Friday, December 24, 2010

Some service restored

I noted that a number of people came to this blog by searching for news about the service outage. Amtrak's latest service update says that some service will be restored between Solana Beach and points north. There is still track repair in Sorrento Valley so nothing running between Solana Beach and San Diego. Call them at 800-USA-RAIL or check the twitter feed for updates.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

This service is cancelled

Due to the record rainfall in Southern California, today Amtrak service from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano was cancelled. There are floods along the line at Sorrento Valley , and mudslides in Encinitas and San Clemente Metrolink isn't running any further south than Laguna Niguel.

While Metrolink (commuter service in LA, Orange, and other counties but not San Diego) and the Coaster (San Diego commuter service) both have updates on their websites about schedules, and even twitter updates, there is no such luck from Amtrak's website. Check the train status, and it doesn't even say "Cancelled", just "this information is not available" which isn't very helpful. And a phone number.

Then, reading an article about the storm in the OC Register, I found out that Amtrak DOES have a twitter feed for the Surfliner. Note to Amtrak: it's not much use unless you tell us about it! Perhaps it's telling that the Coaster and Metrolink twitters are customized with their logos, and updated frequently. Amtrak's, not so much.

So, finally, I found out there's limited service between LA and San Juan Capistrano, and no alternatives provided. If you need to get between San Juan and San Diego county, you are out of luck.

And the status updates that Metrolink and Coaster put on their front page? The Coaster site says at the top that repairs of the flooded track will take until Christmas weekend (4 days, anyway). It took till after 7pm my time for the main Amtrak webpage to post ANY status update up top--and trains have been cancelled since 6am. On the Amtrak California site, there's no indication of trouble. No, you have to click on a link in a 6pt font for "news" at the bottom of the page. It's not in one of the main menu buttons. NOT helpful, guys.

Amtrak has a real problem with communicating with the customers. Surely it can take a lesson off of Metrolink and Coaster and keep the websites up to date.

Regardless, I'm sure glad I decided to stay home today and telecommute, and that I can telecommute tomorrow too.

Amtrak: get it together, would you? You can't help the weather but you can sure do a better job letting us know what's going on.

Photo from San Diego Union Tribune.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Where's my train?

When I travel, I almost never rent a car, but always take public transit, often rail or light rail, and often in countries where I don't speak the language. I pity those who come to the US and don't speak the language. It's difficult to figure out where your train is, particularly in LA Union Station, and particularly for Amtrak.

Union Station is a wonderful old art deco building (I'll blog about that later) that accesses the platforms via a long tunnel. The individual tracks are reached by ramps or stairs, two tracks per platform. So to find your train, you need to know which track it is on so you go up on the correct platform. If you're on the wrong platform, you have to go back downstairs to the tunnel to go up to the correct one.

Like most stations, LA Union has a big train board in it that lists the trains and their tracks. And, in the tunnels, there are lighted signs at the base of the ramps, that tell you which train is coming next at that platform. IF, that is, your train is a Metrolink. If you ride Amtrak, the signs say "Welcome to Amtrak!" And if you enter the tunnel at the end opposite the main station building, where many busses and the metro come in, there is no big board to help. So you either walk ALL the way down to the station building, or peer up the ramp to see whether you can spot a train. And, if you have a tight connection from your bus or metro, you aren't going to have time to run all the way down the tunnel and back again.

Once on the platform, AMtrak has "crawler" signs that tell you what's coming and what's late (these tend to be more accurate than the Big Board in the main station, which often gets times wrong particularly if there are delays). But again, these are of limited use. They don't tell you a track number, and its the same sign for both the platforms Amtrak uses.

Say, for example, there are two Amtrak trains that arrive at the same time: one going North, the Santa Barbara on Track 10, and one going South, to San Diego on Track 12. Because LA is a dead end station, the trains all arrive and depart from the same direction. If you're running for the train, there is absolutely NO way to tell which train is which, if you don't already know the platform number. The regulars usually know which track a train comes in on, but if there's a delay, that isn't reliable. The loudspeakers on the platform are useless; you can't hear them over the noise of the train's ventilation and mechanical systems.

Amtrak doesn't have a problem with this because they like everyone to line up in the station, and wait for the track to be posted on the Big Board. But the station is noisy and crowded, and many people don't come in that way.

Solution? Activate the signs in the tunnel with accurate information. I really don't understand why they can't do this. It works for Metrolink.

You'd think it would be easier if you are at one of the downline stations, where you can at least tell which direction a train is going. And as long as you know an Amtrak from a Metrolink or a Coaster. But if you are a newbie, you might be unsure which train to take when it arrives at the platform. At least the Metrolink puts their destination on a sign in the train windows. Not so Amtrak. Most stations do have the crawler signs, but they aren't always working.

So, next time you get on a train, unless you are certain where it is going, ASK someone. It would be a real bummer to end up in Burbank when you wanted to go to Irvine.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Do I stay or do I go?

There was a mechanical the other day on the northbound surfliner from San Diego, that led to two trains being yoked together, basically "deadheading" the broken engine up to LA. Once they made it to LA, they split the transets again, but it was start of the evening commute , and there was much pushing and pulling and delay due to incoming traffic before they got the trainset that was supposed to be #582 (southbound, 4.10 departure) re-installed on a platform. Then they had to go push the engines around to replace the one that wasn't working.

Trains live in a one dimensional world that is bound by the track. You can't just jump from one track to another; you have to back up past a switch, then come forward and switch onto the new track, drop off whatever you are dropping off, then back up and repeat . By the time they got the trainset dropped off ( at the far end of platform 11, squeezed in front of another train), and the old engine deposited in dishonor on the center spur, and the new engine attached to the trainset, it was 4.50; the conductors (as frustrated as everyone else on the hot platform) making hand signals to the engineer as they tried to get the air system hooked up and the power going.

Right on time, the southbound train #784 from Santa Barbara arrived, which leaves LA at 5.10 to continue downline. My conundrum: do I continue to wait for #582, which isn't likely to leave much before 5.10 itself, or do I trot over to another platform and get on #775? The conductors shrugged; "we haven't even air-ested it yet," one said (air pressure provides brakes), and there were no lights on in the cars. "You make your decision," commented the head conductor. (She's like that, she never states an opinion on such things.)

