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Amtrak San Joaquins

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

Saturday, September 7, 1996

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

Round-Trip In A Single Day
between Southern California and
the San Francisco Bay Area

This was another of those last minute plans. Part of what I do professionally is to lay the groundwork for parts of the Internet, the "Information Superhighway". Quite a contrast to my hobby of train travel, eh?

A major part of my effort is to strategically place Internet POPs (Points Of Presence). Each POP allows people roughly within a 12 mile radius of the location of that POP to connect to the Internet with a local telephone call, thus avoiding telephone toll charges. I analyze populations and calling areas to determine where to place POPs so that a minimum number of POPs can be used to reach the maximum number of people. Since each POP involves tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment and costs thousands of dollars per month to operate, it is very important that I optimize POP placement to determine the least number of POPs needed to cover a given area.

Thus, the reason why I get to take so many train trips up and down the state of California! Sometimes it would be faster to fly, but not often. Many of the places where we put POPs are secondary cities where it would be just as fast to take a train to the heart of the city than to fly into the closest airport and drive the rest of the way.

Sometimes there is a problem with the primary and secondary locations that we have selected for a particular POP. This doesn't happen often, but when it does, I have to make an unplanned immediate return to the area.

This trip involved one such problem. I had to return to Vallejo, California, to obtain photographs of the primary and secondary sites as well as obtain milage from the telephone company switching office and comment on suitability of each location. I was also going to see if any new places to rent had come on the market since my first trip.

There is an Amtrak bus that goes all the way to Vallejo. I called around in advance to find a place to rent a car near the Amtrak Bus drop-off point, the Holiday Inn at Marine World. It was an Enterprise Car Rental place. Unfortunately, it closes at noon on Saturday, a few minutes after the bus was scheduled to arrive if the train wasn't late. If that wasn't bad enough, Enterprise had no way for me to drop the rental car off later in the day. Some car rental places have an "after-hours" drop-off method, but this Enterprise didn't. Not very enterprising of them.

I called a friend that lives in San Jose. He said he would drive up and pick me up at the Martinez Amtrak Station. That is the closest station to Vallejo. I was scheduled to arrive there at 10:06 AM. So that is the plan that I made!

My original idea was to go to Fullerton early, purchase my tickets, then return home to pack and do some other work. I got so busy that I never got a chance to go down early to pick up my tickets. I have a friend that was an Amtrak ticket agent in Oceanside. I knew he always had to stay at work until he saw the Amtrak Bus off at 11:15 P.M. Thus, I figured that Santa Ana was the same and that a ticket agent would be there until the bus arrived. Or if not, that a Ticket Agent would at least be available until the last train left Santa Ana at 10:35 P.M. on Friday night. I planned to get to the Santa Ana station to purchase my ticket by 10:35 P.M.

When I got to the Santa Ana Station, I was surprised to find that the Ticket Office was closed for the evening! There were people waiting in the station, including one searching for a Ticket Agent to find out if the train was on time. I suddenly realized that a Ticket Agent wasn't needed for the last train. The Conductor does sell tickets on-board for the same price as in the station if the station ticket office is closed.

I re-read the policy on the San Joaquins schedule and it did say that tickets must be pre-purchased before boarding the bus. I found the spot where the Amtrak buses load at the station. There was a notice posted there that said the same thing, that tickets must be purchased before boarding the bus. I wasn't sure what I was going to do. My bus was going to leave at 12:35 A.M. and I had no tickets!

I went back to my car and was seriously thinking of driving to Los Angeles and leaving my car there. That would mean an extra couple of hours of driving counting both way, and losing a couple of hours of sleep that I had hoped to do on the bus. This seemed like the only solution. Then, I heard the announcement about the train arriving. Obviously there must be some Amtrak person still at the station!

I headed back toward the ticket office hoping it would be re-open. Instead, I found an Amtrak agent driving one of those utility vehicles getting ready to load/unload baggage from the train when it arrived. I asked her about purchasing tickets. She said I could purchase them on the bus. I was very skepticle about this since I had just read the notice on the schedule and on the notice by the bus stop.

