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Story and photos by Ted and Silvia Blishak
HighOnAdventure.com   November 1, 2012


San Jose, California

Our objective today was to utilize six modes of Bay Area transit systems in order to have lunch at the Top of the Mark, that well known restaurant and bar atop the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel at the crest of Nob Hill in San Francisco.

Mark Hopkins was one of the Big Four (Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker) responsible for the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento to Ogden, Utah, with the final Golden Spike driven at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869. Hopkins, a very wealthy man like his colleagues, built a mansion at the most choice location in San Francisco, atop Nob Hill. It was not completed until 1878, after Hopkins death.

Mark Hopkins Mansion
The Mark Hopkins mansion, the present site of the Mark Hopkins Hotel

After the death of Hopkins' wife, her second husband donated the land and building to the San Francisco Art Association in 1893. The mansion was destroyed by the fires following the 1906 earthquake. The Mark Hopkins hotel opened on this site in 1926, was designated a California Historical Landmark in 1961, and has been managed by InterContinental Hotels since 1973.

The hotel is located at the southeast corner of Nob Hill, across from the Fairmont Hotel, the Huntington Hotel, and the Pacific Union Club, formerly the mansion of James Flood, of Comstock Lode fame and wealth.

          The Mark Hopkins mansion, the present site of the Mark Hopkins Hotel
The InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel

The most obvious means of transportation to reach the Mark Hopkins Hotel would be to jump into our rented Mercury Grand Marquis and drive north on “bloody” Bayshore Freeway, Highway 101, fight city traffic up to Nob Hill and pay the $51.30 parking fee at the hotel.

Instead, we decided to test the capabilities of the public transportation system of the Bay Area, with the emphasis on rail service. The Comfort Suites San Jose Airport is located on First Street, on the light rail lines of the Valley Transit Authority. Although at this time it is impossible to take light rail to the airport, it is possible to take it to the train station and transit center.

Two lines traverse this route, the Alum Rock-Santa Teresa Line, and the Mountain View-Winchester Line. Leaving our hotel at 9:45am, we walk one block to the light rail stop at the corner of Gish Road and First Street to await the next Mountain View Winchester train, hoping one will get us to the CalTrain Station in time for a 10:40am departure. Two Alum Rock Santa Teresa trains come by, then a Mountain View Winchester train. However, after stopping at Gish, the operator puts up the Out of Service destination sign, and evicts the single passenger who is riding the car.

Valley Transit Authority Japanese-built light rail vehicles
Valley Transit Authority Japanese-built light rail vehicles

Finally a Mountain View Winchester train arrives, in service, and in a few minutes we arrive at the San Jose Diridon Station. This was formerly the Southern Pacific Railroad Cahill Street Station, but was renamed for a retired Santa Clara County Supervisor, Rod Diridon, in 1994, after the station’s restoration was completed.

There is some confusion at the platform as to how to reach the CalTrain Station, but we could see the tops of passenger coaches on the other side of a fence separating the light rail station from the train station, so we crossed the tracks on a walkway, and headed for a pedestrian tunnel labeled “To CalTrain Station”. This tunnel is in fact the original tunnel that has been there since the Cahill Station opened in 1935. It has just been expanded and the end opened up to gain access to the light rail platform. There is a CalTrain ticket dispensing machine at the entrance to the tunnel. Our agile minds swiftly deduce how to obtain tickets at the Senior Citizen fare and we walk to the ramp assigned for the next CalTrain departure.

Other passengers are awaiting the arrival of the CalTrain, so we know we have reached the right location. The train we are waiting for originates at the Tamien Station, 7 minutes south of Diridon, and sure enough here it comes, bell clanging, at 10:40am. We board and find seats during the brief stop, and are soon on our way to our next interchange point, with BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit station at Millbrae, 61 minutes to the north.

