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The Amtrak Surfliner trainset made its maiden revenue voyage as Pacific Surfliner Train #571 starting from San Diego at 7:07 A.M. on Friday, May 26, 2000. Ray Burns, Matt Melzer, Shivam Surve, and I, Steve Grande, boarded the train in Santa Ana at 8:55 A.M. and rode it to Los Angeles.
360x360 Immersion Photo Virtual Tour of the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner:
I normally take the Metrolink from Irvine to our office in Fullerton every morning, but made a slight change of plans and drove to the Santa Ana station instead of the Irvine station. I would like to have boarded this inaugural train in Irvine, but Train #571 is the express train that travels right through the Amtrak Irvine and Anaheim stations without stopping. Santa Ana is less than 10 miles and about 10 minutes from Irvine, so it was not much of a detour for me to drive the difference.
I arrived and parked at the Amtrak Santa Ana Station about 8:30 A.M. One northbound Metrolink commuter train departed from the station before I got to a parking place. Matt Melzer boarded southbound Metrolink Train #602 in Los Angeles at 7:44 A.M. Ray Burns and Shivam Surve boarded that same train in Fullerton at 8:17 A.M. and joined Matt. I took photos of that train as it arrived into Santa Ana at 8:34 A.M. and took photos of them as they stepped off the train.
While waiting at the Santa Ana station, the next northbound Metrolink train that I usually take to Fullerton arrived into Santa Ana. A little while after the Metrolink departed, we heard the horn of the Amtrak Surfliner that we were expecting and the crossing gates at the north end of the platform went down.
As the Amtrak Surfliner Trainset rounded the corner coming into Santa Ana from the south I took the above picture of it. The train approached the station in "push mode" with Surfliner Coach/Baggage (Cab) Car #6900 at the head end and F59PHI locomotive #456 on the tail end.
The door closest to us was the one directly north of the Surfliner Coach/Cafe Car and we boarded through that door. After heading up the stairs, we went through the door into the coach seating section upstairs in the Coach/Cafe Car. We continued walking through the car until we got to the end of the car right next to the Surfliner Business Class Car. Because seats on both sides at that end had been arranged facing each other and one side was isolated from the rest of the car by the clear plastic wall of the stairway, the seating seemed like a private office for up to 8 people!
Once we settled in, Ray and Matt went downstairs in the Coach/Cafe to the "Surfliner Shoppe." There they met Charles Roebuck III (Administrative Chief of On-board Services, photo above), who gave them a warm greeting and offered them any refreshments that they would like free from the cafe. Ray and Matt selected some beverages and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts ("Krispy Kreme Doughnuts" is a trademarked name and the correct spelling!). Ray took Charles' picture and a number of other pictures in the cafe. Shivam and I headed down to the cafe a bit later and received the same warm greeting and free refreshments!
We took a number of photos of the passengers and activity on the train which we were not able to do when the train was empty in the yard on our previous photo shoot. You can view those photos by clicking on the links above.
While on the train, we also ran into Steve Covell (Manager Equipment Maintenance), Bonnie S. Mellott (Coordinator, Amtrak West Mechanical Department) and Jack Wilson (Operations Manager). Steve was the person that had escorted us through the Surfliner trainset earlier in the week so that we could take the photos to produce the virtual tour. Steve has seen this trainset, and the F59PHI, from inception through delivery, and was an integral part of the overall project. We've run into Jack at a number of Amtrak West special events, but had not seen him for quite a while. Photos of all these people will be found at the links above.
The trainset has an extensive audio system. A mix of current music was played softly throughout the train during our journey. In Business Class, the James Bond 007 Movie "The World Is Not Enough" was playing on the seatback video units.
One problem that we noticed was that a great number of coach passengers would go into the Business Class Car to exit. As coach passengers riding in the coach seating section of the Surfliner Cafe Car headed toward the south end of the train to find an exit, they would find that the stairs at that end of the car was blocked and marked "Authorized Personnel Only." Thus, those passengers would continue walking south into the Business Class Car and exit from that car. I think that is going to produce a lot of traffic for people sitting between the stairs and the door in the Business Class Car. One of the reasons that people pay a premium to be in Business Class is because of the reduced amount of aisle traffic in the car.
I think there is a solution to this problem. That solution would be to reverse the orientation of the Surfliner Cafe Car. Then, coach passengers would find an exit before reaching Business Class. Those coach passengers that headed away from Business Class who encountered the blocked stairway would either continue in the same direction into the next Coach Car, or turn back and find the exit from Coach/Cafe Car before having to proceed into Business Class.
