Caltrain: Behind the Scenes of a Major Service Disruption


Some weeks can seem interminable for Caltrain commuters. Particularly when routine delays created by heavily crowded trains combine with more critical events such as a vehicle strike or trespasser incident to make you feel like you spend more hours on the train than at home or at the office. We get that sometimes our customers feel like they are in the dark, with little information and a lot of time spent waiting for something, anything, to happen.

This “playbook” is an overview, meant to provide the customer with some insight as to what’s happening behind the scenes to quickly restore service, while caring for traumatized crew members, and attempting to be respectful of the victim, the investigators, and all of those who respond to help manage the scene.

Our incidents can generally be divided into three categories. The nature of those incidents directly influences the amount of disruption the customer can expect.

  1. Incident Investigations
  2. Mechanical Issues
  3. Police Activity, Medical Emergency, Fire

While we recognize that many of these events are beyond our control, how we respond to them is not. It is our goal to do everything within our power to get the railroad re-opened as safely and quickly, as possible as well as provide our customers timely and accurate information allowing them to make alternate travel arrangements, if needed. Below you will find information and contingency planning efforts for each of the delay categories highlighted above. Caltrain will provide communication through Visual Messaging System at stations, onboard train announcements, on its website ( and its twitter feed (

  1. Incident Investigations

    (Delay estimated up to 1 hr. 45 min)

    The launch of an investigation signifies that an incident has resulted in a serious and possibly tragic outcome which can impact the rail service dramatically. An investigation is initiated when a vehicle is struck while stopped, illegally on Caltrain tracks or when a person is struck by a train while trespassing on rail property.

    Police, Fire, EMS, Coroner and railroad personnel are all required to respond to the scene and response time can be impacted by time of day. For example during the peak hour commute periods, emergency response vehicles may be caught in rush hour traffic. Often relief crews must travel by vehicle to take over the train’s operations, which can account for some of the delays to restoring service. . The investigation is led by the police department and supported by the railroad personnel. Even though these incidents occur on Caltrain property, it is necessary that all of these agencies assist us at the scene as they have essential roles. Unfortunately, coordinating this response and completing an investigation can cause significant delays, particularly for the train involved in the incident because it is treated as a “crime” scene until the coroner and police have completed their investigation.

    Caltrain staff will put a contingency plan in action and a number of service recovery plans may be initiated and communicated to customers. These may include:

    • Directing train traffic away from or around the location of the incident
    • Changing the stopping patterns of trains to accommodate stranded passengers
    • Converting all trains to local service, unless otherwise specified, to increase passenger options
    • Establish Bus bridge between stations
    • Single-tracking in the incident area
  2. Mechanical Issues

    (Delay estimated from 5 minutes to 60 minutes)

    Caltrain, like all railroads, tries very hard through preventative maintenance programs to avoid mechanical failures and delays. However, failures do occur. The equipment used to operate the system is aging, which leads to an increase in the number of mechanical issues. The majority of the train fleet is scheduled to be replaced when Caltrain electrifies its system in 2020.

    Mechanical failure is sporadic in nature as far as time and location of occurrence and requires different responses for Caltrain. All minor mechanical issues, during service, are reported to the central control to be corrected after the train completes its operations. When more serious mechanical failures occur, trains make every effort to stop at a station to troubleshoot and rectify the issue when possible. Onboard announcements are made to notify customers of the situation as frequently as possible but be mindful that the crew will be assessing and troubleshooting and therefore may be otherwise occupied for long stretches.

    When a train experiences mechanical issues and is unable to move under its own power, Caltrain dispatchers are notified. They then send out updates to the Customer Service and Social Media teams, which begin providing public information on the situation. While the crew continues to troubleshoot, Caltrain will implement a contingency plan. Conditions during any of these incidents are often very dynamic and can change without notice. Please continue to listen to onboard announcements for any changes and train status. A contingency plan will entail a number of service recovery options that include sending a rescue engine, sending an additional train set and crew, and transferring customers to other trains.

  3. Police Activity, Medical Emergency, and Fire

    (Delay estimated from 5 minutes to 45 minutes)

    The range of incidents in this category varies greatly and they are handled by first responders depending on the nature of the specific incident. Police activity could range from resolving a fare dispute with a passenger to removing passengers from the train and property for disorderly conduct. When the fire or police department request rail traffic be held in a certain area, passengers will be kept informed and updated regularly through conductor announcements, twitter updates and Visual Messaging System updates, if necessary. Based on the information provided by the authorities, Caltrain will implement a contingency plan if necessary but most of these incidents have a relatively brief impact to service, generally resulting in delays of 15 minutes or less.

Behind the Scenes in the Caltrain Dispatch Center:

Caltrain’s Dispatch Center controls all train movement on the corridor. The dispatch center is responsible for notifying all of the emergency response teams. Once on scene those teams update the dispatch center on service recovery and investigation issues. Those updates are provided to Caltrain’s Customer Service, Media Relations and Social Media teams, who then communicate them to the customers and the public.

Dispatch must manage a number of other functions during these incidents. These may include coordinating the transportation for a backup crew to provide relief to an engineer or conductors who are too distraught to continue to operate the train. These duties also include managing the schedules of each and every train on the corridor, communicating service impacts to those trains and managing something called “hours of service” for each employee working on the corridor.

The Federal Railroad Administration has a rule about the number of hours a railroad employee may work before they are required to be done for the day by law. This is called “Hours of Service.” They are observed to ensure Safety Sensitive Employees are well rested when they are working on our system. But when delays occur, the crews on those trains may reach their allowable hours of service and have to be removed. This means finding a backup crew and transporting them to the scene of the train incident, further compounding the delays customers are already experiencing.

Incident Recovery Plans May Change:

This may be one of the most challenging aspects of communicating a contingency plan. As the incident evolves the response plan often changes. This is why we tell customers to stay tuned for announcements and social media updates to avoid missing changing information.

As an example, during a vehicle strike the vehicle may appear to be blocking both tracks or there may be concerns about damage to the tracks that would prevent service from operating in either direction. In this case, dispatchers reach out to the area bus agency and ask for a “bus bridge” to be implemented. But once emergency responders arrive on the scene they may determine that the second track is safe for operation allowing Caltrain to quickly cancel the bus bridge and begin single tracking.

However, these determinations cannot be made until the right personnel arrive on the scene and the arrival of those personnel can be delayed as discussed above.

The bottom line for the customer is this: We don’t want to delay you. We want to provide the safest, most seamless trip possible. And most of the time, we do. But when things go wrong, know that there are many people working behind the scenes to get you home to your family, to work, or wherever you need to go as quickly as we can.

9/6/16 - dt/ja