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.


Spokker said...

The coaster trains are filled with commuters. The Surfliner is an intercity train and is less time sensitive. There is more padding in the schedule to ensure that riders arrive on time.

The solution to this, of course, is double tracking the entire LOSSAN Corridor. There are projects under way but it's not as sexy as high speed rail, so it's slow running from here on out.

IT said...

Hi Spokker
Thanks for stopping by!

I take issue with your suggestion that padding lets us arrive on time and that we are intercity travelers. Here's why.

1) The Surfliner on that segment is heavily commuter--like me, I take it daily. The big transition point is Irvine (I actually go all the way to LA--daily.) I would guess that 60-70% of #582 is daily commuters 'cause I recognize 'em every day. If you need to get from Irvine to Solana Beach, you can only take Amtrak. Since metrolink adn coaster are not interlinked, Amtrak is the only option.

2) There isn't enough padding in the schedule for this. #582 was late daily 'till Metrolink changed the schedule. Now we're only late 50% o the time. By late I mean >10-15 min.

I keep a graph of my morning train delays. i don't bother with #582 as it's almost always late by at least 15min--or at least, until recently. So the schedule isn't sufficiently padded.

And the dispatcher is NCTD.

Amtrak coordinates with metrolink but I don't think there's the same coordination with NCTD.

You are absolutely correct that the solution is to double track as much as feasible.

Spokker said...

I think Metrolink's ROW has more double track. I know that it's double tracked from Fullerton to Laguna Niguel, so that's why it seems like Metrolink is better coordinated with Amtrak. Fact is, they just have more capacity to work with.

The OCTA and Metrolink have actually done a good job with the SCRRA right of way (with limited funding). They got rid of one of the worst bottlenecks in the Metrolink system in Santa Ana a few years ago.

IT said...

YEs, the single track through San Diego is certainly one of the big problems. Since Metrolink adjusted its schedule recently, the meets in the OC have been reduced and everything in that section has done better.

GNS said...

Check out our more irreverent view of the Surfliner!

IT said...

Thanks! I've linked you over on the sidebar.

GNS said...

We appreciate your link. Stop by the cafe car and say hello sometime. Just ask for the bloggers on the 763....

IT said...


I'm one of the 763 Superliner car regulars, tapping away on my laptop.

Anonymous said...

The solution would be for Metrolink and the Coaster to coordinate schedules so that commuters who travel from Oceanside down to San Diego don't have to deal with the Amcrap Rudeliner 582. I have three words to sum up Amcrap LOUD (constant intercom announcements ever 5 minutes all the way from LA to San Diego, as if we're kindergardners), RUDE (conductor makes a point to stress that the train will be very crowded and make room for "ticket paying passengers" as if commuters are not real passengers) and LATE getting to Oceanside about 60% of the time. I never want to set foot on the 582 ever again.

IT said...

I ride 582 nearly every day--it's much more reliable, usually, than the infamous 784. The SOLUTION is to coordinate the schedules properly and increase the double track so there are fewer meets.