At 4.55, I decided to cut and run, betting on the 5.10 train being the first to go. My logic was also based on experience that a train out of its slot picks up more delays as it goes, so I figured it would drop further behind. Of course lots of other people made the same bet, so the 5.10 train was Standing Room Only by the time it left LA, 9 minutes late. And as I looked out the window, I saw that the other track was clear: #582 HAD left before #784, and because tracks are one-dimensional, it would beat us home after all. Sigh. (Although it only left 10 minutes ahead of me).

Given the experience that mine is always the longest line in the supermarket, I just know that if I'd bet on #582, it would have taken another hour to leave LA.

The train is great when it works, but when it doesn't, it's a real pain.

Picture from Trainweb

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Missing your stop is not an emergency

I like to say that if you ride the train enough you will experience everything. A while back on my evening commute home, the train started to pull out of Oceanside station and then there was a loud WHOOSH sound and it stopped immediately. After a minute the conductor came on, and said in an annoyed voice.

"Ladies and gentlemen, pulling the emergency brake without an emergency is a felony and you will be removed by the police. Missing your stop is not an emergency."

We all looked around, wondering what sort of idiot pulls the emergency brake. The conductors, exasperated, walked through the train looking at each emergency handle for the one that had been pulled, so they could close it again. The emergency brake releases a valve that depressurizes the braking system, thus applying the brakes, so that the train cannot get going again until the valve is closed.

Of course, the errant handle was in the last car of the train. The conductors quizzed the passengers and got a description of the kid around 17 or 18 with a skateboard who panicked when he realized the doors had closed, and pulled the handle. They found him, and after what I hope was a stern talking to, they let him off. I saw him jump on his skateboard and saucily swoop down the platform.

I thought that they should have kept him till the next station, at least, but as one conductor commented, by the time they got the police, and a report, we'd all be much later than we already were. So they cut their losses, and we rumbled home.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Coast Starlight (2): living on the train

As I told you a while ago, we took the Coast Starlight up to Portland, with a full train of about 600 passengers. In this post, I' ll tell you about the experience of living on a train.

The sleepers are at one end of the train, and the regular coach cars are at the other. In between the two are three community cars: the lounge car with the downstairs cafe, the dining car, and unique to the Coast Starlight, the Pacific Parlor car, reserved for sleeping car passengers. The Parlor car is an observation car. It has a bar, a limited food-service area, and a lounge area. Downstairs there is a little theatre and there is satellite internet.

After we boarded, the purser came by to explain the dining reservation system. Sleeper passengers have the option to reserve dining in the Pacific Parlor car, which we did most of the time. The food in both the dining car and the parlor car was okay--certainly much better than the downstairs cafe in the lounge car. Stops are often brief, although occasionally there is a longer stop, enough for the smokers to get off for a quick pull on a cigarette. There's no smoking on the train and the crew is stern with warnings about language and drinking alcohol (which is available in the lounge and parlor cars). I gather it can get a bit rowdy in the coach section. ;-) It's a bit like grownup summer camp.

Since this was a 30 hour overnight trip, we got a "roomette" style sleeper, the fare for which includes all meals. Ours was downstairs (which was nice, because there was less foot traffic passing by). Basically it is a little room with a sliding door for privacy, barely bigger than the two big seats facing each other, and a big window. There is a tiny sliver of a closet. There is NO room for luggage, so we put a few necessities in a tote bag and left our luggage on the rack by the main car door. ( We kept warning people getting on after us not to bother dragging their suitcases to the upstairs roomettes, but they did so anyway, meaning they just dragged them back down again.) Down the hall were three toilets, and a shower/dressing room, which was surprisingly spacious.

As well as the roomettes, there is one room designed for disabled passengers, which has its own toilet. There's also a "family room" with room for 4 or 5. There's a little lobby area where the luggage is stored, and the big exit doors. Upstairs, each car has more roomettes and another restroom, plus a couple of bedrooms with their own restroom/shower. There are no locks or keys on the roomettes, but then there's nowhere for a thief to go.

Each sleeper also has an attendant who occupies one of the roomettes. Ours was a great guy called Bob, who was a gracious and helpful host. He was very knowledgeable about the train, and the scenery, and we could tell he had a real love for the rail history. As night fell, Bob converted our roomette into two beds. The two seats slip down into each other to make a flat surface, and a bunk folds down overhead. On the bunk was an extra, made up mattress, which Bob deftly dropped onto the bottom bed. Once the beds are made up, there is literally no floor space: the roomette is no bigger than the bed. Whoever gets the top bunk has to climb up there, and fasten a safety net so they can't roll out; also it's above the window, so there's no view. The bunks would not work for old people, or anyone claustrophobic. Both bunk and bed are only big enough for one person. In the morning, Bob reversed the procedure, folded up the bunk above, and restored the seats to regular configuration.

We had a great time, although we found it physically confining. The train was early to several stops, though, and the crew was precise about how long we had so we could walk around. Would we do it again? Definitely, although anything longer than the trip we had would start to get a bit tedious. But we came home with a route map to take a look at other trains that we might take, with their evocative, historic names: Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, California Zephyr. And the historic Coast Starlight, definitely a ride to remember.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Suicide by train

Someone died early this morning on the rail line near Anaheim CA. He stepped into a crossing in front of a Metrolink commuter train around 6am, stretched out his arms and waited for the train to hit him. The engineer couldn't stop in time.

Nearly 100 miles away, when I was getting on the first northbound Amtrak of the day, I read a message crawling across the information sign that the first southbound service was delayed due to a "passenger train trespassing incident". I didn't really think much about it; it wasn't my train, it was miles away. Maybe someone had gotten obstreperous with the conductor, or someone had been seen along the track. It didn't even cross my mind that those words were railway code for a fatality.

