Silicon Valley Transportation: Caltrain issues & shitty drivers

The good’ol topic of Transport. It’s going to be nearly 4 years since I have been in the valley. This has given me more than enough time to experience both forms of transport – train & road. Out of all the normal craziness that happens on road and track, 2 stand out like sore thumbs. And to newbies to the valley these 2 will most likely hang around like a bad smell. The 2 in question are Caltrain’s gallery trailer “rattlers” and the swarm of inconsiderate car drivers on the road.

The former will no doubt be fixed in the next few years when the “gallery trailers” are replaced with the new bombardier line; but the latter might take more time and maybe when the US Government invests in replacing human drivers with Google’s driverless cars. A machine will certainly be a better solution and improve road safety and reduce road rage. Let me expand with some tips on managing this.

Caltrain rattlers (gallery trailer)

I call the Caltrain “gallery trailer” fleet “rattlers”; because they will shake your body like a rattler snake shakes it’s tail. This gets annoying very fast when you spend long commutes and want to utilise your time on the train to do some computer work. You are literally bouncing in your seat, losing focus constantly, especially during express hour when the train is at its max speed. The gallery trailer is a disaster waiting to happen.

Oh and boy are they loud inside. I recommend you wear ear plugs to stop long term drum damage.

Loud! - wear ear plugs to protect your ears and bring some sanity back.
Loud! – wear ear plugs to protect your ears and bring some sanity back.

A bit about the network. The San Francisco Peninsula Commuter Corridor consists of double track CTC main line which runs between San Francisco and San Jose. A 47.5 mile track. And there is only 2 of them – one for each way; making “the action” known as hot and heavy especially during commute times. The JPB runs upwards of 96 commuter trains on Weekdays, with as little as 10 minutes separation between trains at peak commute hour.

There are two types of Caltrain trainsets

Gallery TRAILER (older silver) Bombardier BiLevel coaches (newer)
22 Gallery Trailer (Nippon Sharyo)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzYbHIrh4PA
6 Bombardier (Bi-Level)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DYvxX5j27w
caltrain_gallery caltrain_bombardier

More here on the commute fleets: http://www.caltrain.com/about/statsandreports/commutefleets.html

So what to do?

1. Catch only the Bombardier BiLevel coaches (above pic on the right). They are far far better in ride quality. It’s like riding on a cushion of air at any speed. You can get your work done on these. They even have power outlets for your computer. You can also check out Quora for Caltrain hacks on where to sit to minimize noise & improve ride quality should you end up in the gallery trailer.

Typically the Bombardier are operated as “bullet train” (minimal stops) but super fast to get up and down the valley during peek hour commutes. Outside peek hour, it is back to the rattles. So if you are getting a rattler, shifting your boarding times by few minutes could yield a Bombardier.

2. Be prepared. There is chaos on these tracks. 2 tracks up and down the valley (fail). 1 accident anywhere on this line and it brings the whole network to a halt with major delays. Consistently.

@caltrain @caltrain_news your killing us on rattler #278 1st carriage ! Plz turn on the aircon b4 we melt. #annoyed #sardined

Use Twitter to Follow: @caltrain which is crowdsourced and @caltrain_news which is run by Caltrain. Often if there’s a problem on the line, you’ll know more by listening to this stream http://www.railroadradio.net/content/view/24/143/ than the conductor knows!

I won’t even start on the Clipper system. That is another fail but not as bad as the gallery trailers.

Watch out for shitty drivers

So California is putting a stop to smartphone maps while driving. This extends the sms texting while driving and supposed holding your phone while driving. Half a year ago I was fined for holding my phone in my hand on speaker phone. Go figure. What I (and I am sure many people) would love to see is a crack down on the most common form of stupidity on the road. The failure to use blinkers. Inconsiderate drivers. There is a bucket load of them every single time you set out to venture on the road. I always say;

If you are good at driving than all you have to worry about is other drivers on the road.

