Should Caltrain Add Bathrooms On-Board or at Its Stations?

The great controversy roils on. Photo: Yelp/Michael W.

On-board restrooms could be cut from Caltrain’s electric trains after the agency’s Board of Directors rejected a proposal to include one bathroom on every six-car train last month. The agency is exploring the costs of adding bathrooms, and while some riders say they’re crucial, there’s little support from board members or disability advocates.

The Americans with Disabilities Act “is a very important part of this,” said Tom Nolan, a Caltrain board member and chair of the SFMTA Board, at the July meeting. “If somebody’s in a wheelchair in the back of the train and they have to go through five cars, that’s not really equal access.”

Malia Cohen, also a Caltrain board member and San Francisco supervisor, agreed with Nolan, noting that Carla Johnson, director of the SF Mayor’s Office on Disability, favors adding bathrooms at stations — which are currently scarce — rather than on trains.

“If there are bathrooms on the train, then we want the passengers with mobility issues to have the convenience of using those bathrooms just like everybody else,” Johnson told Streetsblog. “If some passengers can only travel between train cars with a lift, then it actually makes more sense to have the bathrooms at the stations so that everyone has equal access.”

“I think that it’s not uncommon for trains of this kind that are doing relatively short regional trips to not have bathrooms, because it is a rather dramatic loss of seats,” said Ash Karla, a Caltrain board member who sits on the San Jose City Council.

But many Caltrain riders, and Caltrain’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee (CAC), disagree. The CAC resolved in June that keeping one restroom on six-car electric trains would be worth the loss of space for eight seats or 16 standees. They would be “most beneficial during unexpected situations/emergencies,” stated a CAC resolution. The San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities also sent a letter [PDF] of support.

Transit advocacy group Friends of Caltrain posted an online petition to save on-board bathrooms in early July that has gathered over 300 signatures so far.

Menlo Park Transportation Commissioner Bianca Walser signed the petition. “I have two small kids who love to ride Caltrain, but can’t be expected to hold it until we get to our destination,” she wrote in a comment with her signature. “Bathrooms are something everyone needs!”

Friends of Caltrain listed more reasons in a blog post:

Elderly riders and people with health conditions need bathroom access. Pregnant women need bathroom access. Parents travelling with children need bathrooms. People take Caltrain for sports events, concerts, parades and fireworks shows, where they can drink and enjoy without having to drive. People who have been drinking [alcohol] need access to bathrooms, or may relieve themselves on the train without the benefit of a bathroom.

“If you’re not going to have bathrooms on the train, then you should have a bathroom at every station,” Jim Bigelow, a member of the Chamber of Commerce for Redwood City and San Mateo County, told the Caltrain board. “You should look and see what the cost is to add bathrooms at all the stations versus having one on each train set.”

The agency has not yet reported the costs of installing new bathrooms at its stations, but Caltrain Modernization Program Executive Officer Marion Lee said that the cost of on-board bathrooms is expected to be minor. “Yes, it will cost more, but it’s one bathroom per six cars and we’re procuring 90-something cars, so it will not be that significant,” said Lee.

The Caltrain Board is expected to review the bids from electric train manufacturers at its monthly meeting in November.

  • p_chazz

    Caltrain has a bike car and a luggage car, why not a bathroom car? There could be handicapped access, changing tables, etc. The car directly adjoining the bathroom car could be the handicapped car, so mobility-impaired passengers would not be incommoded.

    If the decision is made go eliminate bathrooms, then Caltrain could have a public awareness campaign as to the lack of bathrooms. “Go before you go!”

    Also, I also don’t think that bathrooms need to be at all stations, only the more heavily-patronized ones. Station maps and guides would indicate which stations had bathrooms and which did not.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    This is a preposterous argument. There are plenty of trainsets over the world that have accessible bathrooms. On board bathrooms make for a less stressful commute and a higher quality of life for everyone who rides Caltrain. What they’re claiming is that because they can’t have dual level boarding with accessible bathrooms for every car, they should do away with every bathroom everywhere. That’s utterly stupid! Bathrooms in the station aren’t a viable option because the trains are too infrequent, and there are too many stations that will never get bathrooms. End this ridiculous war against bathrooms! Do we want caltrain stations to smell like bart stations? Everyone needs to pee and poop. Leave the bathrooms on the trains, and fire every single Caltrain employee that is lobbying to get rid of them! There is no excuse for this nonsense! Stop treating us like we live in a third world country.

  • Easy

    Bathrooms in stations could work, but only if they increase the frequency to at least once per 20 min, all day, every day, for every destination station – so that the penalty of getting off to use one is not overly punative.

  • Ziggy Tomcich

    There are no plans to have this level of service on Caltrain. It’s way cheaper to keep and maintain bathrooms on the trains than it is to install and maintain them at every station. Like Bart, Caltrain is preferring not to deal with public bathrooms at all, and wants to just get rid of all of them. We need to tell them NO. This is a quality of life issue. Everyone needs to pee and poop.

  • Andy Chow

    The disability argument would be true if every car is wheelchair accessible, but it is not likely for many reasons. 1) bikes and wheelchair riders shouldn’t mix, to improve flow and ensure bikes are not stowed in space reserved for wheelchairs, and also ensure seats close to door for disabled folks who can walk. 2) level boarding is not a project at this point due to technical issues and funding. So if even all stations have mini highs they would use only 1 car until all stations are retrofitted. 3) I don’t think there are wheelchair passengers getting bumped now, but new cars can at least double WC capacity.

  • David

    I’m sure cost is the main reason why they aren’t considering bathrooms at stations AND on the trains. Seems like the best option to make Caltrain rides a comfortable experience.

  • It’s critical to have a public restroom on trains and in stations. I’m kind of stunned that this is even being discussed.

  • djconnel

    The fundamental problem is the Caltrain management generally drives, rather than take the train, and therefore has little grounding in reality. Or maybe they should just put a trap door in the floor of each car. In any case the disability card is poorly played because of course you just put the toilet in the ADA-accessible car, of which there’s only one.

  • david vartanoff

    This is not a legitimate question in a civilized nation.

  • Jimbo

    definitely on board

  • thielges

    And with respect to bathrooms at unattended stations, unfortunately the USA is not a civilized nation. They would be trashed and vandalized quickly.

    The only practical location for bathrooms are either on board or at staffed stations like SF or SJ.

  • david vartanoff

    Of course on board is better as most riders spend more time there than waiting at stations. That said, despite likely damages, I still believe restrooms at stations are necessary. Given that most riders use clipper cards perhaps entry should be clipper enabled much as some ATMs require an ATM card to enter the kiosk.

  • crazyvag

    Onboard bathrooms are just inherently cheaper to maintain. Yes, you lose some seat space, but where are you going to put a bathroom in San Antonio? Or 22nd Street? Who will pay for cleaning all 30+ bathrooms? How will security be provided at night? After 8pm, when only 3-4 trains are in service, the conductors provide security and cleaning is done as part of cleaning trains in the same place. I just don’t see how it can be cost effective to have bathrooms on stations.


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