But as we left Oceanside at 7am, the man behind me got a call on his cellphone. "Well, then I'm screwed," he said, sounding annoyed. Then I got a call from a colleague who takes Metrolink from Irvine, the midway point. He told me that both lines, southbound and northbound, were blocked north of Anaheim. My colleague expected a prolonged delay, so he turned around and went home to telecommute. The man behind me said his caller told him authorities were waiting for the coroner up in Anaheim.

No one had any internet (or thought to use it). There is internet on some trains, but the low speed connection is spotty and unreliable even if you sit on top of it. I don't have a mobile wireless plan so I'm blind on the train, with my only resource scavenging off any open networks I find with my laptop as we stop in the stations. The little FM radio on my iPod nano couldn't pick up any news stations --coastal Orange County is a notorious dead zone for public radio (figures). And at some level, what did it matter what happened? All that mattered was what Amtrak was going to do about it, and in regrettably typical Amtrak fashion, they said absolutely nothing at all.

For me, by the time I learned this, choices were few. If the lines were closed, there would be no southbound Amtrak back to San Diego: they'd all be stuck north of Anaheim. So even if I got off at an intermediate station, there's nothing to get on going south, at least nothing that would go all the way. And I'm sitting on the first northbound train, so there's no Amtrak ahead of me to be turned around. Besides, I had meetings in LA today. So I sat it out, and my train kept going north.

The lines reopened after about 3 hours, after the business of death swarmed around the tracks: policemen with yellow tape, railway workers in hard hats, the cleanup crew with bins and tarps. Once north of Anaheim, my train inched its way along with frequent long, sighing stops. Even so, we got to LA with only a 45 minute delay. Much faster than usual, said my Irvine colleague, who has more grim experience than I.

This is the 2nd death that I know of on the LA-San Diego corridor this summer; in June, a man was killed by an overnight freight train near San Clemente under rather creepy circumstances (at 2am, it appears that a group of teenagers watched him get hit). Other lines in the region have also had a number of deaths; sometimes suicide, sometimes stupidity (like walking along the line, or trying to beat the gates). They are depressingly common. I wonder why anyone would choose such a horrible way to die.

I sorrow for the victim today who suffered such despair, and for his family. And I feel for the engineer, at the controls of his massive machine, who was made an unwilling accomplice and saw it all. I hope that help is available to him.

One of my other commute friends told me that in the 4 or 5 years she's been doing this trip, her train has killed 6 people, most of them suicides. I find that quite shocking. So I know that it is inevitable that one day I too will be an accomplice of sorts, a few hundred feet away from death, a passenger on a train that kills a person.

Photo: first train on the re-opened line Orange County Register

Cross posted at Friends of Jake, Surfliner Stories, Daily Kos, and StreetProphets

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Passengers and SRO

Once you settle into a regular commute pattern, you get to know the other commuters (at least by sight). They all congregate along the platform in regular spots, where experience tells them their favorite car will pull up. Some people make a beeline for the old Superliner car, preferring the big seats and low light and curtains. People tend to be quiet in that car (often dozing off). Others head for the cafe car for morning coffee, or an evening beer. (They have locally brewed beer from Stone on the Surfliner, including sometimes that premium ale, Arrogant Bastard). In the evenings, things can be loud and cheerful in the cafe. In the morning, there are teenagers in uniforms going one stop to a private school. And there's the guy who on Thursday afternoons leaving LA always has a bouquet of flowers for his wife.

Often the irregulars have a suitcase (there is a bus connection from LA Union Station to LAX airport). Around school holidays or weekends, college students in UC-Santa Barbara or Cal-Poly sweatshirts (and generally barefoot in flipflops, no matter how cold it is) drag their suitcases and pillows on board for the long ride up to Goleta or San Luis Obispo. I guess students from the many universities between San Diego and LA drive, because I seldom see them!

The occasional travelers can be recognized by their uncertain steps, compared to the purposeful strides of the regular commuters heading to their favorite seats. They look hesitant at the station, worried about getting on the wrong train. This is particularly true in Los Angeles, where there are numerous platforms. On the train, they look confused. Can I sit anywhere? Is this business class?

Business class is always the car next to the locomotive, and costs around $11 more than the regular, unreserved tickets. The seats are larger, with more room around them and more power outlets. In the morning they give you coffee and a newspaper; in the evening, a "snack pack" with cellophane crackers and a single-serving bottle of wine. Business class, which requires a reservation for a particular train, also guarantees a seat (the rest of the train can be Standing Room Only at times). The regulars seldom use it; multi -ride unreserved tickets are much cheaper and don't limit which train you take. Besides, the old superliner seats are just as big, and for $11 you can get better wine (or beer) from the cafe car. But during high season, especially Friday afternoons in the summer, it can be worth it.

When the train gets crowded, particularly on late afternoon trains, and particularly in the summer, the conductors make exasperated announcements asking people to move their things off the seats so everyone can sit down. "If it isn't warm and breathing, take it off the seat!" says one, scolding. Another says, matter of factly, "I will be happy to sell your laptop a full-price ticket. Otherwise, it can't have a seat." A third wheedles, "Who knows? you may meet your future ex-husband!" People getting on at downline stations wander forlornly through the train, looking for seats together. When there are no seats left, they sit on the stairs, or wedge themselves next to the luggage racks.

Normally people are friendly on trains, but I'm still surprised at the occasional rude person who sits in an aisle seat , drapes his things over the window seat, and glares if someone tries to slip past him into the window position. Regulars walk through searching for open seats by looking for the seat checks, the color-coded card that is tucked above the seat when the conductors take your ticket. One seat check generally means only one person is sitting there, so yes, that other seat is likely empty.

There's a camaraderie to rail travel. People swap stories, e.g., Do you remember that time there was a mechanical that lead to them hooking two trains together? Or that other time when the train hit a car? (people can be surprisingly stupid around trains.) Or when the rails were flooded south of Oceanside, and everyone got off and queued up to share taxis to the downline stations? With commute buddies and the regular conductors, the train becomes a little community, rolling along the California rails.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Gays on a Train!

I don't usually bring politics over here but....apparently Amtrak is putting some advertising dollars into GLBT media, and the anti-gay folks are outraged. (Never mind that travelling gays have dollars to spend, and isn't that what a company should pursue?)