Yes Good is a loose term, but you will know if you are good by your driving history record, how comfortable you feel behind the wheel and how well you react on the road. Btw, slow != safe. This is a daily reminder for me when I drive on the road and even more so when on foot crossing the road.

When I first arrived in the valley back in March 2009, I thought “hey drivers stop when I jay walk. So nice of them.”. Nice yes, but this is because of all the accidents and suing going on; as I soon found out from the locals. You learn about the accidents when you spend enough time on the major freeways like 101.

did-u-know-indicators

This is how accidents happen

Failure to use indicators. Each time I venture onto the road I come across a handful of these inconsiderate drivers. There is absolutely nothing funny about failing to use the indicator to let your fellow drivers and pedestrians know about your intentions. It is how accidents happen because an inconsiderate driver was lazy or incompetent to press that short lever to tell others on the road where they intend to go. This is how accidents happen on fast paced roads like 101.

So next time you are about driving on the road pay careful attention to how many inconsiderate drivers you spot failing to use the indicator. You will be surprised  On every short driving trip I see a handful of them and on longer trips it becomes mind gobbling that so many are allowed to do this yet holding a phone to check google maps or speak to someone on speaker phone is illegal.

If you think failure to use indicators is bad, watch out for “bumping”! Really not worth owning a nice car while living in the valley. That I will leave for another post.

Stay safe peeps!

~ Ernest

How to get a Californian drivers license

In America you drive on the right side of the road and back home (Australia) you drove on the left side. So even if you hold an Australian yellow drivers license with good driving history in America you still need to:

a. Pass the theory exam and
b. Pass the practical driving exam.

Yes you heard this right. You still need to pass a practical driving exam.

Oh and don’t bother with the International driving license which NRMA (in Australia) can issue you for $50. It’s just a waste of money. Worthless. You will never use it. If you want to hire a car in California or drive a car you can do so safely on your normal Australian drivers license. No need for an International one.

DMV – California Department of Motor Vehicles

DMV is the government entity similar to RTA (Roads & Traffic Authority) in NSW Australia. DMV registers vehicles in California and licenses their drivers. This is where you will go to do both your Theory and Practical exams.

But first you need to book for the Theory exam. Do this online since it’s more convenient and you are after all in Silicon Valley where most services are organized online.

Make an appointment here: https://eg.dmv.ca.gov/foa/welcome.do?localeName=en

The Theory exam

Here’s how I practiced for the theory exam. After this you should be an expert. Spend more time learning the ins and out because the theory will come in handy for the practical (harder) exam.

  1. Download DMV Driver Handbook and learn the new rules. Most of the rules should be 2nd nature to you if you did ok on your Australian drivers license.
    DMV Driver Handbook: http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/dl600.pdf
  2. Go through sample driver written tests here: http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/interactive/tdrive/exam.htm
  3. Practise on an interactive DMV flash-based exam: http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/interactive/tdrive/flash/flashtest.htm
  4. Watch DMV YouTube exams videos: http://www.youtube.com/user/californiadmv

Accelerated learning process – in my personal blog on productivity I covered an accelerated learning technique. See the blog post here for more tips on accelerated learning: http://ernestblog.com/accelerated-learning. I follow these techniques in my everyday life so you will find value outside passing your DMV exam.

Applying these techniques I studies like this:

  • Do the sample written tests until you only get 0 or 1 wrong.
  • Do the flash practise exam until you only get 0 or 1 wrong.
  • Watch the DMV YouTube videos once.
  • Read the DMV driver hand book. I skim read through it because it’s long and most of the stuff you should have learnt from the practice points a-c above. As you read the exam, write notes down of stuff you “did not know”.
  • Go over your notes, the DMV videos, sample written tests and flash practice exam before bed time.
  • Next day in the morning go over your notes and sample written tests to refresh your memory.
  • There is an iPhone DMV app which essentially carries the DMV videos and sample written tests. At the DMV I did the sample written tests on my iPhone since the wait was at 30 minutes (yes, even after booking the exam online).