We are quite pleased with our success, as it took us only 55 minutes from our hotel lobby to our seats aboard a CalTrain, a distance of 4.4 miles by highway. However, driving to the station would have been an exercise in futility, as there would be no parking spaces available by this time of day. So it would have had to be a taxi, and we already know the cab fare from the train station to the hotel is $15.00 including tip, whereas the trolley fare was only 75 cents per person.

Our train is an all-stops local and Millbrae is the 15th stop after leaving Diridon, which takes 61 minutes to cover 36 miles. We arrive on time at 11:41am and find that the BART station is immediately adjacent to the CalTrain Station. There is a BART ticket vending machine on the CalTrain platform. We quickly purchase two tickets and go through an automated turnstile (you must insert your ticket to get through) and we found on the other side a BART train waiting for us!

Millbrae is the southernmost BART station on the west side of the Bay, and offers weekday-only service from Millbrae to Daly City. From Daly City onward, service is 7 days a week. This route runs underground for the most part, at speeds up to 80mph, and the noise level can be terrific inside the tunnels. These car designs go back to the late 1960s and although they are kept cosmetically attractive and operationally reliable, they lack somewhat in noise insulation.

Bay Area Rapid Transit, BART, train
Bay Area Rapid Transit, BART, train

We had met the 11:48am BART departure and by 12:19pm, we were in downtown San Francisco at the Montgomery Station, adjacent to the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The California Street Cable Car line begins right outside the Hyatt Regency, and at $5.00 per person (no discounts) we are whisked up to the top of Nob Hill in just a very few minutes. One of the pleasures of the California Street line is that all the other tourists ride the Powell Street line to Fisherman’s Wharf, making it nearly impossible to find a place on one of those cars.

California Street Cable Car
California Street Cable Car     Photo by Ted Blishak

At 1:00pm we are seated at a window overlooking Nob Hill, with the Golden Gate in the distance. The Episcopalian Grace Cathedral dominates the view on the left, with the Pacific Union Club in the right foreground, surrounding Huntington Park, the former site of the Collis P. Huntington mansion, destroyed along with the Mark Hopkins mansion in the 1906 fires following the earthquake.

Nob Hill from the Top of the Mark
Nob Hill from the Top of the Mark     Photo by Ted Blishak

After an excellent luncheon, we considered riding the Powell Street cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf, but every car that came rumbling up the hill from Market Street was packed, with standees hanging out on all sides. The easy way out was to take the California Street car back down to the Hyatt Regency on Market Street. From here we could await an F-line Vintage Trolley Car to take us to the Stockton Street bus stop, where we could pickup a San Francisco Muni bus to the Cal Train Station.

We had a long wait, as the vintage cars were bunched up going the other direction, but patience paid off and we boarded an ancient trolley originally from Milan, Italy. This older type of streetcar was designed by Cleveland transit leader Peter Witt and ran in many US cities, though never in San Francisco. The municipality of Milan, Italy, built hundreds of Peter Witts in 1928, some of which are still running today. Muni got one car, No. 1834, as a Trolley Festival gift in 1984 and liked it so much they obtained ten more in 1998 to meet the huge F-line rider demand.

Milan, Italy, Peter Witt car next to Ferry Building
Milan, Italy, Peter Witt car next to Ferry Building

The ride was all too short to Stockton Street, but it was easy to find a trolley bus from there to the CalTrain Station, as every bus heading south on Stockton had a stop at or near the station. Our objective was to board the 4:09pm CalTrain Baby Bullet, scheduled to make the 49.1 mile run from San Francisco to San Jose in 57 minutes, with only 4 intermediate stops. Feeling our mastery over ticket vending machines, Tony chose to purchase his $3.75 Senior Fare with a $20 bill, and received as change 16 silver dollars and one quarter.

The San Francisco Giants had just defeated the Colorado Rockies 3-2 at nearby AT&T Park, (formerly SBC Park, then Pacific Bell Park) and fans were swarming over to the CalTrain Station. We were beginning to wonder if there were enough double deck cars on this Baby Bullet to accommodate every one. As it turned out, when the train pulled out at 4:09pm, there were standees in our coach.

