Monday, June 29, 2015

Can Google help prevent accidents at grade crossings?

After a sharp increase in the number of rail crossing accidents last year, the Federal Railroad Administration plans to announce a new partnership with Google on Monday to provide the locations of all grade crossings in the company’s popular map application.

Google has agreed to include information from the United States Department of Transportation’s vast database to pinpoint every rail crossing in the country in Google Maps. Google will also add audio and visual alerts to the app for when drivers use the turn-by-turn navigation feature.
Yes, please.  Anything to help.  And meanwhile, respect the train!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Yes, we're still here

YEs, we're still taking the train every day on the Power Commute to Irvine or Los Angeles.  Much of our conversation and photo-taking has moved over to Twitter. Call it the curse of the smart phone.

It's been a bad week for Amtrak this week, with three fatalities in the LOSSAN corridor.  (2 in one day, on Wednesday).  We don't know the situation with all of them, although apparently one of the ones on Wednesday was a guy wearing headphones and filming near the tracks.

That one cleared in a couple of hours, but the 2nd one, near San Clemente,  took nearly 5 hours to clear.  Lots of trains were canceled and there were rolling delays.  Although Metrolink ran a bus bridge between Laguna and Oceanside, that doesn't help us Amtrak commuters;  cab fare from Oceanside to Solana Beach is around $50.  So it was time to get a Stone beer from the bar and read the news on line.

And our poor Amtrak crews-- what a brutal week for them.  Regular commuters know our conductors and LSAs and some people even get to know the engineers.  Trespassing incidents are tough on our crews.

People:  if you see tracks, there are trains.  They are big, they are fast, and they are surprisingly quiet.

Just respect the rail.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Amtrak's Summer Curse

One of my fellow commuters refers to the frequent Friday delays on Pacific Surfliner 784 as the #FridayCurse.  Probably it's the effect of people using the train for the weekend.   

But what's the excuse for the summer delays?

Last week on Tuesday, Northbound Surfliner 565 had to hook up to a disabled Coaster train and push it out of the way.  This required edging up to the Coaster almost delicately, connecting the couplers, and then all the power and air hoses.  The pressure gets tested and then we pushed.  Eventually we got it to doubletrack where we could disconnect, back up, and go around it.  Score that for an hour+ late into LA.

That afternoon it happened again.  Southbound Surfliner 582 had a long stop near the freight yard in east LA, while the engineer "replaced the lights on the engine."  Apparently that didn't work, so we had to limp slowly downline.  Apparently a lightless locomotive can't go through a crossing in the daylight at any faster than 20mph or something.  After San Juan Capistrano, we pulled aside at the woodpile, and waited for the next Amtrak, 784, to come past, back up, and tow us to San Diego.  I was about 2.5 hours late on that leg. So last Tuesday was really bad.

Every train I took last week was late to some extent, and it didn't get fixed this week.  On Tuesday, I left early and caught train 580, the 3.00 departure from LA.  At the woodpile, we stopped.  And waited.  Once the Northbound train passed, I figured we would get moving....but no, we waited.  And then a southbound metrolink PASSED us.  And still we waited.  We waited OVER AN HOUR at the woodpile, so we were 90+ minutes late getting home.

Last night it was almost a relief that 580 was only 30 minutes late.

What's going on?  I'm calling it #AMtrakSummerCurse

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A visit to the National Railway Museum in York. UK

Everything a train fan wants, including the bright blue Mallard, holder of the speed record for steam;  a range of historic locomotives, and a fascinating selection of passenger coaches.  And lessons in how to run a railroad, including the levers that manually control switches in some more remote parts of the country.  (Mainline switching is all automated as you would expect).

Monday, May 5, 2014

Intercity rail travel in the UK

East Coast express at Kings Cross
Recently we traveled to England, where we took three trains.  British Rail was broken up a few years ago, and regionally based companies compete (back to the days of the GWR....).   Back in the days of British Rail (when I lived in the UK in the early 90s), they were notorious for delays and problems and creative excuses.   But things have definitely gotten better.  The stations have been thoroughly modernized, and everything was quite efficient.

