Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Wonders of Amtrak California

Born and raised in Southern California beach towns in the 1950s and 1960s, it struck me as obvious that car culture was a social, cultural and environmental disaster, so I decided not to drive. This hasn't been particularly easy in car-centric California, but does mean that I have become something of an expert at finding obscure public transportation alternatives.

Favorite forms of transportation have always been boats and trains, because you can walk around, not to mention their constant, soothing motion, which means it's a pleasure to announce that Amtrak California has been improving by leaps and bounds recently. With subsidies from Caltrans, they have quietly been building an ambitious network of trains and buses on existing tracks and roads that is inexpensive to ride, and so far mostly works.

This weekend I needed to get myself from Palm Springs in the California Southeast Desert to San Luis Obispo on the California Central Coast, which is tricky enough to accomplish with a car, but which until recently would have been just about impossible on public transportation. Thanks to a new, twice-daily, roundtrip feeder bus going from the Coachella Valley to the Pacific Surfliner line in Orange County, the trip became possible and was a surprisingly cheap $104 roundtrip besides.

The journey consisted of a two-hour bus ride from downtown Palm Springs to Riverside and Fullerton, followed by a four-hour train ride to Santa Barbara along the coast, culminating in another two-hour bus ride to San Luis Obispo.

None of the legs of the trip were particularly crowded and the mixture of fellow passengers was a perfect example of the word eclectic. There was the usual Amtrak mixture of ex-convicts mingling with the elderly, but in addition there were Los Angeles area commuters, a large and jolly Japanese tour group above, and scores of college kids from all over Southern California migrating between home and campus.

The student above was enthusiastically tearing through a text on Latin American music, and on the return trip I shared all my buses and trains with a Cal Poly student who had a surfboard in one hand and a Modern Library edition of Sigmund Freud's writings in the other.

I was in San Luis Obispo for my father's 80th birthday party (above, surrounded by his four children), and it was an unexpectedly sweet occasion. Thanks, Amtrak, for making it happen.

Monday's return trip started with serious suspense, because the feeder bus to Santa Barbara actually starts its southbound trip in Oakland and is often late. If we were to miss the Surfliner connection in Santa Barbara, that would mean waiting a whole extra day for a bus to Palm Springs.

Thankfully, we had Dave above as the driver, and even when the bus suddenly stopped running and we had to pull to the side of the freeway near Avila Beach, he didn't panic. "It's got to be a short in the computer system," he thought, so just turned everything off. After a decent pause, he rebooted, which worked, and we made it to Santa Barbara with time to spare.

We arrived in the Los Angeles basin just in time for evening rush hour, and suddenly our beach train became a serious commuter train, transporting business people from downtown LA's Union Station to Orange County. The Fullerton transit hub, where we caught the Palm Springs bus, was lively, with about six different regional transport systems connecting up with each other.

There are plans afoot to extend the Surfliner from its current San Diego to San Luis Obispo route all the way north to San Jose where it can join the Capitol Corridor to Sacramento, but the Union Pacific/Southern Pacific combine is demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer compensation. For more info, check out RailPAC.org, an advocacy group for passenger rail in California and Nevada.


Charles CĂ©leste Hutchins said...

I <3 Amtrak. Thanks for this post.

nancy namaste said...

When my mother lived in Santa Maria, I took Amtrack down there on a regular basis. The ride was always enjoyable and I met a lot of really interesting people. Hooray for good public transportation!

Greg said...

amtrak is great! I took the same train you did (but I got up super early and took caltrain to San Jose to catch the bus to Santa Barbara) and it was fast and relaxing. It also cost less than flying and we were joined by fellow Comic con attendees at every stop. best of all the train pulled right up to the Con, and we caught a LRV to our hotel!

Also, there's now an app for the iphone where you can buy your ticket and use the phone as your ticket, and count up your miles t oget bonuses!