Steve's review of the Amtrak San Joaquins including travelogues and photos of the train, the accommodations and scenery along the route.
This trip came up at the last moment. For the last several years we have been going down to my boat at the Newport Dunes Resort Marina and watching the best fireworks in Orange County, California. My yacht is up for sale and I really didn't have my heart into spending the Fourth Of July on the boat. Also, my wife wanted to just rest for the holidays and didn't really want to go down to the yacht either.
Trying to think of something I could do with just my kids, I decided to combine to events into one. For quite some time I had been trying to figure out how I could find the time to take a trip on the San Joaquins before the summer days started getting shorter. There is a reason why I wanted to take the San Joaquins during the long summer days. There are only two trains each day that go all the way between Bakersfield and Oakland, and of these two, only one uses the new California Cars. That is Train #717 and it leaves Bakersfield at 3:50pm and arrives in Oakland at 10:10pm. During the long summer days, most of the entire trip is in daylight. During the winter, just about the entire trip is in darkness!
I wish I had come up with this idea on July 3rd. If I had, we would have been able to be at the big Independence Day Celebration in Jack London Square. As it turned out, the train arrived into Jack London Square just as all the cars were leaving the parking lots from the celebration. Maybe we'll go to Jack London Square a day early for next years July 4th.
The next thing we had to decide was whether to park at a southern California station and do the train-bus-train route to Oakland, or just drive ourselves to Bakersfield. I asked my kids what they preferred and they said they would rather just drive direct to Bakersfield. That decision was fine with me. I preferred to do that on this first trip to Bakersfield anyway. I wanted to make sure we got a table on the train since we expected to be playing chess, checkers, and other games on the way up. I did not know how many people might board the train in Bakersfield. If we went by bus, we might be some of the last to board the train after all the tables had already been taken. If we drove, we would be there well ahead of the bus and could make sure we were one of the first to board the train.
We did drive up from our home in Anaheim Hills. I was looking to see if there were any routes to Bakersfield that did not entail going right through Los Angeles. After consulting a map, the only way around Los Angeles would be to take the 210 through Pasadena. Once on the road, the traffic seemed light enough to take the shortest route which was to take route 5 right through Los Angeles and then change over to route 99 into Bakersfield. The whole trip from Anaheim was about 150 miles and it took us about 2 and one-half hours. We were able to travel at the speed limits of 65 and 70 miles-per-hour for the whole distance.
We arrived a couple of hours early into Bakersfield. First thing I did was to locate the Amtrak train station and survey the parking facilities. The Amtrak station is fairly easy to get to. Get off route 99 at the California Avenue exit and go right onto California Avenue. Take your first left onto Oak Street, cross the tracks and take your first right onto 16th Street. Follow that down to "F Street". Take a right onto "F Street" and the entrance to the Amtrak parking lot will be right there. There doesn't seem to be any time limit on the parking lot and I left my car there for 3 days in a parking spot right next to the tracks.
The Amtrak station is fairly small, but it does have an air-conditioned indoor waiting room as well as plenty of outdoor seating. The outdoor seating is sheltered from the sun, but it can get pretty hot in Bakersfield even in the shade.
Bakersfield handles a lot of freight traffic so there were quite a few freight trains in the yard just to the north of the station. While my kids waited in the cool air-conditioned waiting room, I stepped outside to find the train that we would be boarding. The train that we would take would have arrived as Train #712 from the north at 1:20pm and should be sitting somewhere in the yard. I immediately spotted the California Cars with the new California locomotive on a side rail just a few feet directly north of the station.
When buses started to arrive shortly after 3pm, the outdoor waiting area started to get pretty filled. I then instructed my children to follow me to the part of the station where I believed the coach cars would probably load. That would be just a bit to the north of the station, or a turn to the right as you step out the doors of the station.
A minor panic set in among some of the passengers when the train started heading north out of the station. I had already realized that the train was going to have to do that since that was the only way the train was going to be able to get out from the siding. As soon as the train was out of the siding, it immediately pulled south into the station. The only error that I had made was which direction the train was going to head to go to Oakland. I looked at my map and saw tracks going to the left which would then turn to the north. Actually, the train would pull out to the right to go to the north. My miscalculation meant that we had to spend about two hours of our trip on the sunny side of the train instead of the cooler shady side.
