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Fear and loathing in San Francisco: The public transport system

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Caltrain in California (image by Cliff via Flickr).

Dr Binoy Kampmark recounts the difficulty of getting around San Francisco with public transport as a perfect example of the failure of modern infrastructure.

THE LONG WEEKEND is coming to a close in California and it became clear as commuters braved the wearing and withered lines of transport that predictable schedules were to be avoided. For a U.S. state so utterly dedicated to innovation, efficiency is not its necessary twin. Those not inclined to shield their worries and concerns in the capsule that is an automobile take the Caltrain, which can be a tired evil that makes its way through the Silicon Valley. It's a reminder of the grime that is train travel in the United States.

The San Francisco-San Diego line should be a glimmering light of ingenious engineering and swiftness. Instead, it is a totemic symbol of withering and decay, a fruit long suffering from a blight: the failure of poor infrastructure. And even then, it is not considered the worst.

The warnings about travelling on the Sunday to Palo Alto, the city more commonly associated with Stanford University, were drip fed through various digital forms and platforms. There were maintenance works being done, so beware of delays and bus replacements. Not that the websites were particularly useful. Reading a Caltrain mapping schedule is eye-wateringly irritating, with its jarring colour combinations. 

A cunning plan might be to take a different commuter system to Millbrae and then get on the Caltrain from Millbrae to Palo Alto station. That would spare the commuter sometime in avoiding the tedious, soul-destroying bus replacements from San Francisco proper.

That commuter system was the BART transit system. The instructions were clear enough: get on the Powell Street station in the pulsating city heart and angle southwards. But on getting out at Millbrae, a sense of detachment visits the commuter, an icy glazing that cools the spirit and robs the heart of optimism. You are estranged at the station, there are no Caltrain personnel to answer questions and others hide within goldfish environs, protected from the wicked travellers who might venture any inquiry.

A sense of how commuters feel about the train stations can be gathered from verbatim remarks that are published by the Caltrain Company.

One stands out in the 2016 publication:

'4th and King Station is clean, but too many homeless. South San Francisco needs a lot of improvements — cannot hear announcements, poor lighting, no shelter from the elements.'

The schedules seem ill-informed and inaccurate. Announcements are poor and sporadic, emanating from canned robotic voices. On this Sunday, you are left with the distinct impression of being lost, the skeleton staff haunting the platforms and the offices with an interest befitting the near-of-death. Service is eschewed with a notable disgust.

There is a hostile note in the warnings on lifts, one that reads like a condemnation: 'Do not urinate here'. (The immediate sensation in the bladder is to ease, slightly, to revolt against such an injunction — unzip and go…) These pictograms are supposedly intended to maintain civic charm and propriety, to comport to standards of care for your fellow human. What such symbols of belligerence do, instead, is paint a picture of civic failure — a hatred and suspicion of the regulator towards citizens who might abuse their toileting privileges, cause a mess, overdose, or even die. 

Such an inconvenience.

The result is that most stations simply do not sport toilets, those dens of experimentation and loss. One is told to hold it in, and, like Tycho Brahe, fear the consequences of doing so. (The Danish astronomer perished from a bladder infection concerned that he might upset the banquet protocol of Emperor Rudolf II’s Prague court.) 

The inscrutable markings as to which platform would actually take commuters to Palo Alto and further south started to cause concern. A man who resembled a grizzled badger, perfumed by sweet inhalations of weed felt that, after spending a year in Germany, coming back to the Caltrain system was tantamount to witnessing a crime. 

He turns out to be a plant seller and somewhat expert at it, specialising in advising customers on how best to green their urban interiors. He looks at the platform sign: it clearly points to San Francisco, the opposite direction to which the train should be going. But the north platform, it seems, is not taking any commuters today.

Two staff members from BART are at the Millbrae station. These might offer some cure to the information muddle, but neither are engaged. One barely shows a pulse, gazing with deadened eyes at his screen flourishing with data. Where is the platform? “Go down to the north platform,” he says gruffly. But the north platform is closed. “Well, then go to the other platform.” But what is your information about where the Caltrain will be coming from?“I have no information.” A man who seemed annexed to his cage had no idea about what the Caltrain schedules were; more importantly, he could not care less.

The other BART employee is even less inclined to assist the inquiring commuter. Surely, given that you are looking at this platform before you, you might enlighten passengers as to the direction of the Caltrain?“I do not work for Caltrain.” Yes, but surely you can call them up. 

“No, they are a separate company, and we have nothing to do with them.” 

History tells us that bureaucracy will eventually breed competition between similar entities, thereby creating disruption, stasis and sclerosis. Rather than pursuing an ethic of collaboration, the BART employees were determined to show us a proud, dogmatic ignorance about Caltrain and its schedules. There would be no engagement and no assistance provided.

Mysterious, postmodern and frustratingly inaccurate, we are left to our own devices at the Millbrae station as to when the train might appear and which direction it will come. In the distance, a pyramid of light approaches. The train heading to San Jose appears — it is heading the wrong direction, but, for the purposes of the commuters, it is right. 

Don’t believe the signs, just the trains.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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