I could not imagine an Amtrak bus driver carrying all the information needed to price a ticket, to accept charge cards and to process AAA discounts! That doesn't even consider the delays involved if the bus driver had to process all that paperwork while trying to stick to a schedule!

To aleviate my skepticism, I called 1-800-USA-RAIL to see what information they had on this matter. They said I didn't need a ticket to get on the bus and that I could purchase my ticket at the Bakersfield Amtrak Station once I got off the bus. That made more sense than what the ticket agent said, but it still conflicted with the wording on the schedule and the notice at the bus stop.

I accepted the 1-800-USA-RAIL answer as being most likely correct. Their answer was not the "official policy", but I decided it was probably the policy in effect and the most practical way of handling the situation. I understood why the official policy was that you must already have a ticket before boarding the bus: (1) For reasons stated above, you can not expect a bus driver to sell tickets, (2) You don't want a bus driver to be carrying large amounts of cash and become a robbery target, and (3) You don't want the bus to be a free shuttle service.

Let me explain the last and least obvious answer: that you don't want the bus to be a free shuttle service. If a person is allowed to board the bus without already having a ticket, then it won't be long before many people know they can get free transportation between San Diego, Oceanside, Santa Ana and Los Angeles by just boarding the Amtrak bus ... no ticket needed. Requiring bus passengers to already have a ticket before boarding eliminates all three of the above problems.

When I first arrived at Santa Ana just before 10:30 P.M., the parking lot was full of cars. I couldn't imagine this many people leaving their car here for extended travel. I discovered a restaurant/bar in the station and that seemed to be the reason for so many cars. By midnight, many of the people and cars had left. I moved my car over to the side of the station where I discovered the Amtrak bus stop. There were many fewer cars on that side and I found a spot within 50 feet of where the bus pulls in.

During operating hours, there seemed to be quite a few security and police around the station. I felt quite safe at the station. I don't think 15 minutes went by that I didn't see either a Santa Ana policeman or a station security guard walking about the station. I think the station has 24 hour security, but I did not verify that. With the last Amtrak bus arriving at 3:25 A.M. and the first Metrolink coming in at 5:42 A.M., there aren't many hours during the night that this station doesn't see some transit activity.

You can park your car in the Santa Ana lot for 72 hours, except for some designated areas. I've been told that you can leave it longer if you let the station security guards know about it.

I sat on one of the benches and read a book for a while between 10:30 P.M. and the time that my bus arrived at 12:35 A.M. A few people got off the bus and never came back. I wondered if they had actually purchased a ticket from San Diego or Oceanside to Santa Ana, or were taking advantage of the "free ride" loophole. Maybe there is no loophole. Maybe the bus driver requires a ticket to get on in Oceanside and San Diego if those ticket offices are still open when the bus leaves.

I get on and find the bus populated with about one person for each double seat. I think most Amtrak buses seat 34, so there were about 17 people on my bus give or take a few. I found an empty double for myself.

The bus driver asked for tickets. I told him that Amtrak told me that I could buy them in Bakersfield. He told me we would be stopping in Los Angeles and I could get my ticket there. Not the story Amtrak gave me, but close enough. I was a bit disappointed as that meant that I wouldn't be able to sleep all the way from Santa Ana to Bakersfield. Well, if all I want was a free ride from Santa Ana to Los Angeles, I could have done it! No ticket needed for this ride!

When I got to Los Angeles, the bus driver directed me to the ticket office. At this hour of the night, the buses just stop right in front of the station instead of around the side at the usual bus loading zone. Thus, the ticket office was quite far from the bus stop. The bus driver told me to go to the bus driver at the first bus when I returned with my ticket. I could see that I might spend some time waiting outside at the bus stop instead of sleeping in my seat when I returned with my ticket.

There were about six of us waiting in line at the ticket office. The computers were down and the Ticket Agent was having a terrible time. He could hand-write simple tickets, but needed the computer to figure out more complex prices that involved bus connections and AAA discounts and charge cards. He wrote tickets for a couple people in line that had simple requests, but the rest of us had to wait for the computer to come back up. The Ticket Agent warned us that he might not be able to write our tickets and that we might have to take the bus to Bakersfield and purchase our tickets there. But, the computer came up just in time and he was able to issue me my round-trip ticket from Santa Ana to Oakland.