I did find an interesting character in the Bakersfield station. I assumed him to be a railfan who was helping to answer questions for everyone in the station. However, I soon found him walking up and down the station platform all by himself continuing to reel off passenger train information. I have no doubt that his information was accurate as what I did catch of it was information I knew to be true. It appeared that this person did not need an audience at all. He was perfectly content to rattle off factual train information whether anyone was listening to him or not! I just hope his condition is not one that awaits all railfans that get too close to the edge of sanity. He did board the train and continue his dissertation. I only saw him once on the train. That was in the Cafe Car and he was saying something about the Coast Starlight and all northbound trains will be late. Once again, he wasn't talking to anyone. He was just stating this at a conversational volume as he walked through the car.
I don't know if worry about being early enough to get a table was a valid concern or not. There were maybe one or two dozen people waiting to board the train at Bakersfield, but that might have been before all the buses arrived. We were the second people to board the train and had our choice of tables. There were plenty of empty seats on this train which had four coach cars, but I don't know if there were many or any tables remaining as we left Bakersfield.
The train ride itself was fairly pleasant. I played games with the kids almost all of the way. The game that I liked best was the travel version of Yahtzee. Each player had nothing to do till it was their turn. That gave me time to catch the scenery and actually enjoy the trip between turns. I like spending time with my children, but it is even more enjoyable if I can enjoy the train travel itself at the same time. Checkers, chess, and most card games either move too fast or require too much concentration between turns to get much chance to just relax and look out the window.
The San Joaquin Trains always seemed like the odd-man-out to me. The southern end of the line seems to end in the middle of nowhere in Bakersfield. To me it always seemed that the line should cover the last 100 miles and make it all the way into Los Angeles. Instead, Amtrak provides buses between Los Angeles and Bakersfield and allocates 3 hours for that journey. By car it only takes about 2 hours, but I guess they need some buffer for traffic and other delays.
Amtrak actually sells a lot of tickets for this route between cities in southern and northern California. I once called 1-800-USA-RAIL and told them I wanted to travel from Anaheim to San Jose. The computer system automatically pulled up a train-bus-train-bus itinerary. They wanted to book me on the San Diegans from Anaheim to Los Angeles, the Amtrak bus from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, the San Joaquin from Bakersfield to Stockton, and another Amtrak bus from Stockton to San Jose. I asked about just taking the San Diegans to Los Angeles and then the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles direct to San Jose. They said I could go that way too! That is the way I wanted to go at that time.
I know ticket agents along the San Diegan route and they tell me that a lot of people travel between southern California and San Francisco. A lot of tickets are sold for this train-bus-train-bus route. For those going to San Francisco, they take the San Joaquin to Emeryville and an Amtrak bus takes them directly into San Francisco. That bus goes to 3 convenient locations in San Francisco, including Pier 39 (a famous tourist attraction), the Union Square shopping district, and the Financial District. The reason the computer suggests this route and the agents book this route instead of the Coast Starlight is because there are 4 San Joaquin trains throughout the day where there is just one Coast Starlight each day.
But, back to the question of why the San Joaquins end in Bakersfield and don't come all the way down to Los Angeles. If you drive from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, the answer might start to become obvious. Between those two cities is the Tejon Pass with a 5% grade. Trains don't do 5% grades. Even trucks, cars and buses have some difficulty with a 5% grade. There are large warning signs before the start of the climb on each side to turn off your air-conditioner to prevent your car from overheating. There are even two turn-offs along the way where cars can replenish their radiator water. When I drove the route, it was actually a bit humorous. The radiator turn-off was filled with older cars whose drivers evidently knew they could not make it without refilling their radiators along the way. Along the climb, many brand new cars were sitting in the breakdown lane with their radiators boiling over, probably having ignored the warning to turn off their air-conditioning. I was actually surprised to see the engine temperature rise in my brand new 1996 Chevy Cavalier, even though my air-conditioner was turned off the entire way. I made it through O.K., but worried over that guage till I got over the top of the hill.
There actually is a train route between Bakersfield and Los Angeles, but it swings far to the east, then a long way south, then back to the west again before finally heading south into Los Angeles. My guess is that it would take the San Joaquin train 4 to 6 hours to cover that route and no cities of significant size would be served in between. That wouldn't make much sense when the bus between Bakersfield and Los Angeles only takes 2 to 3 hours. I also suspect that slow moving freight trains would wreck havoc upon the San Joaquins timetables over this single track area.
The San Joaquins actually meet up with many buses throughout its route. The buses meet the San Joaquins from all over central California and even from places outside of California such as Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. The San Joaquin trains serve as the backbone of a great intercity transit network throughout California.