Speaking as a GLBT person, who has met a number of GLBT people on the rails, this cracks me up. Hello? We're here too! I wonder if those conservatives ever wonder who is sitting next to them?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A trip on the Coast Starlight: part 1

Last week, we cashed in some of my Amtrak "guest rewards" miles and took a sleeper-roomette on the Coast Starlight to Portland. We left San Diego on the morning Surfliner, and connected in Los Angeles with train #14. In short, it was a blast. We had a wonderful time, loved the experience, and would do it again in a minute.

The Coast Starlight leaves from Los Angeles at 10.15am. The train was packed with about 600 passengers, so it was full. The consist included 3 revenue sleeper cars, the restored Pacific Parlor car, dining car and cafe lounge, and 4 superliner cars, one with a video arcade. It's a class system on the train with the sleeper car passengers staying upfront, and the coach passengers staying in the back. In my next post, I'll tell you more about the on-train experience. In this post, I'll tell you more about the trip itself. Click on any image for a closer view.

From LA, the Coast Starlight runs through the San Fernando Valley over to the coast, and up past Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. Through this part of the trip, there are spectacular ocean views, and beautiful vistas of the rolling golden hills.

There were lots of people getting on and off at most stops. Although it tracks with highway 101 here and there, most of the time the train goes through roadless regions, farmland, and vineyards. It turns in through Salinas, arriving in the Bay Area (Oakland and Emeryville) around 10pm. There was a big transition at that point with lots of people getting off (particularly those who had joined in the central coast/Santa Barbara stations) and those getting on.

At this point we climbed into our bunks to go to sleep, and we didn't register the late night/early morning stops in Sacramento, Chico, Redding or Dunsmuir. We woke at dawn, looking out at a very different landscape of conifers and steep hills. We saw the sunrise behind Mt Shasta, which was spectacular, and then on up through the cascade range picking off one snow capped volcano after another.

There were lots of tunnels in this section towards the Cascade Summit, and snowsheds as well. In one spectacular section we did a 180° into the Williamette valley.

Then it was through central Oregon, with rural farmlands and covered bridges, before the final stretch into Portland. We disembarked into the wonderful old Portland Union Station.

This train is popular, and not just with people willing to spend on the sleeper accommodation. There were lots of people riding in coach class, and for many it's the only practical way into smaller towns (like San Luis Obispo CA, or Eugene OR). I had thought that some of these long distance trains are a bit of an anachronism, but it's clear they aren't, and for every casual tourist couple like us, there are many people relying on them for access.

By the way, we were on time or early into every station--beats my poor Surfliner, which is plagued with traffic delays!

Next time: life on board the train.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Happy 10th anniversary, Pacific Surfliner!

It's the 10th anniversary of the Pacific Surfliner! It now averages over 2.5 million riders a year. As part of the celebration, they sponsored amazing 3-D sidewalk-murals at cities around CA. Check it out!

In addition, Amtrak California is working on new railcar design. See what you think.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Spring on the rails

I know it's not spring any more but this got caught in the queue.
I've often thought that the reason California is called the Golden State has nothing to do with 1849. Rather, I suggest it's because most of the year, the hillsides in this state are golden brown, reflecting our long dry summers. But for 6 weeks or so in the spring, the hills turn green and lush from the winter rains. March is the greenest month.

On the train from San Diego to Los Angeles, signs of spring are all around. But you can see spring most strikingly on the long stretch of track through the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton, the great expanse of open space that prevents San Diego from merging with Orange County. The hills somehow look softer in their green mantle.

The flowers are out, too. In the warm glow of early morning, the colors are partiicularly vivid. The brilliant orange dots of the clusters of California poppies, opening up as the sunlight hits them (they furl up at night). The lavender-blue of the stalks of lupine. The leggy mustard, with the balls of bright yellow flowers.

The story goes that the Spanish Franciscans marked their path from mission to mission by throwing mustard seed from the pockets of their habits. Now, it's everywhere, and it looks like someone scumbled patches of cadmium yellow paint across the hillsides with a brush.

Along the beach side, there are glimpses of muted yellow daisies, and purple sea lavender with its flat leaves like lapping tongues. New growth on the coastal sage has a grey-green color, giving it a silvery glow. There's a carpet of green grass underneath.

The visiting birds are still feeding in the lagoons in their dull winter plumage. The beaches are still victims of winter waves that hide the sand offshore, exposing patches of smooth beach stones like scars . But soon enough the birds will migrate north wearing brighter colors, and the summer rhythm of the waves will return the beach sand to cover the stony areas. And we will move through the dry season into fire season and into winter again, all framed by the windows of the train.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

White Pass and Yukon Railway

Skagway, Alaska is a tiny town at the top of Lynn Canal, that basically lives on cruiseships. It's the familiar boom-n-bust story of frontier living. Imagine it in the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, where miners offloaded their gear from crowded steamers at low tide, and then desperately dragged it ashore before the sea took it. They then painfully climbed the narrow paths up the mountain over White Pass, to eventually float down the Yukon to the gold fields at Dawson City.

Entrepreneurial spirit led to the construction of an impressive narrow-gauge railway, the White Pass and Yukon, to carry people and products over the mountains into British Columbia. In fact for years after the Klondike, it was container and freight company. The railway fell onto hard times but was reborn for the tourist trade and now you can take a ride on the spectacular railway up several thousand feet to White Pass (or beyond, into British Columbia if you choose) on replica and original passenger cars. Most trains are pulled by sturdy diesel-electric locomotives, but there are a couple of beautiful old steam locomotives for special trips. The train we were on was at least 20 cars long with three locomotives.

Our train turned around at White Pass, although some go on to Fraser, BC. Apparently hikers can also flag down a train and selected points on the line.

The single track line hugs narrow canyons and switchbacks, with spectacular views. It crosses the White Pass and into Canada, marked by a couple of flags and a replica RCMP hut, but no one is there. "Turning around" means switching places with the people on the other side of the aisle and flipping the seatbacks while the train stops at a siding. The locomotives then uncouple and run down to the other end. But the best views are from the platforms outside the cars--really cool!

