Part I: Are We There Yet?
By JEC / Special to the San Diego Free Press
Its 6am – still dark with a morning fog when we board the Pacific Surfliner in San Diego. While there is a train leaving at 6:35 am, Amtrak urges passengers booked on the Coast Starlight to take the first train out at 6 am, likely based on experience with frequent delays. But today’s train leaves on time with a few dozen blurry eyed passengers. We were bound for Chicago via Oakland.
Days before we departed, I had mentioned to my doctor I was about to leave on a train trip, from San Diego to Chicago via Oakland. He looked up, surprised, “what, you can do that, take a train from here to Chicago?”
A more common response – why would you want to? Ask yourself, to get from one city to the next; to go from LA to the Bay Area or Sacramento, or San Diego to Phoenix – does Amtrak come to mind? If you’re like 96% of the population the answer is a simple no. In California only 5% rely on public transportation to get to and from and Amtrak accounts for only a small portion.
In you’re like most, what you know of Amtrak is limited to a few commuter or specialty trains like the ‘Acela’ and the ‘Autotrain’ on the east coast or in California it could be the Pacific Surfliner, the Capital Corridor or the San Joaquin – Amtrak’s three busiest routes outside the northeast. But using a train to travel hundreds of miles as they do in Japan and Europe is a rare thought to an American. The airline passenger load traveling through LAX on a typical day exceeds the entire passenger load for all of Amtrak’s long distance trains for the year. How come?
The intercity or long distance trains are to slow and are simply not reliable. Amtrak trains travel at speeds of 40 or 50 mph. The fastest scheduled segment of the Coast Starlight is 56 mph, slower than a crowded freeway. And like a NBC News headline from 2007 “Amtrak can’t Run its Trains on Time” (2/27/2007). No hesitation, no ‘allegedly’ late trains.
NBC and the Federal Railroad Authority (FRA) and the Department of Transportation have known for years – they have and will stipulate to the fact, intercity Amtrak trains run late. That NBC report stated the Coast Starlight, the West Coast’s Premier Amtrak train, was on-time (within 30 minutes of scheduled arrival) only 4% of the time. The California Zephyr from Oakland to Chicago was on-time only 7% of the time. By 2011 the FRA report to Congress gave the Starlight a 71% on-time performance rating. It’s all about the definitions.
Reliability may have a lot to do with that. It’s been said the Italian dictator Mussolini came to power by getting the trains to run on time. If California was Italy circa 1920’s, Amtrak would offer terrific opportunities for another Mussolini.
A Swedish tourist, a gentleman in his 60’s I met on the Coast Starlight, summed it up pretty good when I asked him what he thought of America’s train system. He broke eye contact and stared at the floor for a good half minute before looking back and with the best manners he could muster said in halting English:
“System? No system, not for getting any place; just for tourists.”
Author David Baldacci wrote about his trip to Los Angeles on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief. His popular book “The Christmas Train” was filled with personalities and drama. The book was entertaining because he focused on people and personalities and not the dry (and boring) topic of the state of Amtrak and the rails it runs. But every other first world nation; all of Europe, Japan, and now China, exploit rail to great advantage. Certainly America, and for that matter California, does not. Yet.
California Warming to High Speed
Things are starting to heat up. California again is out front with the passage of Proposition 1A in 2008 creating the California High Speed Rail Administration (CHSRA) and authorizing the issuance of nearly $10 billion in bonds to get things started. The first phase of what is described as “the backbone” of California’s future high speed rail system was finally approved, by a court of course, on November 16th. The
This first phase, expected to cost a somewhere between $4 -$6 billion will lay new track on new right of way from Fresno to Merced, a distance of 65 miles. According to the Fresno Bee (11/7/2012) just the 30 miles segment from Fresno to Madera will require the acquisition of between 400 and 500 parcels, mostly through eminent domain. The CHSR project is thick with controversy. One train supporter called it a swindle. Many court challenges are expected. The overall project is planned to take 20 years, or more. That’s a long time to wait to regain the train. And one criticism in particular stuck with me. The CHSRA is building islands – segments of a system that will not and cannot connect to the current system. Perhaps that’s not so bad. But then consider the existing track right of ways (ROW in the future) are interwoven with the roads and rivers; bridges and culverts, cities and stations. California and the trains grew up at the same time.
I’m a supporter of trains. The challenges being tossed at the CHSR idea concerned me. It seemed some direct education was called for. So that’s why my wife Sally and I decided to take a train from San Diego to Chicago and to see what we see along the way.
Amtrak’s long distance trains only run once a day – except for the Los Angeles to New Orleans Sunset Limited which runs only three times a week. With only one a day station stops occur any time day or night; getting on or off a train at 3 am makes using Amtrak a challenge.
