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Amtrak Flexliner - Steve's Review

Steve's Review of the Amtrak Flexliner Accommodations, including photographs and detailed descriptions of seats, rooms, train cars and services.

On Saturday, July 21, 1996, I took the San Diegan Train down to San Diego to view the Flexliner on display from 1:30pm to 2:45pm and then grabbed the return San Diegan Train at 2:50pm. The Flexliner had been on display at various locations all week, including many closer to my home, but I wasn't able to catch any of those due to schedule conflicts. This was the only block of time that I could allocate, so I took advantage of it to see the Flexliner at this time.

The Flexliner entered its very first revenue service in North America on Sunday, July 21, 1996 at 6:35 AM at San Diegan #570 out of Los Angeles heading to San Diego. I picked up this train out of Fullerton at 7:09AM and made a complete round-trip to San Diego.

If you wish to ride on the Flexliner, it will only be in service on the San Diegan route for the next two weeks. The Flexliner is being used as southbound train numbers 570 (leaves L.A. at 6:35 a.m.) and 578 (leaves L.A. at 2:30 p.m.) and northbound train numbers 577 (leaves San Diego at 10:30 a.m.) and 585 (leaves San Diego at 7:00 p.m.). The Flexliner is in operation on these routes every day, including Saturday and Sunday, but is not in operation at all on Friday. Friday is its service day.

To guarantee a seat on this train it is best to purchase a Custom Class Ticket, which I believe is an extra $7 each way. You will want to check out the plush ammenities and roominess of this car anyway, and also make note of some other items that make the Custom Class car different from the other coach cars. Their are two Custom Class cars on the Flexliner, one all the way to the front and one all the way to the rear. The engineer operates the train from whichever Custom Class car is currently at the front of the train. The cab is at the front of that Custom Class car and is sealed off from the rest of the car by an automatic sliding door.

If you purchase a seat in Custom Class, you can wander the train and examine all the cars in the train. If you only purchase regular coach seating, you may have a problem obtaining permission to tour the Custom Class car, especially if the train is crowded. Another note: the Flexliner has 50 seats less than the regular Amfleet train. Because of this, Amtrak will often be running a "mini" Amfleet train shortly after the Flexliner to handle any "overload" of passengers. If you do not purchase Custom Class, it is possible that you may end up in the Amfleet train for handling the overload instead of the Flexliner. Since I ran in the very first revenue run trains on Sunday morning, they did not have a train for this "overload" and there was "Standing Room Only" available in coach seating. You can avoid all these problems by just making reservations for Custom Class seating through 1-800-USA-RAIL or an Amtrak ticket agent.

Below are my raw un-edited notes. My goal was to get them to you as fast as possible, in case you wish to ride and have the opportunity to ride the Flexliner yourself. Some of these notes may not make total sense. I will be re-composing them in the near future into a full review of the Flexliner. At present, they are exactly what I jotted down while I was riding the train!

The Flexliner will only be on the San Diegan route until about August 3, 1996. It will then be going to northern California to make a couple of special demonstration runs, maybe one to Reno and one to Santa Cruz, but it will not be replacing any regular revenue service trains. After that, the Flexliner will continue to tour the rest of the United States and parts of Canada over the next two years.

Sunday, July 21, 1996, 6:45 A.M.

Well, here I am at the Fullerton Station waiting for the Flexliner surprise! "Surprise?" Yes, "surprise". All the notices and ticket agents say this new train doesn't start in service until tomorrow, Monday. However, the Amtrak staff that were on the static display of the Flexliner in San Diego yesterday all insist that it starts in service on train 570 this morning.

If that isn't enough of a surprise, there is more! The Amtrak staff at the San Diego display of the Flexliner also insisted that I could definitely get a seat on this very first revenue run in North America if I made a Custom Class reservation. However, when I made my reservation through 1-800-USA-RAIL, they could not guarantee that I would be on the Flexliner. You see, the new Flexliner has about 50 seats less than the usual San Diegan Amfleet consist. Since this train gets pretty full on weekends, Amtrak plans to run a "mini" Amfleet consist as a seperate train behind the Flexliner (not attached) to pick up the overflow. At least, that is what I was told by the staff of the Flexliner display and the people at 1-800-USA-RAIL.

So, here is the "surprise" ... Will the 570 this morning be a Flexliner or the standard Amfleet consist? If it isn't the Flexliner, I guess I will head for home and get a few more hours shut-eye. I'll wrestle later with getting the reservations changed to when the Flexliner is running. But, if it is the Flexliner, do my Custom Class reservations give me a guaranteed seat on it? I guess I'll find out in the next ten minutes or so.

