Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Why Caltrain is utterly broken

Or, more specifically, why the Tamien station is utterly useless.

I ride the train to work as much as possible. This is a complete waste of my time. Can you see that I have a love/hate relationship with my commute?

Here's the deal. I commute from roughly Hwy-85 and Cottle in south San Jose (which seems to be officially named San José...maybe...but that's another rant entirely) to near the Mountain View Caltrain station. If I drive, it's about 25 minutes to get there in the morning (a bit after peak traffic), and about 50-60 minutes to get home. Rush hour sucks.

If I take the train, I drive to the Tamien station, 'cause there's no way I'm going to get to the (closer) Blossom Hill station in time for one of the trains from Gilroy. (The last northbound train is at 7:33am. I can't make this stuff up...who's on a train at that time?) Getting to the Tamien station takes about 15-20 minutes, depending on the traffic signals. I then hop on a train, spend 30 minutes in transit to Mountain View, and then walk for 10 minutes. Total elapsed time is right about 1:15. The reverse trip is almost identical.

So, we have a total round trip time of 1:20 for the car, and 2:30 for the train. It's worth noting that it takes almost as long to drive to the train as it does to drive to work, despite the nearly 15 mile difference in distance.

So, there's the time difference. Let's talk money.

If I drive, it costs me something like 2.5 gallons of gas. At the going rate of about $2.85 this week, that's a bit above $7 for the round-trip. Toss in some costs for wear and tear (brakes, tires, iol changes, etc.), and it's probably about $10. Insurance doesn't count - I pay that for owning the car, regardless of use. For the train, a round trip ticket is $8. A monthly pass is $106. Assuming 20 working days a month, that $106 compares with the $200 in car costs. But wait...I drive to the train station. That's about $6 a day, which tacks on an extra $120 to the train cost, so it's $226 versus $200 even with the high gas prices we now enjoy.

The only reason I take the train at all at this point is because my employer offers a $65 subsidy every month. That cuts the cost for the train down to $161. The ~$40 difference isn't exactly compelling, especially in light of the time differences.

Okay, there's the simple economic truth. Here's the rant....

Between really really really stupid freeway design and a half-assed sense of commitment, the Tamien station is fundamentally useless to people not in it's immediate neighborhood. Tamien sits adjacent to Highway-87 and is co-located with a VTA light rail station. (Oh dear, there's another rant topic.) You would think that being adjacent to a freeway would make the station convenient. You'd be utterly wrong. Actually, you'd be half wrong. If you are coming from the north on highway 87, there's an exit that basically dumps you into the parking lot of the station. of course, all of the trains are heading north, so this is mostly useless. Why would anyone go south to catch a train to go north? Especially since the downtown station is fairly near and has far better service? If you are heading north on hwy-87, which is the obvious direction for people heading to Tamien (since it's the southernmost terminus of Caltrain with the exception of those ridiculously early trains out of Gilroy), you have to get off at Curtner, which is a couple of miles to the south of Tamien. You then get the joy of surface streets and traffic signals. Seven lights and multiple turns later, you get to the train station.

On your way home, you get the same treatment. You can go north from Tamien trivially, but heading south requires a lovely journey along the Guadalupe River before you can hop on a freeway.

Is it just me, or is this incredibly stupid? To be fair, this isn't really the fault of Caltrain, but is much more the responsibility of Caltrans.

Not to worry - Caltrain has its own issues. Roughly half of the trains go to Tamien. The rest stop at Diridion in downtown San Jose. This basically means that there are trains hourly, at best, outside of the peak times. And, during the peak period, many of the trains just don't stop at all stops, so it's a crap shoot to get on a train to Tamien. Have a look at the schedule, and notice how much fun it is to get to Tamien from Mountain View in the evening. I often have to be creative and switch trains in order to get to my stop, and several trains go through Mountain View during the peak 5-7pm period that are essentially useless. I have the urge to send something like this:

Dear Caltrain,

Please decide if you are going to support the Tamien station or not. Then, do or do not support it. This half-assed business is tiresome.


