Caltrain commuters accustomed to facing long delays without warning will finally be able to check ahead and see if their train is running on schedule.
Caltrain officials said this week they have reached a deal with a private vendor to install global positioning system trackers in their locomotives, and use the sensors to provide real-time delay information to riders.
The expected arrival times of trains will appear at existing electronic signs at all station platforms from San Francisco to San Jose, on 511.org and by calling 511. The project should allow riders to determine ahead of time whether they should instead drive or take comparable routes such as BART north of Millbrae or Valley Transportation Authority light rail south of Palo Alto.
The project will cost $1.8 million and is part of Caltrain's $8.7 million initiative to install a new rail operations control system. The agency's board of directors is expected to approve the contract Thursday, though it is unknown when the system will start running.
Caltrain's roughly 40,000 average weekday riders have grown frustrated over lack of access to official real-time delay information. Fed up, they took matters into their own hands in May 2008 by launching a Twitter feed with delay information that has attracted roughly 3,000 followers.
A couple hundred riders with access to the account have posted about 2,200 tweets on the feed, Twitter.com/Caltrain, using their laptops and cell phones to alert passengers to deaths on the tracks, mechanical problems and even found items. In fact, searching for Caltrain delays on Google causes the Twitter feed and its corresponding blog to show up first, ahead of Caltrain's official site.
Caltrain's 90 weekday trains often veer off schedule by a few minutes, but it's the major mechanical issues and accidents on the tracks that cause riders to arrive tardy for work, miss class and get home late. There have been 15 deaths on the tracks in the past seven months, and they typically delay several trains by an hour or more.
Yet Caltrain has lagged behind other agencies in providing riders with quick updates when trains are running behind. BART, for instance, gives riders expected arrival times on electronic signs at stations and also posts delay information on an official Twitter feed, which has more than 6,100 followers.
Several other Bay Area transit operators, such as San Francisco MUNI, AC Transit and the Genentech shuttle service, use a similar GPS system called NextBus, which also sends expected arrival times to the Web, cell phones and station display signs.
Without an automatic notification system, Caltrain staffers historically have had to decide whether to update riders on a case-by-case basis.
Since July 2008, Caltrain has arrived at stations on time at a rate of 94 percent.
The project will be installed by an international transportation firm called ARINC Inc., which is based in Maryland and has offices in Foster City and Livermore.
Officials called the price for the work "fair and reasonable" and said it would not result in further subsides from the counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. Officials said they previously set aside money for the system in their list of capital improvement projects, which is separate from the operating budget used to determine fare prices and service levels.
The announcement comes just a month after Caltrain's sister agency, SamTrans, said it had reached a deal with a separate vendor to install GPS devices inside its buses. SamTrans expects to provide real-time delay information to riders by March and will pay $1.2 million for its system, which is currently being installed.