BART / Caltrain to SFO – they just don’t get it

I was reading this SFGate article on BART to SFO ridership being well below estimates this morning.  Having used both BART and Caltrain to get to SFO, I have to admit that it’s no surprise that ridership is so low.  I have ridden train to airport links in a number of other cities and there is a clear distinction between planners who “get it” and those who just want to spend a bunch of money (and probably get kick-backs) and check off another campaign promise on their list.


Issues I have with taking public transit to SFO:



  1. The link between Caltrain and the airport, a BART train, only seemingly runs every 30 minutes and it NEVER aligns with the caltrain schedule.  In fact, the train often just sits there in the station with its doors closed, taunting you with the view of the airport in the distance.
  2. The BART train uses BART fare cards (a separate and overpriced transaction) just after you got done paying caltrain with your caltrain pass/fare.  There is no “get me to the airport” single payment mechanism.
  3. When going from San Francisco to SFO on caltrain, you have to go through a maze of escalators and elevators to go over the caltrain track and into BART.  Didn’t anyone get the memo that we have luggage when going to/from the airport?
  4. There are no clearly posted BART or Caltrain schedules ANYWHERE in the airport.  The odds that I take BART to Caltrain or BART to the city would go up sharply if I knew when the next train was and the rough estimate of when I would arrive.
  5. Most people have to take the AirTrain (little airport shuttle on rails between terminals) to get to the BART train to get to CalTrain to go home.  Not only are the schedules for BART and Caltrain not posted but they are not aligned, as mentioned earlier.
  6. Taxi to SF: 15 minutes;  Public transit to SF: 45 minutes to an hour depending on time of day.  Don’t plan on using caltrain link after 9pm due to Caltrain schedule.
  7. The AirTrain station has a bunch of STAIRS you have to use to get connected to the terminal.  Again, did somebody not know I would have luggage?
  8. To address low ridership, they decreased the frequency of the BART airport link.  Brilliant.

So here are the rules for a successfull rail / airport link – almost all of which do not apply to SFO:



  1. Minimize stairs and escalators between train and airport
  2. Have trains actually arrive AT the airport, not one or two stations / transfers away from it.  Extra credit if there are multiple airport stops that the train makes (such as the R1 in Philly)
  3. Have trains to the airport run frequently or at least at highly reliable and predictable intervals (like on the hour and half hour)
  4. Make it easy and inexpensive to use the payment mechanism and have only one mechanism.
  5. Have the total trip time be competitive with driving/taxi – not just for the people in the boonies when compared to rush hour but for those who want to get to/from the major cities (SF, Oakland, San Jose in the case of SFO versus Walnut Creek).
  6. If the airport link does require transfers from other lines/modes of transportation, synchronize them.

Having said all this there may still be 1 or 2 times per year when taking Caltrain/BART to SFO will make sense for me, but there are so many boneheaded design decisions that got made with the Caltrain/BART/SFO link that I think they should probably scrap it, take the money they are losing daily and just run a shuttle bus from the caltrain and bart stations in the city (SF) to the airport at a lower cost.


For those wondering, my favorite rail/airport links are Washington, DC and Philadelphia.

14 thoughts on “BART / Caltrain to SFO – they just don’t get it”

  1. No kidding.
    I was just researching my caltrain-to-sfo options for a saturday (which is how i landed on this page) and I find that travelling from mountain view to SFO would take my 1hr 45 mins. I could save 90 mins of my life (a stressful 90 mins) by paying $10 extra for a cab.

  2. I tried taking Cal Train from Mountain View to the SF airport. You get off then have to go on BART and go the OPPOSITE DIRECTION to the Airport. Same thing coming home. California is the most retarded state ever. Who plans this stuff? Hello? Can’t there be a BART train OR airbus DIRECTLY from the Milbrea to SFO? Bunch of overpaid bumbling planners. I’m moving out of this welfare state.

  3. Yeah, public transportation in California is such a joke. It is as if they really do not want you to use it.

  4. @thomasford what exactly does the messed up state of public transportation have to do with the existence (or not) of a welfare state?

  5. This just brews of a joke. Did there used to be a shuttle bus that left the Millbrae station and dropped you off at the airport (ala OAK?). Does it not still exist? or am I stuck paying a “BART fee” to get me to the airport?

    I am planning a trip to SFO via caltrain from the south. Maybe I should allow myself three hours to get there instead. By the way, I plan to have luggage (duh). Are there elevators/escalators?

    Again, what a joke. Bay Area Transit at its finest. NOT.

  6. “Yeah, public transportation in California is such a joke. It is as if they really do not want you to use it.”

    Truer words never spoken, bart, Golden gate bridge district, caltrain, vta,etcc…the list is endless all have board members that are politically appointed and are nothing but a bunch of bureaucrats that will work with one another, it’s a joke.//BART and Santa Clara Valley vta could have had a seamless light rail system circling the bay, but that would require less bureaucrats and one less governing board.