Although no longer used, the huge old cantilever bridge, the tallest in the world when it was built, is still an impressive piece of engineering.

The last picture is of a rotory snowplow--an impressive, impressive machine.

More pictures from the San Diego Steam Special

Sorry for the delay in posting. It's been a bit crazy. Here's another view of the locomotive, plus another Great Dome, and the end, a California Zephyr car.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Update: San Diego Steam Special

More pictures to come. She pulled some old California Zephyr cars.

Great story in the LA Times!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Steam train to San Diego

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner is a nice, modern train, and most of the time quite efficient at getting from San Diego to LA and beyond. As it passes the yard next to the LA River, you can see locomotives and train cars and one big, old, beautiful steam locomotive, the tender car of which is marked Santa Fe 3751. When it rains (like today) it's sheathed in huge tarps, but on a sunny day, when you can see it, the round barrel shape makes quite a contrast with the flat rake of the modern locomotives. And you can see her in action on Saturday, May 1.

According to the locomotive's website, the locomotive is a 4-8-4 configuration built in 1927 that initially served passenger rail in New Mexico, moving on to Arizona and a run from Los Angeles to Kansas City, finally retiring in 1953 after serving the San Diegan route.

On Saturday, Santa Fe 3751 will pull a special train to San Diego, her old route, returning to LA Sunday. Some old classic cars will be in the trainset, including another historical dome car related to the wonderful great dome I told you about a while back. Tickets start at $98 and go up for a seat in the dome. More info here. The locomotive also has a facebook page.

Now, I admit, riding a train pulled by a locomotive that you mostly can't see doesn't appeal to me. (I'm not a true railfan, just a casual afficionado). But I'm sure going down to the tracks to watch her go by and hear that wonderful whistle. This video gives you a look.

If anyone is riding the steam special on Saturday, could you tweet your whereabouts and timing along the way, so I know when to expect the meet? I'll be a little ways north of the Elvira Curve. (Oh, I don't know, howabout #sf3751?)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Surfliner Stories: This service will be delayed

This morning I learned that there was an overnight freight derailment south of my station that was blocking rail traffic. Since I catch the first northbound train of the day, I figured I was going to be stuck for hours till the trainsets from San Diego could get through. However, right on schedule, a train pulled into the station from the other direction. They had run one down empty from LA very early, to start the service at my station. Way to go, Amtrak! Unfortunately, there was chaos on the Coaster commuter train schedule, so we fell off schedule pretty quickly.

When I lived on the East Coast, I joked that Amtrak's motto should be, "no matter what, we'll be late!" I've been pleasantly surprised about the schedule on the Surfliner. It's rare to have a serious delay and most of the time, the trains I ride are within 10 minutes of the timetable. I've only had a train cancelled once on me, and serious delays (30 minutes or more) are uncommon.

Still, once a train gets out of its "slot", it becomes the bottom of the dispatcher's list and tends to acccumulate more delays waiting for other traffic. So, what starts as 15 minutes may end up being 45 by the end of the ride.

The biggest reason the Amtrak Surfliner runs late is "train congestion". This reflects two things:

First, a lot of track particularly in San Diego and Orange County is single track. Trains have to stop frequently in sidings to let other trains pass. Thus, all the passenger traffic--not just Amtrak, but the local commuter trains, the Coaster (San Diego) and Metrolink (Orange and LA counties)--has to play stop-and-go at the busy times of day.

The railway runs right along the coastal bluffs, and there isn't room physically for two tracks through those areas (not without eminent domain taking down a lot of expensive houses, which is Not Going to Happen). Then, it runs across lagoons and turns unexpectedly east, eventually curving back through Rose Canyon, leading to a long, looping detour between San Diego and Solana Beach (making for a ridiculously long ride between these two stations).

Options are limited as the area is built out and environmentally impacted. Perennial discussions about tunnels under La Jolla or elevated lines over interstate 5 founder against the shoals of expense, environment, and earthquakes. The best solution is probably to double track as much as possible in open areas, while admitting that there is politically no way to double track the Del Mar or San Clemente bluffs, or some of the lagoons.

Second, daily passenger trains are temporally separated from night freight traffic in San Diego and much of Orange County, but freight shares the daylight rails north of Fullerton. The track is actually owned by the freight companies, so Amtrak has low priority. There are frequent delays north of Los Angeles for those Surfliners that run up as far as Goleta or even San Luis Obispo, on the central coast. (The long-distance Coast Starlight also takes that route, going from LA all the way to Seattle). The main freight lines turn away from the coast route to push up into the central valley, but Amtrak isn't allowed use those tracks (which is why America's Rail Company has to run a bus from LA to Bakersfield.) Instead, Amtrak stays on the coast route which is lovely, but slow, and can be closed for days at a time due to winter mudslides.

Then there are mechanical problems. This actually doesn't happen very often, but can lead to cancellations. And they can be awkward; there's a sinking feeling when the train coasts to a stop between stations and suddenly everything goes quiet. You aren't going to be allowed off the train in the middle of the rails so you'd best settle in. If it happens in a station, everyone is offloaded and piles onto the next train like clowns into a Volkswagen.

Accidents involving people are another possibility, thankfully rare. Still, people can be amazingly stupid around trains. Cars get stuck on tracks and occasionally are hit. Sometimes there are suicides; other times, playing "chicken" , or trying to beat the train to the crossing. (Hint: TRAINS ALWAYS WIN.) You'd think you would always hear something as big as a train, but it can be surprisingly quiet rounding a bend, with only a faint vibration on the continuous rail to warn you of its approach. They even painted one of the Surfliner engines red with big "STAY AWAY! STAY ALIVE!" notices on it, to try to discourage surfers from running across the tracks to get to the beach.

I've had my share of "one-offs". For example, a morning earthquake in San Diego required that the line be inspected before traffic could resume. A gas leak during construction under a crossing in Santa Ana shut down the line in both directions, leading to massive delays and cancellations, and an eventual "bus bridge." And of course, the freight derail that started this story.