We traveled from London to York (East Coast Rail), York to Liverpool (Trans-Pennine Express), and Liverpool to London (Virgin Rail).

First, ticket booking:  I could book all the travel through one site (, reserve seats, and collect all my tickets at once through a machine at the first station.  This was great, since it meant I didn't have to worry about collecting tickets for each journey separately.  Advance booking saved money, as travel is quite expensive in the UK and last minute unreserved adds up.  There is also first class travel if you want to spend more. (We didn't.)  And, of course slow trains, or those that connect, will cost less than those that are express and call only at a few major stops.

You absolutely MUST know what time your train is scheduled to depart (and what company runs it) as there are no train numbers:  simply "the 9.52 East Coast departure to Edinburgh is on track 8".  If you are getting off at an intervening stop, you have to look at the list of stations on the board, to see if yours is there.  And remember, there may be a 9.57 train to Durham, which also calls at York--so you really need to know that your booking is for 9.52, not 9.57.

All our trains were on time.  The two intercity trains (London to York, and Liverpool to London)  were modern, single level trains, somewhat cramped inside.  There were little cardboard tabs in the seats if they were reserved, and these said where they were reserved TO.  For example, ours said "reserved to York".  Seats are reminiscent of the new, thin seats on Southwest Airlines.  An attendant pushed through a trolley with snacks on it, and there was a cafe car.    Luggage space was extremely limited;  our coach ran out quickly and people had to walk back to the baggage car (11 or 12 cars back!) to put their cases in.

Narrow inside
The train to Liverpool (trans-Pennine express) was a small train almost like a light rail train.  We didn't see any toilets on board, and it stopped in all sorts of places.  The trans-Pennine part went through long tunnels, so the view was disappointing.

The Virgin train back down to London was similar to the north bound train.

So how does Amtrak stack up, at least the Surfliner?  Our trains are big and the seats are better, but the ride is harsh and rocky (and let's not even mention the hideous Amfleets). We do have better beer and outgoing, often quirky LSAs and conductors.  The British crew are, well, British.  The Surfliner, capable of >100mph, does not reach anything like full speed.  Not so across the pond: our trip from London to York was about 175 miles, and we did it in under 2 hours, making 2-3 stops on the way. My Surfliner from SOL to LAX is 120 miles, and takes over 2 hours. Of course, the mainline routes we were on in the UK do not have single track, so we never waiting "in the hole".

Sleek looking locomotive
Now, of course it's not perfect.  We happened to be lucky with no delays, or problems. But overall, you can tell the difference of a country that puts investment into passenger rail and one that doesn't.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Happy Birthday LA Union Station! (photos)

Celebrating 75 years this year, LA Union Station is getting a cosmetic makeover.

They've moved the arrivals/departures board into two boards in the lounge,

The big board is gone, new lighting and detail 

At last, modern board!

The plyboard that blocked the old ticket hall has been removed so you can see it and all its detail

Love the old ticket hall, which features in movies!
The only weird thing is that they have compressed all the seating into half of the departure hall, and cordoned it off with a guard to watch -- you have to have an Amtrak or Metrolink ticket departing in 2 hours to sit down now. NOt sure what they plan to do with all the open space.
Departures.  Seating on the left, lots of space on the right

And wouldn't it be cool if that old art deco restaurant across the courtyard could reopen.  Meanwhile Traxx restaurant is doing well-- I had dinner there a few weeks ago, and it was quite good!

The view from the bar to the unused restaurant

The old Harvey restaurant is across a small courtyard from the Bar.  Taken through the glass.  Read more here!

never noticed the detail over the door to the bar

The tunnel has been improved with paint, bright photographs and new platform signs in Art Deco font. And there are finally meaningful departure boards for EACH track, plus much better direction signage to the transit plaza, buses, main  station, Metro etc.

Tunnel is all spiffed up

Most of the platforms ahve new signage (except for platform 6, tracks 11-12)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Writer in residence on a train?

