Saturday, March 22, 2008

California Green 1: Transportation

Needing to visit my mother in San Luis Obispo after she had undergone a series of terrible surgeries, I hopped onto the Coast Starlight line of Amtrak in Oakland on Tuesday morning.

The train was on schedule for the very first time in my experience, and the reason turned out to be that instead of originating in Seattle, the line was starting in Sacramento because many of the tracks and tunnels in the Pacific Northwest have been destroyed by their rough winter this year, and have been out of commission since January.

So if you want to take Amtrak from Washington state or Oregon to Southern California, you need to take a series of feeder buses that will land in you Sacramento for the truncated Coast Starlight. When I asked an Amtrak worker when it would be fixed, he shrugged with sadness, and answered, "Three months, six months, a year...who knows?"

This hasn't exactly boosted ridership, and the train was half-empty. Plus, they had dispensed with the sleeper cars and its associated dining car so the only thing to eat on the train were microwaved hot dogs, hamburgers and pizzas in the crummy little snack area under the domed "lounge."

In a state and a country that needs to get off its addiction to oil fast, Amtrak's state of affairs is both stupid and shameful.

To add insult to injury, passenger trains have to wait out in open fields for long stretches at a time while waiting for freight trains to use the tracks which makes it impossible to adhere to any kind of a schedule.

It's also more than a little disconcerting to see one of the train's conductors wandering out in those fields to make a manual adjustment to the switching mechanisms. I haven't seen anything this antiquated since taking a train trip in the 1970s from Mexico City through the Yucatan jungle to Merida, and at least there were villagers hopping onboard to sell us food.

Since the Republican operative, Governor Schwarzenegger, seems to be doing everything in his power to keep a bullet train from north to south being built, how about just restoring slow and reliable train service instead? It would be a start.


Anonymous said...

I was a brakeman and then a locomotive engineer on the (now defunct) Southern Pacific when there were two passenger trains on the Coast Route between SF and LA: the Coast Daylight and the overnight Lark, which had real Pullman sleeping cars and a real diner.

Having the brakeman get off to line the switch isn't so bad (unpleasant in a rainstorm at night, but only briefly); the alternative--a system called Centralized Traffic Control, where the switches are operated by a remote dispatcher--is basically just a way to put more railroaders out of work. The real scandal is that (except in the Northeast Corridor) passenger trains in the USA not only get put in sidings to let freight trains pass, they operate over tracks maintained only to freight standards. This is why they run slowly (there's nothing as discouraging as watching from the train window as a 1971 VW Microbus passes you going uphill) and sway from side to side. The long-discussed high speed SF-LA rail line--presumably for passenger trains only--would be nice, though the route, parallel to I-5, would be much less scenic than the one through the Salinas Valley, over the Cuesta Grade into San Luis, and then along the coast to Santa Barbara and LA. In any case I don't expect to live long enough to see an actual train running on it. It's all pretty depressing.

Greg said...

I had heard that the Coast Starlight can be rather unreliable - Peter Bagge did a comic about it when he and his family tried to go to LA from Seattle a while back.

It really is too bad that Amtrak's been left to rot by Democratic and GOP administrations over the years. Given how crappy air travel is now (in some cases I've spent more time going through the hassles at SFO and LAX than actually on the plane actually GOING somewhere) I gave up flying to LA long ago and used to drive. But I hate driving too.

I'm sure in the mirror universe there's bullet trains from SF to LA, Las Vegas and other fine destinations. I think in that mirror universe all sorts of things are better, though :-)

Your driver said...

The mirror universe. I've been poking at the mirror trying to get to the other side. I was hoping to get a sleeper compartment and take the train to Seattle this summer. That looks bad. I'm a little bit of a rail fan, and used to take Amtrak often. I remember when they still had dining cars with a table cloths and a cook car with a real kitchen.

After being herded, poked, scanned, inspected and made to wait two extra hours, I had an attack of claustrophobia on a plane earlier this year. I got up and walked off the plane just as the stewardesses were about to close the door. I'm sure that put me on all sorts of don't fly lists.

What does that leave me? Greyhound? I've been in the bus business for a long time. I feel almost as sad about Greyhound as the previous poster feels about the decline of Amtrak.

I'm glad your mom is feeling better. I had a sick dad crisis, which is what forced me onto that horribly overcrowded airplane. I ended up driving to Tucson. He's doing OK, but I don't relish driving there for any other emergencies.

Civic Center said...

Dear rootless cosmo, thanks for giving us the brakeman's scoop, and greg, I feel the same way about flying these days.

I feel similarly miserable about the demise of Greyhound, Jon, although the service had been getting worse with each passing year. The bus slack is actually being picked up by the State of California right now which is subsidizing a really extensive set of feeder buses through Amtrak. Of course, that also means you have to wait for a late train to get in before the bus can get moving. That's how I returned from San Luis Obispo, in a bus that waited for a train that was two hours late arriving from Los Angeles. When we finally hit the road, the Mexican bus driver hauled serious ass, and even while making fast stop in weird places like a McDonald's parking lot in King City, we still made it to the Ferry Building in San Francisco in four hours.

The Opera Tattler said...

I hope your mother has a speedy recovery.