I’m going just a bit off topic this month. It may seem a stretch, but bear with me, there is a modicum of relevance to this column. You see, most of my ideas for Industrial Strength columns, as well as the bulk of my SEL column writing, take place on either the Capitol 523 or the 542. These are the trains that I take to get to and from work. While I work in Sunnyvale, CA, I live in El Cerrito, just over 50 miles away. Why I live so far from work is yet another long story, so let’s stay on topic here.
All aboard for Silicon Valley
The Capitol Corridor is the name of the rail service I take, and despite the fact that it’s been in operation for 20 years and now enjoys its highest ridership in its history, it always surprises me how few people have actually heard of it. Its more famous Bay Area mass transit cousins are BART and CalTrain. BART is the light rail system that services most of the Bay Area, focusing mainly on customers who commute into San Francisco for work. On a given workday, 300,000 riders take BART. CalTrain, which runs on a normal gauge rail, runs up and down the Peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose and points beyond. It services commuters who live in San Francisco and work in Silicon Valley, as well as those who live on the Peninsula and work in The City. CalTrain serviced 12 million passengers last year.
The Capitol Corridor, which runs on the Union Pacific line from Sacramento to San Jose, carried a mere 1.5 million delighted passengers to work and back during the same period. It is operated by Amtrak, a bit of a throwback, if you will. It’s comfortable, there are table tops, electrical outlets, even a café car. And although it’s not the fastest way to get from A to B, it’s a whole lot better than sitting in traffic on Interstate 880, which is enough to make you want to jam an ice pick in your ear.
I get on the Capitol in the morning and ride down the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay to Santa Clara. My fellow Yahoos and I then pile into leased vans and drive the 3-4 miles to the main Yahoo! campus. In the evening, we meet at the same vans and head back to the train station. The 542 takes me back up the Bay and drops me a couple miles from my house, where I get into my car and make the short drive home.
The major drawback of taking the train, of course, is the speed. It takes me two hours door to door, each way. So if I take the train 5 days a week, every week, that would amount to a whopping 1000 hours of commuting time per year. That’s a lot of time to think about SEL columns! But just like search marketing, train commuting is a process that takes time, and there’s just no getting around it. Regardless of the time and work invested in both, I try to make sure it’s time well spent. As it is on the train, if I mix in a little telecommuting and a minimum of driving (sans ice pick), it’s pretty tolerable. Did I mention they serve cocktails in the café Car?
Upside: train traveling is a social network
One of the best things about riding the train, other than the obvious fact that I don’t have to hit the road, is the people. My aunt, who grew up in Connecticut, regales me with tales of her father, who commuted to New York City by train for 30 years. From her accounts, the friendships her father formed with his fellow commuters were much stronger than those he had with his co-workers. He changed jobs over the years, but continued to keep in touch with his commuting buddies well after he had retired. I can relate to that.
This is essentially my social network of follow commuters. I ride with people from a wide spectrum of talents – marketers, engineers, business owners - who by and large work in the tech industry in the Silicon Valley, so it’s a great way to keep up not only with what’s going on in my industry, but also with the tech sector on the whole. Plus, there’s something about sharing your commute to and from work with others that builds deep relationships. I think it’s several factors. First of all, there’s just the amount of time spent together that give you a wide range of topics to ponder and discuss. Second, you never know what’s going to happen once you’re on the rail, and sharing those (sometimes harrowing) experiences deepens bonds between people.
No trespassing: rail blocks ahead
Sometimes people think it’s funny to leave bicycles and shopping carts on the tracks for the train to run over them. While I don’t share that sentiment, these incidents aren’t so bad because if there’s no damage to the train, the conductors can get us going again in 10-20 minutes. The real problem is trespassers. Trespassers are people who end up on the tracks in front of a speeding train.
Most of the time, trespassing is an intentional and final act of a desperate and often depressed individual, but not always. Apparently, it’s quite challenging to estimate the distance and closing speed of a moving train, because some people still try to cross the train tracks in front of us. Some are on their way to school, others play chicken. One unfortunate lady was dragged into the path of an oncoming train several weeks ago by her large dog, which she was walking at the time. Note to self: Don’t walk the dog near the tracks.
As you can imagine, when a trespasser incident occurs, aside from the obvious tragedy (not to mention the trauma caused to the train engineer), the ensuing 2-3 hour delay waiting for the police and coroner to finish their work gives me plenty of time to question the wisdom of rail travel (see Cocktails, above). It’s good to remember that in train commuting, just as in direct marketing, strange things can happen that bring with them unforeseen consequences, and you have to be ready to adjust your strategy on the fly. If it’s not a trespasser on the tracks, it could be a drop in conversion rate or a change in a ranking algorithm that send your results skewing sideways. You just have to roll with the punches and adapt quickly.
How much longer?
Some informal observation tells me that the average shelf life of a train commuter in the Bay Area is about two and a half years (although one guy on my train has been at it over 15 years!). At that point, commuters generally either get another job closer to home, or come to their senses and move closer to work. I’ve been taking the train for three years and change, and although I can’t see myself either changing my job or moving my home in the immediate future, I can’t help but wonder: how long will I last as a rail commuter?
I’ve managed to stick with search marketing as long as I have largely because I truly believe that the majority of online marketing will be managed in a similar fashion to search in the coming years, and that puts me, professionally, in a very good place. So I imagine I’ll be sticking with train commuting, and search marketing, for some time to come.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.