Tips for bicycle security on Caltrain

After the recent theft of my bike off of Caltrain, I started thinking a little more about bicycle security on the bike cars.  I come from an InfoSec background, and a large part of being successful in that field involves understanding how “the bad guys” go about their attacks.  I starting thinking about the bike cars with the same frame of mind and started to think about how I would steal a bike from the train if I so desired.  The argument here is that, the more potential theft gambits I know of, the better equipped I will be to defend against those thefts.

Now I know that some of you will be thinking “But Ross – you’re just telling the thieves how to do it!”  It is a common statement, and open to some debate.  On the one side are those that believe that publishing information about how to engage in a particular harmful act (breaking into a computer system, stealing a bike, whatever) only serves to make the criminals more efficient.  On the other side of the argument there are those that maintain that the criminals can come up with this stuff on their own, and our ignorance of these techniques only makes us more likely to be victimized.  Obviously I belong to the second group.

I’ll also offer some of my own suggestions on how to help mitigate the risk of getting your bike stolen from you.

I’ll start off with an examination of how the perpetrator was able to get away with my bike, which was less than 15-20 feet away and in plain sight, without me even being aware it had happened.  This scenario is put together with bits and pieces of information I got from the conductor and other passengers at the time.

The “plenty of time, grab-n-go” theft

The prerequisite for this theft involves a location where the train is sitting idle for long periods of time.  Specifically, this takes place at either San Francisco 4th & King for southbound trains, and San Jose for northbound trains.  Our victim boards and places his bike against one of the racks.  He then goes to his seat – turning his back on the bike by necessity.  Furthermore, most of us will be slightly distracted as we sit down – pulling laptops out of our bags, eating the Subway sandwich you just purchased in the station, whatever.  All of these provide moments of opportunity for our thief to notice your inattention, grab your bike from the rack and head out the door.  As soon as they hit the platform, they can jump on the bike and be out of the station to the street – probably faster than you can even get out of your seat and out the door, alert the conductor, or whatever.  If you happen to be sitting on the top level of one of the older cars, your path out the door after the thief is even further hindered.

The “pretend to be a regular commuter” theft

This method is probably more effective on crowded trains, and again may benefit from being carried out before leaving either the SF or SJ stations.  People standing around, shuffling bikes can often block your view of your bike from your seat, further setting the stage for our thief.  In this situation, our victim is already on the train with their bike in the racks.  Our thief boards with a bike of his own (crappy and disposable, we would assume) and loiters near the doors.  When the thief feels the time is right, she will approach the rack where our victim’s bike is and remove it from the rack – acting as if she is simply putting her bike behind the victim’s.  This is not an unusual occurrence on Caltrain as folks organize the bikes to ensure that those getting off first don’t have to move other bikes out of the way.  But already our thief has the upper hand.  Perhaps she already kn0ws this is your bike and as casually checking to see if you are watching.  Even if not, though, she’s already got the bike in her hands and gained an advantage.  Time this (by fumbling around, whatever) and you can actually spring towards the door as soon as the chime and “Caution, the doors are about to close” announcement comes on.  Our thief is out the door and, even if our victim is fast enough to catch her, the doors are already closed and the train is beginning to move out of the station.  Sorry – you’re bike is gone.

Protecting yourself

Caltrain doesn’t allow you to lock your bikes to the racks – for understandable reasons.  However, there are some things that you can do to help alleviate the threat – most of which result in making your bike appear as a more difficult target:

  • While you can’t lock your bike to the train (or other bikes) you can lock your bike to itself.  Put your UBolt or chain through one or both rims and through the frame.  This eliminates the possibility of a riding getaway, and may actually fool more ignorant or less observant thieves into thinking the bike actually is locked to the rack.
  • Remove the saddle and take it with you.  Or – another approach is to turn the saddle around backwards.  Again – hindering the quick ride away.
  • Place your bike in the racks farthest from the door.  Truth be told, however, mine was in the fourth rack from the door of one of the older style train cars.  Still, bikes close to the door sure feel like easier targets.
  • Watch your bike very very carefully until someone else places there bike on top of yours.  You might want to notice where that “outside” bike is going, too, so that you can pay attention at that stop.
  • Sit as close to your bike as possible.  Hell, maybe just stand next to it depending on the length of your commute.
  • Take removable stuff like cycling computers and lights with you to your seat.  Yes – these can get stolen too, and are a lot harder for you to notice when it is happening.

Basically, though, there is one thing that protects you more than anything else you can do – watch your bike! Certainly no one is going to stare at their bike non-stop through their entire trip.  However, if you are vigilant at all of the station stops you can go a long way towards protecting your bike.  Clearly no one is getting away with your bike on a moving train!

Hope this helps others somehow avoid my fate.  Cheers, happy cycling and may all of your bikes arrive at the station with you!


  1. Melissa says:

    Good stuff it’s too bad that your bike was stolen before you posted this :(

  2. Yokota Fritz says:

    Timely: I’ve seen a number of “bike stolen from Caltrain” tweets over the past couple of weeks. My trains are usually the gallery (“old style”) cars; I generally sit up high and opposite my bike where I have a good view of the bike.

  3. koko says:

    it would be unfortunate to have to resort to this:

    how about unhooking the brakes? an old trick, may not prevent the theft, but can deliver extreme pain to the perpetrator on a getaway.

  4. Mike says:

    I think part of the attraction to thieves is bikers needing to sit in other cars because of a lack of seating in the bike car. Please contact Caltrain to let them know that this isn’t acceptable and that cyclists should be given preference for seats in the bike cars.

  5. nick says:

    Many people commute to work or school by bike and have to leave their bike attended when not in use. I think few simple steps can help to minimise risk.

    Always use a bicycle lock when not in use, even if unattended for just a few minutes. Ensure the lock is placed through the frame and the wheels.
    Leave the bike in a well-lit open space where any thief may be noticed.
    Use a dedicated bike park if available or secure to an immovable object like a lamppost or railing.
    Expensive bikes are often stolen to order so aim to leave the bike in different locations to prevent being spotted. In addition, consider using an electronic tagging device as an added deterrent to potential thieves.
    Remove any small, easily stolen accessories like cycle computers, and also any part like a quick release saddle and even clipless pedals which would make the bike difficult to ride.

  6. mmw says:

    “Caltrain doesn’t allow you to lock your bikes to the racks – for understandable reasons. ”

    ok my 4000$ bike has been stolen a Menlo Park station 1 year ago by a douchebag, did they cover it? …. fuck you caltrain.

  7. mmw says:

    and mostly the day I catch the douchebag I won’t call the police, I will just lock him in a secure place. run Forest run.

  8. Gap services says:

    Following the success of the Datatool Python, we have introduced a portable version – strong enough to pass Thatcham’s strict attack tests but light enough to be portable for a rider wanting to protect their bike when they’re away from home.

    It’s 1.2 meters in length with 9.5mm case hardened links and coupled with the superb 10mm case hardened alloy steel lock.

    The portable python has all the outstanding features of the 1.5m Python, including a nylon-weave outer sleeve and Plasticoat cuffs to protect your wheels and paintwork. very useful

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