Caltrain allows drinks - see seat stains for proof

Over the past couple of months, BART bureaucrats and board members have debated whether to relax the ban on drinking on trains by allowing commuters to use spill-proof coffee mugs. While director Lynette Sweet has been pushing for the drinking policy change, general manager Dorothy Dugger has been resisting, estimating the agency might have to add more than 60 positions at a cost of $6 million per year to keep the transit system as clean as it is now.

While Dugger's javaphobic view may sound alarmist, Caltrain's spotty experience with drinks on its trains should give BART bigwigs pause.

Unlike BART, Caltrain allows passengers to consume food and drinks. For evidence, you need only examine the ubiquitous stains that blossom on seemingly every seat on the trains running back and forth between San Francisco and San Jose. It seems commuters have lost the ability to securely hold containers of anything. Maybe it's the autistic gene that's supposed to be more prevalent in Silicon Valley. Or perhaps some travelers have taken to purposely spilling a bit of latte or Rock Star as a gesture of respect to their homies who are "working" from home that day.

Regardless, the result is a florid collection of public-transit Rorschach tests that can offer a bounty of psychological insight if you're willing to stop, look, and contemplate. Recently we saw the java-hued face of Jesus, which we quickly dubbed "The Shroud of Caltrain."

"When somebody spills a coffee, it just soaks into the seat and the foam underneath," one conductor says. "Every spill is still in there, congealing underneath you. It starts to stink after a while."

The origin of the problem can be traced to 1999, when Caltrain replaced the traditional orange-and-brown vinyl seats with sprightly blue cloth ones (BART also has cloth seats). When Caltrain added new Bombardier cars for the Baby Bullet service to San Jose a few years ago, the cloth seats multiplied. The new color was certainly uplifting, but liquids no longer rolled off. Instead, they took up residence.

"Even though we do clean the seats every night, they don't appear to be clean," Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn acknowledges. Despite the dirty seats, though, she was emphatic that Caltrain will continue to allow its riders to eat and drink all they want. Still, there's reason for fastidious riders to celebrate. No, the system won't be requiring sippy cups, but it will be adding eight new cars in the fall. They will have vinyl seats, as will all new cars.

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