Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On Line on Amtrak

Pacific Surfliners now have free wireless. They use cell towers along the route, and limit the bandwidth--so no streaming videos or mega downloads-- but for email and surfing, it's fine. Of course, the more people who find out about it the slower it will be. Still, nice to have it!

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Cabbage Goes to the Snow

Apparently, in the winter months Amtrak runs a Snow Train from Oakland to Reno. It's a party train to Go To the Snow. I'm told our Amfleet Cabbage has headed north for this duty. Couldn't happen to a nicer trainset.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Guaranteed late arrival: stuck on the Amfleet cabbage

Amtrak hates us.  They have decided to keep the awful old trainset, the Amfleet cabbage, in the permanent rotation even though Racing Season in Del Mar is over.

This means we will always be late if on this train.  Why?  Because you can't get on it fast enough.  Instead of two automatic doors per car, there are only manual doors.  They don't open them all because there aren't enough crew to do it.  The doors are narrow, with fold down rickety steps.  Loading and unloading passengers takes minutes longer.  On a 2 hour intercity ride, minutes more per station adds up to serious delays of 20 minutes or more into LA in the morning.

The regulars tweet Amtrak @Pacsurfliners to complain, plead, and cajole--if you're going to keep the cabbage, then at least put it on the less crowded mid-day trains, not at commuter hours. 

 But roughly twice a week, the cabbage is used on 763, the first train of the day from San Diego to LA and on to Goleta.  This is a commuter-heavy train.  WE're lucky if it's on time with a normal trainset;  with the cabbage, it's at least 20-30 minutes late into LA, making us all late to work.   Once it finally makes Goleta, it turns around to become 784, which is supposed to be a 5pm departure from LA--also loaded with commuters.  And all that accumulated delay adds up to a miserable commute day for the regulars, when the cabbage is running.  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Bad karma? The trip from hell.

Passengers wait to board the train in SJC
Is it just me?

Last Thursday, it was a blackout that affected 5million people in the Southwest including all of San Diego County.

Then yesterday, my train home stopped in Oceanside because someone committed suicide by jumping in front of the Coaster train in Carlsbad.  I was able to get a ride from another passenger back to Solana Beach (appreciated, since the cab fare is $50).  I got home about an hour late.

Tonight, Amtrak #784  was 30 minutes late leaving LA-- 5.45, rather than 5.10.  That was bad enough.  As I got on it, I read tweets from another commuter saying that the previous train was annulled in Irvine, an hour south.  A quick look at MetrolinkOC showed that their trains were also held up.

As we limped south slowly, it turned out that at 4pm, a man  went to stand on a pier of the highway 73 overpass, in Laguna Niguel, and threatening to jump.  Both northbound and southband tracks were closed.

And remained closed.  We got to Irvine and sat there for a while.  Then they closed the doors and moved us along to wait further down the track.  I kicked myself for not getting off and trying to get on the last Metrolink, which was headed to the next station, Laguna Niguel, for a bus bridge to points south.  But I was worried abou the timing, and not knowing what track it was on.  Getting stranded in Irvine was not appealing.

Then we pulled into Laguna and they hustled us off the train, and onto buses.  These drove  the short distance to  San Juan Capistrano.  We passed under the overpass with the jumper, lit by lights, as police still tried to persuade him not to jump onto the rail lines.

In San Juan, hundreds ofus milled around .  In a few minutes, a Northbound Amtrak pulled in.  This one had been waiting with its northbound passengers just outside of the depot.  They were as cross as we were, as they got off the train and onto the buses which took them back to  Laguna to take our train back to LA. Their train then hooked up to another stranded northbound Amtrak and headed south with us on it.

We left SJC at 10pm. ETA Solana Beach, maybe 11?  That's  over 5 hours from LA.

Lunatics  are not Amtrak's fault.

However, what IS Amtrak's fault is that even 4 hours after the event started, they had no plans in place for a bus bridge.  remember, the jumper got up there at 4pm.  We were sitting in Irvine at 8 doing nothing.  Metrolink was running bus bridges from 6.30 on.

