Station. I check my phone, and remember that VTA on Google Maps isn’t too reliable since they only use time points and haven’t calculated the times of individual stops. It tells me I can take VTA Bus Route 60 form a stop just south on Great America Parkway half a mile away and get to the Downtown Santa Clara/University Station just under 10 minutes before my train is scheduled to leave. If I were taking the last train of the day I wouldn’t risk it but if something happens on the bus I’ll just be stuck for two hours, have dinner and take the last evening train “home” to Sacramento. I walk by this sign crossing Great American Parkway to the bus stop aways from the intersection:


I get to the bus stop at 5:20 and directly look up on my phone the schedule, its 5:25 leaving Old Ironside’s bus loop and arriving at the Downtown Santa Clara Station at 5:47, 8 minutes for this connection, should be perfect. A 57 bus pulls up and the driver says the 60 is right behind it as he opens the doors. Sure enough in a few minutes the 60 pulls up, I get on and flash my day pass (the only ticket check today). There a few people on the bus and its a quick ride, just a few stops for a few passengers, with one bad moment involving an old lady fiddling with her purse for her change. The bus bays at the Santa Clara station are both along side and then behind the station as the street turns, I think I’ve missed the stop before we pull up to our bay near the intersection at 5:47, on time, at Santa Clara-Downtown(20 Photos).

I use the underpass with plenty of decent signs telling all passengers except Caltrain passengers going to San Jose and Gilroy that they need to use the underpass. I follow the advice of more signs on the platform “Before Boarding Check: Caltrain, Ace, or Capital Corridor” and make my train Capital Corridor train #744 (Continue reading that repot).