Book Takes Caltrain Riders Back in Time

A veteran Peninsula reporter releases a book about the Peninsula’s century old transit line.


Most Peninsula train commuters probably know little about the history of the rails they ride, but a local veteran reporter puts them on the right track with a new book called “Caltrain and the Peninsula Commute Service.”

The title of Janet McGovern’s book could be truncated to simply “The Peninsula Commute Service” because Caltrain is far from the only key player in the history of a line that goes back more than a century.

Operated by Southern Pacific for decades, the Peninsula Commute Service is the oldest continuously operating passenger railroad in the West. It also boasts seven depots on the National Register of Historic Places: Millbrae, Burlingame, San Carlos, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose. In her book, McGovern dubbed the stations “The Magnificent Seven.”

“That’s quite a distinction for a rail line with 32 stations,” said McGovern. Noting that only the San Jose station still has a ticket office, she said that the other stations serve a variety of functions. The author proved that by spending Wednesday morning autographing her book at the opening of Javaddictions, a coffee shop located in the Hillsdale Train Station in San Mateo.

The book (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99) carries a freight train of photos, many taken by McGovern’s husband, Reg, 91, an award-winning photographer for the defunct Redwood City Tribune. Reg McGovern’s work was so respected that one of his photos was used in “Rear Window,” the classic Hitchcock movie about a news photographer with a broken leg who is limited to sitting in a chair in his apartment where he can only look out the window. McGovern’s photo hangs on the wall behind the cameraman played by Jimmy Stewart.

Janet McGovern, who was a reporter and columnist for about 20 years, dedicated the book to her husband who “patiently took me on countless train rides before I learned to love trains.”  Her career showed just how much she loves trains. She not only covered the commute service as a reporter, she later worked in Caltrain’s marketing department where she wrote news releases and edited the line’s newsletter. She also became friends with railroad fans, crewmembers and history organizations.

The book has more than 200 photos, but it is not short on words. McGovern gives a history lesson that shows how important the iron horse has been to the Peninsula where the quickest transportation was once stagecoach and ship. In 1864 the train cut an eight-hour steamboat and stagecoach trip from San Francisco to San Jose to 3.5 hours and the fare from $30 to less than $3.

“No wonder the celebration marking the first train lasted for three days,” McGovern wrote.

Today’s “Problems” Don’t Even Compare

Caltrain has problems today, but think of the challenges the railroads builders had to conquer. One of the first major problems was the original track alignment from San Francisco’s Mission District to San Bruno Mountain. Helper engines were needed to get longer trains over the steep grade. It wasn’t until 1907 that the nearly 10-mile Bayshore Cutoff opened and “the tortuous uphill climb was eliminated,” McGovern tells us.

The cutoff required the building of five tunnels and three years to complete, “resulting in the alignment that remains in use today.”

“Today’s generation has inherited in Caltrain an enduring transportation resource, albeit with major challenges to resolve,” McGovern writes.

Among the problems is one that Southern Pacific had to deal with: how to cover the cost of operations.  McGovern makes it clear that a major problem is that Caltrain  and relies on contributions from the three partner transit agencies – San Francisco’s Muni, SamTrans and the Santa Clara County Transit Agency.

Seely March 18, 2012 at 05:32 PM
In the 1930s my family, resident in Redwood City, did any serious shoppinig in San Francisco. I always loved seeing the silver-faced steam locomotives pulling into the Redwood City Depot. At the terminus in San Francisco, the third and Townsend Depot, I would quickly detrain to reach the engine in time for the release of the wonderfully sweet-smelling steam. The Conductors of the train always obliged me with a generous handful of destination ticket stubs taken from the passenger's seats. I used the narrow black on white tickets for countless projects. Thanks to Reg McGovern and his wife for a volumne much needed. Gordon Seely


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