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.