AT&T Park trolley
AT&T Park.

Imagine a professional ball park with trolley car service outside and just a short walk from a commuter train station. Think of the savings in parking fees and gasoline.

We boarded our traditional double deck gallery coaches, noting that we were not fortunate enough to have one of the trains with newer, bi-level passenger cars and locomotives which were purchased for $53 million to use in the Baby Bullet service. Seventeen cars and six sleek new gray-and-red locomotives look distinctively different from CalTrain's fleet of gallery cars. The bi-level Bullet cars offer space for up to two wheelchairs, which can be boarded at most stations using accessible ramps. The cars are equipped with café style seating, providing tabletop space with electrical outlets. Each car has one fully accessible restroom.

Cal train baby bullet
CalTrain Baby Bullet, new version

However, we were not disappointed with the trip, which was over in record time. Never before had I passed through my old home town of Menlo Park in 62 seconds. On El Camino Real at rush hour, it could easily take 20 minutes by car or bus.

Actually we arrive into San Jose 3 minutes behind schedule, at 5:09 pm, probably due to the huge number of ball fans disembarking at intermediate stations. Taking the short walk through the tunnel to the VTA station, no sooner had we pulled our tickets from the VTA vending machine, than a Winchester Mountain View train slowed to a stop. In a few minutes we were back at Gish, with just a short walk to the Comfort Suites for our self congratulatory glass of Kessler’s Kentucky whiskey. We toasted each other, having had taken on public transportation and won.

Two other modes of rail service: The 7th rail transportation option in the bay area is of course Amtrak California, with its Capitol Corridor from San Jose to Sacramento and its San Joaquins from Oakland to Bakersfield. The 8th option is the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) service from Stockton to San Jose. Their trains are scheduled inbound for the morning rush to San Jose, returning from San Jose to Stockton in the afternoon. We had hoped to do a circle trip to Stockton, returning on Amtrak. However, taking the first afternoon train from San Jose to Stockton would have left us stranded there, as the Altamont Express does not make a connection with a returning Amtrak San Joaquin. In fact the two services do not even utilize the same station in Stockton, so there is no coordination between Amtrak California and the Altamont Express except for a shuttle bus that is supposed to connect the two stations. We thought this very unusual in view of the mutual cooperation exhibited by VTA, CalTrain, BART, San Francisco Muni, and Amtrak.

Eventually we found a rationale for riding the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE). Heading from San Jose to Sequoia National Park, we could have rented a car and driven the approximately 250 miles in 5 to 6 hours. But since we are wanting to experience public transportation in the USA, we decided to do it the slower way. Starting our journey, we taxi to the San Jose Diridon Station to board the 12:05pm departure of the Altamont Commuter Express. The ACE route crosses Altamont Pass and the traverses Niles Canyon, the route of the original California Zephyr, an easy 2 hour and 10 minute ride. The Toronto GO! style cars were comfortable and the scenery magnificent.

Altamont Express coach interior
Altamont Express coach interior

I did miss the domes of the California Zephyr, but that is now ancient history. It is amazing that there is currently any train service at all on this route.

Our plan was to connect with a southbound Amtrak California San Joaquin train. The only inconvenience with this connection is that ACE stops at one station in Stockton and Amtrak stops at another station, a 10 minute bus ride away. Amtrak, however, has made it easy to make a connection to their San Joaquin service, by scheduling a shuttle bus from the ACE station to the Amtrak station. Disappointingly, the shuttle did not show up for the half dozen or more passengers waiting for it under the "Amtrak Shuttle Stops Here" sign posted on a nearby lamp pole. Fortunately an ACE security guard noticed the restless crowd awaiting the late shuttle, anticipating their missed connection to Amtrak. Taking matters into his own hands he volunteered to transfer all of us to the Amtrak Station, taking two trips with his small Chevrolet Tahoe. He was very friendly and helpful, though noticeably annoyed at the lack of reliability of the Amtrak Shuttle driver, whom he said often missed his run between the two stations.