I went back to where I was instructed to board the buses. There was a chance that everyone on the bus from San Diego, Oceanside and Santa Ana was going to have to get off and reboard another bus. They were waiting to see how many people were on the bus from Long Beach to see if they could consolidate buses. When it did arrive, they decided there were too many people on that bus to consolidate buses. The bus driver noticed me in the line and told me that I could go ahead and reboard my bus since I had come with him and they were going to go all the way to Bakersfield anyway. So, I was able to re-board my bus and even get my old seat back and not wait any further in line with all the people boarding in Los Angeles.

This time the bus driver did collect my ticket and we were off to Bakersfield right on time! I don't remember much after than except getting off the freeway ramp in Bakersfield. The bus driver turned out the interior lights. Any passenger could have turned on his individual seat light, but nobody did that. I guess everyone wanted to sleep for that segment of the journey.

Something I always wonder about and used to worry about is snoring. I'm told that I snore quite loudly when sleeping. I can confirm that as I've even woke myself up in the middle of one! I seldom hear anyone else snoring, at least not loudly, on the bus. I wonder if I snore on the bus. My guess would be that I do, and probably do so louder than anyone. But, I guess I won't know unless anyone tells me. I just hope that I don't keep others awake.

The bus arrived in Bakersfield around 4:15 A.M., about 45 minutes before the train was scheduled to depart. I sat outside at the raised concrete covering by the tracks. I usually wait here for the train in Bakersfield. There are plenty of seats inside and outside of the station, but I like sitting close to the tracks. The temperature was just right, neither warm nor cold.

According to the schedule, this should be a "Heritage Fleet" train. I had never been on one of those before and was looking forward to learning what they were like. I did see a passenger train in the siding just north of the station that did not look like either California Cars nor like Amfleet Cars. This is where they usually store the Amtrak San Joaquins overnight so I just assumed this was the Heritage Fleet train I would be taking.

To my surprise, another train came down the track from further north and pulled into the station. It was a consist of California Cars! Though I wanted to learn about the Heritage Cars, I wasn't disappointed. I always like riding in the California Cars. I walked as far north as I could in the Bakersfield station. That is usually where they open the doors of the train first and is a bit of a walk from the point where everyone waits outside the station.

This time, Amtrak fooled me. Usually they open several doors to the train. They only opened a single door for the whole train! They didn't even open both doors of that car. There were quite a few people to load, so it took quite some time to get everyone in through that one door, especially the people with multiple suitcases.

Once I boarded, I went upstairs and directly one of my favorite seats for traveling alone. I went to the car right after the first car in the train. This train would be operating in reverse going to Oakland. That is, the train would be controlled from the "cab car". The "cab car" is a passenger car that has been modified to have a control station at the end so that the engineer can operate the train in reverse. That is how the Engineer would operate this train all the way to Oakland.

If you are observing the train from the outside, you can sometimes see what appears to be a train with a locomotive at one end and the whole train is going up to 79 M.P.H. down the tracks backwards! This can be quite disconcerting for someone that is not used to seeing trains with "cab cars" in operation.

Back to my seat selection. I always try and sit as far away from the Cafe Car as possible. This reduces the amount of foot traffic going by your seat. I don't sit in the Cab Car because their are only 2 single seats instead of the 4 you will find upstairs in all other California Cars. That modification was necessary to accomodate the "cab" portion of the "Cab Car". Thus, I sat in the single seat in the car right after the Cab Car, right by the door that connects to the Cab Car.

Sitting here meant I would be facing away from the direction of travel. I selected to sit on the left side of the train, the side away from the station. I know from past travel that most station platforms would be on this side of the train on this route. By sitting so far to the front of the train, I would get to observe the people waiting at the platform as the train passed them. Also, this would be the west side of the train for much of the route and would keep the sun out of my eyes once morning arrived.

The train left on time at 5:05 A.M. A lot of people had boarded, but the train has the capacity to hold a lot more people. Thus, once everyone was seated, the train seemed rather empty. I don't think there was anyone at any of the seats near my seat when we left Bakersfield.