The main northern destination of travelers on the San Joaquins appears to be San Francisco. On our trip north, more people boarded the train at every station than got off, until we reached Emeryville. Emeryville is where the buses load to take passengers to San Francisco. Everyone left the upper section of our coach car in Emeryville except for us! As far as we could see, we were the only passengers on the train once it rolled out of Emeryville! Of the four round trips that the San Joaquins make into northern California, only two go all the way to Oakland. Actually, the train almost went to park in the train yard for the night without letting us off in the Oakland station! The train had pulled into the yard and stopped when the Conductor discovered us waiting by the door to get off. He was already all packed up with his own bags and was ready to get off and go home for the day. He looked surprised that there were still any people on the train! He asked me if there were any other people downstairs with us. There was one other lady that we discovered when we moved downstairs to disembark. The Conductor told us we would have to wait a few minutes while the train went back to the station. My guess is that this train usually empties out at Emeryville and only occassionally has passengers going all the way to Oakland, especially at 10:10pm at night. If the train is empty after leaving Emeryville, there is no need to even go to the Oakland station. The train can go direct to the yard and park for the evening.
The Jack London Station in Oakland is a recent addition to the San Joaquin line. All the San Joaquins used to only go as far as Emeryville. The Jack London station itself is a new station only about a year old. I think the only reason that two of the San Joaquins actually make it all the way to the Oakland station is because they have to go through the station to park in the yard for the night anyway.
Since our trip took place on the Fourth of July, we got to see some fireworks from the train on our way up. As I mentioned before, we did miss the big celebration in Jack London Square. We arrived around 10:30pm, about 20 minutes late. All the crowds and cars were in the middle of leaving the square when we arrived.
The Oakland Station in Jack London Square has a tall pedestrian overpass similar to the one if Fullerton if you are familiar with that. I think this one is actually quite a bit taller and wider. You get a good view of the tracks, the waterway, and much of Jack London Square from the top of that pedestrian overpass. If you are going to either the Jack London Inn or the Best Western Thunderbird Inn, DON'T take the overpass. Those two places are on the same side of the tracks as the station itself. If you are going to the Waterfront Plaza Hotel, you can either go over the pedestrian overpass or can just walk to the end of the station and cross the tracks and the street. All three hotels are a bit north of the station. The Waterfront Plaza Hotel is right in Jack London Square at the water. The Jack London Inn is across the street from the Barnes & Nobles in Jack London Square while the Best Western Thunderbird Inn is about 3 blocks away from the Square on Broadway.
It took us about 15 minutes to cross the overpass, walk through the middle of Jack London Square and reach the Waterfront Plaza Hotel.
Originally we were suppose to return on Saturday morning. We were going to take the train out of Jack London Square at 7am as that is the only San Joaquin Train that my schedule lists as having the new double-level Amtrak California Cars. I saw a lot of trains go through Jack London Square on my visit, but they were all either California Cars or Superliners. I just assumed that all those California Cars were the Amtrak Capitols route. But, I never did see any Amfleet cars go through Jack London Square at all.
My kids liked Jack London Square so much that we decided to stay an extra day. That almost turned out to be a mistake, but everything worked out O.K. anyway.
On Saturday morning I got up early, long before my kids were up. I let them know the night before that if I was gone when they awoke, I'd be back in less than an hour. They are old enough to take care of themselves in a hotel room for at least that long. I let them know that I'd try and come back with some donuts.
I watched the 7am San Joaquin train pull into the station. Only a few people got on, less than a dozen. Thus the train was just about empty when it left the station. That was about how many people I expected on the train since the large crowds board at Emeryville where the buses from San Francisco meet the train. Thus, if you get on at Jack London Square in Oakland, you pretty much have your pick of any seats on the train! If you want to keep out of the sun on the morning train, pick seats on the station side of the train. You might have sun on you when you start, but the train makes a large sweeping turn and the sun will be on the other side of the train the rest of the way once you reach Stockton.
The next item I wanted to check was how to get to BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit, from the Amtrak station. My map showed Lake Merritt as being the closest station. First, let me tell you to not necessarily believe what the exact position of any stations are on any road maps that you may have. Those maps were made for cars and not pedestrians. The exact location of the Amtrak station is at Alice and Embarcadero. The exact location of the Lake Merritt BART station is at the corner of Oak and 8th. My street maps don't show the exact position of either station and tend to imply they are a few blocks from their real location. The map I got from BART doesn't even show the existence of the AMTRAK station! I find it strange that the BART map makers would think that people that rely on public transit would have no need to know where the AMTRAK station is!