A related issue is that doors were not opened in the Coach/Cafe Car at station stops. That is the normal procedure for the Amtrak California Cars, but the Cafe in the Amtrak California Cars does not have any revenue seating. Passengers are supposed to return to their seats as it gets time to depart from the train. Thus, there should be no passengers in the Cafe Car in the Amtrak California Car trainset that need to get off the train. The Surfliner trainset is different. There is revenue coach seating upstairs in that car and there are passengers that will want to depart at stations. Hence, the reason why I thought that some doors are supposed to open in the Surfliner Coach/Cafe Car.
Wheelchair bound passengers will find the new Surfliner Coach/Cafe Car probably the easiest to navigate. With tables for 4 on one side of the car and tables for 2 on the other, there is plenty of room for a wheelchair to move down the center aisle. The lower level of the Coach/Cafe Car has a very large ADA restroom and a spot has been reserved at one of the tables in the cafe where a wheelchair can pull up. There is a ramp at the large double doors in the Coach/Cafe Car so that passengers in wheelchairs can board directly into the car.
All of the Surfliner car types are fully and equally ADA compliant and accessible. All cars have the large toilet room and access ramp located at their B end vestibules. All car types have wide, wheelchair accessible aisles on the lower level for easy passage to wheelchair parking and transfer seat/stowage locations.
In addition to the large restroom on the lower level of each Surfliner Car, there was also a smaller, but adequate, unisex restroom on the upper level of every car. A warm air blower is used in each restroom to dry your hands. Unlike the type used in other trains, this one will continue to blow air as long as you keep moving your hands below the dryer. Once you remove your hands, the dryer stops blowing. This is quite an improvement over the older models which used a set period of time before stopping. A single interval would seldom be long enough to dry your hands. Pushing the button again would result in a second interval of warm air that lasted far beyond what was needed. This new dryer that senses hand motion solves that problem.
While still talking about the restrooms, the sink faucet control has been greatly improved. Most trains that I have been on have one lever for cold water and one for hot where the water only flows while the lever is held. Since one hand has to hold the lever, you end up having a choice of pouring either hot or cold water on one hand and then either hot or cold water onto the other hand! It would really help to have a third hand to hold down both faucets so that you can wash the other two under a running flow of water that isn't either too hot or cold. That problem is solved with the faucet controls in the new Surfliner cars. There is a red button for hot water and blue button for cold water which, when pressed, produces water for a set interval. Pushing both produces a stream of warm water for a set interval. Thus, you don't need a third hand to wash your other two hands!
There was an average number of passengers on this train. The train was not crowded, but there were a good number of passengers on the train. There were a few people on the train specifically for the purpose of being on the first revenue run of this trainset, but not very many. I doubt there were even a dozen passengers on this train for that purpose, and this is counting the 4 of us from TrainWeb! I thought that was a little surprising considering the number of places information about this run had been posted on the web.
There is a major factor that kept the number of people down that would normally turn out for any kind of "first" on a train: the operation of the Surfliner trainset on this run at this time was not "official!" There was a chance that this trainset might not have operated at the expected time. A lot of people would not take off from work to attend a "first" that might not happen.
On a related topic, Amtrak actually contacted us at TrainWeb to know if we were the ones that had announced the dates, times and train numbers on which the Surfliner trainset was scheduled to operate. For the record, TrainWeb NEVER posted this information to our website. We did find that information on an official Amtrak related website and posted a link to that "official" website. When the information vanished from the official Amtrak website, we took down our link and posted a note and a warning that information posted by others to the web was not official and that there was no guarantee that the trainset would operate according to what had been posted. To add insult to injury, we were told by some of the passengers on the train that TrainWeb had been "scooped" by our competitors as those competitors had the information about this run posted to the web while TrainWeb did not. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about that. We are often given pre-release information by Amtrak. That information helps us to plan our schedules and enables us to cover various events. We realize that we would not have access to that information if it was posted to the web against the wishes of Amtrak. We will continue our currently policy, even if it keeps TrainWeb from always being the first to report an upcoming rail event. More likely, our policy will keep information flowing our way that will allow us to continue to cover events that we would be difficult without the advance notification.
Bottom line: we found the Surfliner trainset to be a significant improvement over the Amfleet and Horizon equipment it will be replacing. Although I will miss the tables, single seats, and the full Cafe Car when the two sets of Amtrak California Car Trainsets are replaced on this route, I feel the Surfliner Trainsets are an improvement even over the California Cars. Personally, I like these cars even more than the seating in the Superliner Coach Cars!