    At one time the GG bridge rulers decided to hike the fares in order to force more people to carpool, after they did so and less cars were crossing the bridge paying fares, they cried about the revenue shortfall from that exercise and had another rate increase.

  7. “all have board members that are politically appointed and are nothing but a bunch of bureaucrats that will work with one another, it’s a joke.//BART and Santa Clara Valley”

    I meant to say Will NOT work with one another.

  8. They don’t get it? Nope.. they get it alright…
    Here is how it works.. If public transit worked great for everyone, there will be less people at the pump and the oil cartel will lose money. From state government to federal the oil cartel spends billions of dollars lobbying and establishing various nexus, thanks to our political system of legalized corruption.

    Public transit in California is designed from the ground up to discourage people to use them without making it too obvious for a mass public outcry.

  9. They don’t get it? Nope.. they get it alright…
    Here is how it works.. If public transit worked great for everyone, there will be less people at the pump and the oil cartel will lose money. From state government to federal the oil cartel spends billions of dollars lobbying and establishing various nexus, thanks to our political system of legalized corruption.

    Public transit in California is designed from the ground up to discourage people to use them without making it too obvious for a mass public outcry.

  10. I really wish I could take the train to the airport too without worrying if I will get there or not. I really want to take Caltrain but it is so awful. It took me 3 hours to get to the East Bay the other day from Palo Alto. And 3 and a half hours to get home. I had lots of downtime between Caltrain and BART and the 3 trains heading south in the evening were between 10 and 48 minutes late. Thank you so much for pointing out the problems and offering advice how to fix it. I am afraid desi is right. I am a native Californian and love it here, but also embarrassed by this mess. O, and recently when one of the trains scheduled out of San Jose northbound was cancelled without informing anyone. I called to complain and they assured me I’d get a call back about it in a week. Never heard from them.

  11. On my first (and most definitely LAST) experience in taking BART from SFO to the Milbrae Caltrain station, I calculated that if it were possible to cross 101 without getting killed, it would have been quicker to walk. What’s amazing is that the only state in the country that mandates carbon tax laws is so clueless when it comes to public transportation.

  12. BART never aligns with Caltrain, because BART doesn’t WANT to align with Caltrain. What you have to realize about BART is they’re the transit empire of the Bay Area. Their mission is to cooperate as little as possible with other transportation districts in the Bay Area. Why? They want to keep riders from using other systems. They want other systems to appear incompetent in ineffective. There’s a reason they build those skyscraper parking structures at BART stations. They WANT you to drive to BART, use BART, and drive home.

    BART is reasonably well run on the operations side, but on the system design and capital projects side of things, it’s a horrible system from the taxpayer standpoint, or a fabulous system from the price-gouging civil engineering contract firm standpoint.

    Millbrae-SFO is one of the grandest debacles in transportation history. One of the original ideas was to run AirTrain in a big loop, hitting all of the terminals AND crossing over 101 and connecting to BART and Caltrain at Millbrae. That would have been an airport connector. What we ended up with is not an airport shuttle. BART plows directly into the international terminal via a pair of costly wyes over 101, overrunning costs in every way imaginable, ending up an order of magnitude low in ridership estimates, having confusing route / schedule structures, and ridiculous fares in and out of the airport. Oh and not to mention, BART nearly bankrupted San Mateo Country Transit District in the process (the jury is still out on whether or not they will), after swindling the county out of hundreds of millions of dollars and dumping operation costs on the county.

    Oh wait, there’s more! The Millbrae station itself is wretchedly designed, with 2/3 BART tracks never even seeing use, a horrid Caltrain/BART connection design, and a parking lot that looks fit for an intergalactic space terminal.

    Just wait though, high speed rail is on its way, and is already having compatibility issues with Millbrae. Don’t worry, the fix will merely cost more than the cost to demolish and rebuild the Millbrae station completely. Oh, did I mention Rod Diridon, who championed the BART SFO-Millbrae fiasco served for 10 years on the CA high speed rail authority board (2000-2010)? Oh but that must be a mere coincidence.

    California rail transportation is very well designed for Bechtel and other public transportation contractors. Their pockets must be full of filthy, filthy money by now. If not, I’m sure the residents of Santa Clara county will gladly bend over and take it when BART plows into San Jose (already underway). But don’t worry, this time it’ll all be different.

  13. I can’t believe you wrote this post in 2006 and this miserable reality of the failed “last mile” is still the case in 2013. It’s not a failure of budget, technology, or land ordinances; it’s simply a failure of politics and leadership.

  14. I find it completely dismaying that the fastest transit option to get from SFO to my house in San Mateo, three blocks from the Caltrain line, is a bus. 40 minutes by bus when the express train is 10 minutes from Millbrae to Hillsdale. A system designed by politics at its finest. Let’s recall all the ‘politicians’ and replace them with dedicated public servants who should be holding those jobs. The high-tech capitol of the world and we can’t even figure out how to get people across a freeway efficiently. Shameful!

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