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.

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