After this you are guaranteed to pass with flying colors.

On the day of the exam at the DMV you will need to do a lot of paper work, get a photo taken and then a “written” test in a voting style booth. Not electronic like in Australia. The test should take no more than 20 minutes with 30 questions to answer. After your complete it, hand it to a DMV personnel and they will mark it on the spot. If you get more than 6 wrong answers you fail. But you shouldn’t since you prepared so well. You will be issued with a temporary 3 month license. This gives you 3 months to get your practical exam booked.

The Practical exam

Book for your Practical exam ASAP. Do not wait till the last-minute before your temporary license expires. The booking wait line is typically a month in the future. Book immediately after you pass your Theory exam!

Make an appointment here: https://eg.dmv.ca.gov/foa/welcome.do?localeName=en

The practical exam starts at the DMV and ends at the DMV parking lot.

The practical exam consists of a number of pre-drive checks to make sure you know your vehicle well followed by the actual 20 minute drive around the neighborhood. So its important to use your own car. One which you are comfortable with and know where all the settings (like defroster) are located. The examiner will just sit there observing how you drive (normal stuff) and will only tell you where they want you to turn. So basically you just drive straight until you are given an instruction to turn.

To pass, you must have no more than 3 errors marked in the pre-drive checklist, no marks in the critical driving error section, and no more than 15 errors marked for the scoring maneuvers.

So you passed your practical exam!

At the end of the 20 minute practical exam the examiner will hand your “Driving Performance Evaluation Score Sheet” with a score of errors and whether you passed or not. You obviously passed so you take this sheet into DMV and provide it to the booth the examiner tells you to. In about a week or 2 you will receive your actual physical drivers license. It will look something like this:

Australian (top) vs Californian (bottom) drivers license
Australian (top) vs Californian (bottom) drivers license

Resources

Bets of luck with your exams! If you follow my simple methods outlined above you too will have no trouble passing them. 2 friends have passed with flying colors and no stress after I shared this information with them. If you find this information useful in your exam I would love to hear about it. Leave me a comment below 🙂

Good luck!

Ernest

Checklist – buying a car

Here are a few things to take into consideration when buying a car. I’m sure this list can be expanded but this list should prove to be fruitful in your 1st endeavours.

Checklist

General

[  ] Are you shopping at the end of the month? If not go home and come back closer to the end of the month. Dealers need to meet their monthly quotas hence will give you a better deal towards the end of the month to make the sale.
[  ] Research “Kelley Blue Book” to understand a reasonable price of the car you want.
[  ] “YELP” the dealer you plan to visit or have visited. Yelp is a great resource of information about service & product orientated businesses. Yelp is where I also located a fantastic (seriously fantastic) mechanics (Gary & Chris from The Car Doctor) – http://www.yelp.com/biz/the-car-doctor-mountain-view
[ ] Look up the car you are interested in on “Edmunds.com” and check its reliability and consumer reviews.
[  ] Does the vehicle come with at least 50% coverage or 2 years warranty? Make sure you get warranty which fits your risk profile.
[  ] Is the vehicle Pre-Owned Certified? Expect to pay up to $2K more for certified vehicles since this typically includes at least a 100-point inspection of the car by 2 mechanics and a quality guarantee from the dealer.
[  ] If the vehicle is not Certified, have you got it checked by a 3rd party mechanic? See The Car Doctor’s above.
[ ] Does the “CARFAX” and Log book tell an ok history of the vehicles maintenance?

Vehicle inspection

[ ] Inspect the car for dents, dings and scratches before taking final delivery. Any dents or dings tell the dealer to fix under their own cost before you even sign any purchase paperwork.
[  ] Run a magnet on parts of the body you suspect damaged. Where there is bog (material used to cover-up previous accident) the magnet will not stick and your suspicion will be correct.
[  ] Test-drive the car under your normal driving conditions.
[ ] Ask for last service, why whom and what oil was used. Synthetic oils are the go and also protect the engine. Organic oils are only used on new engines to wear them in but to maintain engine quality, more expensive Synthetic oils should be used.
[ ] Check whether all accessories are in working conditions eg. power seats, mirrors, lights, windows, air con etc.
[ ] Under the bonnet look for oil leaks on parts like suspension or shazzy (the body). An oil leak can lead to expensive future service.

