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Amtrak San Joaquins

Steve's Review
Bakersfield to Oakland, California
Trains #711-#718

Worst Trip Ever: 07/23/96 - 07/25/96

Steve's review of the Amtrak San Joaquins including travelogues and photos of the train, the accommodations and scenery along the route.

For those of you that have read most of my travelogues of Amtrak, you know that I have almost nothing but praise for Amtrak and the employees of Amtrak that make it all work. Occassionally I talk about the staff that has not yet gotten with the program and do not understand or care that their efforts may be the determining factor in whether Amtrak will still be with us a decade from now. Overall, however, most Amtrak staff is very helpful, curteous, and executed in a manner that shows they need to make every trip the best in your life so that you will want to return and keep Amtrak growing.

For every generalization, there is always the exception. This trip was the exception. Did I wish I wasn't on this trip? That is hard to say. If you were on the Hindenburg or the Titanic and survived, would you wish you had never been there? Maybe yes, but in a way, no. Something unusual seems to happen on every trip. Usually something good, but sometimes something bad. Either way, it gives me something unusual and different to write about.

I took this trip with a business associate. We had guaranteed reservations for the Jack London Inn for that night. I wanted to show him what the San Joaquin route was like, especially going in a train with the big tables and the new California Cafe Cars. This associate is really into farms and I figured he would enjoy a trip up the San Joaquin Valley.

We drove to Los Angeles Union Station and got a great parking space right in front of the parking attendant booth under the shade of a tree. We took the connecting bus from Union Station to the Bakersfield Amtrak station. Everything proceeded on time, though I decided from this trip that I really didn't like buses at all! These were fine buses. Plenty of leg room, air-conditioning, and even very large windows and a smooth ride. I once took greyhound buses round-trip across the country back in 1970, but I guess I have been spoiled by riding Amtrak trains and would like to avoid connecting buses like the plague.

We boarded the train on time in Bakersfield and even got the exact seats with a table that we wanted on the shady side of the train for our afternoon trip. Then ... the trouble started!

There had been an oil spill near the tracks from one of the oil refineries just north of Bakersfield. We were told there would be an hour delay. The Conductor warned us that he had never been given a one hour delay like this that didn't turn into at least a two hour delay. Calculating, that meant we might not get into Jack London Square until after midnight. Not too bad. In worst case, we could sleep an extra hour in the morning before heading out on our mission.

After a while, the Cafe Car staff came through the cars handing out free snacks and beverages to everyone. We didn't ask for anything, but two bottles of soda, two bottles of water, peanuts and chips ended up on our table! However, they stopped serving all liquor and announced that no further liquor would be served for the entire trip. I guess they wanted to avoid problems from any people that got too intoxicated from drinking too much during this long delay. I was glad that I had purchased an ice cold beer on the first announcement of the delay!

More time passed and Amtrak decided to provide a free meal to everyone. They went through the entire train with carts and just about threw food at everyone! Don't get me wrong, it was all in good fun! They just grabbed the next item off the cart and threw it to the next person. If you didn't like the item, you just threw it back and they threw you a different item. I think I started out with a burrito and ended up with a pizza. Everything was sealed up in that plastic that is impossible to rip open without a knife (or a pen), so I don't think there was anything unsanitary about this event which looked all the world like a food fight without the mess.

I feel sympathy for the people in the last car. They must have run out of hot food by the time they got that far back. I saw lots of Ceasar Salads heading on their way to that last car.

Two hours went by. The Conductor warned us again, but this time that no estimated time was being given for when we would be able to leave. After another hour or more, Amtrak started making arrangements to make sure that people would make their connections further up the line. They started taking people off the train and busing them up north to meet connections they were suppose to make in Hanford, Fresno, etc. After more time passed, we realized that things were looking really bad when they bused the people up to Martinez that planned to make a connection with the Coast Starlight. Martinez is all the way up near the Bay Area and practically to our final destination!

More time went by and an announcement was made that Amtrak was trying hard to find enough buses to take everyone on the train to their destinations. This is just what I needed! After my first connecting bus trip that convinced me to avoid them in the future, I was now to be bused all the way to Oakland! I would rather be bused back to Los Angeles and drive my car the rest of the way!

To my relief, I guess they never found those buses. I don't know why. I don't think they would have needed more than 2 or 3 buses. The train was pretty empty after they had taken all those people off already to bus them to their connecting points. The train finally got the clearance to go. I don't remember the exact time, but it was getting pretty close to midnight.

That wasn't the only problem that evening. I won't go into detail, but we had a problem with the door electronics that made it impossible for us to go on. This problem is pretty common on the California Cars and I was once on a San Diegan that was delayed for 3 hours because of this problem. After what seemed like a hopeless cause, they eventually did fix or override the problem after about another hours delay.

