Caltrain Blues

Caltrain riders are experiencing the blues these days due to problems with Clipper and new draconian ticket citation rules.

“8-card riders and e-cash remember to tag off after detraining. San Francisco last stop.….”
8-ride and e-cash ticket riders must tag on before boarding and off after getting off the train. Many forget to do this despite the many reminders from Clipper and Caltrain. If you forget to tag on, the conductor can ask you to get off at the next stop or if you decline be cited for fare evasion. The prize for forgetting to tag off is $12.25, the maximum Caltrain fare between San Francisco and San Jose, deducted from your cash balance. When that balance is below $1.25, your Clipper card will not work. If you forget to tag off and get a citation, the fine is $350 plus costs added on by the court.

No excuses will be accepted. Under the new policy reported in SF Weekly Caltrain has decided to treat fare evaders and those who fall victim to problems with Clipper the same. Conductors no longer have the discretion, as they did in the past, about writing a ticket. In short, tell it to the judge is the new policy. For those who have problems with Clipper, save all documentation (emails, letters, and names of those you spoke with etc.) when you go to court. And you can bring witnesses (or sworn affidavits) from those who have direct knowledge of what happened (like the Clipper representative, not your friend who heard you talking on the phone).

In short, make Caltrain prove you are the fare evader they claim you to be. If you can show to the judge it was a Clipper issue, the judge can dismiss the charge. Of course you might get lucky. I understand Caltrain conductors do not always show up for the court date and judges can dismiss the charge. One other thing, do not decide to get in the conductors face about citing you. They are just doing their job. If you yell, holler, scream or make any threats at all, the conductor will have the police meet you at the next station and arrest you for assault. You will spend the next several hours being processed, booked, and possibly released until the court date.

This policy apparently makes no exception for when the Clipper terminals are down. On SF Muni, if the Clipper system is down on the bus (on must SF Muni buses there are two, one in the front and one near the exit doors) the rule is to allow Clipper holders to board. According to Caltrain, if the Clipper terminals are not working you are supposed to notify the conductor if they are not working. Perhaps on this issue the conductor does have discretion but I bet Caltrain will argue back you ought to purchase a paper ticket (at extra cost to you) if the Clipper system is not working. Hopefully they will clarify this otherwise I can see some judge rolling his eyes wondering why Caltrain is wasting his time citing people for fare evasion with the Clipper system was out of order at the time.

Autoload is another feature giving riders the blues as well. Clipper bills this a convenient way to load monthly passes, 8-ride tickets, or even cash to your card. It comes with some major caveats. Since not all Clipper terminals are hardwired to Clipper (like on buses) they only get updated once a day. So if you purchase via autoload, the Internet, or by phone it can take up to 5 days to load. And if there is a problem with the credit card, nothing gets added to your card which is frustrating when you are trying to board the train. Worse the card can be locked up by Clipper because of a credit card or other issues.

The best way to avoid these blues is to purchase passes and load money at a vendor like Walgreens, a Clipper service center, or one of those rare Clipper Add Value machines. For reasons no one can understand, those Clipper machines are not at any Caltrain station. You would think that when Caltrain decided to move to Clipper they would have put those machines in at San Francisco and San Jose. It seems only logical but then again, this is the same system that has no real time updating for passengers to know the status of trains. Rumor has it they will eventually arrive but no one can say for sure when that will happen.

We Do Not Want To Confuse People
Caltrain requires all monthly pass holders to tag on/off on the first trip of the month to validate the pass. Except that is not accurate. Monthly passes purchased online, via autoload, or by phone have to be tagged in order to be loaded. However when you purchase in-person at Walgreens, a Clipper customer center, or Clipper add value machine, the pass is loaded and ready to go for the period purchased. Same with cash.

So why the requirement all monthly pass holders tag on/off once a month? Well Clipper was asked that on its Facebook page. It turns out that Caltrain believed confusion would result if some had to tag on/off and others did not. How confusing is this suggested statement:

If you purchased your monthly pass on the Internet, by autoload, or by phone you must tag on to download the pass and tag off to complete the purchase. You only need to do this the first train ride of the month. If you purchased the pass at a vendor, Clipper customer center, or a Clipper Add Value machine the pass is already loaded for the period purchased and does not need to be tagged.

Not that hard really to understand. Typical of bureaucrats who look at passengers as children.

Your Papers Please!
Another new policy, not so much a blues thing for passengers but for conductors, is the policy to check tickets at the doors in San Francisco/San Jose for non-commute weekday trains and weekend trains. Conductors did not do this in the past very often (a few did mainly so they did not need to check until Millbrae) but now it is mandatory. Providing of course the conductors have those Clipper card readers (which does not always seem to be the case). Once the train gets rolling, the conductor apologizes in advance but they are required to check and will likely check tickets again on the way to San Jose. It does catch the forgetful Clipper taggers and occasionally a family that needs to buy extra tickets for the kids, but just slows down train loading.

Some conductors are getting around it. They simply wait until five minutes before departure to open the doors. It would take too long to check tickets and delays train departure.

Okay so how to get around those Caltrain blues? A few simple rules:

(1) Never purchase a pass or load cash online, autoload, or by phone. Always use a vendor, Clipper center, or Clipper add value machine. If you must use autoload, get a second Clipper card and load it with cash. That way if the main card is not working (for whatever reason) you can tag the other card.

(2) 8-ride ticket holders/e-cash users: Always tag your card before boarding and after you disembark. If you forget to tag off, check your balance at If your balance is below $1.25, you must add at least that much to make it work. Load the cash in-person right away to avoid problems.

(3) Lay the Clipper card on the designated spot for a proper read. No waving the card! If it works right, you get a solid tone and a message displaying what happened (fare paid etc). If you get the reject tone, try it again and read the message displayed.

(4) Register your Clipper card at Also keep track of your cash balance or 8-ride ticket use at the site.

(5) If you take SF Muni and use e-cash, the transfer is good for 90 minutes. SF Muni though expects you to keep track of the time. And to play it safe, tag again before heading out on the underground light rail platform. Example: You tagged the card at 9:45am taking a number 30 to North Beach. You end up back to the Powell Street Station just before 11am. The card reader accepts the transfer as it is still within the 90 minute limit but is getting close to expiring. You board a light rail to Embarcadero Station but just before you get off tag the card to check if the transfer is valid. If not, a fare is charged and up the escalator you go. Alas there is a short line because fare inspectors are checking cards and transfers. Luckily you tagged your card before getting off the light rail. Otherwise they cite you for fare evasion.

1. SF Weekly, Caltrain’s Draconian Clipper Enforcement Leaves Riders Stranded, 27 Jul 2011

2. Akit’s Complaint Department(blog), One Less Step for Caltrain Monthly Pass Users using Clipper, 14 June 2011

3. Akit’s Complaint Department(blog), Muni Modifies & Clarifies the Definition of “Proof of Payment” & Expired Transfers, 26 Jul 2011

Note bene: Akit’s Complaint Department has the most complete information about Clipper use on transit.