Speaking with the Dealer

It’s not what they say it’s how they say it and what their body language speaks. Observe and listen to their context, content is not as important since it only accounts for 20% of the message.

  • Understand the dealer’s primary human mode – best way to communicate with them using the right words based on who they are. See my post inc. tips on my productivity blog here: http://ernestblog.com/visual-auditory-kinestatic
  • Does the dealer cross their arms or step back when you ask a question about the vehicle?
    • Crossing arms are an indicator of hiding something and
    • Stepping back is a strong indicator that they are trying to distance them-self from your question – maybe you hit something which they are trying to hide.
  • Build rapport with the dealer by imitating their body language or tone of voice.
  • Stamp wide feet apart, arms by your side and head high. This sends a positive and strong message that you are strong and in control of decision-making. Never put your hands in your pocket, behind your back or fidget with them in front. Never look down either. Unless you want to send a message of inferiority and get taken for a ride.
  • Read my blog post on how people tell lies here: http://blog.ernestsemerda.com/2010/02/15/telling-lies-how-do-people-lie-and-how-can-they-be-caught/

Have fun!

Remember that this is all just a game and never take anything personal. Enjoy the experience and make the most of it. Good luck with the car hunting!

Ernest

Major roads in Silicon Valley

We flew down the twisty mountain road in a metallic gray VW Jetta. The wheels screeching tightly to the apex as I took the corner holding the steering wheel at 9 & 3 o’clock. Yes I was taught to drive this way at a rally school back in Sydney (Australia). The Jetta was a hire car. The surroundings screamed past us as I demonstrated to my friend how to take the apex on sharp corners for a smoother tight turn. Then we noticed a group of bicycle riders heading straight toward us. Well this is odd, I said. What are they doing on our side of the road. Oh crap, “we” are on the wrong side of the road. I jabbed the steering wheel to the right to get the car back onto the “right” lane. As soon as we did this a car zoomed round the corner on the right side of the road. We avoided a collision. Missed by that much.

You may already know this but in America everyone drives on the “right” side of the road. In Australia it is the left side. Today about 66.1% of the world’s people live in right-hand traffic countries and 33.9% in left-hand traffic countries. Being Australian I fell into the 33.9%. However it was time to adjust to the 66.1% and learn to drive on the right side of the road. In the beginning it takes some getting to used to. I found that having a non-Australia passenger in the car helped. Every time I would drift to the left (wrong side of the road) I would be instantly slapped back into gear avoiding another collision.

Unfortunately in the story above I was with another Australian and thus for us being on the left hand side felt comfortable so no internal alarms were set off until we noticed strange traffic patterns. I love telling that story because we spent so much time on the wrong side of the road feeling all comfortable until a shock later and we learnt one valuable lesson.

Roads are wide and big

One of the 1st things you will notice in Silicon Valley and well America in general, are that the roads are massive. Kramer (from Seinfeld) wasn’t exaggerating when he adopted a piece of the American freeway and showed us how wide the lanes are. They are huge here. You can practically dance around in your car on one. Not only that, most freeways have 4-5 lanes each way. That in comparison to Sydney (Australia) where the Sydney Orbital (freeway that takes traffic around Sydney) is 2 lanes each way – that explains the traffic issues!

