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Capitol Corridor

Started: 2021-07-10 21:49:08

Submitted: 2021-07-11 01:45:57

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator completes a multi-modal circuit around San Francisco Bay

On Memorial Day, to celebrate being fully vaccinated (and because my flooring contractors were busy refinishing my hard wood floors and there was only so much packing I could do in a single weekend), I got on a train for fun.

Jaeger in front of San Jose Diridon Station
Jaeger in front of San Jose Diridon Station

San Jose Diridon Station is what passes for a passenger rail nexus in the Bay Area, serviced by several different commuter rail, interurban rail, and Amtrak long-distance passenger service. This gave me the opportunity to get on a train heading north out of San Jose into the East Bay, take a ferry across the bay, spend a few hours in San Francisco, and catch Caltrain back down the peninsula to San Jose.

I drove to San Jose Diridon Station on Monday morning and arrived early enough to spend a few minutes looking around the small historical displays at the station before catching the 10:05 northbound Capitol Corridor departure on platform 2. (I found the departure signage vague and inconsistent inside the station: each agency running train service through the station had its own departure board, and Amtrak had clear signage for its once-daily Coast Starlight service to Los Angeles (southbound departure on platform 1) but didn't even bother to post platform information for its relatively-more-frequent Capitol Corridor service.)

I selected a forward-facing window seat on the left-hand side of the train, on the upper deck of one of the carriages towards the back of the train. (This put me closer to the diesel locomotive pushing the train, but I didn't hear much engine noise during the trip.) I watched out the window as we pulled out of the station on the tracks shared with Caltrain, negotiated the throat of the station, passed Caltrain maintenance yards, and into industrial section of San Jose near the airport.

Levi's Stadium, from a train window
Levi's Stadium, from a train window

The train diverged from the Caltrain mainline on a single-track line, past office parks and Levi's Stadium, before leaving the urbanized areas of the South Bay to run on a narrow causeway running through the salt marshes at the extreme southern end of San Francisco Bay. From the train I could see the muddy bay water at low tide, divided into ponds and sloughs by dikes slowly being restored.

Salt marshes at the south end of San Francisco Bay
Salt marshes at the south end of San Francisco Bay

The train continued northwards into the East Bay, between salt marshes and salt ponds (and a dump), then took a sharp turn east through Fremont, across the main axis of development roughly parallel to the shore of the bay, stopping at a station in the middle of Fremont before turning again at the base of the hills on the far side of the strip of developed land perched between the bay and the East Bay hills. From there we continued northwards, through a progression of East Bay suburbs I know mostly as disembodied destinations on the other side of the BART map, stopping only at Hayward and Oakland-Coliseum before the stop I planned to disembark, Oakland-Jack London Square.

Amtrack California coach 6962
Amtrack California coach 6962 "Point Bonita" at Oakland Jack London Square Station

I departed the train in Oakland and walked a couple of blocks towards Jack London Square to catch the SF Bay Ferry across the water. The train arrived in Oakland a few minutes later than I had expected based on the timetable, so I had less time than I had hoped to make my way to the ferry terminal.

SF Bay Ferries docked in Oakland
SF Bay Ferries docked in Oakland

During the pandemic, ferry service had been reduced during weekdays and suspended on weekends; this was a special holiday service, operating with two ferries with the same posted departure time. By the time I arrived at the dock a long, somewhat-physically-distant line stretched a considerable distance from the ferry dock.

Boarding the SF Bay Ferry at Jack London Square
Boarding the SF Bay Ferry at Jack London Square

While I was waiting in line I looked at the US Navy auxiliary USNS John Glenn, a floating dock capable of berthing multiple smaller craft on its massive deck, docked in the next berth at the Port of Oakland.

USNS John Glenn in Oakland
USNS John Glenn in Oakland

The ferry Scorpio filled and departed the dock before I reached the front of the line; I boarded the second ferry for my trip across the bay.

