SAN FRANCISCO – It’s 7 a.m., and I’m standing on the edge of a train station staring out at a field across the tracks.
I’ve stayed up to this point in the morning more in the last 10 years than actually waking up at it, so the combination of Red Bull and coffee pumping through my veins has me slightly zombified – I’m awake but not really there, and my perception of what is going on around me is distorted.
The horn sounds. There’ s a chiming. And all of a sudden the people that are waiting to take the ACE Train to their jobs in Pleasanton , Santa Clara, San Jose and San Francisco shuffle up to the edge of the yellow safety tiling.
There is a culture among commuters. Friends of mine that work in the construction trades used to spend their weekends trading their favorite stories from popular Bay Area morning shows and talking about the crazy things that they see on a regular basis. Now it’s a shuffle – wake up, get dressed, get coffee, head out the door and come home and do it all over again.
Convenience store clerks know customers by name. They start ringing up purchases once they walk in the door. It’s all preordained and preset and standard.
That’s not the case on the ACE Train. The guy in the next row tapped away on his keyboard with abandon like he was trying to finish a term paper just minutes before it was due. The woman sitting across from him was scanning a pair of cell phones while an iPad sat in her lap. And the guy behind me slept with one of those cool little neck rolls that they sell at the airport magazine stands.
Nobody talked. Bells clattered out the window like a Salvation Army volunteer was always just a few steps behind you. The train horn that I hear so clearly in the middle of the night was muffled as the sound blasted out in front of us.
It’s a very independent and solo process, riding the ACE Train in the morning. But it’s not like other forms of railed mass transit. Those dingy, stained cloth seats that are a staple on every single BART car? Non-existent. That guy who always seems to block the door with his bicycle? There’s an entire section of racks on the lower level for those who prefer to pedal once they get over the hill. Cell phone or Blackberry or iPad low after a long day in the office? There are plug-in outlets at points throughout.
Did I mention the guy behind me was actually sleeping with one of those cool little neck pillows you buy at the airport magazine stand?
In just over two hours on Friday morning I went from my front doorstep to the Powell Street BART Station. I walked through the Tenderloin up to Union Square, ate breakfast at Lefty O’Doul’s, trekked back down to the Embarcadero and hung out at the Ferry Building while people ice-skated and caught a movie at a theater that replaced their seats with actual recliners.
I pondered buying a replica Giants 2012 World Series ring, watched the cable cars turnaround on Market Street, hit the Apple Store and people watched in one of the people watching-friendly cities in the world.
And I did it all by driving a grand total of 0.6 miles.
Yes, the Altamont Corridor Express is a commuter service. And 99 percent of the people that I met during by travels were either on their way to or from work. But with such an extensive public transportation network available, the service has value in a variety of different ways.
It might take some convincing to sell the brass on a reason to go to San Francisco on a workday again. But not having to sit in traffic or deal with parking was well worth the $13 round-trip ticket.