The Zone 3 Caltrain stations, ranked

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY TOMOKI CHIEN AND EMILY YAO

There comes a certain point in a driver’s-licenseless teenager’s life when they desperately don’t want to be chauffeured around by their parents to hang out with friends anymore, and in which they’ve had enough of everything within walking and biking distance. 

This summer, I chose the natural solution, as opposed to, say, taking my permit test or something. I started riding the Caltrain — a lot.

After a couple months of frequenting the nearby stations and what their surrounding downtowns had to offer us, my friends and I started discussing our favorite stations. There were so many factors to think about, and thus a fair share of disagreements.

Realizing that each Caltrain station is unique with different atmospheres and amenities, I formed the next logical thought of ranking them all on a scientifically standardized scale: my opinions. 

Not all of the stations from San Jose to San Francisco, of course — that would be a huge project — just six local ones, classified by Caltrain as Zone 3.

To be honest, I’m not sure what the actual utility of this is; it’s not as if you’re going to start avoiding getting off at your local station because it’s ranked low here. But maybe it can be thought provoking about our perspective on our communities’ public spaces.

Here are six local Caltrain stations, ranked.  

6. San Antonio

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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The San Antonio station really doesn’t have much immediately around it; it’s an eight minute walk to The Village (a local shopping center with not many stores that pique my interest) and a 10 minute walk to the nearest Target (a good place to roam around in and exit with a multitude of things you didn’t need). 

The station’s parking situation is the next most unideal thing for me to scrutinize. To be clear, I still can’t drive; I forced our editor-in-chief to shuttle us around on this four-hour expedition. Thus it was his attempt at parking that was an entire ordeal.

When we finally crossed the tracks to the only side offering parking, said parking was a block away from the station, which I can imagine being inconvenient for those traveling on a tight schedule.

As for San Antonio’s low intuitiveness score, those wishing to cross to the other platform need to walk all the way down and through a tackily designed, blue- and red-striped underpass on the very end of the station — not very intuitive.

5. Mountain View

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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Doubling as a transit station with VTA buses definitely knocked down this station’s intuitiveness points, as I can imagine someone attempting to use both transport systems getting off the train and feeling confused about where and how to board their bus. 

The cleanliness of the station was mediocre. As I sat down to feel out different benches, I noticed that some of them were sticky. As I walked up and down the platforms, I noticed stains and discoloration on the concrete pavement. 

On the flip side, my favorite thing about the Mountain View station was its main building. The almost old-timey style of architecture was easy on the eyes and cohesive with the station’s atmosphere. It also provided some nice, shaded seating with a type of bench that I really liked.

Unfortunately, Mountain View also had my absolute least favorite type of benches out of all the stations: there were a multitude of circular black benches with defeated-looking trees in the center. This seating simply didn’t make sense to me, as their circular shape, vertical gaps and inevitable absorption of burning heat during the daytime are probably not appealing to anyone.

To put it simply, I thought I liked the Mountain View station more than I actually do, which is not that much.

4. Palo Alto

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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Downtown Palo Alto is a thoroughly amazing and fun place, giving the Palo Alto station an automatic 10/10 on the fun factor scale. My most frequently visited stores there include Bell’s Books and Kung Fu Tea, but there’s guaranteed to be something for everyone from restaurants to retail stores to cafes.

However, the Palo Alto station definitely lacked cleanliness. Its main underpass is dark, damp and dingy with offensive smells every few steps you take. There were spills and stains on the platform grounds, as well as bottles and cans littered on the train tracks. We even noticed a pile of shattered glass beneath one bench that seemed to have come from the map poster above it being punched.

The style of the two main buildings had an almost retro theme that is somewhat fitting for a train station atmosphere. They weren’t the most visually appealing; somewhere in my messily scribbled notes, I stated that “at least the buildings have a design.”

3. California Ave.

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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The California Ave. station has absolutely nothing to its design element. The lengthy underpass is all gray, with concrete and metal handrails — I’d almost take the blue- and red-tiled San Antonio one over that. It almost seems like a hallway in some sort of cheap-budget dystopian film.

There’s absolutely no color at the station, and the only structure is short, almost colonial, offering the only bit of shade on the platform to visitors. 

The only 10 that California Ave. got out of me was its fun factor, being one of my favorite places in Palo Alto to frequent (my go-tos are Backyard Brew, Vitality Bowl, Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels, among others). The Sunday farmers’ market is even held there every week, meaning you could potentially take the Caltrain there from out of town in the morning.

Despite California Ave. being my home station, I realized as I was pacing around with a notebook and the intention of scrutinizing everything that overall, it’s not that great of a train station. The only reason why it’s standing in the top three of my ranking is the significantly bad parking, intuitiveness and cleanliness of other stations, not its own greatness.

It’s also worthy to note that it was at this station where Caltrain employees noticed us taking pictures of the arriving train and told us what “foamers” were — but that didn’t affect my ratings.

2. Sunnyvale

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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As the opposite of what happened with Mountain View, I thought I liked the Sunnyvale station less going into this than I actually ended up liking it, which was enough for the station to be our overall runner-up.

Parking was the station’s biggest strength, with an actual shaded, multi-level parking structure dedicated to Caltrain patrons right next to it, as well as a very spacious open lot right in front. There was even ample bike parking in the shade.

I appreciated the large arch that provided shade and public seating; there were rows of strong wooden benches, though they were weirdly tall and perpendicular — I made it clear on the car ride away from Sunnyvale that the ideal bench angle lies somewhere in the middle of 90 and 180 degrees (I didn’t have a protractor on hand).

Everything in this area was cohesive in design, coming down to the special payphone stands.

The station itself was very intuitive as well, placing the ticket booths in plain sight upon entrance and a simple crosswalk as opposed to an underpass to access each side.

1. Menlo Park

IntuitivenessParkingCleanlinessDesignFun factorTotal (–/50)
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Menlo Park is the best Zone 3 Caltrain station for its excellent intuitiveness, design and fun factor.

It features not only one, but two crosswalks on either side; the significance of this is ensuring that riders can easily and quickly access each side without having to sprint down the platform and through an underpass in their professional work outfits each morning.

The station is also lined up and down with tall, green trees. Its main building, which is accented with yellow and white, even has a beautiful clock tower — an amazing traditional style touch for a train station. Whoever sat down to design the station even went as far as to pick rusty red block pavement instead of gray slabs of concrete like most other stations.

Needless to say, from the smallest details to the station’s overall atmosphere, Menlo Park is the superior Zone 3 Caltrain station.