The conductors didn't even know what was going on until plugged in passengers told them.  They did the best they could (both conductors and  LSAs are generally salt of the earth good people who do their best.)  Amtrak's twitter feed was, typically, completely silent except for tweets from riders filling each other in on the progress (or lack thereof).  Just tell us what's going on, Amtrak.  Please.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Things I notice: NJ Transit

So, a while back there was a row of old NJ Transit rail cars at Track 13 at Union Station.

Now they are sitting in the yard outside Oceanside.

Why do you suppose they are here?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Riding downstairs

Regular surfliner riders are familiar with the mantra recited by the conductors:  "Downstairs seating is reserved for seniors and mobility-impaired passengers" and ignore it as they troop to the preferred upstairs seating (in my case, the rush to the Superliner car with its darkened interior and big comfy seats).

Recently, however, I've joined the ranks of the disabled, with a very badly sprained ankle along with a couple of cracked bones. (Trailrunning.)  I've got a big boot on and a cane, and I can't manage the stairs, so I've been sitting down below.  And it's different down here.

For one thing, except for a couple of older regulars, there are very few commuters in the downstairs seating. Most of them are elderly folks off to visit someone.  They are chatty, sometimes irritatingly so.  Me tapping away on  my computer is a novelty.  It's a very different demographic experience.

I've also gotten annoyed at the healthy folks who just ignore the "disabled/senior" signs and sit down.  You may not realize it, but there are a LOT of older  and impaired folks on the train, and the conductors frequently have to help them find seats.  Snorting in disgust or whining when you are asked to move isn't helpful.  Just go upstairs if you can, okay?

And then, what happens if (as happened the other day), the downstairs toilet doesn't work?  It would be easier for some folks to get off the train and on a different car, then try to make it up and down the stairs as the train lurches along the tracks.

The old Horizon/Amfleet trainset (the "cigar" train) is its own challenge.  Since the entry isn't level with the platform, as with the regular Surfliner, it requires navigating a few steps.  I can do it, but it's awkward and  I'm slow.

At LA Union Station, I've realized it's better to use the ramp, then to painfully work my way down the stairs, as all the regulars rush around me and nearly knock me over.  Yeah, I've been guilty of that too...but I've learned a lot being disabled.  Like how everything takes me longer, no matter how fast I want to go.  It's like enforced patience.

So, if you are a regular, try a little patience with the slower folks--they are moving as fast as they can.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Racing Season! Time for the old trains

Apparently the players who watch the ponies are numerous, because Amtrak has to add extra capacity onto the Surfliner during the six weeks of Del Mar racing season. The conductor told me that yesterday, which was  opening day, the morning train southbound from LA to the track was so packed with standing room passengers that they couldn't pick up all the people on the platform in Irvine.

Additional capacity is accomplished by breaking up a couple of Surfliner trainsets to add their cars to the others. The missing trainsets are then accommodated by bringing out those old single level cars (with an occasional appearance by the Great Dome).

Yesterday, train #582 (southbound from LA) was so cursed. It was a sorry mishmash of cars and livery. Pulled by a regular grey Amtrak engine (not a sleek blue Surfliner engine), there were seven single level cars: two of the flat sided Horizon model and 5 of the cigar-like, rounded Amfleet, brought up at the rear by a Cascades "cabbage".

That is, an ex-locomotive in the distinctive paint job of Amtrak's Cascade line, with its engine removed, that now serves as a combination cab car (to drive the train: a "non powered control unit" ) and baggage car. Cab+Baggage = Cabbage.

I am not making this up.

The problem with these cars is that they are single level, designed for raised platforms. They are also old and uncomfortable, with worn out seats and lousy suspensions. Worst of all, the doors are manual. At every stop, the conductors must open the doors and lower the rickety folding steps. Since there are only three crew on the train, that means most doors don't open (unlike the regular Surfliner trainset, which has two efficient automatic doors in each car). So you have to queue up by just a few doors to get on and off, which makes for delays...and makes the old trainset inevitably late.

Everyone hates the old trainsets which are rotated through the different services so that the pain is equally distributed. Racing season lasts six weeks.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Amtrak disaster in Nevada

How does a truck driver not see a train? A truck drove into the side of the CA Zephyr near Reno NV, hitting cars 2-3 and killing at least 5 people. A tragedy, and our thoughts are with the victims.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Adventures of a Power Commuter, or how to get home when the line is closed

Amtrak #582 was on time out of LA yesterday afternoon at 4.10pm, and I was pleased that I was able to make it to the station in time to catch it. Of course, then as we left Santa Ana, the conductor uttered those awful words: "there has been a trespassing incident, and we will be delayed in Irvine for some unknown amount of time." So by 5.10, we were sitting at Irvine station.