So as I sit at a red signal, as we fall further behind schedule this morning, I'm philosophical. Delays happen, whether on trains or freeways. I'd still rather be sitting comfortably in my oceanside seat in the Superliner car, looking out at a red-wing blackbird displaying his wing patches in the reeds in the lagoon, rather than eating exhaust in a gridlock on the 405 freeway.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Surfliner Stories: The Conductors

Conductors are characters. They just are. There are at least two conductors on a train, as well as service staff in the café car. (More about that on another post). The senior conductor is the boss of the train: he's the captain. All of them wear radios where you can hear verification of signals, comments from dispatch, or a mechanical voice noting the passage of crossing points. If there is a traffic signal out, or another problem, the conductor will drop off the train and stop the cars to let the train through. It's not just collecting tickets.

Conductors have quirks that you get to know, as individual as the different hole punch each one carries. For example, there's one guy who loves aliteration. "Next stop, Solana Beach, scintillating superlative Solana Beach." Or the matter of fact woman who allows herself a little sneer at the OC: "Next stop, Irvine, jewel of suburbia". On one early train, there is an African American woman who reads a quote for the day as the train passes Laguna Niguel, a short, inspirational saying. Many of them are older guys with richly modulated voices. It must be boring saying the same thing over and over, but they manage to keep their voices inflected. One of my trains routinely has a woman in charge with a no-nonsense voice. One's instinctive reaction to her is "Yes, Ma'am!"

If you ride the same train regularly, you get to know your conductor, and have conversations in short sentences, one per day. After a few months you might exchange names. "Yeah," one guy told me. "I've been railroading for 30 years." That's the term: railroading.

The younger conductors often seem callow by comparison. For some of them, it's just a job. For others, you can tell they are already railroaders. They have a certain walk, call it the sway of steel rails, under their feet.

Next stop....

Update Image from here

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Surfliner Stories: Blast from the Past

Although most people assume that Southern Californians live in their cars, rail is quite important and very popular around the LA and San Diego metro areas. Short distance commuter rail (Metrolink around LA and the Coaster in San Diego) complements the longer distance Amtrak. The Pacific Surfliner runs back and forth along the coast between San Diego and Los Angeles, with a few trains a day going as far as Goleta (near Santa Barbara) or even San Luis Obispo on the central coast. If you ride it enough, you get to know the equipment.

The Surfliner is a joint effort of the California Dept of Transportation and Amtrak, and uses dedicated trainsets with distinctive silver and blue paint that distinguishes it from the regular interstate Amtrak trains. To avoid the difficulty of turning around along the way, the trains use a back and forth "push-pull" model where the locomotive is on one end and a cab car is on the other. The cab car allows the engineer to drive the train in one direction with the locomotive pushing, rather than pulling the train. The cars are double decker, with wide electronic doors at either end of each car that open at platform level. That means that the conductor can open all the doors at once and it facilitates the large numbers of passengers getting on and off. Each trainset has (in addition to the locomotive and the cab/baggage car) a cafe car, a business class car with larger seats, and 3-4 regular coach class cars. The trains are comfortable and spacious with good views, and power outlets for computers. Given that American passenger rail can't go the light-and-lean style of Europe (because our trains have to be crash-worthy on mixed-use rail), this is about as good as it gets.

The Surfliner has been so successful in attracting passengers that they have run out of the dedicated cars. During the summer or holidays, some trains are standing room only. So, they supplement the Surfliner trainsets with an extra Superliner car. These are the long distance interstate Amtrak cars, also double decker, but with a different configuration. Most are in the national Amtrak livery of silver, though a few have been rebuilt in Surfliner Blue. The ones here are quite tired and darkly lit by comparison to the bright Surfliner cars, with rougher suspensions. Additionally, they don't have automatic doors downstairs, so you can't board them directly; the only way to get in them is from the neighboring cars. So entering them can appear a bit like going in a cave. This puts off a lot of people, but regular commuters love the Superliners because the seats are enormous and have leg-rests. Additionally, there are curtains on the windows, which means that on an early morning train you can darken your space, put up your feet and take a nap on your way to work. (If you get up at 5am to catch an early train, this is a good thing). Regular commuters tend to migrate to the same car each day, which leads to a certain camaraderie with the other passengers, and with the conductors.

However at times even this isn't enough, and Amtrak has to use some old, single-level cars, the Amfleet series or the Horizon cars from back east. These are single level, about half way between the two levels of the regular Surfliner cars. Also in shiny metal skins, with red and white stripes, these cars cars lack electronic doors which in any case open a few feet above the low platforms, requiring the conductors to laboriously fold down rickety aluminum stairs when they open the doors. They can't be mixed in with the Surfliner cars, because their floor level doesn't match, so the whole train has to be made up of these. In most of them, the seats aren't quite as nice as the Surfliner, and the suspension is much much worse. They lack a cab-car feature, meaning that they have to have a locomotive at each end to do the back-and-forth on the route. The tall, elegant Surfliner locomotives look awkward flanking the short, cigar-shaped Amfleet cars which are the ones I usually see.

On one trip, I got stuck on an Amfleet trainset. Instead of the 5 or 6 cars of a typical Surfliner, there were 9 cars, including a baggage van and the café. In the middle was a very old "dome" car with a 360° view. According to Wikipedia, this car is Amtrak's last remaining full-dome car, #10031, and it's seen only rarely. (Fortunately railfans are obsessive about keeping Wiki up to date!) Downstairs is a lounge with tables and benches (booths). I went up a cramped little stairway to take a look up above. It's quite awkward up there, with a low ceiling, and ugly and uncomfortable plastic seats mounted on metal poles, scattered around occasional tables; very dated. It would be okay with a drink and a conversation, I suppose, if you were going through worthwhile scenery. But it seemed flimsy. Besides, I work on the train, I need a table for my computer , and a better seat for my back for two hours. So I regretfully snapped a couple of photos and went back down to the Amfleet seating. All the regulars were dispersed to different places, and both passengers and conductors kvetched with one another about the inconvenience of the old trainset.

Hopefully the Surfliner, which is one of the most heavily traveled and revenue-successful routes on Amtrak, will endure the CA budget crisis and keep rumbling up and down the coast. Obviously they need more cars! But I keep my eyes out for the anomalies, the pieces of railway history, that occasionally ride the rails with me.

