Thursday, May 29, 2014

Amtrak's Summer Curse

One of my fellow commuters refers to the frequent Friday delays on Pacific Surfliner 784 as the #FridayCurse.  Probably it's the effect of people using the train for the weekend.   

But what's the excuse for the summer delays?

Last week on Tuesday, Northbound Surfliner 565 had to hook up to a disabled Coaster train and push it out of the way.  This required edging up to the Coaster almost delicately, connecting the couplers, and then all the power and air hoses.  The pressure gets tested and then we pushed.  Eventually we got it to doubletrack where we could disconnect, back up, and go around it.  Score that for an hour+ late into LA.

That afternoon it happened again.  Southbound Surfliner 582 had a long stop near the freight yard in east LA, while the engineer "replaced the lights on the engine."  Apparently that didn't work, so we had to limp slowly downline.  Apparently a lightless locomotive can't go through a crossing in the daylight at any faster than 20mph or something.  After San Juan Capistrano, we pulled aside at the woodpile, and waited for the next Amtrak, 784, to come past, back up, and tow us to San Diego.  I was about 2.5 hours late on that leg. So last Tuesday was really bad.

Every train I took last week was late to some extent, and it didn't get fixed this week.  On Tuesday, I left early and caught train 580, the 3.00 departure from LA.  At the woodpile, we stopped.  And waited.  Once the Northbound train passed, I figured we would get moving....but no, we waited.  And then a southbound metrolink PASSED us.  And still we waited.  We waited OVER AN HOUR at the woodpile, so we were 90+ minutes late getting home.

Last night it was almost a relief that 580 was only 30 minutes late.

What's going on?  I'm calling it #AMtrakSummerCurse

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A visit to the National Railway Museum in York. UK

Everything a train fan wants, including the bright blue Mallard, holder of the speed record for steam;  a range of historic locomotives, and a fascinating selection of passenger coaches.  And lessons in how to run a railroad, including the levers that manually control switches in some more remote parts of the country.  (Mainline switching is all automated as you would expect).

Monday, May 5, 2014

Intercity rail travel in the UK

East Coast express at Kings Cross
Recently we traveled to England, where we took three trains.  British Rail was broken up a few years ago, and regionally based companies compete (back to the days of the GWR....).   Back in the days of British Rail (when I lived in the UK in the early 90s), they were notorious for delays and problems and creative excuses.   But things have definitely gotten better.  The stations have been thoroughly modernized, and everything was quite efficient.

We traveled from London to York (East Coast Rail), York to Liverpool (Trans-Pennine Express), and Liverpool to London (Virgin Rail).

First, ticket booking:  I could book all the travel through one site (, reserve seats, and collect all my tickets at once through a machine at the first station.  This was great, since it meant I didn't have to worry about collecting tickets for each journey separately.  Advance booking saved money, as travel is quite expensive in the UK and last minute unreserved adds up.  There is also first class travel if you want to spend more. (We didn't.)  And, of course slow trains, or those that connect, will cost less than those that are express and call only at a few major stops.

You absolutely MUST know what time your train is scheduled to depart (and what company runs it) as there are no train numbers:  simply "the 9.52 East Coast departure to Edinburgh is on track 8".  If you are getting off at an intervening stop, you have to look at the list of stations on the board, to see if yours is there.  And remember, there may be a 9.57 train to Durham, which also calls at York--so you really need to know that your booking is for 9.52, not 9.57.

All our trains were on time.  The two intercity trains (London to York, and Liverpool to London)  were modern, single level trains, somewhat cramped inside.  There were little cardboard tabs in the seats if they were reserved, and these said where they were reserved TO.  For example, ours said "reserved to York".  Seats are reminiscent of the new, thin seats on Southwest Airlines.  An attendant pushed through a trolley with snacks on it, and there was a cafe car.    Luggage space was extremely limited;  our coach ran out quickly and people had to walk back to the baggage car (11 or 12 cars back!) to put their cases in.

Narrow inside
The train to Liverpool (trans-Pennine express) was a small train almost like a light rail train.  We didn't see any toilets on board, and it stopped in all sorts of places.  The trans-Pennine part went through long tunnels, so the view was disappointing.

The Virgin train back down to London was similar to the north bound train.

So how does Amtrak stack up, at least the Surfliner?  Our trains are big and the seats are better, but the ride is harsh and rocky (and let's not even mention the hideous Amfleets). We do have better beer and outgoing, often quirky LSAs and conductors.  The British crew are, well, British.  The Surfliner, capable of >100mph, does not reach anything like full speed.  Not so across the pond: our trip from London to York was about 175 miles, and we did it in under 2 hours, making 2-3 stops on the way. My Surfliner from SOL to LAX is 120 miles, and takes over 2 hours. Of course, the mainline routes we were on in the UK do not have single track, so we never waiting "in the hole".