I've found the 3:50 P.M. train from Bakersfield and the 7 A.M. train from Oakland get VERY crowded. They are always asking everyone to remove luggage from the seats as they will need every seat on the train. I couldn't understand why statistics say the San Joaquins don't get enough passengers. We'd be packed like sardines if they were successful at getting any more people to ride those trains! I've been told that the emptiness of all the other San Joaquins more than makes up for the fullness of those two particular trains. I guess that is true. This is the first time I rode on a San Joaquin train other than those two and it was pretty empty. Some of the most coveted seats, those with tables, I think remained empty for the entire journey! I'm not sure why they can't better schedule these trains to reduce those that travel empty and increase those that travel closer to capacity.

The Conductor came to collect my ticket. He liked the "Amtrak California - San Joaquins" cap that I was wearing. He said that even he can't get any of them. Evidently they had run out and no more were yet available. Because of recent legislation that practically phases out the Amtrak California organization (but not necessarily the trains themselves), they might not make any more Amtrak California souverniers. If they ever do make them again, the souveniers are sold in the Cafe Car.

I don't remember much of the trip until I got to about Merced at 7:56 A.M. I guess I must have slept pretty soundly for that portion of my journey. That was good because there would be no hotel stay for this trip! Sleeping in the trains and buses would be the only sleep that I got on this trip.

By the time I got to Martinez, the train was running almost an hour late. I had round-trip tickets all the way to Oakland, but Martinez was where I was to meet my friend. So, that is where I left the train. If you ever take a trip where you plan to get off at a different location than you plan to get on, always check the round-trip price to the furthest location. Nothing requires that you actually ride the train all the way to that location, but you will find that a round-trip ticket is almost always a lot cheaper than two one way tickets. The only exception to this rule is to let Amtrak know well ahead of time if you have reserved a "sleeper" when you plan to get on anywhere other than what it says on your ticket. Otherwise, the Conductor might mark you as a "no show" and sell your "sleeper" as an upgrade to someone already on the train!

I got off the train in Martinez. We seemed to be right in the middle of a small town just across from the waterfront. I'll have to investigate this area sometime. It looks quite inviting. My friends car was right across the street. We drove off to Vallejo and I finished my assignment in less than 3 hours.

It seemed a bit of a drive, but we went from there to Jack London Square in Oakland and parked at the Amtrak station. We walked over to Jack London Village. I try to purchase a paperback by Jack London each time I visit this place and try to have it read before my next visit. I did purchase a Jack London book, but was still carrying around and reading the last book that I purchased here!

We ate at the "Happy Belly Deli". I'm not a vegetarian, but I love vegetarian dishes that are prepared well. This place knows how to make great vegetarian dishes and sandwiches. You won't find bland plates of steamed vegetables here! I look forward to eating here every time I'm in this area. While we ate and talked, there was some group singing songs from the 60's and 70's down in the courtyard below. Jack London Square also features one of the largest Barnes & Nobles Bookstores that I've ever seen. I purchased a map of Contra Costa County, a Railway Magazine, some computer books, and a Starbuck's Frapaccino that I couldn't resist from the cafe in the bookstore.

We walked back to the Jack London Square Amtrak Station and I got my backpack out from my friends car. We were there about 40 minutes before my train was scheduled to leave. I expected the train would probably pull in about 20 minutes early to start loading. I was right about when my train would pull in, but I couldn't board immediately. A "Capitols" train came into the station just a few minutes before my train and was blocking access to the San Joaquin train.

These trains are always scheduled so close together that it always confuses passengers waiting to board. Often they will get on the wrong train. Between Oakland and Martinez, these trains sometimes run 10 minutes behind one another. Occassionally they have to exchange passengers that got on the wrong one or the other. I'm not sure why they schedule them so close. All I know is that everytime I try to figure out how to combine the San Joaquin with the Capitol to get from Bakersfield to San Jose, the train I need to connect with will have left the station 5 minutes before my train will arrive! I'd have to wait 2 hours at the connecting point for the next train. I know there is an Amtrak bus that runs between Stockton and San Jose, but who wants to take a bus if they can avoid it?