Update User johnnygunn in the comments to my Daily Kos cross post provided this photo, of the dome car as part of the Great Northern Empire Builder in its original color scheme. He points us at a great site with more info about the Great Northern, and I pulled the vintage upstairs view frmo that. One thing about railfans, is that they never lose that sense of history!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Surfliner Stories: Forgotten People, Forgotten Places

The train to Los Angeles rumbles through the ruined orchards north of San Juan Capistrano. The trees seem remote and cut-off from the overbuilt developments of coastal Orange County. In amongst the groves you can spot signs of habitation: a shack in one place, or a trailer over there. There's one house trailer that is collapsed and crumbled, surrounded by abandoned and fragmented vehicles. There's no road, only a dirt track.

Does anyone live in these places? are they farm workers, scraping by in the remnants of OC agricutlure? Or illegal immigrants, grateful for a temporary roof overhead as they make their way to the anonymous streets of LA? Maybe they are locals down on their luck, or drug-addled drop-outs lost from the wealthy community nearby.

A little further along, the train slides into Irvine. The abandoned El Toro Marine Air Station is on one side, grass and bushes poking through the asphalt next to empty buildings painted institutional yellow. On the other side, open fields, freshly plowed and planted, with scarecrows hanging along their edge.

Unlike the untended orange orchards further south, these bits of urban agriculture are active, constantly worked and re-worked, an improbable remnant of farmland in the heart of suburbia.

There is an almost artistic sense of contrast between the decaying buildings of the airport among the weeds , and the ever-renewing fields, with the railway line in between.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Surfliner stories: against the elements

Last week California was battered by a series of ferocious storms. You may have heard about the fear of mudslides in the areas burned out by the wild fires. But another problem was along the coast, where the storms coincided with very high tides. There was a water spout near Long Beach, and localized tornado warnings. Highway 101 runs very close to the ocean; it’s always unnerving to have surf or beach gravel spatter your windshield while driving. And the rail tracks run close to the ocean in parts of Orange County and San Diego, with the single track barely above beach level in some spots, and seeming to skim along the surface of the tidal inlets and lagoons. Indeed, on Thursday, there were train delays due to flooding along the tracks in San Diego County.

A few days later, I was on Amtrak’s efficient Pacific Surfliner making the run up to Los Angeles. It was a sunny morning (although more rain was due later) and I turned away from my computer to look at the ocean. The rail line runs right along the beach near San Clemente, slightly elevated with a slope of boulders to act as a breakwater. The tide was right up against the bottom of the boulders, and I wondered whether the trains were delayed by surf last week. A little further along, the train is separated from the beach by a narrow road and a series of homes. They are actually double-wide trailers, but this little neighborhood has about as much in common with a regular trailer park as an old Ford Pinto has with a Lincoln Navigator, as most have been customized and expanded almost beyond recognition. They are right on the beach; at what point, I wondered, does the tide come in?

A little further again, and there were proper houses between the tracks and the beach. Typical of many California beach neighborhoods, the houses are packed tightly alongside each other, so that you can only get brief glimpse of the water in the small gaps between them. And the styles of the houses vary enormously, from fat wood-shingled homes that look like they should be in Maine, to tile-roofed Spanish style with central courtyards, to boxy modernist structures with lots of squared-off glass, to chunky stone that evoke fog and mountains. The only thing they have in common is that they all look very expensive. It is clear, peering through to the sand beyond, that many of these homes are very close to the tide. On the ocean side, you can see that many of them are constructed on low pillars. I could see there was a steepish slope down to the water , so I wonder if the sand has been built up as a breakwater, or whether the presence of the houses acts as a barrier that funnels the ocean to take out the sand. (This picture shows the old San Diegan, precursor to the Surfliner--probably in the 70s. I couldn't find an up-to-date version showing these houses).

What’s it like in those homes when the tide is high and the storm rages in, with the full force of the open Pacific behind it? Do the owners lie in bed at night, listening for the incursion of water? Do they fret over having an expensive edifice literally built on sand, knowing that it cannot, and will not last? And what headaches and nightmares does the city have, with a number of residences built on indefensible space?

It’s the same old problem as with people who build homes up canyons, far from the reach of city fire trucks, and then complain when the suburbs don't go that far out. What is the limit of civic responsibility for a defiant homeowner exercising his freedom to live where he chooses?

Originally posted at Daily Kos

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Surfliner Stories: Cleaning up by the river

The final run into Los Angeles Union Station on the Amtrak Surfliner from San Diego is along the LA River.  The River is pinned into a wide concrete channel with steeply sloping sides.   Unless there is a storm, the water flow is confined to a narrow stream in the middle of the channel, leaving a broad flat concrete expanse on either side.  The sloping sides that rise from this, like every other broad surface in the city, are a canvas for graffiti artists and taggers, whose distinctive curly flourishes or brightly colored block letters  can sweep from top to bottom.  

On my ride this week on the train, it took me a minute to take in the suddenly monochromatic appearance of the channel before I realized that "they"  had painted over the tags.  It must have been a monstrously big job, covering all the huge tags with pale gray paint--and since no new tags have bloomed, it must have been very recent.  In some places the entire wall of the channel from top to bottom is painted; in others, little squares and boxes checkerboard the concrete.  Combined with a recent rain that washed trash away, and the whole thing seems oddly clean and bright, reflecting the winter light of the low sun.

I've written before about the homeless folks who live alongside the river.  I've seen people washing  clothes alongside the central waterway, and flattening them to dry,  like something out of the third world.  With the newly pale side walls, I was struck by the visual effect of how someone laid his  clothes out carefully,  halfway up the slope of the channel:  the pale gray forming a backdrop for the dark colors of the precisely arranged trousers, shirts, and sweater, forming a neat row.

Untidy as most of us are, we still crave order and cleanliness.   Whoever laid out his clothes so neatly on the side of the LA River made a statement about that.    Still, someone washing his clothes with a rock in the middle of a  city river -- that's not something we should see in the heart  a modern Superpower nation.  I feel hopeless and helpless and voyeuristic on the train, as powerless as I feel watching puffed up Congressmen spouting nonsense on the evening news.