Sleek looking locomotive
Now, of course it's not perfect.  We happened to be lucky with no delays, or problems. But overall, you can tell the difference of a country that puts investment into passenger rail and one that doesn't.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Happy Birthday LA Union Station! (photos)

Celebrating 75 years this year, LA Union Station is getting a cosmetic makeover.

They've moved the arrivals/departures board into two boards in the lounge,

The big board is gone, new lighting and detail 

At last, modern board!

The plyboard that blocked the old ticket hall has been removed so you can see it and all its detail

Love the old ticket hall, which features in movies!
The only weird thing is that they have compressed all the seating into half of the departure hall, and cordoned it off with a guard to watch -- you have to have an Amtrak or Metrolink ticket departing in 2 hours to sit down now. NOt sure what they plan to do with all the open space.
Departures.  Seating on the left, lots of space on the right

And wouldn't it be cool if that old art deco restaurant across the courtyard could reopen.  Meanwhile Traxx restaurant is doing well-- I had dinner there a few weeks ago, and it was quite good!

The view from the bar to the unused restaurant

The old Harvey restaurant is across a small courtyard from the Bar.  Taken through the glass.  Read more here!

never noticed the detail over the door to the bar

The tunnel has been improved with paint, bright photographs and new platform signs in Art Deco font. And there are finally meaningful departure boards for EACH track, plus much better direction signage to the transit plaza, buses, main  station, Metro etc.

Tunnel is all spiffed up

Most of the platforms ahve new signage (except for platform 6, tracks 11-12)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Writer in residence on a train?

This is cool.
What an appealing idea: US rail company Amtrak has begun offering writers residencies on trains, after the author Alexander Chee expressed a wistful longing to write on trains in a recent interview. The writer Jessica Gross tweeted her approval, “because it would allow for uninterrupted creativity and window-gazing”, and Amtrak picked up on the idea; Gross has now travelled to Chicago and back, writing about her journey for the Paris Review, and Chee is due to take his own journey later this year. More trips – free, or as low-cost as possible – will follow, Amtrak told The Wire. The eventual goal, said Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak, is to “engage with writers several times a month”.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What's the future of the Southwest Chief?

The New York Times reports today that unless CO, KS, and NM contribute to track upgrades, the Southwest Chief may be no more.
Unless all three states pitch in, Amtrak says it will potentially drop nine small-town stations in favor of existing track in Texas and Oklahoma.

“The train is not viable as a business when it operates at a lower speed, because it ends up being slower than driving,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, adding that the company does not have the funding to pay for the upgrades on its own. 

The Southwest Chief, which runs in both directions once a day, needs to reach 79 miles per hour wherever possible to make its scheduled stops on time, Mr. Magliari said. If old track is not replaced soon, he added, the train will have to travel at slower speeds for longer distances.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Stay off the tracks!

I'm sitting on the 565 this morning, delayed as we make all the Metrolink stops to LA.  Seems a bicyclist went around a crossing gate in Norwalk and was hit by a Metrolink train.  Back in November, 565 hit a woman who ducked under a crossing gate in Anaheim (fortunately I was not on the train....i've been spared that experience so far).  Last Friday, a man chasing a runaway dog was killed by a train in Del Mar.  (The dog was unhurt.)

People:  you have got to stay off the tracks.  The gates don't go/stay  down unless there is a train coming.  on this busy corridor, just because one train has passed doesn't mean another isn't coming. If they are down, obey them!  Just stay away!  Trains are surprisingly silent, and they travel very quickly.
These are such tragedies, and so preventable.

Though it is true that the Del Mar crossing is very dangerous.  The train comes off a blind curve and cuts RIGHT across the narrow, busy coast boulevard, full of pedestrians.  People don't want to wait for the gate, but don't realize that the train comes so fast and silently around the curve. I don't see how (other than complete realignment of the tracks, to who-knows-where) you can make that a safe crossing.

Running on the bluffs or hiking in the Rose canyon in the San Diego corridor, one sometimes needs to cross the tracks. I admit, I do this on occasion;  there's no proper crossing where the trails go over the tracks, so one has to jaywalk.  I always choose a place where I can see as far as possible in both directions.  I stop.  I look at the nearest signals (they will be lit if there is a train nearby).  I look up and down the tracks.  I listen (the tracks will start to hum even when the train is quite a ways away). And I get across the tracks as quickly as I possibly can.

We can live easily with trains.  It just takes some respect--and some common sense.