Our Trip on Amtrak
Now back to our 6 a.m. boarding of the Pacific Surfliner. San Diego’s Amtrak station is the original terminal built by Union Pacific in the 1920’s. Architecture shared with many other train stations of the era, San Diego’s station has been renovated and looks pretty good.
Out of the station the Surfliner travels freeway speeds for all of six miles, slowing to 20 mph to weave through the ravens and canyons east of La Jolla. By the next stop Solana Beach the track straightens out and the train can resume its normal 60 mph provided the signals work. The signals, those red or green lights you see along the track actually control the trains. A few years back, the copper wire linking the signals from Solona Beach to Carlsbad had been stolen. That’s right, somehow no one, not Amtrak, not the freight company that owns the track, notice a crew stealing 16 miles of copper wire.
It took the Surfliner and every other train 90 minutes to make it the 14 miles from Solona Beach to Carlsbad; without the signals once the train reaches 20 mph safety protocols kick in and brings the train to a complete stop. The process is repeated a couple of dozen times before we make it past the broken signal system. As I sat staring out the window I recall wondering why the tracks were not fenced off as they are in Europe, Japan or any country that takes rail seriously.
On the north bound Surliner passengers seated on the port (left) side of the train are treated to beautiful ocean views before turning inland at Dana Point. Just past Dana Point, bang! Wow, a hard bump, everyone looks briefly nervous. A derailment happens somewhere in the U.S. on average once every 6 hours – according to the FRA. As we make our way thru Orange County the Surfliner collects more passengers at each stop. By Fullerton the 6 am out of San Diego becomes a commuter train. Folks north of Oceanside have the option of using a real commuter train, the LA based Metrolink. South of Oceanside the commuter in San Diego County is the Coaster.
For the most part the Metrolink, the Coaster and Amtrak use the same track. This is important; who owns the track? One train expert suggested that I avoid trying to explain ownership to the casual reader. Ownership is a patchwork quilt evolving from the original land grants that got the first tracks laid. Today most but not all rail in America is owned by one of seven freight companies; in the west two dominate – Burlington North (BNSF) and Union Pacific (UP). Track is engineered and maintained by and for rail freight companies. Freight doesn’t care about a smooth ride. The rough track can limit train speeds. Freight companies or ‘hosts’ as they are called also have the power to tell Amtrak at what speeds their trains may travel on any specific stretch of rail. This will come up again because the slow speeds dictate options.
Passing Santa Ana on our way to Los Angeles the view from the window is what I call graffiti industrial; over the aging factory walls and rusting box cars are layers of graffiti. The original cities helped grow the railroads; the railroads helped grow the cities. The original railroad right-of-ways link cities across America. Automobile dependent southern California is no exception. Like the branches of a tree, spur lines sprout off of the main track linking businesses to customers. If you care to see our industrial past ride a train and look out the windows.
Union Station LA
The Surfliner slows crossing the concrete lined Los Angeles River as it snakes its way thru switching yards with dozens of parallel tracks and hundreds a freight cars in various stages of rust and disrepair, past the LA County Central Jail arriving on time at track 9 at the Union Pacific station in downtown Los Angeles.
Union Station Los Angeles is a busy place. Hundreds of people hurry to catch LA’s revised transit system, the Metrolink or one of a few Amtrak trains. From one of 16 tracks, passengers negotiate their way down 70 year old concrete ramps into the bowels of the Station. Walkways are narrow and crowded. Watch out for Red Caps driving electric carts filled with older passengers; a nice service, unless you’re the one walking. It’s 300 or so yards into the central area. Inside among the dark wood high back seats under 30 foot tall ceilings, passengers for the Coast Starlight are instructed to sit and wait until the train is ready. The Coast Starlight begins in Los Angeles; it’s scheduled to depart at 10:15, a layover of 100 minutes.
But today the Starlight starts late. Passengers grumble wondering how or why a train that originates in Los Angeles is late. No explanations are offered by Amtrak staff. We are allowed to board at 11 am. But before we sit down the electrical power in the train shuts off. The power goes up and down twice before we get going at 11:15, one hour late. I know this is a bad omen because now the Starlight has lost its position on the single tracks.
We later learn the reason for our late start; the Starlight is towing a privately owned classic passenger car. Carrying only the owner, the Starlight is earning thousands transporting the car up to Portland Oregon where it’s to be rented out. The electrical systems did not integrate very well, hence the problems with the train’s electrical system when we first boarded.