We all arrived at the Stockton Amtrak station, (thanks to the sharp ACE security guard) with ample time to meet the southbound San Joaquin to Bakersfield. The streamlined General motors-powered train rolled in on time and we boarded and found seats at a table for four on the upper level of the bi-level California Cars.

Amtrak California “San Joaquin”
  Amtrak California Bi-Level coach  
Amtrak California “San Joaquin”
Amtrak California Bi-Level coach

On board we sat a a table with a young lady who had been traveling all the way from Santa Rosa, via the Amtrak Thruway bus system, and was heading to Modesto to join her boyfriend who operated an almond grove there. (Pronounced A-mund.) She was looking forward to a weekend of maintaining tractors on the farm. Young love takes a variety of forms.

We were heading on to Fresno to pickup a Lincoln Town Car for the remainder of our journey to Sequoia, Death Valley, the Bristlecone Pine forests of the White Mountains, and Reno. The San Joaquin got us to Fresno on time at 5:16pm. A bit slower than driving, but more relaxing, not withstanding the missing Amtrak Shuttle bus driver.

To our surprise, Hertz showed up at the Amtrak Station with a Lincoln Navigator, as they were out of Lincoln Town Cars. We decided to accept this last minute complimentary upgrade, and the Navigator proved to be more than adequate for the remainder of our journey through the mountains and vast desert valleys of California.

Our non rail mode of transportation
Our non rail mode of transportation

After a few days of being pampered with the big, comfortable Navigator, we ended our drive in Reno, enjoyed the interesting and historical Harrah's Automobile Museum and stayed overnight in order to meet the next morning's westbound Amtrak California Zephyr.

The Reno Station has been restored and modified with an elevator to take passengers and their luggage two levels down to the below- grade waiting room and boarding platform. There are several short term parking spaces on the street, to be used only for loading and unloading. Although the vast Harrah's parking garage is just across the street, long term parking for Amtrak patrons is not permitted by the hotel and casino. The nearest long term parking is at the Reno Airport east of town. Fortunately for us, the Hertz return counter is located inside Harrah's, making it easy to return our car and walk across the street to the station.

The Amtrak California Zephyr, mode number 9, an intercity Superliner streamliner, made an interesting arrival descending into this two mile trench that had be excavated in downtown Reno to facilitate street traffic, which used to be blocked for considerable periods with stopped Amtrak trains and lengthy freight trains running across downtown streets.

Settling into our Superliner Bedroom, we proceeded, in solid comfort, to retrace the steps of the ill-fated Donner Party of 1848, which was trapped by winter snows at Donner Lake, the stormy eastern scarp of Donner Pass looming over them. A century and a half later, we are delivered to Sacramento, practically before we know it, in comfort and safety.

The next morning found us at the entrance to the California Railroad Museum, just a short walk from the Amtrak Station and the three hotels that cater to Sacramento Old Town visitors—the Vagabond Inn, the Holiday Inn, and the Delta King, a river steamer converted to a hotel.

Once we exhausted the exhibits at the rail museum, we caught the next of many Capitol Corridor Amtrak California trains that run between Sacramento and San Jose. The Capitols, mode 10, are a fast and smooth alternative to driving along congested Interstate 80, and we soon found ourselves disembarking at Oakland Jack London Square, in time for a family gathering at Scott's Seafood Restaurant on the Oakland Estuary, a fitting close to a week of adventure.

Regards, Ted Blishak,

Train Travel Consulting at Accent on Travel. ted@traintravelconsulting.com


3939 S. Sixth St. Suite 331, Klamath Falls, OR 97603
Phone: 1 800 347 0645 Fax: 1 309 276-3460

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