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Toddling Through the Silicon Valley

By Cheryl Bac

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About this blog: I'm a wife, stay-at-home mom, home cook, marathon runner, and PhD. I recently moved to the Silicon Valley after completing my PhD in Social Psychology and becoming a mother one month apart. Before that, I ran seven marathons incl...  (More)

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How we enjoy the trains

Uploaded: Apr 19, 2016
When we moved to the Bay Area, I found out very quickly that many of the little ones here are fascinated by the Caltrain and the Union Pacific.

Even as a baby, our son enjoyed watching the trains go by. And I learned that it was easy to plan some of our walks, errands and other outings around the train schedules.

The options were endless. We could visit Bowden park, play at friends' homes, check out Off the Grid, and go to libraries where you could see/hear trains going by.

When Gelataio opened up by the Palo Alto train station, we met up with friends for sweets and train watching. Happy moms and little ones.

Our family has also taken the train all the way to San Francisco to watch a Giants game and on shorter rides just for the experience.

While we don't ride the train very often, we've found a variety of ways to enjoy them. How does your family enjoy the trains?
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Reader, a resident of another community,
on Apr 19, 2016 at 5:57 pm

I've been taking Caltrain since the early Nineties and it is helpful to get to certain places. I see it as a means to a destination as I've lived in other places with commuter rail.

That said, I think Caltrain is overpriced for what they offer, vis-a-vis other commuter rail systems in other places on this planet. Part of that problem can be placed on Caltrain's lack of consistent government funding (it's a Joint Powers Board shared by three transit authorities: SFMTA, SamTrans, VTA). Ultimately, a parcel tax should be levied on the residents of the three counties (SF, San Mateo, Santa Clara), but I will be six feet under before that ever happens.

The current operator (RailAmerica?) is marginally better than Amtrak, but more trains are breaking down more often due to deferred maintenance.

The older gallery sets (Nippon Sharyo cars from the Eighties) are decidedly showing their age and smell like disinfectant more than five years ago. The two-level Bombardier sets are a more pleasant ride, but there are fewer of them (cyclists hate the Bombardiers since there are fewer bicycle racks).

I like the increased frequency of service but Caltrain has not kept up with capacity issues nor maintenance.

If I recall correctly, the average Caltrain commuter has an annual income of $100K+. This is basically a tech bro rail line, basically government-subsidized transit for privileged Millennials and Gen Xers.

Caltrain as a heavy rail commuter line doesn't hold a candle to what one finds in Europe or Asia, but this is what we have.

If I had kids (I do not), I'd only use it as a novelty.

I enjoy it when I ride it (recreationally) and I'm happy I don't have to rely on it because Caltrain on-time performance and reliability is lacking.

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 19, 2016 at 8:55 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Reader - Thanks for sharing your knowledge about the Caltrain. When we first moved here my sister-in-law took the train to San Francisco. I don't remember all the details, but I think the train broke down and she ended up taking a bus home. A much longer trip back than she had planned. I wouldn't want to repeat that experience, especially with kids.

Posted by Mother of 4 , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Apr 19, 2016 at 9:13 pm

Peers Park is a great park to play and watch Caltrain.

Roaring Camp in Felton (near Scotts Valley off highway 17) is a great day out to ride the train and experience some old fashioned western atmosphere. An old logging choo choo train through the Redwoods. Web Link

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 19, 2016 at 10:38 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Mother of 4 - Yes, I agree, Peers Park is a great train-viewing park. We haven't been to Roaring Camp in Felton. Sounds like a fun experience.

Posted by Reader, a resident of another community,
on Apr 20, 2016 at 9:22 am


No one plans on taking a train that breaks down and extends the trip by hours.

Every time you take any form of transportation (including your own car), you risk the chance of getting delayed by possible equipment failure. Whether or not you have kids with you does not change the likelihood of the occurrence.

So your sister-in-law got unlucky. It happens. Sorry for her, but the more you ride Caltrain, the higher the likelihood that you will be inconvenienced one day by something beyond your control: faulty equipment, track fatality, fare evader, construction, malfunctioning signals or gate, whatever.

The universe doesn't behave any differently because your kids are with you on the train.

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 20, 2016 at 1:26 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Reader - No, but sometimes it's easier to deal with those problems when you are traveling alone, rather than with two little ones.

I've never been on a train that broke down, but I've flown with and without kids. For me, it was a lot easier to deal with the delays and unexpected issues when I was flying alone. But, I still fly with our kids (and we will still ride the train). We just take extra steps to try and make a delay, lost luggage, etc a little less stressful.

Posted by Reader, a resident of another community,
on Apr 20, 2016 at 2:59 pm

Sure, it's fine to wish that every trip you take with the little ones will be flawless, but that's not reality. In fact, a delayed train could be one of many useful lessons for the kids that not everything will go as planned.

