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Amtrak San Joaquins

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

08/22/96 - 08/24/96

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

Single Seats
on the Amtrak California Cars

For those of you that like to sit alone, there are 2 single seats at each end of every car except the "Cab Car". The "Cab Car" is the passenger car that is furthest from the locomotive. Since the "Cab Car" has a place for the Engineer to operate the train in reverse from the very end of the train, the configuration of seats is different at that end. All other passenger cars do have 2 singe seats at each end.

I sat in one of those single seats on two business trips in which I was traveling alone. I'd say that seat comes the closest to having a private accommodation on a train that has no private accommodations! Each single seat has a large window on one side and a floor to ceiling see-through plexiglass partition on the other side. I think the purpose of the partition is to reduce the amount of noise that comes from the doors used for passage from one train car to the next. There is also space between the single seat and the plexiglass partition big enough for a sizeable suitcase.

Since the door from going from train car to train car is right behind the single seats, you will hear a lot of track noise during the interval when someone passes through the door until it automatically closes a few seconds later. The reason most people pass through the door is to get to the cafe car. Just sit as far away from the cafe car as you can to reduce the number of people passing by your seat and through the door.

Another nice feature of the single seat is the amount of table space. Since there are two chairs in front of you, you get two seat-back fold down tables all to yourself! In summary, with a window on one side, a plexiglass wall on the other and two fold-down seat-back tables in front of you, it is like having a private room all to yourself! Personally, I rather sit in these seats than a seat in the Reserved Custom Class!

Driving To Bakersfield

I don't really like riding buses, so I opted to drive my own car from Anaheim Hills to Bakersfield. The trip is about 155 miles. The speed limit is 70 mph for most of the way. It is possible to make the trip in a little over 2 hours if there is no traffic. The worst part of the drive is that I have to drive on the I-5 right through the heart of Los Angeles. Commute hours are to be avoided at all costs since this can delay the amount of time it takes to get through Los Angeles by an hour or more.

I can make this drive in far less time than the bus out of Los Angeles Union Station. I have always found plenty of parking at the Bakersfield Amtrak Station and haven't had to worry about where to leave my car. There doesn't seem to be any time limit as to how long you can leave your car at the station and there is no fee for parking. By arriving before any of the buses, it also gives me a chance to be one of the first to board the train and have a better chance of picking to sit anywhere that I like.

This time I left my house pretty early, about 11:10 A.M., to make the 3:50 P.M. train. I did encounter an unusual amount of noontime traffic trying to go through Los Angeles. I decided to take a detour since I had plenty of time and took the I-10 west to the I-405 north which joins back into I-5 far north of Los Angeles. At the town of Gorman, however, there was a severe tractor trailor accident. The entire Interstate came to a stop. People got out of there cars and were just walking around the freeway talking to each other. The freeway didn't move for about an hour! Without traffic, I should have arrived about 1:30 P.M., but instead arrived at about 3 P.M.

On Board

I only had to wait about 20 minutes before the train started boarding. I had two "huge" boxes with me. Both were about the size of overgrown suitcases in length and height, but about the same size in thickness. I placed one downstairs in the bicycle rack as instructed by an Assistant Conductor. The other box, to my surprise, fit perfectly between my single seat and the plexiglass partition next to my seat! There wasn't 1/16th inch to spare! The box also became a nice end-table for me to place my backpack.

The train left about 40 minutes late because some buses where late in arriving. I suspect it was the buses from Los Angeles that were probably delayed by the same accident that held me up for an hour. The rest of the trip went without incident. The train neither lost any further time nor made up any time. Don't be fooled by the 45 minutes in the train schedule allocated for the train to make the 5 miles from Emeryville to Oakland! Because of recent construction, traffic on the rail, and other dispatch problems in trying to get trains between Emeryville and Oakland, the train has taken almost the entire 45 minutes to make those last 5 miles every time I have taken it.

Return Trip

View Of The American Orient Express

The return trip also went without incident. I got my usual early start out of the Jack London Inn at about 6:20 A.M., but was surprised to see an Amtrak train already sitting in the Jack London Station as I was walking toward it. No Amtrak train is scheduled to be into the station before 7 A.M. and the San Joaquin train isn't brought in before 6:30 A.M. If this wasn't the San Joaquin train, then it was going to be in the way when the San Joaquin did arrive in a few minutes. As I walked closer up the platform, I could see that it was an Amtrak locomotive, but it was not the San Joaquin. The train was the American Orient Express!