Although it sounds innocuous enough, "Trespassing Incident" means someone died on the tracks. Grim experience meant I knew better than to wait for Amtrak to tell me what is going on. Now that I am in possession of a smart phone, I Have The Technology. So I immediately checked the Twitter feed for Metrolink's Orange County line. Metrolink is the commuter line that runs down south as far as Oceanside, the northernmost stop in San Diego county. (I go further, to Solana Beach, which is why I have to take Amtrak). Metrolink are very good at updates and indeed reported that there had been an auto accident.

Uh-oh. THAT doesn't sound good.

From there I jumped over to the Orange County Register, which is very fast at putting breaking news on line; from this I learned that a woman had driven off a bridge over the tracks near the Laguna Niguel stop and died .

Conclusion: we're going to be here for a while. I called my wife. If things got really bad, Irvine is around an hour or so from home; but at commute hour, there was no point in starting that drive and besides, she had plans last night. But driving to Irvine would be a back up for the worst case.

Now, the GOOD news is that we were in a station, not stuck on the tracks somewhere trapped on the train. The doors were open so people could get on and off and walk around. The other good news is that there is Stone Brewery beer on Amtrak. So I went down to the snack bar and purchased a beer and some snacks.

I had just started to drink the beer when the conductor announced that Metrolink was going to run a train one stop further down line, to Laguna. From there, they would provide a "bus bridge" as far as Oceanside. Metrolink liaises very well with the Orange County Transit buses, so they get that kind of thing going quickly. And Oceanside is much closer to home than Irvine.

So I ran into the restroom to empty my water bottle, carefully filled it with my Stone IPA (I don't waste Stone beer), and got off the train. At the doorway, the conductor was explaining to a young woman, in Amtrak doublespeak, that he couldn't say how long they'd be in Irvine while Amtrak sought some "accommodation" for them, but the Metrolink would be coming through in 5 minutes.

I ran up the two flights of stairs, over the bridge, and down to the other platform just in time to jump on the Metrolink train. It chugged down to Laguna, where a group of buses was waiting. I snagged a seat for an express ride to Oceanside (and tweeted MetrolinkOC to thank them!) There wasn't even any traffic on the freeway to speak of (it's never like that when *I* drive) and we were in Oceanside in just over half an hour.

As the bus opened the door, I asked if anyone else needed to go to the Solana Beach station and wanted to split a cab. Only one woman said yes (sad, since it would have been a lot cheaper with 4 of us) but still half is better than full fare. $50/2 later I was back in Solana Beach. It was 7.40, about 1h30m late. I asked the Amtrak station officer if Amtrak #582 had made it. He laughed and told me it was still stuck in Irvine.

Oh, and Amtrak's status updates on THEIR twitter feed? As of this morning, they hadn't bothered to update it in 18 hours.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Early rising: the Metro link option

I had to get to LA very early one day last week, earlier than the first Amtrak of the day (my usual #763). So, I left the house at 4.30am and drove 30 minutes to Oceanside, which is the southern terminus of the Metrolink commuter service that links Orange, LA, Riverside, and Ventura counties. The first train out of Oceanside on Metrolink is at 4.40 but I caught the 5.16, which arrived in LA Union Station at 7.10. I had to wrestle with the automatic ticket machine, which did not like my $20 bill and insisted I use a credit card for the $14.50 one way fare. As with Amtrak, the significant savings are for multi-ride or monthly tickets, and single riders pay a premium, but this was still cheaper than Amtrak.

However, you gets what you pays for. Metrolink is much less comfortable than Amtrak. The suspension is rough, the seats very narrow and pitched too closely. They mostly face each other so your knees knock and your feet entangle with the person sitting opposite. There are no power outlets for your computer. The train stops at every station (Amtrak only hits a subset). I sometimes call this the dog-and-lamppost style of rail scheduling.

There were few people getting on at Oceanside but as usual things got crowded after Irvine. It was still so early, though, that many of them slept, except for an annoying man next to me talking on his cell phone. However, since he spoke Chinese, it was less distracting than if I'd been able to understand the conversation.

