What Competence Looks Like When Far Enough Away
From The False Promises of the Northeast Corridor
Rail Provocateur (M.E. Singer)
I took advantage of my attendance at the RailPAC Conference in Sacramento to run down to LA on the “Coast Starlight”on 30 Sep (see Part 1 Trip Report 7 Oct). My destination was Oceanside to see for myself its transformation into a major regional transportation hub. Although the “Starlight” arrived LAUS 46 minutes early, the 8:30pm southbound “Pacific Surfliner” was not held for connecting passengers. So, I was forced to while away two hours at Amtrak’s Metropolitan Lounge, which looked more like the recreation room of a nursing home, given the layout and style of furniture. Apparently between the Amtrak crews and dispatchers one of them only speak Russian, as it made little sense not to hold the “Surfliner.”
Funny, in the waning days of American passenger railroading, I was arriving into Chicago from LA on a 1.5 hour late“Super Chief” in August,1966 (during the national airline strike, which I have referenced as “The Railroads Last Hurrah.”) In those days, the conductor walked through every Pullman and Pleasure Dome Lounge inquiring of any passengers connecting with the B&O “Capitol Limited,” NYC “Twentieth Century Limited,” or PRR “Broadway Limited,” so he could radio ahead to hold the trains, and to arrange Keeshin livery transfer service to the other three different depots. At least the Santa Fe maintained a certain panache to the end. Their was no thought to, well their is a later train leaving that night (B&O “Shenandoah,” NYC “Chicagoan,” and PRR “Pennsylvania Limited”). If I am to be told that it’s a dispatching issue with Metrolink, as it is on the run to/from Oxnard, than something has to change, as that is not acceptable. Next we’ll have different track gauges.
On the last southbound “Surfliner” to San Diego, I was under-whelmed by the business class car, beyond a very courteous attendant who offered a basket selection of non- alcoholic drinks. The seats seemed to be old and not very comfortable; the tables not sturdy. Of course, I was blessed with a dark cloud over me, as an elderly matron seated behind me could not figure out how to work her tray and persistently banged it into my back, as if I was invisible. Eventually, the table wore out and attacked her, hitting her in the head, which required a run for ice to minimize swelling. Not to be outdone, I noticed how a Hillbilly couple occupied themselves at the 4-seat table, oblivious to people looking for seats. Of course, with the conductor, ACs, and car attendant all congregated in this car, I was surprised how nobody jumped into action. This couple looked like “mountain people” who were on their way to Disneyland, probably for a stage production on early American history.
Arriving in Oceanside after midnight, I noticed my hotel, the Marriott Spring Hill Suites just along the right-of-way, but on the other side, as we were running like the ex-C&NW English style on the left main at Oceanside. As I saw the Marines hurriedly jumping into Ubers, I began to feel like a clay target pigeon, like walking in Hue during Tet. I had no idea so many homeless made Oceanside their favored abode, particularly around the depot, on benches, and the tunnel under the mainlines. Alone, I contacted the hotel and refused their first two proposals-either walk through the garage and several streets, or, walk through the tunnel under the tracks and than through the parking lot. At my point in life, I survived “Chiraq” (Chicago)by being inculcated with certain “street smarts,” including: you don’t walk with luggage like a lost tourist through darken parking lots or tunnels unless your Blue Cross is a PPO plan with no network restrictions. Instead, I had a taxi called to pick me up, as I watched the circle of interested homeless grow smaller around me.
Just as I had requested, I had a room directly over the mainline, and as warned by the hotel, I was greeted by a flurry of horns and bells from “Surfliners,” “Coasters,” and “Metrolink.” No better music to go to sleep by, or, to be waken-up. As my Leica required more attention, I shot a volume of photos with my Apple 6S+ from my balcony, along the right-of-way, and at the depot. To my surprise, Tuesday, 2 Oct, was San Diego County free travel day for “Coaster,” “Sprinter,” and the Red Trolley lines. Unlike Amtrak’s wrong decision to discard printed timetables, I was pleased to see racks of timetables for all trains serving the area at the Coaster office at this depot. At my now favorite restaurant in Oceanside, Hello Betty, next to the Marriott, I returned to ‘back to the future’ and carefully laid out multiple connections how I would maximize this free day dedicated to studying how California made it happen–with rail.
As if I was in Switzerland, every connection was achieved for a long day down to San Diego and back; a quick round trip to Escondido. This included:
Lv. Oceanside 11:08am Coaster #648
Ar. San Diego 12:14pm
Santa Fe depot always a marvel; but what would Amtrak’s HQ gang think if they saw all those schedule racks for the“Pacific Surfliner?” (Is it possible for Northeasterners to re-learn passenger railroading from LOSSAN?) I still remember San Diego in 1966 as just a Navy town with blocks of USN warehouses and aircraft plants. Now, over fifty years later, I was amazed how San Diego has so dramatically changed since my last visit in 1999-towering condos and apartments on either side of the rail line parallel to the trolley lines. The height of true downtown living, supported by restaurants and shopping. What better vision to evidence how a TOD should work. Even the depot was privately purchased so it could be assured of retaining its historic beauty and significance, as its space and location would be optimally utilized; apparently something long missed by Amtrak’s real estate/government relations departments.
