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 cafĂ©. 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