Caltrain: Behind the Scenes of a Major Service Disruption


This playbook is an overview of what Caltrain does to restore service after an incident.  

Please know we will always work to safely restore service as quickly as possible. 

Incidents on our corridor can generally be divided into four delay categories, all of which require a different degree of effort to resolve. 

  1. Pedestrian and Vehicle Strikes 

  1. Mechanical Delays 

  1. Police Activity, Medical Emergency, Fire 

  1. Forces of Nature 

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 with timely and accurate information allowing them to make alternate travel arrangements if needed.  

We ask our customers to be respectful as some of these incidents result in fatalities. 

Caltrain will provide communication through the Visual Messaging and Public Address systems at stations, onboard train announcements, on its website Alerts Tab and on its Alerts Twitter feed

  1. Pedestrian and Vehicle Strikes (Delay estimated up to 1 hr. 45 min) 

When a pedestrian or vehicle strike occurs, service in the affected area is immediately suspended and an incident investigation begins. 

In these incidents, Police, Fire, EMS, Coroner, and railroad personnel respond to the scene. Their response time can be impacted by traffic conditions, particularly during rush hour, and third-party personnel availability.  

In addition, relief crews must travel by vehicle to take over the train’s operations, which can account for some of the delays. The investigation is led by the Transit Police and supported by railroad personnel and local law enforcement. Even though these incidents occur on Caltrain property, it is necessary that all of these agencies assist at the scene as they have essential roles. Coordinating this response and completing an investigation can cause significant delays, particularly for the train involved in the incident because it must remain stationary until the coroner and police have completed their investigation. 

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

  • Implementing hourly service to reduce train congestion.  

  • Directing train traffic away from or around the location of the incident. 

  • Changing the stopping patterns of trains to accommodate stranded passengers. 

  • Establishing a bus bridge between stations. 

  • Single-tracking through the incident area. 

  1. Mechanical Delays (Delay estimated from 15 minutes to 60 minutes) 

Caltrain, like all railroads, strives to prevent mechanical breakdowns and delays by utilizing preventative maintenance programs.  However, failures can occur.  Equipment used to operate the system is aging, resulting in an increase in mechanical problems. The majority of the train fleet is scheduled to be replaced when Caltrain electrifies its system in 2024. 

Mechanical failure is sporadic in nature as far as time and location of the occurrence and requires different responses. Engineers make every effort to stop at a station to investigate and resolve any problems that require immediate attention.  

Onboard announcements are made as frequently as possible to inform customers of the situation, but be aware that the crew will be assessing and troubleshooting for the duration of the trip. When a train experiences mechanical issues and is unable to move under its own power, Caltrain dispatchers are notified.  They then communicate with the Customer Service and Social Media teams, who begin distributing information to the public. While the crew continues to troubleshoot, Caltrain will implement a contingency plan. Conditions during any of these incidents are often dynamic and can change suddenly. Please continue to listen to onboard announcements for any changes.  A contingency plan includes sending a rescue engine, an additional train set and crew, and transferring customers to another train. 

  1. Police Activity, Medical Emergency, and Fire (Delay estimated from 5 minutes to 45 minutes) 

The timing of incidents in this category can vary greatly based on circumstances. Incidents could include a fare dispute with a passenger, removing passengers from the train and/or property for disorderly conduct, or a fire along the corridor. When a fire or police department requests rail traffic be held in a certain area, passengers will be kept informed and updated regularly through conductor and station announcements, Twitter updates, and platform signs. 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. 

  1. Forces of Nature (Delay estimated from 15 minutes to 4 hours depending on the severity of the event) 

There are multiple weather issues that can affect train movement. High winds could knock down trees and obstruct tracks resulting in reduced speeds or a suspension of service until the situation is resolved. Heavy rains could flood the tracks, slowing or preventing train travel. Depending on the severity of the flooding, trains may be required to operate at reduced speeds or stop until the water recedes and the tracks can be inspected. High temperatures can cause tracks to expand and warp slightly. Once the ambient temperature reaches 95°F, track inspections are required, and trains must reduce speed.  

Caltrain also has a procedure for earthquakes, depending on the magnitude and epicenter. Depending on the magnitude and distance from the tracks, trains may be required to operate at reduced speeds or stop until the tracks are inspected. Depending on the time of day, traffic conditions and the effects of the earthquake, this may delay inspectors.

Caltrain Earthquake Protocol

Behind the Scenes in the Caltrain Dispatch Center: 

Caltrain’s dispatch center controls all train movement on the corridor and authorizes maintenance and construction crews to safely work on railroad infrastructure. The dispatch center is responsible for notifying all 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 customers and the public. 

Dispatch must manage multiple functions during these incidents. These may include coordinating the transportation for a backup crew to provide relief to an engineer or conductors who cannot continue to operate the train, managing the schedules of every train on the corridor, communicating service impacts, and managing the hours of service for each employee working on the corridor. Dispatch also coordinates with bus agencies to provide busses for bus bridges when required.  

Hours of Service: The Federal Railroad Administration regulates the number of hours a railroad employee may work before they are required to end their shift. They are observed to ensure Safety Sensitive Employees are well-rested when they are working on our system. However, 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 delays customers are already experiencing. 

Incident Recovery Plans May Change: 

As an incident evolves the response plan often changes, and clearly communicating those changes to our customers can be challenging. 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 local bus agencies and ask for a bus bridge to be implemented. 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 through the affected area. In some cases, due to personnel or equipment shortages, there could be delays in establishing a bus bridge. There are no buses on “stand-by” waiting for rail incidents, so buses and operators are called based on availability.  

However, these determinations cannot be made until the right personnel arrive on the scene, which as stated above depends on traffic conditions. 

The bottom line for you as 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. We thank you for your patience and understanding.