SF Bay Ferry Scorpio cruises past USNS John Glenn in Oakland
SF Bay Ferry Scorpio cruises past USNS John Glenn in Oakland

As a ferry tourist, in my opinion the best part of riding the ferry across the bay is sitting on the open-air upper deck to get a better view of the water. My ferry's small open-air upper deck was crowded with people by the time I boarded the ferry and climbed the stairs; I spent most of the ride across the bay sitting under the overhanging awning with a middling view of the water behind me.

SF Bay Ferry cruises past USNS John Glenn
SF Bay Ferry cruises past USNS John Glenn

We cruised through Oakland Inner Harbor and across the bay, past Treasure Island and under the Bay Bridge and docked on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, disembarking at the Ferry Building at the edge of downtown. I walked through the new ferry plaza (under construction three years ago when I lived in San Francisco and worked at the Google office in SoMa) and walked to the end of Pier 14, stretching out a few hundred meters into the bay, providing a commanding view of the skyline south of Market.

Salesforce Tower dominates SoMa skyline from Pier 14
Salesforce Tower dominates SoMa skyline from Pier 14

The last time I was here, at the end of Pier 14, was last year, February 2020, at the very end of the Before Times. One of these buildings was brand new since then, the blue-and-white mid-rise tower on the Embarcadero in the middle of the picture. (This tower replaced a parking garage that was missing one corner where the Embarcadero Freeway used to go.) I watched many of these towers climb while I was living in San Francisco: Park Tower at Transbay, Folsom Bay Tower, 181 Fremont — even Salesforce Tower, which was under construction when I moved to the city in 2016 and topped out in 2017.

I grabbed empanadas for lunch in the Ferry Building, then descended into Embarcadero Station to catch a MUNI train outbound to Castro Station. (MUNI metro itself recently reopened after being closed for more than a year during the pandemic and to address some engineering problems in the Twin Peaks Tunnel.)

Jaeger disembarks Muni in Castro Street Station
Jaeger disembarks Muni in Castro Street Station

In Castro Street Station I saw a relic from the Before Times — a poster advertising last year's Pixar film Onward, one of the first movies to have its planned theatrical release scrapped in favor of streaming on Disney+. It felt like a glimpse into a time capsule, like the pictures I see of old disused Tube stations with fifty-year-old ads still on display because no one ever took them down.

Rainbow crosswalk in the Castro
Rainbow crosswalk in the Castro

I wandered through the Castro, past the massive pride flag and the rainbows everywhere, and headed to Dolores Park, the heart of the Mission. I got an ice cream cone at BiRite Creamery (where the somewhat-physically-distant line was only a few people long, not stretching around the corner like I would have expected for a bright sunny holiday day). I walked across the street to Dolores Park and found a spot on the grass, overlooking the city, to eat.

Ice cream in Dolores Park
Ice cream in Dolores Park

While in Dolores Park I met up with my colleague Rahul and his wife Rachel, who'd driven up the peninsula to visit the city and happened to be there the same time I was. We were all fully vaccinated so we talked without masks (outdoors, still somewhat distant, but not strictly observing six feet), which was a weird and new experience for all of us having spent more than a year wearing masks every time we left our houses.

We wandered northward along Church Street in the general direction of Market Street, where I expected to catch a MUNI train to the Caltrain station towards home. By the time I made it to Church Street Station the next inbound train that would take me to Caltrain was fifteen minutes away and wouldn't get me to the southbound train I wanted to catch, so I emerged into the sunlight above ground and caught a Lyft ride to the station. I watched nervously as we meandered on a tortured route through Duboce Triangle, avoiding various complicated road restrictions, before eventually merging onto 101 and then 80 and finally dropping me off across the street from the station. I nipped across the street and caught my southbound train with only a couple of minutes to spare — which wasn't much of a safety margin but worked out in the end.

I settled in for the ninety minute ride on the soundbound stopping service to San Jose-Diridon, past landmarks and cities I recognize from living in and visiting the Bay Area (even though I only ever rode Caltrain as a tourist), through the suburban sprawl in San Mateo County and into the leafier, swankier suburbs in Santa Clara County. We arrived at San Jose-Diridon on schedule at 17:27 and I drove back up the mountain after a multi-modal circuit around the Bay.

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