After having seen a schedule posted on another web site about a week ago of when the new Amtrak Surfliner trainset was supposed to be in operation this weekend, I purchased Pacific Business Class tickets for Ray Burns, Shivam Surve, and myself, Steve Grande. When that schedule was later removed from that other web site and I got word that there was no guarantee that the new trainset would be run at those particular times, I decided to take my chances and hang onto the reservations that I had made. It was fortunate that I did as the trainset was operated on the times originally indicated!
As of yesterday, I already knew that Pacific Business Class on the southbound segment, Train #560, was already SOLD OUT! There were a few people on this run specifically to experience the new trainset, but the majority of people on this train were just Memorial Day weekend travelers. Amtrak normally gets very full on holiday weekends, especially on this coastal route.
Matt Melzer, a part-time TrainWeb staff member, planned to work three days for us over this Memorial Day weekend: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. To get to the TrainWeb office in Fullerton, Matt boarded this southbound Surfliner trainset in Los Angeles. Matt contacted us by cell phone when he was on the train to confirm that Amtrak was using the Surfliner trainset for this run. He also let us know that the locomotive is on the north end of the trainset, which is the normal position for the locomotive on this route. It wasn't until now that any of us realized that yesterday's Surfliner trainset was oriented in reverse of the normal train configuration for this route! But, that was wise for whoever decided on that orientation yesterday. With the Coach/Baggage (Cab Control) Car in the lead, it made yesterday's run the inaugural revenue run for Cab Control Car operation of the Surfliner trainset! It meant that a Surfliner Car would be in the lead into every station on the inaugural revenue run instead of an F59PHI locomotive, which would not have been new to this route at all!
The baggage agent in Fullerton had a little bit of difficulty deciding which end of the platform to position the electric baggage cart. Normally, the baggage car would be next to the locomotive and arrive at the north end of the platform. On the Surfliner trainset, the baggage car is the Coach/Baggage (Cab Control) Car and will be at the south end of the trainset! Once it was confirmed that the Surfliner equipment would be used on this trainset, the baggage person drove the cart down to the south end of the station.
We paused just outside the common Metrolink/Coaster commuter rail maintenance facility just north of Oceanside to wait for the northbound Amtrak train to pass. We were running just a few minutes late, but the Conductor asked over the P.A. system for us to look out our window at the I-5 Freeway. He announced that we would be in a lot more trouble if we had elected to drive to San Diego as it was obvious that the I-5 was one big traffic jam that was barely moving!
They were playing the James Bond 007 movie "The World Is Not Enough" on the seatback video units in Business Class just like yesterday. They didn't have any of the several other audio channels playing yet. Free sealed earphones were provided in the back of every seat in Business Class. I wonder if that will be the standard policy or if the free earphones are just being given out during these test revenue runs. Also, when someone gets off the train and vacates a seat, who provides a new sealed set of earphones for the next passenger to board and sit at that seat? The movie ended before we arrived into Oceanside. Shivam was wondering when someone would start the next video feature. I have to assume that reloading the video player is the responsibility of the Conductor. There isn't enough time to play another movie, so I'd have to guess that they will not start another movie for the rest of the trip.
New info! The Cafe Car Attendant accompanied by another non-uniformed person just headed up to the end of the Business Car and opened up the audio/video cabinet. That makes sense! The Cafe Car Attendant must be the crew member responsible for playing the video and audio features! He might also be responsible for restocking the headphones at each seat at the start of each trip, and maybe also at strategic points along the journey. They just starting playing soft music throughout the car via the overhead sound system. That brought to my attention for the first time that music had not been playing until now on the overhead system. My guess is that the non-uniformed person has something to do with the technical aspects of this new trainset and was showing the Cafe Car Attendant how to operate some parts of the audio/video system.
Mike Kimura was on the train with his family. They tried to purchase Business Class, but were not able to get tickets on the southbound segment because it was sold out. Actually, I think Mike was the person that told me about the southbound segment being sold out. I found Mike and his family in the front car of the train, the Coach/Baggage (Cab Control) Car. There were getting off at Solana Beach, have lunch there, and would then reboard the train in Business Class on the trains northbound trip.
We went into a siding for another northbound Amtrak to pass just south of Solana Beach. The northbound train was an Amtrak California Car trainset.