Sections of the rails stretching north out of LA are single tracked. Each train, north and south, whether the Metrolink, Amtrak or a freight are assigned time slots. Miss your slot and you’ll be forced to sit at a siding to let oncoming trains pass or to travel slower to avoid hitting a train in front. “Freight interference”, and the fact freight trains have priority over Amtrak is credited with causing approximately 80% of Amtrak’s delays. North of LA one particularly bad pinch point is the Santa Suzanna tunnel between Chatsworth and Simi Valley.
A few years ago a south bound Metrolink train from Oxnard was running late. The engineer either failed to see the red light because he was busy texting or was trying to beat the north bound freight. We’ll never know for sure because it collided with an oncoming freight; many died including the engineer. The single track is deadly.
The Starlight slowly makes its way past Glendale on the way to two stops in the San Fernando Valley never traveling faster than 40 mph. It feels wrong, the cars on the freeway next to our train, speeding past. I don’t know why but a picture of the Beverly Hillbillies in their old jalopy pops into my head. It occurs to me, having missed our time slot also involves the Metrolink. LA’s regional commuter rail makes a six stops across the valley and runs five trains a day. The Starlight has but two stops across the valley and could easily overrun the Metrolink. Add freight trains to this confusing mix and you can imagine the stress levels of the dispatchers. And the entire valley is doubled tracked. The challenge is planning for those single track pinch points between the valley and areas north in Ventura County and beyond.
In Van Nuys the Starlight is put off on a siding to let a south bound Metrolink pass; the electricity flickers off then on before we resume five minutes later. In the Simi Valley station we sit again. We’re falling further behind, now an hour and fifteen minutes late. Through Ventura County the rails sneak east of Thousand Oaks running from Simi Valley heading northwest toward Ventura. The rails once offered bucolic views of farms and fields; orchards of citrus and strawberries hiding small agricultural communities like Moorpark and Saticoy. Today the view is mainly housing developments and strip malls.
Just before reaching the City of Ventura glimpses of the ocean come into view. The lounge car with a second deck covered in a dome of windows offers the best all-around views. With a drink in hand it can be one of the best bars you’ll ever have the chance to visit. When it came to train stations Ventura got gipped. Little more than a wide spot by the track distinguished by benches with a rain cover and a small sign, only the Surfliner comes to Ventura. The Starlight doesn’t stop. But then while the Starlight runs but once a day in each direction, fortunately for the locals the Surfliner runs five times a day in each direction. Unfortunately all the track from Simi Valley north is single track and mostly unfenced.
The track northwest of Ventura seems to be a popular area for taking walks – on the tracks. Seven years ago plans were made that included using the south bound Surfliner from Ventura. The north bound Surfliner was involved in an accident; the train struck and killed a man in his 70’s walking his dog on the tracks. Tracks are unfenced, fully accessible to anything and anyone who happens by. The north bound, with all the passengers, was held for six hours as the Medical Examiner and Sheriff investigated. The north bound train was the south bound train. The domino affect eventually led to the entire rail system in southern California all the way to San Diego, freights and all, getting shut down for over eight hours. An amazing coincidence; on Tuesday, two days ago the exact same thing happened in almost the exact same place. Sadly another senior citizen and another dog were killed.
In 2011 trains in the U.S. killed 406 ‘trespassers’ people walking were they shouldn’t, or trying to hop a train. Amtrak hit 73 of those 406. And California is in first place for trespasser deaths, killing 56 people in 2011. We fence off freeways; we fence off airports; tracks in Europe and Japan are all fenced. But we Americans like to live life on the wild side exposing our rail system to sudden death syndrome.
Santa Barbara and Beyond
In the twenty miles before Santa Barbara the views are like a picture postcard of some of California’s most beautiful coastline. Beyond Santa Barbara a single track follows the coast. Unlike the U.S. Hiway 101 freeway, the track takes the train out to Point Conception and along the shoreline through Vandenberg Air Force Base. Stunning undeveloped beauty of ocean and land, except for the occasional missile launching site Vandenberg is coastal California as it was originally discovered; covered by scrub brush and ice plant. Just south of the agricultural community of Guadalupe on the north edge of Vandenberg the Starlight pulls off onto a siding and sits for 30 minutes. This could be called a scheduled stop. Though today we are late, the train will stop on this siding even if it’s running on time. At least it’s a nice view from the rise looking out across the fields of the Santa Maria valley.
Through Arroyo Grande and Pismo Beach the tracks reconnect with Hiway 101 and turn inland on the way to San Luis Obispo. This is the end of the ocean views; the tracks will never again see the Pacific Ocean the entire trip to Seattle.