Originally posted at Daily Kos

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Surfliner Stories: poverty on the river

Amtrak's efficient Pacific Surfliner train runs from San Diego to Los Angeles and beyond, and slices through all aspects of class and culture. For part of its route it offers an ocean-side seat, barely above the beach, and a back-yard view into outrageously expensive ocean front properties. It chugs through abandoned orange groves north of San Juan Capistrano, and tomato fields south of IRvine, but then settles into a less scenic course through light industry and simple neighborhoods. THen from Fullerton into LA, the tracks go past heavy industry, rail yards, and scrap plants, before turning along the concrete channel that imprisons the poor Los Angeles river in the final run towards LA's Union Station.

Oddly, this is where the grime and grit of poverty and hopelessness are most apparent. THe sloping walls of the channel are painted and repainted with garish graffiti tags. Trash sprinkles the floor of the channel where the river looks dark green and greasy. The bridges that span the river, which were once elegant examples of civic architecture with elaborate finials and light standards, are grimy and graffiti'ed. Tucked under their struts amidst scraps of paper and weeds I can see an occasional tent, or a homeless person's shopping cart and makeshift shelter.

But one of the saddest encampments is the one that occupies the mouth of one of the culverts that opens into the river. It's about half way up the slick sloping sides of the channel, maybe 4 feet across. It is inset slightly, so there's a few feet of flat concrete in front of its gapping mouth, before tipping over the edge into the channel. There's a sheet hanging across the opening and a broken chair in front giving a somewhat desperate air of domesticity. Below it, at river level, there's a trash midden of discards.

I wonder, how does the resident get into that place? Does he scramble down the acute angle of the channel walls? Or does he use the culvert as a tunnel, and enter from the landward-side? WHat will he do when rainy season comes, and water pours through the culvert, or the river rises in the channel in a sudden and dangerous torrent?

It says a lot of us as a society (and not in a good way) that we tolerate people living under tarps along a railway line or in storm drains.

Originally posted at Daily Kos

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Surfliner Stories: An Ode to Amtrak

No, really.  There are things to celebrate in Amtrak!

Aside from those living in a few urban corridors, most Americans don’t travel by train much.  Our much-maligned Amtrak system, which is a poor railway step-child forced to lumber along shared tracks and shunted aside by impatient freight trains, doesn’t offer the speed and glamour of the European train systems on their dedicated tracks with their strong government and society support.  We COULD have the rails we deserve...meanwhile poor old Amtrak does the best it can.

Railway tracks crisscross our landscape, but are barely noticed.  We hardly even register the plaintive whistles and dull rumbles in the distance . But trains are the great equalizers.  They click past pristine beaches, and past grim industrial zones.  They clack past simple back yards, where the passenger can peer over the fences and see a carefully maintained lawn next door to a junk heap.  They chug under cliffs where million-dollar manses loom with overarching sea views.   And they work.

Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner, which is partly supported by the CA Dept of Transportation,  runs between Los Angeles and San Diego,  with some trains going north as far as Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo.  It's a great success: one of the most heavily used routes in the Amtrak system.  Prices are reasonable (one way between LA and San Diego, about 120 miles, is about $25, with discounts for frequent riders) and it's not uncommon for the train to be SRO on busy days and times.  Ridership is increasing steadily.

THe ride can be spectacular.  Not just the parts along the beach, but hidden jewels.  On a ride last spring just north of San Juan Capistrano in Southern California, the train veered away from the roads and the town through the remains of one of the old orange groves that gave Orange County its name.  Not many trees are left here, and in this area, they form irregular clusters in a huge meadow, now largely empty of its original trees.  Those that remain are great dark green balls, their trunks invisible with branches that dip to the ground. At this time of year they are laden with big oranges.  Their bounty is such that I hope they are not abandoned, and that someone still picks the sweet fruit. Every year, though, a few more of their number have died, and extend skeletal branches hopelessly, a sort of ruin to the relentless press of development in these parts.

In springtime, the meadow where the trees bravely make their stand is brilliant yellow with wild mustard.  The story goes that the padres who founded California’s missions flung mustard seed from the pockets of their habits to mark the road from mission to mission.  (San Juan Capistrano is named for the spectacular and picturesque ruins of one of these.)   The contrast of brilliant green and yellow of the mustard, with the dark green and orange dots of the trees dotted in the field, was a vivid picture.  And, not one that anyone else would see, except on the train that was industriously churning its way from Irvine to San Juan.

Another thing is remarkable on a train, and that is the way it makes a community.  On a plane for four hours, a passenger may say nothing to the person next to him.  ON a train, it’s rare not to have at least a minimal exchange, and it’s common to have much longer conversations.  Everyone is friendly on a train.  Time seems to change its pace. Whether it’s a regular commuter, or a retired couple visiting family, or a young family on a day trip,  people interact, and socialize.  They watch each other’s bags, take group orders for the café car, share pictures, and point out the sights.  The regulars explain to the new riders how to make a connection, or what the railway argot means. There is something special about the train, and for a short time the community that forms highlights  the best of American generosity and open heartedness.

Even the conductors have this positive attitude.  They are real characters:  railroaders,  a special breed.  Not as glamorous as pilots, but salt-of-the-earth types who have the sway of steel rails under their feet.

So let’s hear it for passenger rail, one of the unsung potentials of American economy.  Amtrak may suffer delays and mechanicals, but there isn’t anything there that couldn’t be fixed by a decent steady budget and at least a consideration of dedicated passenger routes and modern technology!  The Surfliner is generally reliable;  most of the delays are related to traffic on the part of the route it shares with freight.  (Amtrak can't run the lightweight trains that passenger-only rails in Europe have adopted, because of the shared rails. )  It's the perfect distance for trains and certainly beats the drive on choked Southern California freeways.

Trains remain one of the most efficient ways to travel mid-distances with efficiency and comfort.  Those of us who are in the train habit know this, and hope the rest of you have a chance to figure it out.

Originally posted on Daily Kos