My return home, I took Amtrak; I just had to remember to get off in Oceanside where I left my car!

Conclusion: on days when I have to be in LA early, this is a viable, though tiring option.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Newbies: missing their stop

If you travel by train in rail-oriented cultures, like Japan, you'll find helpful signs on the train itself to tell you what the next station is, and how long till you arrive. On Amtrak, you have to rely on the conductors to make an announcement. Normally they tell you about 5 -10 minutes before you get to the station. But you have to be responsible for yourself. It's not really that hard--if you don't know the schedule, it's in each car. Since you walked upstairs to your seat, you should know how long it takes to walk downstairs to the door. This is particularly true in the superliner car, which does not have an exit--you have to walk into the next car to go downstairs to the door. Generally, you want to do this before you get to your stop.

This morning, I noticed a woman rushing past me after we stopped in Anaheim with two kids and suitcases. I always sit in the superliner, and almost as soon as they passed me the train started to move. I figured they didn't make it, and a few minutes later they trudged forlornly back to their seats. The doors had closed before they got there.

Unfortunately, it's the #563, which doesn't stop in Fullerton (just 10 minutes further up the line). Nope, they have a 40 minute ride to LA Union Station in front of them, before they can turn around and go back.

I feel sorry for them, but come on. It's a train. You know when it's supposed to get in. You know how long it takes to collect your kids and your luggage! They announced the station, but you should have been already getting your stuff.

Not a very nice way to start your vacation at Disneyland.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Rules of the Parking Lot

There's a definite culture of the parking lot at Solana Beach, where I park in the morning. For the early train (#763), I can usually find a spot in the section closer to the station. I get there around 20 minute early, because I build in padding in case there's an accident or delay on the freeway. Like most regulars, I back into the stall, which is absurdly wide. This makes the evening getaway easier because of all the people walking through the lot--I can see them better forwards than backwards.

Once parked, I leave the radio on and use my iphone to read the news while I finish my morning tea. Generally most of the cars around me are also occupied, with people reading the paper or sipping coffee. I go down to the platform around 10 minutes before the train is due.

An hour later, on the days I catch #563 (the pseudo-express, which is proving to be rather disappointing), I have to park considerably further away, usually past the third driveway. That gets to be a pretty long schlep to the platform, which I notice in the evenings when I do the walk in reverse. On the rare days it rains in San Diego, it is particularly sucky.

We all queue up to leave --often it's faster to drive away from the station and exit one of the more distal driveways, because the first driveway is clogged with people doing pickups. Then there is a mad dash up to the freeway on-ramp so we can get home and turn around and do it all again the next day.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Note to Amtrak: you can't call it an "Express"

....if you don't treat it as one.

Going into LA yesterday, #563 came to a stop at a signal right before the station and waited.

And waited and waited.

SEems there was no open spot amongst tracks 9,10,11, and 12. We had to wait for them to pull something out so we were 20 minutes late--which means it would have been an on-time arrival for the old #565, non-express.

C'mon. You couldn't put it in the "A" section of the track? moved another one of those trains? Planned ahead?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

So how's that express working for ya?

I've been taking the morning (semi) Express, #563, 1-2 times a week to LA.

The train it replaces, #565, was reliably ALWAYS late -- and seriously late, frequently by 20 minutes or so. I was acutely aware of how late this train was (scheduled arrival at 9.50), because I have to catch a shuttle in LA to get to work, which runs infrequently after 10am. And too often I had to resort to the Red Line and the Dash to make it to my office.

The good news is that 563 has been much more reliable. They did this not only by dropping a few stations but by putting it in front of, rather than behind a metrolink. It's scheduled into LA at 9.35 and most mornings, it has been on time.

Today, alas, was an exception. But generally the experience has been much better than expected, and I can make it to work by 10.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

New SD-LA express service

Amtrak is replacing train number 565 with train number 563 on weekdays. This new train, which leaves San Diego at 7.05 and Solana Beach at 7.39, will make fewer stops in Orange County, scheduled into LA nearly 20 minutes sooner.

If it manages to deliver on time arrival (more on which later), that makes the new 563 a viable alternative to 763 for me a few mornings a week, meaning I could sleep in for an extra hour. I'll let you know!