Once again, the San Joaquin schedule said this should be a Heritage Fleet train. However, from examining the schedule earlier, I figured this was going to be the exact same train that I came up on. Thus, it should be the California Cars again. And it was! From a number of things that I noticed on my ride up in the morning, I could tell this was the exact same train. On my morning trip, someone had removed the Attendant Call Button in the large bathroom in the next to last car and placed it on the sink. The button was still removed and sitting on the sink in this train!

Once again, I had boarded the train and headed for as far away from the cafe car as I could get without going into the Cab Car. I found myself at the same seat, but then decided to sit across from it on the other side of the train. This time, though in almost the same seat as before, I was now near the rear of the train instead of the front of the train. The train would be operated forward from the locomotive in its trip to Bakersfield instead of being operated in reverse from the Cab Car as it had been in the morning. I wouldn't see many passengers at station platforms during the trip since I was on the wrong side of the train and the passengers would have already boarded by the time my part of the train went by the station, but I planned to sleep most of this trip anyway.

When an Assistant Conductor came to collect my ticket, he was also wearing a "Amtrak California - San Joaquins" cap! We both tried to compliment each other on our selection of head gear at the same time and just ended up laughing about it.

Not many people got on at Oakland, but the train started to fill up pretty good along the way and seemed pretty crowded by the time we left Martinez. This journey seemed like 3 seperate rides. From Oakland to Martinez took over an hour and I seemed to have my section of the train all to myself. My section of the train was pretty full when we left Martinez and I overheard people talking around me for the next 3 hours. It seemed like we were all riding together forever. They all left at Fresno. More people boarded, but just one person sat at the table where there were two before and nobody sat at the four seats where there had been a family in front of me. So the trip from Fresno to Bakersfield was the third segment where the train would remain sparsely populated for the final 2 hours.

I guess I wasn't all that tired at first. I worked on summarizing my results for the day, read a little, then purchased a beer and a sandwich for the Cafe Car. On this train, as it was in the train that I came up on, the Cafe area was downstairs in a Coach Car. The Coach Car with the downstairs cafe was not a California Car. It seemed like some flavor of a Superliner Car or other Amtrak Car that I had never seen before. The California Cafe Cars are quite new and fancy with the snack bar upstairs. The Amtrak Superliner Cafe Car is downstairs in the Observation Lounge Car. The Superline Lounge Car has floor to ceiling windows with all the seats facing the windows, but with the ability to swivel. This car was like neither of those. It had seats upstairs like an Amtrak Superliner Car, but had a snack bar downstairs just like the downstairs of the Amtrak Observation Car!

I wondered who was allowed to sit in this car. I hadn't checked who was in here on the way up, but only two people were in this car on the way down! On San Joaquin trains #712 and #717, this would be the extra-cost "Custom Class" Car and free coffee, juice and newspapers would be available. The Cafe Car with the Snack Bar is usually a seperate car that is placed between Custom Class and the rest of the Coach Cars so that Coach passengers can get to the Snack Bar without going through Custom Class. Usually, the Cafe Car is placed between the Custom Class and regular coach sections so patrons from either side can get to the Snack Bar without going through the other section of the train. Since Custom Class is not normally avialable on this run, I doubt the Amtrak computer has the ability to book Custom Class for this particular train. Thus, it is probably why this car was just about empty. I suspect that anyone could have sat in this car. Also, I don't think they would place the Snack Bar in a place that required every passenger in the train to go clomping through Custom Class to get to it. I've never seen an arrangement like that on any train. Custom Class is always in a location where non-Custom Class passengers have no excuse to be in that area. I suspect the only reason this car was in this train is that it was the only one available at the moment that had a Snack Bar.

That brings us to the whole mystery as to why a consist of California Cars was being used instead of the Heritage Cars normally used on this run. There were "Capitol" schedules available everywhere throughout the train, but no "San Joaquin" schedules at all! This train had evidently been in Capitol service very recently and had been borrowed at the last moment to be used on this San Joaquin run. This will remain a mystery to me for now.