Major roads in the valley

Major roads in Silicon Valley - from left: 280, El Camino & 101
Major roads in Silicon Valley - from left in green: 280, El Camino & 101

There are 3 major roads you can travel up and down the valley. They are, starting from the left (see map above in green):

a.       280Interstate 280 (I-280) is a 57 mile (92 km) long north–south Interstate Highway in the San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California. It connects San Jose and San Francisco, running along just to the west of the cities of San Francisco Peninsula for most of its route. This is what I call the sceanic route and you get to see the fog roll into the valley over the mountains – looks scary & beautiful when it’s happening (see pic below).

b.       El Camino RealEl Camino Real (Spanish for The Royal Road, also known as The King’s Highway) runs between the 280 and 101 through all the major cities in the valley. It is the road to take if you intend to do some shopping / food hopping during your drive.

c.      101U.S. Route 101 (US 101) is one of the last remaining and longest U.S. Routes still active in the state, and the longest highway of any kind in California. From San Jose to San Francisco, Highway 101 is known as the Bayshore Freeway as it passes through Palo Alto and the other major communities along the San Francisco Peninsula.

When going to San Francisco for dinner or to party I like to take the 101 if I want to get there quicker or the 280 if I’m in the mood for a scenic drive. On the 280 you will get to see a lot of eagles (American National Emblem) and that famous fog San Francisco is so famous for. The fog starts rolling in around 5-6ish in the afternoon as demonstrated in the pic below.

The fog rolling in over the mountains towards 280
The fog rolling in over the mountains towards 280

American’s drive fast

Yes it’s true. American’s drive fast on both 280 & 101. I have a heavy foot but still find myself trying to keep up to the average traffic speed of 80 miles (128 km) per hour. In America as long as you are not driving dangerously a cop wont bug you. That sort of explains the mutual traffic flow at high speeds – mutual agreement. I love it.

So you have 3 roads to choose from when heading up and down the valley. This is great and has the power to beat boredom by allowing you to alternate your routes and keep the drive different. Now that you know your roads, here’s to safe and happy driving!

Ernest

Build credit history superfast – get a car loan

Yes it’s true. If you want to build credit history in America you should consider getting a car loan. There is no better or faster way to building credit history then through a car loan. Here’s why.

Why a car loan?

Remember my last post on building credit history? If not then click here to read about building credit history in America. In a nutshell, getting a car loan is the BEST way to quickly building your credit history. You need to have a listing on your credit history that you are capable of paying off a sustainable large dept, like a car loan. This loan must be no smaller than $5K.

Get a loan from Technology Credit Union (TechCU)

TechCU were the only folks who would even consider giving me a car loan. And remember I came to America with 0 credit history. TechCU caters for technology folks in Silicon Valley with no credit history. The downside is you will be on a higher interest rate – around 15%.

No big American bank will lend you money on good rates because you are a liability, someone without credit history. I have a personal account with Wells Fargo Bank (one of the largest in the US) with plenty of money in it sitting in a special high yield checking & savings account and they they still thought I was a liability when I wanted to get a loan through them. Again, because I had no credit history.

Well Fargo would only give me a “secured loan” – a loan which was backed (locked up) with my own money. This is not good enough for me since:

  • it’s using my money and
  • it is not what the credit bureau considers a “car loan” – not good in building credit history.

Before you can get the loan approved by TechCU they will need from you:

  • Paper work from the dealer on the car you are purchasing inc. it’s Kelley Blue Book value. See my post of purchasing a car from a dealer located here.
  • See certificate of purchased for “car insurance”. Also the dealer won’t let you drive off the lot without one!,
  • See that you are a “software engineer” – basically you need to bring a letter from your company’s HR department showing your income and your position/title of a software engineer. The position/title is important since TechCU is for technology folks only.
  • A copy of your Californian Drivers license. Your International Drivers license will not do. It’s worthless. Read this post on getting your Californian Drivers license. All you need to do is pass the Theory exam to get your temporary drivers license number. But don’t forget to schedule your practical exam since your temporary drivers license expires in 3 months.

Sounds painful? it is! But it pays off in the end.

Links mentioned in this post

TechCU website: http://www.techcu.com/

Building credit history: http://www.theroadtosiliconvalley.com/finance/building-credit-history-america/

Let me know if you found a quicker way to get around this by posting in the comments below.

Ernest