In San Luis Obispo (SLO) the train sits another 20 minutes losing more time. We are now 90 minutes behind schedule as the train departs SLO. The tracks take you through some beautifully forested hills and mountains of central California north of SLO. Rolling gold, the velvet like dry grasses color the hills. The rails slowly climb over a thousand feet to get to the east side of the Coast mountain range. If the train was on time there would be wonderful views of the rounded hills of the Coast Range. It’s one of those places that makes California is so attractive. But today those views are cut short by a setting sun. Amtrak considers the scenery when planning routes and schedules. Too bad that can’t control the schedule.
It’s dinner time on the Coast Starlight; reservations are required to eat on table clothes in the Dinner car. No quiet romantic dinners, Amtrak insists on seating four people at each table. No, you won’t be split up, but two couples are normal. On the menu salads, chicken, steak or cheeseburgers; mash potatoes, French fries, baked potatoes, select vegetables. I opt for a steak with bake potato. “Sorry sir, we’ve run out of bake potatoes.” Curious, we are about the first to order the first of two dinners to be served on the Starlight and they are already out of bake potatoes. I couldn’t resist; “truth, did bake potatoes get loaded on the train?”
I give Amtrak credit for putting on a nice setting; clean white table clothes, cloth napkins and a fresh flower on every table. Sadly the quality of the food is not good. Though I spent a great deal of time drinking beer and wine on the way to Chicago, I lost four pounds. Amtrak trains travel through large and capable cities, often making long stops to replace engine crews or refill the water tanks which need refilling every seven to eight hours. We, myself and fellow passengers, wondered why Amtrak doesn’t use the internet to order up fresh cooked meals from restaurants at stops along the route. The Coast Starlight is an Amtrak premier train with Wifi. Oh yeah, we realized. The train would have to be reliably on time. It’s not. And the Wifi would need to work. It doesn’t.
We are moving slowly, for a train. My Garmin GPS puts our speed at 38 mph or less most of the trip from SLO to Salinas. And then there are more unexplained delays. Two minutes here four minutes there, the reasons are not obvious nor explained. Two days later while having lunch on the California Zephyr somewhere in Iowa I am seated with a fellow passenger who happened to be on the Starlight five days earlier. I mentioned three stops between King City and Salinas. “Broken crossing guards” he informed me. “You’re lucky, five days ago six were broken; looks like the UP finally fixed a few.”
It seems when the crossing gates don’t work, the train must come to a complete stop. An engine crew member gets out and manually pushes a switch to drop the crossing gate. The train moves the short distance across the road; the crew member flips the switch again to raise the crossing gate and gets back on before the train can proceed. All trains, including freights, must go through this exercise. If there’s one thing I learned on my three days to Chicago; everyone who knew anything about trains, including customers of UP freight services shared the same opinion. UP doesn’t give a f#*k about maintenance. By Salinas the Starlight is now two hours and ten minutes behind schedule.
Its 8:50 pm, we’re in Salinas and our pre-paid hotel room is just 113 miles away in Emeryville (tucked between Oakland and Berkeley). I’m now seeing a potential down side of booking through Hotel.Com and paying in advance. Even at 40 mph we should be there by 11:30, midnight at the latest. After all, there are only two more stops. And the Bay Area is double tracked.
From Salinas to San Jose, 67 miles the train never gets to 40 mph. We slow, we stop, we move, it’s 10:55 pm by the time we pull into San Jose, 2 hours and 20 minutes late. A dozen passengers get off, seven get on. The Starlight was scheduled to arrive at Emeryville at 9:57 pm; its 11:10 pm by the time the train moves and we still have 41 miles to Oakland and then another five miles to our destination and our pre-paid hotel bed.
Finally Arrive in Oakland 18 Hours Later
We pull into Oakland just after midnight. No problem, a scheduled ten minute stop, the train gets moving, but, then stops. We moved about 1,000 yards into a switching yard. Work lights shots streaks though the haze of moist air giving a surreal accent to the train yard at midnight. And we sit. Down stairs I open a window to get a good look. From a worker I learn another private car for transport north is being hooked to our train. I’m thinking why we didn’t get off in Oakland. I’m thinking “this is an Amtrak ‘Premier’ train”. The lights on our train flicker. Ok, we are now officially concerned. It’s ten minutes before 1 am and we ‘re sitting in a train switching yard next to freeway overpasses. Amtrak offers no explanation. We have no idea if or when we’ll make it to Emeryville. Fellow passengers swap stories of trains arriving 10, 12 hours late. Last year, in September, the Empire Builder, a long distance train from Seattle to Chicago was doing fine until North Dakota. A series of equipment failures and the train pulled into St. Paul, Minn. 15 hours late.
We could see a street about 600 yards across the tracks. We asked about leaving; they said no. It’s been a long day. A bed, a shower, some Taco Bell all would be much appreciated. But will we make it.
Next up … Part II , One Zephyr too Soon.