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!


Lori said...

I enjoyed reading your posts, though I have never had the pleasure of riding the Surfliner.


IT said...

Thanks for stopping by! I admit I'm slowly being suckered into the romance of the rail...