When Amy Jackson arrived at the Mountain View Caltrain station on the morning of June 18, she saw riders "stuffing themselves" onto a packed train.

Earlier in the day, a drunken teenager had pushed his disabled Volkswagen onto the tracks in Sunnyvale, where a Caltrain rammed into the car, causing massive delays.

Jackson figured the best way to determine whether she could still take Caltrain to her job in San Francisco was to visit a nearby coffee shop. She used her iPhone to keep tabs on a rider-created Caltrain Twitter feed, which notified her when trains would be departing and whether space was available.

"Everybody was tweeting about it," said Jackson, referring to the 140-character updates. "People were saying it was taking two hours, and, 'I'm still stuck here,' so I just decided to work from Mountain View that day."

The phenomenon of San Francisco-based Twitter has taken off throughout Silicon Valley and beyond. Tech-savvy Caltrain riders have used the social networking site as a form of empowerment, employing their laptops and mobile phones to post and check delays, report lost items and receive other information that previously had been difficult to come by.

The twitter.com/Caltrain feed launched in May 2008 after riders grew frustrated over lack of official delay updates provided on platforms, on board trains and through government sources such as 511.org.


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It has amassed nearly 2,000 followers, Twitter users who are notified when the Caltrain feed is updated on the Web or via text message. About 150 riders have posted more than 1,300 tweets, said founder Ravi Pina, who commutes on Caltrain from San Francisco to Mountain View. Since many riders work on board using their laptops or smart phones, most of the tweets come from riders on stalled trains or platforms

Even Caltrain has joined the feed and prefaces its updates with an "O," to denote "official," although officials from the agency rarely post for fear of ruining the feed's informality, said spokeswoman Christine Dunn.

The page is maintained by riders, who must receive a code from Pina that enables them to post, which filters out spam and potential issues with the feed. Pina has only had to e-mail three users about problems over their tweets.

Dunn said Caltrain has explored starting its own Twitter feed but has no plans to do so. BART officials maintain a feed at twitter.com/SFBart. to post delay updates, provide news and answer rider questions.

Caltrain has no automatic notification service, so officials must decide whether to update riders on a case-by-case basis. As a result, officials typically provide updates only after major disruptions, such as on-track fatalities, Dunn said.

But riders frequently post shorter delays that often affect whether passengers get to work or home on time, plus other updates such as "A/C out," "keys found" and even "dead body on tracks." The updates typically include time, train number and closest station.

"It's like using social networking to work around a flaw in the system for Caltrain," said Samuel Hamner, who checks the Twitter feed before his commute on Caltrain from San Francisco to Palo Alto.

Hamner said originally he only joined Twitter to receive Caltrain updates, so he could decide how to get to work each morning.

"There's been a couple mornings where I wake up and there's been an accident and a train broke down and instead of having a delay of up to an hour, I'll just drive," Hamner said.

The most powerful element of the feed may be its immediacy. Caltrain Deputy CEO Chuck Harvey, while at a SamTrans citizens advisory committee meeting in June, first learned of a death on the tracks when a committee member received an update from the Twitter feed, Pina said.