The pleasures of a relaxed morning commute

10/12/2018 A commute can be what you make of it.

6:00 AM

As my alarm goes off, I roll out of bed and head to the kitchen. My customary breakfast is a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and a banana, plus a glass of OJ. Time at the breakfast table with warm food helps me relax into the morning.

7:00 Bike ride to the train

On my bike and out the garage. My ten-minute ride starts through a local park, where I often see swap greetings with familiar faces as we pass one another. As I crest a small incline through the park, I am greeted by the glow of the sun behind the horizon across the bay. Now on roads, I soon trade hellos with the usual flagger at a construction site in the Bayshore. Another mile, and one small hill, and I’m at the Caltrain station.

Panoramic image of Bayshore Caltrain station
Panorama of the Bayshore Caltrain station

7:24 Bayshore Caltrain station

As I board the train, the regular conductors express concern for the man who usually boards using the wheelchair lift—we haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks.

I strap my bike to the rails in the bike car, then head upstairs to find a seat. Usually I pick the starboard side to prevent the low-lying sun from shining in my eyes. Gently, my chauffeur starts the train and we head southbound.
Cyclists often recognize each other, especially those who embark or disembark at the same station. Yellow tags indicate where bikes, along with their riders, will get off—and help us put our bikes ‘on top’ of bikes that are going to our station or further (four bikes can fit on each side of the train, and are lashed to the sides with long bungee cords).

My morning is often occupied by reading, books on tape, videos, or music. Six years ago, my wife and stepdaughter (Katie and Ada) gave me noise-cancelling headphones for my BART commute, and my now well-worn pair come in handy on Caltrain as well.

Trains provide one with a view into the ‘backside’ of cities: People in tents nestled into small spaces behind buildings, graffiti on walls, parking lots…
As we continue southward, I see progress on the continuing work on Caltrain electrification. The project will take a few more years, but will make for a quieter, speedier ride once finished.

7:30 Heading south

The sun is now fully up, a big orange circle glowing in the east, and its reflections off windows creating sparkling flashes to the west.

Photo of fields south of Bayshore Caltrain station

7:39 Millbrae station

People board, many transferring from the BART subway to head further south. The Millbrae Theater marquee pokes out above the trees. As we leave the station, we pass the Millbrae Train Museum, appropriately housed in an old passenger train car.

As we continue, we roar past cars stopped at gated crossings, allowing us to speed uninterrupted on our trip.

7:44 Burlingame station

The sign is written using a font that spells out “BVRLINGAME.” The usual large group of high school students board, and the train will be louder for the next few stops.

A cyclist rushes to board as the recorded alert announces, “Caution, the doors are about to close.” Lucky for him, he makes it, since the next train won’t arrive for 43 minutes.

Another building with graffiti—with much of it painted over using a color that doesn’t quite match the original hue.

The tracks are on a berm here, and solar panels are visible on many of the roofs we pass.

7:47 San Mateo station

We stop in a location where I enjoy seeing the trees above a small creek. A man is picking up his sleeping gear, apparently after a night sleeping on one of the station benches.

Photo of trees at San Mateo Caltrain station
Trees over the creek at San Mateo station

7:51 Hayward Park station

One passenger disembarks with his high-tech, electric Onewheel, unfolds the foot pedals, mounts it, and motors away.

Further south, the electrification project is going full bore, with new overpasses going up parallel to our tracks; I guess the trains will eventually run on this path.

Photo of a rider on a onewheel at Hayward station

7:54 Hillsdale station

As we enter the station, one cyclist is holding his ears against the train noise as we roll in. The high school students disembark, running for…bus, class, to pass behind the train while the pedestrian crossing gates are still up? Only they know.

As we roll along, the train passes signs reading “We buy gold,” “Used cars and trucks,” and “We finance, bad credit, no credit…” We are by no means in the elite new car “auto row.”

7:57 Belmont station

One of the few platforms between the two sets of tracks, I can’t see much of what is happening here. My side sees only into a parking lot.
But I do see the woman in the bright orange jacket strapping her bike in the train; I suspect I stand out as much as her, with my bright yellow vest and flashing helmet.

In another backside of a city, I see a larger homeless encampment, followed by a new three-story condominium development with front doors on the street and the backside garages facing the trains. I doubt any of the folks in the camp will be able to move into the condos.

It’s October, and with Halloween approaching there is a pumpkin “patch” business open in a usually empty lot.

8:08 Redwood City station

Lots of bicyclists loading here. Most will ride a few miles to Palo Alto/Stanford, but a few will express to one of the last two stops for this train.

As we leave the station, we pass a large group of pedestrians who have been delayed by the crossing gates for the sidewalk. Next comes a small grove of Redwood trees, reminding all which city we are in.

A minute later, my phone alarm rings, alerting me to get ready for my stop, or to wake me if I have snoozed this morning.

8:14 Palo Alto

After expressing past the station closest to my work, we stop at Palo Alto. I don’t really mind ‘missing’ my stop, as this provides me with a gentle ten-minute bike ride bck to Menlo-Atherton High School.

photo of bikes on Caltrain
Bikes along the rail in the bike car

As we pull into the station, almost all the cyclists prepare to disembark. We are lined up two- to three- across, and we wait patiently as those nearest the door merge to get through the door without bumping into the passengers without bikes.

8:17 Cycling to work

Photo of Caltrain passing the trail
Caltrain passing over San Francisquito Creek

After de-training, I walk my bike out of the station, and prep for the ride to work. Sometimes this means getting my rain cape on, but today it only requires me to switch to my sunglasses to protect me from the bright sun I will be heading towards.

My route to work has evolved so I avoids most of the busy roads: After a ride through a park, I cross the tracks and switch to a short trip on a bike/ped path. As I head north, I see the southbound express approaching the Palo Alto station, and, having almost caught up with my local train, becoming the new local—my my train having magically transformed into an express to zip ahead to the end of the line in San Jose.

Photo of an oak tree on quiet street
Oak tree on the Menlo Park sidesreets

Winding my way through lightly traveled streets in the neighborhoods of Palo Alto/Menlo Park, I arrive at work with a gently ten-minute ride under my belt, slide into Room D4, and prepare for another day with the 120 teenagers entrusted to me.

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