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Perspective 002—My First Amtrak Journey

By Peter K. Sheerin

June 9, 2002

Restoration of the photos will happen shortly.

When it came time to book travel arrangements for a trade show in Anaheim recently (A/E/C Systems 2002), I decided to fly out of San Jose via Southwest, but return on train. The difference in travel time was significant—about 1 hour by air but 17 hours by train—but I wanted to experience Amtrak first-hand. Beginning this article just as we’re pulling out of Los Angeles (30 minutes late), I can come to only one conclusion.

Don’t prolong the pain—put it out of its misery now.

The various parts of my trip are a good comparison between a well-run regional government organization (MetroLink), a well-run state-federal partnership (the Caltrans-Amtrak California service), and a bloated, uncaring, inefficient federal agency that is the reason train travel isn’t more pervasive in the United States.

Though Amtrak has a new head, (David Gunn), I strongly doubt Congress will give him the flexibility and authority needed to make Amtrak perform well enough to attract enough passengers and revenue to make it a worthwhile endeavor, so just kill it now before we through good money after bad.

Surf’s Up—Prelude to the Long-Haul

My journey began when I left the Anaheim Marriott and took a cab to the local Amtrak station. My train of choice, the Coast Starlight, begins from Los Angeles, so I had to take the Pacific Surfliner route for the hour-long trip to LA. When a train pulled up a few minutes before
8:00 and the couple next to me boarded, I just followed them, as I knew they were meeting the Coast Starlight as well. After the doors closed and the train departed, we found out it was a local commuter train (the slick, bright, and clean MetroLink).

How did we make this mistake? While I should have known better because the cars were so nice, there was no announcement made and no conductor in the car we boarded to ask before the train departed. Fortunately, the next stop would let us catch the proper Amtrak train.

The MetroLink cars are fabulous. Unlike the “gallery cars” that Caltrain uses, these were sleek-looking, spacious inside, had wide staircases to switch between levels, lots of seats facing each other (a few even had tables), and the lower level was close to the ground, making boarding easy. (It will be interesting to see if Caltrain screws up this layout when it begins using some of the Seattle SOUNDER cars of the same design.)

http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/rail/calcars/calcarint1.jpg

When we switched to the Pacific Surfliner run, the coach cars were different, but just as nice in most ways. This train uses a whole new class of cars—an enhancement of the “California Car” [Amtrak photos] [TrainWeb photos] used on the San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor Amtrak routes, and named, appropriately, the “Surfliner” [TrainWeb photos] class. Designed for long-haul routes rather than commuter runs, the seats were just as comfortable, the lower level was just as low to the ground, the staircases just as wide, and most of the seats on the upper level reclined. But unlike the cramped airline seats, these were spacious, each row had an electrical outlet, and the food trays were humongous—large enough for my laptop to fit with room enough for my travel-size optical mouse.

On both of these legs, the conductors were polite and spoke perfect English, so I had no trouble understating their directions and responses to my questions. Both MetroLink and the Pacific Surfliner are run by Amtrak, but indirectly, and with most of the financial support coming from the local and state governments

Los Angeles Amtrak Station

You’ve been through LAX (the LA International Airport), right? Nice and big, clear signage, bright, comfortable interior design, nice amenities including restaurants, and (mostly) efficient staff.

The Amtrak station was none of this. The causeways and tunnels connecting the platforms and the station were drab, brown, and cold concrete and tile structures. The outside platforms were too cold, the inside waiting room too hot, and there were no moving sidewalks, even though no modern airport would make you walk the distance from the platforms to the waiting room without one.

Inside, the bathrooms smelled and were not well-maintained (the stall I used had graffiti carved in the seat and its coat-hook was missing. It was also chaos—I was directed to get my boarding pass “down at H”, whatever that meant, and by the time I found the check-in counter (which turned out to be “F”, and labeled “Sunset Limited”), the line was 20-minutes long, and my boarding pass turned out to be a small card with the following scrawled on it—“1415” (the car number I was to board), “SJC” (San Jose—my destination), and “1” (I can only assume I was the first person going to San Jose to check in).

Once the train arrived and boarding began, the real fun started. I went looking for car number 1415 (the changeable numbers in the little window next to the door, not the obvious, large numbers painted on the side), and stood in line. When it came my time, the attendant told me I was in the wrong place (she had forgotten to change the number), and that I should go
down to the last car (#1113), which was designated for San Jose-bound passengers.

I found the last car, but it was labeled 1113 (not 1415), the door was closed, and there was no attendant present. There was one at the penultimate car, along with a long line, so I figured that must be the right place. When I asked the attendant, I thought he said yes, but after I walked to the end of the line he called after me, and I finally understood what he was saying—he would begin boarding the San Jose car (the last one indeed) once he was finished with this one. Sure enough, when he was done, he started boarding anyone traveling in groups of two. The one couple in our line was half on the train already (literally) before he realized they were in the wrong place. The remaining six of us boarded quickly, and found our assigned seats (clumped together, though it was apparent we would be traveling for many, many miles with a nearly empty car).

SuperLiner—Not!

After my pleasant journey on the MetroLiner Bombardier cars and the Amtrak “Surfliner Cars”, I was looking forward to the long journey stretched out in a comfortable seat with a power outlet within easy reach.

While coach class on Amtrak’s SuperLiner [TrainWeb photos] car is far more spacious than any airplane’s business class (with the spacing between rows measured in feet, not inches), it was a far cry from the California Car I had left an hour earlier.