This is cool.
What an appealing idea: US rail company Amtrak has begun offering writers residencies on trains, after the author Alexander Chee expressed a wistful longing to write on trains in a recent interview. The writer Jessica Gross tweeted her approval, “because it would allow for uninterrupted creativity and window-gazing”, and Amtrak picked up on the idea; Gross has now travelled to Chicago and back, writing about her journey for the Paris Review, and Chee is due to take his own journey later this year. More trips – free, or as low-cost as possible – will follow, Amtrak told The Wire. The eventual goal, said Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak, is to “engage with writers several times a month”.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What's the future of the Southwest Chief?

The New York Times reports today that unless CO, KS, and NM contribute to track upgrades, the Southwest Chief may be no more.
Unless all three states pitch in, Amtrak says it will potentially drop nine small-town stations in favor of existing track in Texas and Oklahoma.

“The train is not viable as a business when it operates at a lower speed, because it ends up being slower than driving,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, adding that the company does not have the funding to pay for the upgrades on its own. 

The Southwest Chief, which runs in both directions once a day, needs to reach 79 miles per hour wherever possible to make its scheduled stops on time, Mr. Magliari said. If old track is not replaced soon, he added, the train will have to travel at slower speeds for longer distances.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Stay off the tracks!

I'm sitting on the 565 this morning, delayed as we make all the Metrolink stops to LA.  Seems a bicyclist went around a crossing gate in Norwalk and was hit by a Metrolink train.  Back in November, 565 hit a woman who ducked under a crossing gate in Anaheim (fortunately I was not on the train....i've been spared that experience so far).  Last Friday, a man chasing a runaway dog was killed by a train in Del Mar.  (The dog was unhurt.)

People:  you have got to stay off the tracks.  The gates don't go/stay  down unless there is a train coming.  on this busy corridor, just because one train has passed doesn't mean another isn't coming. If they are down, obey them!  Just stay away!  Trains are surprisingly silent, and they travel very quickly.
These are such tragedies, and so preventable.

Though it is true that the Del Mar crossing is very dangerous.  The train comes off a blind curve and cuts RIGHT across the narrow, busy coast boulevard, full of pedestrians.  People don't want to wait for the gate, but don't realize that the train comes so fast and silently around the curve. I don't see how (other than complete realignment of the tracks, to who-knows-where) you can make that a safe crossing.

Running on the bluffs or hiking in the Rose canyon in the San Diego corridor, one sometimes needs to cross the tracks. I admit, I do this on occasion;  there's no proper crossing where the trails go over the tracks, so one has to jaywalk.  I always choose a place where I can see as far as possible in both directions.  I stop.  I look at the nearest signals (they will be lit if there is a train nearby).  I look up and down the tracks.  I listen (the tracks will start to hum even when the train is quite a ways away). And I get across the tracks as quickly as I possibly can.

We can live easily with trains.  It just takes some respect--and some common sense.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Metro-North crash and the push-pull argument

The tragic crash of the New York Metro-North train, which derailed coming into a sharp curve last weekend and killed 4 passengers, is likely to renew concern about the push-pull system.  The train was cab-car forward, with the engine at the rear.  It looked from the photographs like a Gennie, which is the GE-Genesis model used by Amtrak on its long-distance lines (and different from our usual Pacsurfliner F59s).

In discussions with non-train-riding friends on line, I had to explain that no, the engineer is not in the locomotive facing backwards when it is pushing.  People find it scary to think there's no one in the locomotive, but I reminded them that when they see a big freight with 4 engines, the followers aren't staffed either.

I also had to explain that trains live in a one-dimensional world, and can't simply turn around.  Instead, they must find a wye and jockey back and forth to reverse direction.  This isn't very practical for most commuter runs, a complication compounded by "stub" stations like LA Union, which dead-end in one direction.

Why did the Metro North train enter a sharp 30mph curve at 82mph?  The news today suggests that the engineer had dozed off.  I thought the throttle used a "dead man's hand" system, where a loss of tension would slow it down;  if it does, the engineer didn't loosen his grip while he dozed.  By all accounts he was a solid engineer.  It's a tragedy however it happened, and our thoughts are with the injured and mourning.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The haunting of 763: the Curse of the Coaster?

It's Halloween, so appropriate to talk about curses.  The last few weeks have been tough on the 763 (the first northbound departure of the day from San Diego), with frequent delays.  This Tuesday it was 40m late, and then on Weds it was annulled completely, having broken down south of Sorrento Valley.  The grumpy passengers were accommodated on the next train, 565.

