We caught the Caltrain to San Francisco yesterday, and it was our first train ride so far.
I have a bit of a childhood interest in trains, so it is always fun for me to compare and contrast the differences in rail systems that I see around the place.
There are these huge ticket machines, where you purchase a ticket before boarding the train. Fares a calculated on how many zones you travel in. So you have to consult a map of the line (it's just a single line) and work that out first. The machines take cash or a credit/debit card, with the usual disturbing lack of authentication for the latter.
The tickets themselves are just a piece of card. There's no magnetic stripe or anything. The 10 ride tickets are also just a piece of card, from what I could tell. You "validate" them before riding by putting them in a gadget the essentially chops a portion of the side of the ticket off.
The trains themselves
I can't remember precisely, but I don't believe there were power-lines over
the track. I'm pretty sure we had a diesel-hauled train. The engine on one
that went in the opposite direction was certainly big and noisy.
The cars are double-decker. Upstairs is pretty unusual. They are single-seats on either side of of an open void through to downstairs. There's a stainless steel shelf that runs the length of upstairs at about chest-height for putting luggage on, and below that you can see right through to downstairs. (I later discovered that this allowed a ticket inspector to walk down the aisle downstairs and view everyones tickets on both levels).
The seats were all high-backed. The whole thing had a "long-distance" feel about it. There was a baggage car. You could take your bike on board (so, like the light rail, I think we'll do some cycling tours of places further away than what we'd directly cycle to).
Speaking of ticket inspectors, on the ride in, there were none (though there did seem to be hoards of roaming Caltrain employees wandering up and down the train), and on alighting at the station, no one checked our tickets on the way out, and there were no barriers or anything. You just wander in and out of the station as you pleased. Frankly, I was quite amazed. We did have a very diligent ticket inspector on trip back.
Definitely not the fasted thing in the world. We had all-stops trains both ways, and it took about an hour and a quarter. But it was fairly cheap, compared to driving and parking: $10.50 for a "day-pass" (what I'd called a "return").