I walked from the Amtrak station to the BART station. If you want to do that, face the Amtrak station building when you get off of the train. The street behind you on the other side of the tracks is Embarcadero. If you walk forward past the front of the Amtrak station building, you will immediately hit the corner of Alice and 2nd Street. Take a right onto 2nd Street and walk 2 blocks until you get to Oak Street. You will pass Jackson and Madison. Take a left onto Oak and walk 6 blocks to 8th Street. The streets are numbered from 2nd up to 8th Street. You will find the entrance to the Lake Merritt BART station at that corner. There is also a building at that corner where you can buy $16 worth of travel for $4 for children. The BART office building is only open during weekdays, but that BART station is open from at least 6am until midnight.
I wasn't sure if this was a safe place to walk as I had heard that Oakland does have some pretty rough neighborhoods. The area of my walk seemed all industrial area with no houses or people around. I noticed that there was plenty of flat wall space everywhere and even concrete supports for the highway overpass, but there was no graffitti in sight anywhere. I assumed this either wasn't a gang area, or the gangs here aren't into grafitti. The last part of the walk was through an area with both houses and businesses. Most of the houses seemed to be kept up very well. By some of the people that I did start to meet on the street and the symbols at each street corner I realized that I was in an Asian neighborhood. From the lack of grafitti, the cleanliness of the neighborhood, and the dress of the few people in the streets, I did not feel the area to be unsafe for walking.
If you would rather not walk or have suitcases to drag along, there are two buses that can take you from the Amtrak station to the Oakland City Center/12th Street BART station. They are bus numbers 72 and 73. The bus stop is right on 2nd Street in front of the Amtrak station. The schedule says that each run about every 30 minutes. I don't know if they arrive at the same time or run 15 minutes apart, but your wait shouldn't be more than 30 minutes. The Oakland City Center/12th Street Bart station is itself within reasonable walking distance of Jack London Square, though not as close as the Lake Merritt Station is to the Amtrak Station. If you walk 12 blocks down Broadway straight from the 12th Street BART station toward the water, you will run right into Jack London Square. That walk will take you right past the Best Western Thunderbird Inn at 3rd Street and Broadway. That walk takes you into the west end of Jack London Square, right where the Waterfront Plaza Hotel is located.
After staying for an extra unplanned day, we finally did leave on the 7am San Joaquin Train on Sunday morning, July 7th, 1996. This is where I think we almost made a mistake. Unlike Saturday, there were quite a few people waiting to board the train. Probably still not much more than a dozen people, but I could tell something was unusual even from that number of passengers. Even the odd person that we had met in Bakersfield was there, giving a blow by blow report on what the ticket agent was doing and why she hadn't let the people into the waiting room yet, when she would let them in, how she would let them in, and a complete rundown of the various duties of a ticket agent. Once again, the report was being given to nobody in particular ... just to anyone that could overhear his rambling as he walked by.
I suspected that if we waited till Sunday to leave, we would meet with crowds of people returning from the holiday weekend. My suspicions were correct. Almost the whole way to Bakersfield it seemed like crowds of people were getting on the train at every station with nobody getting off! Time and time again an announcement would sound over the P.A. that baggage is not allowed on the seats and to please move in as every seat on the train would be needed. I removed my baggage from the seat once I saw there were no further empty seats in our train car. My kids and I were playing games and were even reading the book "Call Of The Wild" by Jack London out load at our seats. We were having a "family party" and weren't exactly anxious to have a stranger crash our party for the next several hours. I don't mind having a stranger at our table for an hour in the Dining Car during a meal and even find a new face stimulating. However, having a stranger siting with you for hours during quality family time was not something I was looking forward to. You'll have to check my "Ramblings" section for my philosophy about seating on Amtrak trains and how Amtrak should handle this problem. As luck would have it, nobody did join us at our table on the train during the trip.
The vast majority of travelers did travel with us all the way to Bakersfield most likely to board buses to Los Angeles and other destinations. From comments from the Conductor and other Amtrak staff, I could tell this train was unusually full. The number of people on the train seemed to surprise even them! I suspect you won't run into anywhere near as many people as we ran into on normal days and weekends that are not holiday weekends.
Traffic continued pretty heavy on our drive down 99 to 5 and finally onto the 91 back to Anaheim Hills, but we still made it in well under 3 hours from Bakersfield. I'm sure we'll do this trip again, but next time it won't be a holiday weekend and I'll probably take the Amtrak bus to Bakersfield.