Alas, it was an Amfleet day (the loathed single-level Amfleet set is on a rotation that puts it on the 565 every other day), which adds considerable delays as the doors must be manually opened and the stairs folded down.  By the time 565 lumbered into LA, it was over 20 min late itself, which added insult to injury, making the 763 passengers almost 1.5h late into Los Angeles.

Normally the 763 goes up to Goleta, and turns to come back down as the 784.  One of the regulars who tweets train stuff (@Twitamtrak) suggests that the real curse is on the 784.  As I've complained, 784 is now making coaster stops between OSD and SAN, which @Twitamtrak points out, involves anything from 0-3 people getting on or off the train, but makes the 784 20 minutes later into SOL than it used to be back in the good old days.  Maybe the 763 is breaking down because it doesn't want to come back as the 784 and do the Coaster stops.

More likely, the 763 is breaking down because all these trains and their locomotives are tired, and need proper investment.  The commuter-time trains are pretty heavily used, particularly 763, 582, and 784, although @Twitamtrak thinks there are fewer people in the Solana Beach parking lot now.  Are they driving up to Oceanside to pick up the Metrolink?  It's a cheaper ticket.  Or maybe just getting off the Amtrak there.  After all, you can drive from OSD to SOL in less time than the 784 takes to make the run, with those extra stops.

Monday, September 30, 2013

How can you add three stops and no time? #nonctd

I've argued strongly that having Amtrak make Coaster stops in San Diego is a Bad Idea.    It is a feat of astounding stupidity to have several Amtrak trains including the commuter-heavy 784 making Coaster stops, adding three stops (Carlsbad Village, Poinsettia, and Encinitas) between Oceanside and Solana Beach.

Let's have a little thought game, shall we?

How long does it take to get from OSD to SOL? And does the fact of making intermediate stops make a difference?

Let's look at some schedules.
Friday night coaster 664 dep OSD 6.35 arr Sol 7.02   (27 min)
Amtrak 580 dep OSD 556  arr Sol 612  (16 min)
Fri night Amtrak  784 deep OSD 7.03   arr Sol 7.25 (22 min)

The  scheduled arrival time of the 784 in SOL  is 7.25pm. If we look at its arrival time over the last few weeks,  it's getting there right around 7.25, and on occasion, even a few minutes early.  So, the schedule is pretty accurate.

9/30 7.26
9/27 7.28
9/25 7.27
9/24 7.24
9/23 7.24
9/20 7.23
9/19 7.22
9/18  7.28

BUT here's the thing.  The schedule actually includes the stops, even though the 784 is not making them right now.  So, WITHOUT stopping, 784 gets to SOL at the scheduled time of 7.25.  Do you really believe it can slow down and stop 3 times  between OSD and SOL and still get to SOL at 7.25?   I'm thinking not, but time will tell.

Expect some hot-under-the-collar commuters from LA and the OC, when they find their long day is even longer, thanks to the Coaster.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Station to Station: the train

So, often I see private train cars in Union Station, usually hooked onto the end of a long-distance Amtrak.  I've been taking photos with the intent of doing a piece here on the Surfliner Stories blog.  Imagine my surprise today to find a consist with two Gennies, entirely made up of classic cars!

From The Huffpo  
Turns out it is an "Art Happening" called Station to Station, which explains why the only people I saw around it were cool hipster types.  I don't think I'm cool enough.  In fact, I know I'm not, because I was much more interested in taking pictures of the train cars.

Originally, the artist Doug Aitken whose idea this is, wanted the train to look something like the picture at the right.  Yeah, well, I guess that didn't work out.

Instead, they are using a consist made up of private train cars, mostly classics.  They have a description of most of them on their web page that includes a lot of interior pictures.  Quite a few of these cars are from the old Hiawatha service of the "Milwaukee Road", which was a famous streamliner-style passenger train.

They ARE pretty neat. Here are a few pictures:

Lambert's Point is a luxury sleeper/lounge car dates from 1914, and
has carried many famous political candidates on their "whistle stop" train tours. 