I don't remember much from the middle of this trip. I fell asleep and spent a fitfull night at our table. If I knew we would be sleeping on the train, I would have spent the extra money for Custom Class where the reclining seats are much more condusive than sitting up at a table!

I did wake up at Fresno and a few other stops. At each stop, the Conductor told the passengers to go to the ticket counter to receive a voucher for a free trip on Amtrak in the future. I guess this was compensation for the 8 hour delay and extremely unusual inconvenience that the passengers had been put through, as well as the inconvenience to the people who had to come to stations in the middle of the night to pick them up! I asked an Assistant Conductor if we would be getting free passes when we got off in Oakland. He said: "I think so, but we are getting a new Conductor before we get there and we'll have to see if he does the same thing".

It was somewhere around 6 A.M. in Emeryville when we were rudely awakened by an Amtrak maintenance employee in coveralls shouting at us that we had to get off the train. I looked out the window and saw that we were in Emeryville, not in Jack London Station in Oakland. I told this worker that we had tickets to go to Oakland. He just shouted some more and said: "I don't care. You have to get off the train." I told him that I wanted to speak to the Conductor. All the maintenance worker said was that the Conductor had already left and that we had to get off the train.

So what were we to do? We were now on a train with evidently nobody with any authority on board. We got off. We found the Emeryville station pretty much shut down. The ticket counters were all closed and there didn't seem to be any Amtrak staff in sight. Someone directed us to a taxi and told us it would take us to Oakland. The Taxi driver confirmed that Amtrak would pay the fare. So much for showing my associate how the train conveniently drops us off just a couple of blocks from our hotel!

So much for asking the Conductor if my associate and I would be getting free passes like the people that had gotten off at most of the other stations that night. The Conductor had evidently gotten off and gone home before all the passengers were even off the train!

The taxi took us over to the Jack London Square Station. But to add salt to our wounds, our train was arriving into the station at the same time that we were getting out of the taxi! I have no idea why the train came to the station. I had assumed that we were rudely kicked off the train because they were not going to run the train all the way to Oakland. The Oakland Amtrak train yard is between Emeryville and Jack London Square. I assumed the Conductor left the train early and maintenance personnel boarded because they were going to take the train straight to the yard instead of going through to Oakland. I have no idea why they then brought the train all the way to the Jack London Square/Oakland Station anyway or why they had to kick us off prior to our final destination!

I usually give Amtrak a lot of leeway when things don't go right. I'm pretty understanding about the difficulties that they encounter because of all they are expected to do with so tight a budget. And I certainly understand when things go wrong beyond their control, such as the refinery oil spill north of Bakersfield. I don't have patience, however, when a Conductor leaves his train prior to making sure all his passengers are off the train. I also have no patience when passengers are left to the mercy of a maintenance worker that has no training or experience in relating to customers and no concept that the survival of Amtrak is dependent on the proper treatment of those customers. I don't blame the maintenance worker, but I do blame the person that I never met that did not take care of their responsibility to explain to us why we were being forced to disembark at Emeryville, how we were suppose to get to Jack London Square, and if and how we would be compensated for our inconvenience and this literal nighmare of a trip!

As of this writing, I have taken 2 other trips on the San Joaquins round-trip from Bakersfield to Jack London Square in Oakland, California that went without incident and were very enjoyable. It would take a lot more than this particular trip to keep me from promoting Amtrak and continuing to encourage others to try Amtrak. But for those of you that believe my enthusiasm for Amtrak keeps me from also reporting on their flaws, maybe the review of this trip suggests that I still have some objectivity.

There was one item totally beside the train ride that made me feel a bit better. I had used my credit card to guarantee that a room would be available for me in the Jack London Inn after a late arrival. While sleeping very uncomfortably at my table in the coach car, I was just thinking about how I was paying for a comfortable bed at the Jack London Inn that I was not going to get to use. We arrived at the hotel after 5 A.M. Fortunately they did not charge me for the night that I wasn't in the hotel, so at least I didn't have to pay for a comfortable bed that I didn't use.

Because it was already morning, my associate and I just threw our stuff in our room, walked to the 12th Street Downtown Oakland BART Station and took the first train to the Oakland Airport where we picked up a rental car. We got an early start on our task and had our work completed shortly after noon. We returned the car that evening and were on the southbound San Joaquin the following morning.

Fortunately, the return trip went just fine. We did get the train out of the Oakland Station in Jack London Square at 7 A.M., got seats with a table on the side of the train that we wanted, and pretty much arrived on time into Bakersfield.

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