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.

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