There aren't too many people in the Fullerton Station yet. Maybe about a dozen waiting for this southbound train. There are just a couple of people waiting on the other side of the station for the westbound Southwest Chief which is running 2 hours late and won't yet be in for a couple of hours.

. . .

Surprise ended! I have to give the Amtrak staff on the Flexliner display the credit. Southbound San Diegan Train #570 out of Los Angeles at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 21, 1996 is the first revenue run of the Flexliner on its two year demonstration tour of North America! There is no "mini" Amfleet train to handle the overflow this morning, but there may be for later runs today and during the week. My Custom Class reservations place me right up in the front car of the train where I make myself comfortable at a table for two.

The remaining notes were made by me right on the train, so from here things get a little more terse. I'll expand on these notes later when I write the full review of my experiences.

Signs at the end of the cab saying next station. When we stop, it says the ultimate destination "TO SAN DIEGO" instead of next stop. Later I notice that the sign sometimes changes to list all the remaining stops on the rest of the run.

Seat appears to be bigger and more comfortable in the Flexliner than the Amfleet or the California Cars. Definitely a lot bigger and more comfortable than the seats in the Metrolink or Coaster trains. The seats recline in place, but to a much greater degree than the California Cars. Probably not as much as in the Amfleet cars.

There is no cafe on the train, but "cart" service is provided, similar to service in an airplane. In Custom Class, two Attendants make frequent trips through the car taking orders and bringing items to passengers. Coffee and orange juice is free to the Custom Class passengers as well as the Sunday newspaper. There are also several magazine racks throughout the car with several magazines to read and literature on the new Flexliner. Passengers can purchase several breakfast, lunch or snack items as well as beer, wine, and cocktails.

A lot of the passengers in the Custom Class car are "staff", either Amtrak staff or representatives from the manufacturer of the "Flexliner" cars. As a haphazard guess, I'd say that about 30% of the seats are occupied by non-paying passengers in Custom Class. They don't have markers over their seats. A few times I noticed some of these "staff" people either go into the Engineer's compartment or other locations on the train while we were in a station. Since there seets were not marked, passengers that boarded at these stations took over these seats not realizing the seat was already taken. I guess these paying passengers were suppose to have priority over the "staff" anyway as no staff ever returned complaining that their seat was taken.

There is another Custom Class car at the other end of the train. I did not check to see who was in there myself, but another railfan did check it out and said that it appeared to be totally reserved for staff members on this southbound run. There were so many passengers on the return northbound run that both Custom Class cars had to be pressed into passenger service for paying travellers.

Horn doesn't sound like an American train horn, more European. Similar to the difference between sirens on American and European emergency vehicles. My only concern is that the sound of the horn might not immediately register with American drivers as the horn of an oncomming train. It sounds a bit more like a very loud truck horn.

I would not like to be the Engineer on this train in a grade-crossing collision. There is no mass in front of you, you are right there! There are huge rubber bumpers around the entire front of the train. I can see that an automobile would probably not damage the train or injure the Engineer. I'm not so sure about a cement truck or a gasoline truck, or any other heavy vehicle or truck with dangerous cargo. The Flexliner itself still has a lot of mass since that lead car does contain the engines, but there doesn't seem to be any mass between the front of the train and the Engineer himself. This train would be ideal for tracks that do not make grade level crossings. I suppose this train is no more dangerous to the Engineer than operating a push-pull train from the cab car.

Bring your own headphones or buy them on the train for $3. There are 5 channels of music overhead. Each seat has its own plug-in. I had brought my own along for my scanner, but they work even better for the train's music system as they are actually meant for a stereo sound source and not the mono of the scanner. I listened to all 5 channels. They seem to be tuned to radio stations. 4 of the channels worked fine. The 5th one was probably tuned to a smaller station in Los Angeles and the train has moved out of its broadcast range.

The train ride was very stable. You can stand without holding on, or even feeling like you want to hold onto something, as was demonstrated to me by another railfan.

There is plenty of headroom, even for taller people. The person across the aisle from me was 6'10" tall. He could stand in the train with no problem and plenty of room between the top of his head and the inside ceiling in the car. The feeling is much more roomy than the Amfleet cars. The inside is square with lots of above seat rack space for luggage.

Windows are my favorite topic. These were very large picture windows stretching from a few inches above the table top to a few inches below the overhead luggage rack. For width, the stretched almost to the backs of the chairs at each table. Basically, the windows were really large with no verticle bars to break up the view. By looking around the train you could easily see out the windows of many other passengers all around you. Plexiglass was used for the interior seat dividers so that the spacious view around the car would not be broken by dividers. I like this arrangement far better than the Amfleet cars and probably just as much as the California Cars.