This train seems to have a much greater problem of Coach passengers accidentally boarding or wandering into Business Class. That is very logical. On Amtrak's older trainsets on this route, only one door opens to Business Class and a Conductor remains at that door to direct boarding passengers to the correct boarding door. Because a Conductor can open and close all doors from any door on this train, a Conductor is not always at the door to Business Class. Even if a Conductor did cover one door, there is also a second door to Business Class. On the older trainsets, there is almost always a unique passenger car separating Coach and Business Class. On the Horizon and Amfleet trainsets, there is a cafe/food service area between the two classes of service. Thus, it is fairly obvious where one section ends and the other starts. On the Amtrak California trainsets, either a California Cafe Car or a Superliner Sightseer Lounge Cafe Car is placed between the two classes of service. The type of seating, legroom, etc. is also significantly different between the two classes. Since the upper level of the Surfliner Coach/Cafe Car is all coach seating, Coach Class and Business Class are right next to each other without any special separation. Hence, after people board the train and are looking for seats, they wander right into the Business Class Car. Presently, there isn't even a sign in the door between the cars to indicate that the next car is for Business Class passengers. I'm sure Amtrak will be placing a sign in the door in the near future. That will go a long way to solving the problem, but will probably not solve it completely.
After the train arrived into San Diego, we leisurely packed up and stepped off the train. We stayed at the platform close to the train while waiting for the boarding call for the northbound segment of this journey.
The Conductor announced that this was the first day of operation of this trainset. That confused us a bit since yesterday was the first day of operation of the trainset and we were on that train! A few minutes later, the Conductor announced again that this was the first day of operation for the train and also said that there will be about 10 sets like this in operation within 4 to 6 weeks! I'm afraid that prediction is a bit ambitious. I think the original schedule called for a new set to be placed into service every 6 weeks, but it is possible that one new set might go into operation every 4 weeks. However, I guarantee that we will not see 10 sets in operation 6 weeks from now!
When we boarded this northbound segment of our journey, the refreshment area of Business Class was completely restocked with cups of juice, fresh coffee, muffins, danish, plus the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today newspapers.
We went to the lower level in the Coach/Cafe Car and purchased lunch. There is a fairly extensive menu and the prices are reasonable. I had a Beef Buritto, Shivam had a Chicken Buritto, and Ray had a hotdog. Shivam and I thought the burittos were quite good! Because the bun was rubbery, Ray was not impressed with the hotdog. I told Ray about the time that I saw how one person solved this problem and how my kids have copied that practice ever since. Many of you probably realize that bread that is microwaved too much will often become thick and rubbery. I once saw a patron of a cafe car ask the attendant to just microwave the hotdog and not the bun! The attendant said he'd be glad to do that, but that he was not allowed to touch the food once it was unwrapped. However, the attendant did explain that the passenger could unwrap the food and move the hotdog meat to a separte plate and then the attendant could place the plate with the hotdog into the mircowave. They did this and that avoided the problem of ending up with a rubbery bun! Maybe the food providers should just sell the hotdog and bun wrapped separately! Overall, it seems to me that the onboard food has improved in both diversity and quality since Amtrak changed to using an outside food vendor to stock the train.
We presented our Pacific Business Class ticket stubs to the Cafe Car Attendant and he gave us a food gift box, which they are now giving out instead of the cheese plates. The gift boxes contain cheese and meat sticks, taco chips, dark chocolate coffee beans, and two cookies. The Attendant also gave us free beverages. I selected a single serving bottle of wine while Ray and Shivam select soft drinks. Ever since yesterday there had been some mystery as to why coffee beans were included in the gift box. We all thought everything in the food gift box was meant to be consumed on the train and none of us had thought to bring along a coffee grinder or coffee maker to be able to brew up the beans! However, I had previously purchased and eaten chocolate covered coffee beans elsewhere and took a guess that these were meant to be eaten directly, even though they did not say "chocolate covered." I opened up the package, and sure enough, that is what they were! We all consumed our coffee beans right there on the train!
Matt Melzer, who was on the southbound Surfliner trainset from Los Angeles to Fullerton this morning reported that the Cafe remained open while the trainset layed over in Los Angeles. If that is the new policy, then I have to take my hat off to Amtrak! Usually the Cafe Car closes 30 minutes before the train gets into Los Angeles, from either direction, and remains closed while the trainset remains and is restocked in Los Angeles. Since the train sits for 15 to 25 minutes in Los Angeles, that is the time when people are most likely to want to get out of their seats and do something, like puchase some food or beverage. It is also a time when people who are less steady on their feet feel more confident to make their way to the cafe and back! Unfortunately, that has been the one time during the run that the cafe has traditionally been closed. If they can keep the cafe open through the short layover in Los Angeles, I think Amtrak will see a dramatic increase in sales from the Cafe!