I must have slept for an hour or two somewhere between Fresno and Bakersfield. We arrived about 25 minutes late. As soon as I saw familiar parts of the Bakersfield yard come into view, I headed for the door and was the first one off the train and the first one onto the bus. The bus driver took my ticket immediately and I sat in about the same spot as I had on the bus that I came up on.

The bus driver introduced herself as "Jackie". She told us about the emergency exits. She also told us that there were only 6 of us traveling on this bus which was destined to Los Angeles, Santa Ana and San Diego. She was quite surprised and said this was the least number of people that she had ever taken on a bus from this station! There was someone else riding on this bus right behind her driver seat. I got a feeling that this wasn't a passenger. This person didn't seem to count as one of the people going anywhere.

There was plenty of room for us with just six people in the whole bus! There was one person from England that was a bit strange. He came up front, told Jackie that a group of them were from England on the special pass that Amtrak has for foreign travelers that is like a Eurail Pass, and asked if they could play music. Jackie said they could play music as long as they used earphones. I don't think this is what he was asking and I think Jackie understood that. She later commented something about it to the person sitting behind her after this group had left the bus.

I fell asleep pretty quickly and slept all the way into the Los Angeles Union Station. Everyone got off in Los Angeles! Even the other person that was suppose to go on to Santa Ana or San Diego got off here. Other than the person behind the driver, I was the only one on the bus! Jackie told me that I was going to have the whole bus to myself to Santa Ana. She said she had never done the route before with just one person on the bus and had never before not had at least one person to go all the way to San Diego.

Jackie said we wouldn't be leaving until the scheduled departure time of 2:35 A.M., about a half-hour from the time we arrived in Los Angeles. I'm not sure why we have to wait. I guess the schedule is posted that way and it is possible that someone might purchase a ticket at 2:30 A.M. to take this bus to Santa Ana, Oceanside or San Diego! Not likely, and there are not trains that unload at the time. Thus, there would be no new passengers boarding this bus in Los Angeles. I don't think I slept while we were in the station as I remember the route the bus took to get onto I-5 south. It was a different route than I used when I drove myself to the Los Angeles Union Station.

Next thing I new, Jackie was waking me up and telling me we were at my stop in Santa Ana. My first reaction was "How did we get here?". Guess I must have been sleeping pretty good, probably dreaming. I got off the bus and wished Jackie a good night. I crossed the 50 feet to my parked car. First thing I always do when I get in my car is put my cellular phone into the car adapter.

It was gone! I had used it earlier on the train, so it had to have fallen out of my pocket on either the train or the bus. The bus was still there, so I decided it was worth a try to check the bus. I ran back to the bus.

I did something stupid that I never do. I walked directly behind the bus. Fortunately it didn't start to move until I was clear of the rear of the bus, but it could have started to back up when I was directly behind it. Since I myself drive a van conversion and have a large blind spot directly behind me, I'm usually very conscious about not walking behind any vehicle with a running motor. I guess I wasn't thinking in my groggy state of having just woke up.

The bus backed up very slowly. That is exactly what I do when I back up my van. I look everywhere when I back up, but there is no way for me to see a small child if they somehow got right behind the back of my van at the last moment. In the same way, there was no way for that bus driver to see me in the way I snuck up on the back of that bus in the last moment. She probably backed up slow enough that I could have walked out of the way, but I'm just greatfull that I was beside the bus and not still behind it when it started to back up.

I knocked on the door of the bus and Jackie opened the door and let me check my seat. I was relieve to find my phone sitting in the seat! It must have fallen out when I was searching for something in my pocket.

I followed the bus to the I-5 Freeway. I think the bus headed north, which would make sense since nobody was on the bus heading for Oceanside or San Diego this evening. I was looking for the entrance to 55 North. I found 55 South right away, but got a bit lost trying to find the North entrance. After making a few wrong turns, I eventually got onto the 55 North and was home in less than 30 minutes. I slept pretty late for me that Sunday morning.

I'm not sure I want to repeat this experience too often, but I know a short assignment in the San Francisco Bay Area can be done in a single day with no need to stay in a hotel. By sleeping in buses and trains, it is possible to leave from Southern California and be back in just a little more than 24 hours later.

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