Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Where's my train?

When I travel, I almost never rent a car, but always take public transit, often rail or light rail, and often in countries where I don't speak the language. I pity those who come to the US and don't speak the language. It's difficult to figure out where your train is, particularly in LA Union Station, and particularly for Amtrak.

Union Station is a wonderful old art deco building (I'll blog about that later) that accesses the platforms via a long tunnel. The individual tracks are reached by ramps or stairs, two tracks per platform. So to find your train, you need to know which track it is on so you go up on the correct platform. If you're on the wrong platform, you have to go back downstairs to the tunnel to go up to the correct one.

Like most stations, LA Union has a big train board in it that lists the trains and their tracks. And, in the tunnels, there are lighted signs at the base of the ramps, that tell you which train is coming next at that platform. IF, that is, your train is a Metrolink. If you ride Amtrak, the signs say "Welcome to Amtrak!" And if you enter the tunnel at the end opposite the main station building, where many busses and the metro come in, there is no big board to help. So you either walk ALL the way down to the station building, or peer up the ramp to see whether you can spot a train. And, if you have a tight connection from your bus or metro, you aren't going to have time to run all the way down the tunnel and back again.

Once on the platform, AMtrak has "crawler" signs that tell you what's coming and what's late (these tend to be more accurate than the Big Board in the main station, which often gets times wrong particularly if there are delays). But again, these are of limited use. They don't tell you a track number, and its the same sign for both the platforms Amtrak uses.

Say, for example, there are two Amtrak trains that arrive at the same time: one going North, the Santa Barbara on Track 10, and one going South, to San Diego on Track 12. Because LA is a dead end station, the trains all arrive and depart from the same direction. If you're running for the train, there is absolutely NO way to tell which train is which, if you don't already know the platform number. The regulars usually know which track a train comes in on, but if there's a delay, that isn't reliable. The loudspeakers on the platform are useless; you can't hear them over the noise of the train's ventilation and mechanical systems.

Amtrak doesn't have a problem with this because they like everyone to line up in the station, and wait for the track to be posted on the Big Board. But the station is noisy and crowded, and many people don't come in that way.

Solution? Activate the signs in the tunnel with accurate information. I really don't understand why they can't do this. It works for Metrolink.

You'd think it would be easier if you are at one of the downline stations, where you can at least tell which direction a train is going. And as long as you know an Amtrak from a Metrolink or a Coaster. But if you are a newbie, you might be unsure which train to take when it arrives at the platform. At least the Metrolink puts their destination on a sign in the train windows. Not so Amtrak. Most stations do have the crawler signs, but they aren't always working.

So, next time you get on a train, unless you are certain where it is going, ASK someone. It would be a real bummer to end up in Burbank when you wanted to go to Irvine.