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 cafĂ© 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