That's a worthy lesson that they will need to understand in order to be functional in a world beyond mom's skirt.

You can't protect them 100% from all the world's problems.

As a matter of fact, we need the energy and creativity of intelligent young people to help us reduce the number of the world's problems, some of which are very apparent, some which aren't so evident, and some maybe we haven't even seen yet.

If you don't want to expose your kids to the risk of a delayed train, DON'T TAKE THE TRAIN EVER AGAIN.

Posted by parent, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Apr 20, 2016 at 3:03 pm

Avoid taking your kids on rush hour trains between Palo Alto and San Francisco. These trains are often standing-room-only and there often aren't bars to hold on to, so keeping track of your kids can be really difficult.

Also avoid the trains heading south from San Francisco after a Giants baseball game. A lot of the passengers on those trains are drunk and loud and scary to kids. Some of these post-game trains are in the afternoon, which is normally a family-friendly time, but so check the game schedule first or just don't get on if you're boarding at the San Francisco station and the other passengers you see there are having trouble walking in a straight line.

I haven't tried taking a train after a 49ers game (far fewer of those than Giants games), so can't comment on passengers manners then.

Regarding delays, sure those are easier to deal with by yourself than with your kids, but that isn't the issue. Is a train delay with your kids more difficult than an hours-long traffic jam on the freeway? Did you see the photos of the big-rig truck blocking both directions of I-880 for 5 hours this morning? At least you're not driving when you're on the train and you can devote your full attention to your kids.

I agree with the other comment that Roaring Camp is great fun. It is a little far from Menlo Park and also kind of expensive, but the experience kids and adults do have great fun.

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 20, 2016 at 4:07 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Parent - Great tips! Yes, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing the best mode of transportation.

Reader - Yes, if we do get stuck on a broken down train, it could be a great lesson about how things don't always go as planned.

Posted by Reality Check, a resident of another community,
on Apr 20, 2016 at 9:09 pm

Roaring Camp near Felton on Hwy 9 in the Santa Cruz Mountains is great. Fond memories of dad taking us there when we were kids.

For something closer and less expensive to ride, check out the Niles Canyon Railway:

They are in Niles Canyon (in the hills east of Fremont) and have their depot for train rides in Sunol (eastern end of the canyon). They have numerous locomotives and cars, including the historically important for the Peninsula ex-Southern Pacific 2472 steam locomotive (See: Web Link and Web Link )

The 2472 used to haul trains on the SF-SJ Peninsula Commute Service (the predecessor service to Caltrain) ... on special occasions (see their web site) they haul trains with the 2472, which is a far larger and more impressive steam locomotive than any at Roaring Camp.

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 20, 2016 at 9:33 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Reality Check - Thank you for the information about Niles Canyon and Roaring Camp! Sounds like wonderful ways to make memories.

Posted by Louise68, a resident of Menlo Park: other,
on Apr 21, 2016 at 1:02 am

There is also the Billy Jones Wildcat railroad, a live steam railroad in Los Gatos, which runs trains pulled by steam and diesel locomotives that are 1/3 the size of full-size locomotives. There is even a restored historic carousel there, which was built for the Panama Pacific International Exposition in SF in 1915. (Not much has survived from the PPIE, but this wonderful carousel did.)

Web Link

And Roaring Camp also has a diesel-powered train that runs from Felton to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk several times a day.

Roaring Camp will also be hosting the popular "Day Out With Thomas" a number of times this year. July 29-31, Aug. 5-7, Oct. 8-9,15-16, 22-23, 29-30*
*Halloween (Featuring Percy)
Thomas is the little blue steam locomotive with a face on his front. For more info:

Web Link

There are other trains you can ride, but these are the closest to Menlo Park.

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 21, 2016 at 8:53 am

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Louise68- Thank you for sharing all of the info about Billy Jones Wildcat railroad and Roaring Camp.

Posted by Gale Johnson, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on Apr 21, 2016 at 3:03 pm

Gale Johnson is a registered user.

I liked your article. Our family took that Roaring Camp railroad trip many years ago and really enjoyed it. I just hope you don't get any lashback or hate mail from the world saving environmentalists and climate change fanatics for your support of a coal burning steam locomotive...a choo choo train. I would challenge them to show how much the trips are adding to our overall pollution. Trust me, you will never hear back because they don't have a clue how to calculate it. I've driven the road right next to it but never took the Skunk Train from Willits to Ft. Bragg. I always wanted to do it but I'm not sure it's still in service.

Posted by Cheryl Bac, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Apr 21, 2016 at 5:35 pm

Cheryl Bac is a registered user.

Gale Johnson - Thanks for suggesting the Skunk Train. Great to hear that you had a positive experience when you went on the Roaring Camp railroad.

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