By Noel T. Braymer
Even the best plans can get derailed. I planned to catch a mid-afternoon train out of Oceanside on a recent Friday to see a friend and his wife off who were taking the Sunset to travel home after a California vacation. The plan was they would meet me at LAUS when I got off the train and we would wait for the Sunset at the First Class Lounge at Union Station since they had a sleeper as usual. Things started off well enough.I planned to take Metrolink Train 609 at 3:26 PM from Oceanside to Los Angeles arriving at 5:35 PM.I got to the Oceanside station a good 10 minutes before departure time. But the ticket machine by the platforms had a long line of people trying to buy Metrolink tickets. I went over to the ticket machine by the Amtrak ticket office. This ticket machine was also working and the line was shorter. But it was still taking about 10 minutes to wait in line and buy a ticket. I didn’t want stay to buy my ticket and run to the platform and hope to catch my train before it left. I ended up just before 3:26 PM buying a round trip ticket at the nearby Amtrak ticket office for the next Surfliner to Los Angeles.
Surfliner 583 leaves Oceanside at 3:41 PM, only 15 minutes after Metrolink 609. It is scheduled to arrive at Los Angeles at 5:40 PM only 5 minutes after Metrolink 609 arrived . Several of the people who were waiting to buy Metrolink tickets for the 609 missed their train. The afternoon schedule at Oceanside for Metrolink doesn’t make a lot of sense. The last morning Metrolink train out of Oceanside leaves for Riverside at 7:37 AM. The first afternoon Metrolink train, the 641 leaves Oceanside at 3:01 PM for Fullerton. Just 25 minutes after that, Metrolink 609 leaves Oceanside for Los Angeles. The next and last train, the 812 out of Oceanside when it leaves on time is at 4:27 PM for San Bernardino. That’s 3 trains in less than 90 minutes and then nothing again until the next morning. The 3:01 departure of the 641 connects at Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo with train 808 to San Bernardino. The 609 can connect with the 810 to San Bernardino with a 35 minute wait. But the 812 out of Oceanside doesn’t connect with any trains in Orange County going to Anaheim or Los Angeles.It seems odd to have so little service most of the day and then 3 trains so close together.
The trip on Amtak was a pleasant surprise. The 583 was almost 5 minutes early arriving in Oceanside. The train was clean, comfortable and the ride was smooth. The only problem was when the train got to the junction just outside of the Fullerton Station to the BNSF Southern Transcon mainline, We had to wait several minutes for a long container train headed east. This is not an isolated experience. It is not uncommon for passenger trains to be held at this junction because of freight trains. Freight trains are usually on the center track of the 3 tracks at Fullerton. Northbound passenger trains usually run on the east track and southbound passenger trains on west track at Fullerton. When a freight train is on the center track, this blocks northbound trains from crossing the center track to the east track. The solution to this which has been proposed since the 1980’s is to build a flyover to allow northbound trains to go over or under the center track and reach the east track. This will be needed as more and longer freight trains are run by the BNSF. This will be particularly true when High Speed Rail trains are running between Anaheim and Los Angeles in the next 14 years or so.
Because of the delay at Fullerton, we were 4 minutes late getting into Los Angeles Union Station. I was hoping to meet my friends as I got off the train. But I wasn’t surprised they weren’t there because they were driving a rental car going south to Los Angeles. This Friday the I-5 was shut down because of mudslides after a flash flood in northern Los Angeles County. All traffic from the I-5 was being detoured to the 101 along the coast. Traffic was terrible and my main concern for my friends was they might not reach Union Station on time to catch the Sunset that night.
I spent the first few hours walking or standing in the Station hoping my friends would find me. At 6 foot 3 and well over 200 pounds I usually stand out in a crowd. I could have caught the Surfliner 790 out of LAUS at 7:30 PM. But I decided to wait for the last train, the 796 leaving at 10:10 PM. I later learned that my friends arrived at Union Station a little after 6 PM and looked for me, but we missed each other. They then settled into the First Class Amtrak Lounge and sent me an email inviting me to come over and see them. I never got this email on my phone, but found it the next morning on my computer. One thing I noticed spending an evening at Union Station was how busy it was, even at night. With each train arrival there would be a new stream of people entering the waiting room. Plus there were people waiting for the trains leaving that night. Being a Sunset train departure night no doubt made this Friday night busier than non Sunset train nights. This activity made the wait more interesting. I was also watching the Arrival and Departure displays in the Waiting Room. Despite all the delays that day and night on the freeway, the Coast Starlight arrived early that night. But I couldn’t help noticing the train I was waiting for, the 796 was running late and getting later for its arrival in Los Angeles before proceeding to Oceanside and San Diego.
Sometime after 9 PM I finally decided to try to call my friends to find out what happened to them.I was afraid they were still stuck in traffic and might miss the Sunset. But I didn’t get an answer. By this time the 796 was about 90 minutes late. So it was looking like I would get home even later than I expected. Around 9:45 PM there was an announcement on the station PA which I didn’t catch the start of. But it was a departure notice for a train going to Oceanside and San Diego. But the Arrival and Departure Boards at the station didn’t confirm this. But I decided to find out what was going on. I walked down the length of the tunnel and didn’t see much. As I walked back towards the waiting room I noticed a group of people at the top of the ramp for platform 9B which was the platform for the 796. When I got up to the top of the platform there were plenty of people on the platform and a Surfliner trainset with all the doors closed and no one inside.
This had to be a fresh trainset pulled from the yard to carry passengers just from Los Angeles and San Diego. No doubt they annulled the 796 from Santa Barbara at Los Angeles and bused the passengers headed south of Los Angeles. After we left I remembered that this coming weekend the railroad south of Oceanside would be closed mostly for bridge repair and replacement work in San Diego County. If the 796 was late this night, it might not get to San Diego before the railroad was shut down. This would mean Amtrak would be a trainset short Monday Morning! It seemed like an eternity waiting for the crew to open the train doors to start boarding. While I was waiting for the doors to open I got a call back from my friends. He and his wife where settled in their sleeper. He told me a little about the problems getting to Los Angeles and trying to communicate with me. Before the Sunset departed at 10:00 PM I was finally able to board the 796. We left on time at 10:10 PM and I got to Oceanside on time just before midnight.