See those 3 rows of sparkly dots along the side?   Those are color changing LEDs
that are flicking on and off. MOst of the cars had them.  I guess this is part of the art.  

Nice dome.  Apparently this is the dining car;  downstairs is the kitchen. 

This is the classic "Skytop" lounge car, built in 1948.

Another view of the Skytop. Looks oddly modern in a retro way.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Another specialty paint job: Amtrak 42, honoring veterans

Here is locomotive 42, which is painted in a specialty scheme to honor veterans (more info here).  It was sitting at the Middle Track of Indignity at LAUS on Weds, which is where they tend to drop off mis-behaving locomotives.  I don't know if it was misbehaving, but an F59 hooked up to it right as I took these pictures, and took it back to the yard.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Updated: The Surfliner is not the Coaster: #noNCTD

I am reposting this from last spring, because apparently they are actually going to do this starting in October.  As I said then, this is a TERRIBLE idea.  The 784 can seldom make its schedule as it is, and now they think they can throw in 3 extra stops between Oceanside and Solana Beach without affecting anyone?  784 is a commuter-heavy train, and as I said previously, if I can drive between OSD and SOL faster than Amtrak will do it, why shouldn't I just get a (cheaper) Metrolink monthly and leave from OSD?

With the new Amtrak schedules, we regular Surfliner commuters were shocked to learn that there's a plan to have some Pacific Surfliner trains make Coaster stops, particularly the heavily used, commuter-popular 784 (the 5.10pm departure from LA south), and the later trains.

The Surfliner is an inter-city service that carries many long-distance commuters in the San Diego-Los Angeles corridor (known as LOSSAN).  The Coaster is a local commuter train that effectively stops at every lamp post, like a dog.  As we sang to the children when they were young, "one of these things is not like the other...."

If you are going all the way to downtown, you will be arriving at least 15 minutes later.Normally, it takes 13min to go from OSD to SOL on the Surfliner.  Now, it will be more than 20.  I can drive between those stations in less than that time.

The RailPac blog has a letter to Caltrans about this.  Among the points they make:
Eliminating the opportunity to regain lost time by adding 4 stops on certain trains can only result in reduced reliability and worsening of the consequences of an incident on the line.
There is also lost revenue--from the cost of stopping and starting a train,and  mis-estimates of passenger usage:  that is, will there be enough Coaster butts on seats to cover the costs and inconvenience?  And this:
Study after study both within the USA and overseas has demonstrated the correlation between improved speed and patronage. This proposal reduces speed and decreases reliability and punctuality, and will drive away the business and end point to end point passenger.
That would be me, and a lot of my fellow commuters.  If we can drive up to OSD in less time than the Amtrak will cover the distance, well....let's be honest, Metrolink passes are cheaper.

And as a CA taxpayer, should you be funding local service?
The rolling stock and locomotives for the Surfliner were purchased with funds both from the federal government and voter approved bonds for intercity service. This is also true of the cars ordered under proposition 1B to be delivered in the next few years. This new rolling stock is specified to operate at up to 125mph, with business and café cars. Both the existing and new build cars are neither designed nor appropriate for multiple stop commuter service. It could be argued that this proposal represents a misuse and possible illegal diversion of funds from state intercity service to a local commuter agency.
Here's how they finish their letter, and I think they are right.
What the Surfliner service needs is a long period of punctual, reliable service, together with low cost route and station specific advertising to maximize high fare patronage. This needs to be followed by continued incremental improvements that reduce journey times. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people who have tried the Surfliner once but don’t want to go again is the number of stops and the overall journey time. We must hold the line and not permit any further deterioration in the competitiveness of the product.
When they open up the Surfliner in Pendleton and it cruises by the traffic on I-5 faster than any driver--well, that's what will bring people to the train.  But you can't move at speed if you keep stopping (a lesson for the HSR folks, but that's for another blog).

People also critique the plan at this discussion board.

If you have an opinion on this, let CalTrans know.  Really, it's worth printing out a letter and faxing it or mailing it!  Here's the address:
Mr. William D. Bronte,
Chief, Division of Rail
Department of Transportation
1120 N Street MS 74
Sacramento, CA 95814