Annoyed citizen

P.S. Give my love to Caltrans.

On a related note, the high gas prices have driven a lot of people to actually take the train, which has led to a shortage of parking at Tamien. There's a nice big lot full of weeds next to the driveway. Much as I hate to suggest more concrete on the planet, that lot is really ugly and would look much better with asphalt and parking spaces on it. And don't tell me to go park in the VTA lot on the other side of the freeway. By the time you drive over there, you've probably missed the train, and there won't be another for an hour...and there's no way I'm taking 2:15 just to get to work...when I can drive there in 25 minutes. That's just stupid.

Bottom line - taking the train is stupid, but I seem to admire Sisyphus. Ugh.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Recent books

Reading is another passion, although one for which I have regrettably little time. It seems like most books take me about a two to three weeks to read, depending on random physical characteristics like length, mass, and density. (You get to pick how those interrelate in a literary sense versus what they teach you in physics.)

Since starting this blog, I've read a number of volumes that I would suggest picking up, including Guns, Germs, and Steel, and 1491. I also read cod, which lead me to the back I last finished, which will be tonight's topic. That book would be Salt, which, like cod, was written by Mark Kurlansky. I would recommend both books, and found both to be engaging, if somewhat obscure, histories. The history of the world as centered on the use of salt is certainly an arcane and fascinating one. I wasn't aware that Cape Cod was once a huge saltworks, primarily to supply the cod industry. (Makes sense, but who knew?) Of course, there are lots of English words based on either the Latin or Greek words for salt, like salary and soldier.

Most interestingly, the table salt we all take for granted, and is now extremely cheap, is new in the last 120 years or so. Go back in time a bit, and the stuff we now think of as exotic and expensive, like fancy gray sea salt from France, was the common stuff, and the white even-grained stuff was a serious luxury item. It's funny how these things work out!

Anyway, I suggest reading all of the above. In progress: The Peloponnesian War, by Donald Kagan. Up after that: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.

More soon!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Long time, no blog

Okay okay it's been a while!

There's been a zillion things I've been meaning to write about, ranging from planting and harvesting the backyard tomatoes, to dealing with my wife's illness, to fun with my granddaughter, and on to fun things like food and cooking. I've simply not been getting to writing about any of this. Among other things, work has been a complete nightmare in terms of the workload. I think I have pretty good life/work balance, in general, but there have definitely been a few times in the last two months where there has been significant strain on that ratio.

For tonight, I'll just mention a tidbit about food - dessert tonight was yummy. We had a delicious cherry pudding, from a recipe in a recent Food & Wine "Best of the Best" cookbook. The ingredients are nice and brief:
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1.5 lbs cherries
  • 1.5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 0.5 cup superfine sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • 4 tbsps unsalted butter
  • 4 large eggs, beaten well
The recipe is easy: "Bring the milk to a boil, taking care that it does not boil over. As soon as it starts to fizz up, take it off the heat and leave to cool slightly. Remove the skin. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a deep ovenproof dish liberally and scatter the cherries over the base, making sure they are evenly distributed. Sift the flour with the sugar and salt into a mixing bowl. Melt the butter and remove any scum. Make a well in the center of the flour and whisk in the beaten eggs, then, very slowly, the melted butter, followed by the milk, which should still be warm. Whisk thoroughly so that you have a smooth batter and pour over the cherries.

Bake until the batter rises and the top browns, 40-45 minutes. Leave the over door slightly open for the last 5 minutes of cooking, so that the batter doesn't sink the minute you take it out of the heat. Serve straight away, sprinkled with confectioner's sugar if you'd like."

It's worth noting that this recipe is originally from "The Food of France" by Sarah Woodward. It's $29.95 from Kyle Books, and probably worth picking up, since this is just one of the recipes in this book that look to be really yummy.