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….