There are pull-down partial shades at every table. The shade does a good job blocking out the sun without obstructing the view. I had to pull the shade half-way down since I was on the east side of the train and started to get the sun in my eyes. There are clips to hold the shade at half-down and full-down positions. The shades are perforated in a way that greatly reduces the glare of the sun without completely eliminating the view out the window even when the shade is in the full-down position.

Since there are no seperate locomotives on this train, the engines were under the front and rear Custom Class cars of the train. Thus, though not annoying, it was very easy to hear the engine under the floor of the Custom Class car. I couldn't help but get the feeling that I was riding in a Greyhound bus from the sound of the engine! Just as a side note, this trainset is made of 2 Flexliner sets linked back to back. Thus, there is a Custom Class car at each end of this demonstration train.

Think for a moment of the two Flexliner train sets seperately. Each as 3 cars. The front car, which is the Custom Class car, has the engines under the floor and the Engineer can operate the train from the cab in the front of that Custom Class car. There is another cab in the rear of the 3 car train set. What happens when we take these 2 Flexliner train sets and connect them back to back? How can passengers walk through the entire train if we have two control cabs facing each other right in the middle of the train?

The answer is one of the stangest and most innovative things I have ever seen. The entire control cab folds into a closet! When I walked through the Flexliner when it was on static display in San Diego, I was baffled when I got to the middle of the train. As I was passing through the the exact middle of the train, hanging from the car wall I saw what appeared to be a life size control cab! At first, I though someone decided to place a life-size model of the front of the train on the wall. That didn't make much sense since anyone could just go outside and look at the front of the train. Then ... I realized that this was a real control cab that I was staring at!

The demonstration staff explained that the entire control cab opens in like a door. It goes flush against the wall. They do that for both of the control cabs at the end of the Flexliners that have been attached back-to-back. When in service, a partition folds across the front on the control cab so nobody actually sees the control cab against the wall as they walk through the train. With both control cabs folded agains the wall and hidden by panels, people can walk directly from one Flexliner set to the next.

There are computer power outlets at every table, one per table. Bring a 3-way splitter along just in case someone else at your table will be using a computer! On the demonstration train, the outlets are European style, but a converter has been plugged into every outlet to convert them to American style. The outlets are only 2 prong, and not 3 prong.

While heading northbound, I was sitting with another railfan that had his scanner turned on. We had to pause for the southbound San Diegan to go by. The Engineer of the southbound radiod to the Engineer of our train: "That's a pretty train!" The color scheme on this demonstration version of the Flexliner for Amtrak is a quite a bit more dressy than that of the Amfleet San Diegans.

On the northbound run, the train did get very full and there was standing room only available in the regular coach section of the train long before the train got to Los Angels. Even Custom Class passengers that boarded along the way started having a problem finding seats because of the number of staff members in that section. Both the Custom Class in the front and the back of the train had to be used on the northbound run, but some passengers would have to be sent from one end to the other to find a seat available in Custom Class.

Most of the Amtrak service staff on the train was really good. If I was in charge of things, I think I would create a special "SWAT" team to handle the introduction of new trains. This would be an elite position and only staff that really wanted the task and had an outstanding service record would be accepted. When a new train is demonstrated, the staff should be going out of their way to provide the most courteous, prompt, and efficient service possible. They should be going out of their way to make sure that passengers are as happy with the new train as can be possible. New trains get more public exposure and other press than most other things that Amtrak does. If you want to attract new riders to Amtrak, then this is certainly the time to put your best foot forward. Most of the service personnel on the train were outstanding, but I don't think this is the time or place to just roll the dice and hope that you just happen to have some of the best Amtrak service personnel on the train.

The doors between the train cars were really great. They had automatic sensors. You could just walk up to the door, or just start to raise your hand and the door would slide open with a "whoosh" that reminded you of StarTrek! I know automatic doors have been in supermarkets for probably forty years, but those just didn't quite operate and sound like the doors on StarTrek!

We asked and were told by an Amtrak staff member that we had reached up to 90 M.P.H. on parts of the journey that day. The Flexliner representative explained to us that the design of the rubber bumpers on the front creates an airfront that becomes an invisible streamline nose for the train which helps decrease air-resistence.

Although this demonstration model was built overseas, we were told by the Flexliner Representative that any Flexliners purchased by Amtrak would be built in the United States to F.R.A. standards. We were also told that this demonstration model had about every luxury feature and a low density of seating in the Custom Class cars. If Amtrak ordered these trains, they probably would not have all the amenities and would have a higher seating densitiy in Custom Class. There probably would be fewer or no tables for 2 or 3 people as there are on this train. All or most tables would be for 4 people.

Please select one of the following:
Amtrak Flexliner Page / Flexliner Photos Page
Amtrak Accommodations Page / Passenger Rail Travel Page

More Rail Travelogues: Steve Grande / Others

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