Update So far so good, 563 has been on time or early the two days I ahve taken it. It gives me an alternative, several days a week, to 763, which is an hour earlier. I can use the sleep.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Why does the dispatcher hate us?

Mobility along the train tracks is dependent upon the good will of the dispatcher, who serves as the rail equivalent of Air Traffic Control. The difference is that the dispatcher is controlling the physical signals and the switches that determine where the train goes (whereas the airtraffic controller tells the pilot what to do). If you sit at a red signal for a period of time, you can reflect on the will of the dispatcher.

Different parts of the system are controlled by different dispatchers--again, just as the air traffic control hands you off from district to district, my train ride involves hand-offs from Metrolink to the freight system BNSF, and so on. Since Amtrak doesn't own any rail, it relies on the good will of the responsible parties to switch it through. It doesn't take much of a cynic to think that if push comes to shove, a BNSF dispatcher is more likely to make the Amtrak wait if he can get his freight train past.

Usually in the evenings I go home on train #582, which has a number of scheduled "meets" with other trains. Because of single track, often one train must wait "in the hole" on a passing track while another goes by. Amtrak 582 has been doing better lately because a Metrolink schedule change reduced the number of meets in Orange County, so we're more likely to be on schedule when we get to Oceanside, in San Diego County.

But San DIego is mostly single track. And there's at least one meet with a northbound Coaster train between Oceanside and San Diego. We used to have this meet up in Carlsbad, but now we're doing it in Encinitas, much further south.

The other night we were all the way to Cardiff when we came to the stop. And we waited, and waited, and waited--almost 10 minutes, before the Coaster went by. Then we started up and ran into the Solana Beach Station, 3 minutes further along. The Solana Beach Station is double tracked.

Now, do you see my frustration? We were three minutes away from a double tracked station. YEt we waited 10 minutes for the coaster to come by. During some of that waiting time, the Coaster was in that station. Thus, we could have safely run into the station while he was still in it. Why did we wait? WHy didn't the dispatcher take us into the station (on time)?

My conclusion? The dispatcher hates us.

Apparently the North County Transit District (NCTD) is taking over the dispatching in San Diego County. Some commenters think that this is a bad thing for Amtrak, because they fear that the NCTD is likely to be provincial and favor Coaster trains, over the long-distance, regional Amtrak trains.

Based on my nightly experience with Amtrak 582, I am starting to suspect they may be right.

A few years ago, we visited Denmark, and wanted to go to one of the islands off the coast. Imagine our surprise to find that the nice person in the railway station could sell us a ticket not only on the train to the coast, but for the ferry over the water, and back again. The system is seamlessly integrated, making for a smooth trip, because everyone recognizes that travel is regional, not local.

But here, Amtrak waits in the hole.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cars versus trains: the power commute

Earlier this week I needed to move some things out of my office so I commuted by car instead of by train. Because of the residue of the holiday, traffic was light in the morning and I breezed up to LA in 1h40m, significantly faster than my normal travel time. The train ride is only 2h10m, but driving or taking the shuttle to and from the station involves a built-in cushion of waiting time, so my door-to-door travel time by Amtrak is about 3hours each way.

But even with the fast drive to LA, I still missed the train ride. Driving is hard work, requires constant focus, and most significantly prevents doing anything else. Without my morning train time, I didn't have a chance to read my email, scan the news, or get going on work (or write a blogpost! ;-). I arrived at my office feeling behind. While at work, I loaded a bunch of work things to read on my computer for the ride home--only to realize that I wouldn't be able to read them. The drive back was over 2h, with traffic heavy in parts. I arrived home tired, stiff, my back sore, and again, feeling behind. I felt a lot less productive than on a train day, even though I "gained" a couple of hours.

So, the comparison:
Car TrainWinner
cost $35 RT(tank of gas ) + wear plus parking ~$35, RT based on a 10 ride, free shuttle to work Draw
timeaverage 2h door to door each wayav 3h door to door each waycar
Productivitynil2 hours uninterrupted office work each waytrain
PHysicalstiff, stress roomy, can move around train
Environment greenhouse gas2-300 people sharing train

Now, if only there were a regular evening Amtrak leaving LA between the 5.10 and the 8.30, I'd be all set….