The first thing I noticed was the color scheme. Muted grays and purples mixed with earth tones. More depressing than the happy mood produced by the cheerful, bright decoration of the two other trains I had enjoyed during the hour of 8:00.

The second thing I noticed was the lack of a power outlet at my seat—or at any of the seats I had passed. When I found the conductor and asked about this, he said there was one outlet on each level of these cars (I can only assume they’re meant for vacuum cleaners), and then listed three seat numbers it might be next to (one of them was indeed correct—the third one he mentioned and that I tried).

Fortunately, no one else had been assigned to this seat, so I settled in and flipped down the food tray so I could open up the laptop. But this tray turned out to be slightly smaller than most airline trays I’m used to—leaving my laptop hanging off the front and back, with no room on the side for a mouse. It also didn’t slide back far enough for me to reach the keyboard while reclined—as did the tray in the wonderful California Car.

On the plus side, the seats do recline more than airline seats, and in addition to the bus-style footrest there is a fold-up leg support that makes reclining quite comfortable. But you’ll have to lift it up carefully to the correct height, since the lever that releases it is an all-or-nothing affair—touch it and the cushion drops completely, ready to frustrate your attempts to set a comfortable yet again.

Amenities

Each car does have plenty of lavatories, and there was also a pay phone in the lower level of the lounge car (99¢ set-up fee + $1.99/minute, as I recall), but no internet access.

On the lower level of the parlor car is a relatively large area for children (ages 12 and under) to play. This is a thoughtful touch. Kids must be accompanied by adults, and no food or drink is allowed.

Food

Perhaps the travelers with sleeping berths get decent food, but those of us in coach are faced with a limited menu (with all the meat well-done, due to federal regs) and a high-priced snack bar.

We were told over the PA system that the dining car would be opening late (though not how late) because of delays in putting the consist together. When I sat down for lunch (with one retired couple and a financial planner—all interesting, friendly people, and one of the highlights of the trip) I found out the real story through the staff’s rumor mill. The chef had
arrived late. Hence the dining car opened at 1:00 instead of 11:30. And even though we left the station a half-hour late, they still didn’t have the wine list the menu promised. (The wine was on board, but the waiter couldn’t say what brands were available.)

Niles and Frazer Crane would not have liked this, to say the least.

Service?

While most all of the attendants I spoke with on the MetroLink and Caltrans-run Amtrak were courteous and spoke clear English, much of the staff on the Coast Starlight speaks with thick accents and grammar that is difficult to understand, and they are not as polite.

For instance, I boarded without quite enough cash for food and snacks during the journey ($10 minimum for credit card purchases), so at the first several stops, I asked several of the coach attendants if there was an ATM at the current or next stop. None of them knew, and none could be specific about how long the train would be stopped, so there wasn’t time to
search, either. When I asked the station attendants, at least they had a partial answer—none here, but maybe at the next major stop…though there never was.

Oh, and remember that I’m traveling in the last car? Seems that there aren’t quite enough attendants to go around, so at the last several stops, the train has been standing still for a minute or so before our car realized we were even at a station, instead of an unplanned stop. And when the door remained closed, we took it upon ourselves to open it and put out the
boarding step so we could detrain and enjoy the fresh air.

I expected an apology from the attendants—not the dirty look that we got each time. At least tell us beforehand we have to move one car up to disembark, or just don’t open the last car at all. But don’t strand us.

Scenery

This is without question one of the best aspects of the Coast Starlight—you’re taken along stretches of the California coast that you just can’t see from anywhere else, because many of the highways turn inland. You get to travel through Vandenberg Air Force Base, where at least one launch tower is visible. Past many scenic beaches with spectacular views of the
Pacific Ocean—though I was expecting to see a few sea lions, what I saw instead amazed me—dolphins, within 200 feet of shore, leaping and foraging among the kelp forests.

Even the inland stretches of track (much of the journey) are stunning. You pass through a good deal of farmland, as well as unspoiled canyons and many rural areas. It gives you a much better perspective of what California looks like when you’re not in the urban and suburban areas of dense development.

All the Time in the World

I began my journey at 7:00 am, wanting to arrive at the Anaheim Amtrak station with plenty of time to check my bags and get my boarding pass. The Coast Starlight left at about 10:30—30 minutes late. And it arrived at the San Jose station at 9:08—41 minutes late. Instead of catching the 9:00 Caltrain run for the last leg of my journey, I had to wait almost 1-1/2 hours for the next (and last) run at 10:30. This put me into the Hillsdale Caltrain station at 11:22, and home by taxi at nearly midnight.

17 hours to get from Anaheim to Foster City.

That trip should only take 6 hours—with stations that are inviting and well-organized, using modern trains that are
well-designed for passenger comfort, with station and train staff that are knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful.

And all the local transit agencies should have decent connecting service that doesn’t make me wait for an hour or more at each transfer.

This will take a lot of changes to personnel, trainsets, track, and mindset, but in my opinion, would be worth it. You’ll have to add track so that freight traffic doesn’t delay passenger trains, upgrade existing track to support higher speeds (clinking along at 33 miles-per-hour is not the way a long-distance train should be operating), eliminate grade crossings, and fire anyone that isn’t truly helping passengers while being nice and knowledgeable (without any stupid union rules to prevent this).

Oh, and Amtrak must also make its Web site easy to use—and provide pictures of its equipment (both interior and exterior, please), so that potential passengers can be impressed enough to book travel.

If David Gunn can do all of that, then you’ll be able to convince me that Amtrak is worth saving.

Otherwise, kill the system now, because it will never be an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and will never have a significant impact on our travel patterns until such drastic changes (and more) are made.


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