I got a few more photographs, especially a few close-ups of the Dining Car. I had never been able to get this close to the American Orient Express before. The American Orient Express is made up of older passenger cars that have been meticulously restored. There are Club Cars, Sleeper Cars and two Diner Cars. A couple of the cars were dumping liquid underneath onto the tracks right in the station. This both looked and smelled like it was from the toilets. I suppose it might just have been drain water from the Diner Car, but I think it was one of the Sleeper Cars that was dumping. I pondered about this a bit. The older Amtrak cars also dumped the toilets direct to the tracks before this practice was prohibited. The Superliners and all newer Amtrak trains now have self-contained toilets like those on RVs or airplanes. But would a restored train car from an earlier part of the century have these newer self-contained units or still be using the older type of units? Maybe they got some time of waiver so they could continue to use authentic restored equipment, sort of like the waiver that antique cars get so they don't have to meet today's safety and air pollution standards. If you have an answer, let me know!

The San Joaquin did pull in on time at about 6:40 A.M. onto the track on the other side of the American Orient Express. There was way acceptable to Amtrak to get passengers to the San Joaquin without having the American Orient Express pull out of the way. I don't think the crew of the American Orient Express was aware of this scheduled train. They seemed to be caught by surprise that they had to pull out of the station so that passengers could walk across the tracks where they were parked.

Picking A Seat

Once on board the San Joaquin, I headed straight for the next to last car. I had already decided that I was going to sit in the single seat at the very end of the next to last car on the station side of the train. I would have preferred to sit in the very last car to avoid anyone ever going through the passage door between trains. However, I had already figured out that the single seat arrangement was different because of the "cab car" controls that allow the Engineer to operate the train from the last car. Being in the next to last car would eliminate most of the traffic of people walking between train cars and that is all I was trying to achieve.

I sat on the station side of the train for two reasons. The train would be heading south for most of the trip. Thus, I would be on the west side of the train away from the sun. That side of the train is cooler and the shade is easier on the eyes. Also, most of the boarding platforms are on the right side of this train when heading south. I like to watch the activity at the station while the train is arriving and leaving the station.

First thing I wanted to do once the conductor took my ticket was to get a cup of coffee and a muffin from the cafe. I went to the cafe car, but it wasn't open yet. It was the old style cafe car and not the new California Cafe Car that is usually on the 712 and 717 San Joaquins. That happens sometimes when the new Cafe Car is in for service. There had been a large traffic jam that had delayed the Cafe Car Staff from getting to work on time. As a result, instead of having the Cafe Car open and serving like they usually do when the train leaves Jack London Square, nothing was ready yet and they were working hard to get everything set. I asked if I could just sit there till they were ready since I didn't want to walk all the way back to the next to last car of the train without my coffee. They poured me a free cup of coffee and drafted me temporarily into Amtrak service! My job was to sit by the door and tell anyone that tried to come in that the Cafe Car was not open yet and that an announcement would be made when the Cafe was open. I enjoyed my "temporary" employment with Amtrak. Most people were pretty understanding and went back to their seat to await the announcement. After about an hour and the acquisition of a lot of passengers from about 5 stations, my message kind of wore out and people were starting to pile up in the Cafe Car waiting for it to open. Once it did open, I purchased a muffin, attempted to pay for my coffee which they refused to accept, and then returned to my coach seat to enjoy the rest of my journey in solitude.

I caught a couple hours sleep on the train. Usually I like to be awake on the train as long as there is daylight to enjoy the sights. However, I got less than 4 hours sleep the night before and the scenery is not the most interesting for much of the San Joaquin route. Mostly it is open farmland for as far as the eye can see between every station. The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the world. It is impressive, but the last few hundred miles look pretty much the same as the first hundred miles of farmland. Also, it was more important for me to be well rested and wide awake for the 2 to 3 hour drive home than to make sure I saw every foot of scenery for the sixth time.

About 11:45 A.M., I purchased a Ham & Turkey sandwich from the Cafe Car and another cup of coffee to insure my alertness for the drive home. The train arrived in Bakersfield at about 2 P.M., just 40 minutes late.

Return Drive Home

Thankfully, the return drive home was without incident or delays. Since it was mid-afternoon on Saturday, there was no commuter traffic, it was too early for the people going into Los Angeles to party on Saturday night, and there was no traffic of people going away or coming back from a weekend vacation. I made the drive home in just a bit over 2 hours.

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