There are 3 tables upstairs in the Business Class Car. (I've been informed by Alstrom that there are actually 4 tables upstairs in the Business Class Car. See Note #1 below.) There are no tables in the Coach Class Cars. Two of the tables are toward the center of the car, one on each side. The third table is across from the top of the stairs. I just noticed that all three tables have a window view that is not as good as the window view from the seats not at tables. The two tables at the center of the train have a wall instead of a window above the center of the tables, but there are windows directly next to the heads of the people sitting at those tables. The table across from the top of the stairs has a square window, but there is wall space next to the heads of the people sitting at the table. Thus, all the passengers sitting at tables have a view out the windows, but not as wide a view as those sitting at other seats in Business Class. Also, of course, the passengers sitting at the table do not have a view of a video screen and cannot watch the movie. One more advantage to the non-table seats is that they have footrests.
Personally, I think the trade-off between table and non-table seating is perfect! In the Amtrak California Cars, table seating is usually taken up very quickly. The table seats have just as good a view as the non-table seats, but have the advantage of a nice big surface area to spread out your things. Thus, a lot of people will sit at the table seats before the regular seats. In the Surfliner Business Class Car, you have to decide which is more important to you: (1) a wide window view, a video screen, a footrest, a seatback pull-down table or (2) a large table for four people! Also, unlike the California Cars, there are electrical outlets at EVERY seat in this trainset! The way they have outlets spaced, there is actually more than one outlet for every pair of seats! I think most people will choose to sit at a seat with a better view and a video screen. That is more likely to leave the tables open for those that really want to sit at a table.
The seats to the tables are some of the few seats that cannot be turned around to face the opposite direction. They are also the only seats to not provide a video unit on the seatback. Since the seats are back-to-back, there is no way one could ever have a seat facing the back of one of those chairs.
Where has this video generation gotten us? When we started out, there were three of us sitting at the table across from the top of the stairs. But by the time we got to the first stop at Solana Beach, everyone had deserted the table to go watch the James Bond movie! Personally, I'd rather enjoy the novel experience of the first time this trainset has every travelled on this northbound route out of San Diego, watching the view out the window, writing about my experiences, talking at the table and sharing this special train event. I wouldn't feel I was getting my almost $200 money's worth for roundtrip Pacific Business Class for 3 people if I spent most of the trip watching a video movie that I could rent and watch at home for just a few dollars. But from my kids and from most people that I interact with, I sometimes wonder if video entertainment has not become more important than experiencing the real life situations in which you sometimes find yourself. Maybe it was just the novelty of being able to watch a full-length movie while on a train that Ray and Shivam could not resist!
Ray is sitting at the next row of seats past the table and Shivam is sitting at the row of seats on the other side of the table! Fortunately, Business Class is not too full yet as I'm sure the Conductor might be a bit disturbed that the three of us have seized the sitting room of 8 passengers! Though it is a common practice in the Amtrak California Cars, I can't help but feel a bit guilty now that I am taking up this big table for four people all by myself!
We ran into some technical problem on departure from the San Diego Station. This slightly delayed our departure from San Diego. There was also a problem with the quality of the soundtrack on the movie. It was fine on our southbound travel. The electrician adjusted something in the audio/video system and the sound to the movie was fine again! Minor little glitches in a brand new trainset like this are to be expected.
A minor detraction that I noticed in the Surfliner Car that I have never noticed in any previous Amtrak car is how much one feels the bumping as someone behind you puts their feet on and off the footrest. I thought there was someone behind me opening and closing the seatback table, which always causes the attached seat to bump. However, on checking, the person behind me was just putting their feet on or off the footrest from time to time! The footrests are attached to the back of each seat, so it does make sense that a person sitting in the seat will feel bumping as feet are put on and off the footrest. A lot of other Amtrak equipment does not have footrests, which would explain why I have seldom noticed this before. Floor mounting the footrests would interfere in the ability to turn the seats around. I wonder if it would be better to just not have footrests?
Despite the minor problems, I would have to judge the Surfliner trainset to be the best Amtrak coach trainset that I have experienced to date! The Talgo trainset comes in as a close second behind the Surfliner, but I think my bias for bi-level equipment is probably what places the Surfliner in the lead. If there was a full-service sit-down dining car in the Surfliner trainset, then the Surfliner would be far in the lead! I have not yet been in the new Acela trainset, so I can't yet judge how that compares.
Additional Information From Alstrom, builders of the Surfliner cars:
(1) There are four movable tables upstairs in the Business Class Car, two located symetrically about the center of the car and one each across from the top of each stairway. The current, as delivered locations were chosen based upon the premise that people at table seats will tend to be occupied with activity less detracted by a marginal view. Except for back to back seats at return air towers and stairway/locker bulkheads, all others can be rotated to any operational configuration that Amtrak desires.
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