Caught one of the frequent Red Trolleys to San Diego Old Town just for lunch; no time to walk around.
Lv. Old Town 2:04pm #651 Coaster
Ar. Oceanside 3:00pm
Lv. Oceanside 3:33pm “Sprinter”
Ar. Escondido 4:26pm
Lv. Escondido 4:33pm “Sprinter”
Ar. Oceanside 5:26pm
“Sprinter” schedule is every 30 minutes; more frequency than the “Coaster.” Whether for the free rides that day, or, an early rush hour, the “Sprinter” schedule was operating with two sets of DMUs coupled together. Did not get off in Escondido to observe its own transit center, as I was expecting the same female engineer (“operator”) would handle the return trip, as I was hoping to visit the cab. Nothing against the manufacturer of this DMU, but it becomes quite apparent the Amtrak CEO from Delta is being horribly misled by the consiglieres he inherited at the Board’s insistence. Had he only been versed in the concept of DMUs, he would appreciate how the coupled DMU has a pick-up like a bulldozer; commuter seating is barely tolerable; significant interior noise from diesels straining to attain speed. Too bad Anderson did not read a bit on Amtrak, as he would have learned about the French Turbos that could not handle Midwest intercity services-or, weather. And still, somebody wants to sell Anderson a new version of “the bridge to nowhere”–long distance DMUs.
In my overall review of my travel day, as Mr. Spock would have said, “fascinating.” Indeed, to see expensive condos built along either side of the mainline even now in Oceanside, as well as a large resort coming up a block from the tracks is a real story; testimony to the viability of TODs and the vision of how LOSSAN is moving forward; making things happen. Perhaps if more politicians and citizen naysayers could experience what I did on this travel day, this line would not have to depend on being incrementally funded to double track. One can only imagine the impact of reducing schedule padding and increasing frequencies–talk about defining “vitality.” Thanks to Apple’s improved 6S+, some great photos achieved.
What I could not understand was why I could not purchase a one-way ticket for the next day on “Coaster” to San Diego for my flight back to Chiraq. Typically, at least with Metra, the ticket is good for a specified period in advance. So, the next day, toting my luggage, I went back to the Coaster office at the Oceanside Transit Center and was escorted outside to purchase through a ticket machine my reduced ticket at $2.55, for a one-way to San Diego (vs. a minimum of $15.70 on Amtrak). I could not help but to inquire with one of the staff why was the “Coaster” invented when you already had Metrolink running all the way from LA to Oceanside? The answer was obvious-“politics.” Each county, and parts of a county, feel unserved and just paying the freight for the other counties. So, it was understood why Metrolink does not run all the way thru to San Diego; instead, the cost of motive power, bi-levels, employees, etc are accepted as a necessary duplication of effort.
Very easy taking the “Coaster” back to San Diego, with the conductor offering to help me push that 4 wheel Rimowa over the gap between the platforms and the bi-level. (Unlike standard bi-level, these steps are not easy to deal with when with luggage.) From Santa Fe depot, I hailed a Lyft to the airport. When I checked in, I could not resist remarking how I wished someday soon they would remove Lindbergh’s name, given what an awarded pro-Nazi he was, as well as a leader of the American First movement (with Henry Ford), seeking to prevent America from re-arming between 1939-1941, and Lend-Lease to England. Amazingly, the agent informed me that she only had learned of Lindbergh’s history, as his statue had recently been removed from the airport.
Motivated by taking in how rail truly stimulates TODs and economic development, I plan to seize upon the last days of daylight before we turn the clocks back to standard time for the three corporate farmers and to take a day trip on America’s last interurban, the South Shore Line. From its downtown Chicago Randolph Street Station, I want to observe street running through the heart of Michigan City, IN before the right-of-way is moved out of town. Street running was classic interurban, as we experienced on the former North Shore Line, its Shore line route through the tony North Shore suburbs, as well as in Milwaukee.
Also, coming up that I will opine upon, is on the day after I flew back to Chiraq, I attended a lecture at Northwestern University by Joesph Schwieterman,Ph.D., who is the head of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute that studies transportation, primarily the impact and growth of buses. We had a very interesting exchange of issues in response to his talk on “Gaps in Transportation.” My caveat here is to watch how Germany’s Flixbus seizes the opportunity to fill-in those gaps, as Amtrak continues to flutter like a beached whale unable to wiggle back to the water.