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Amtrak San Diegan Travelogues

From left to right, Shivam Surve, Ray Burns and Steve Grande

Below are two short travelogues of round-trip travel between Fullerton and San Diego, California on the Amtrak San Diegans. The first round-trip was taken with my 14 year old daughter, Jodina, in Pacific Business Class and the second with Ray Burns and Shivam Surve from the TrainWeb office in the full-length dome car.

Saturday, January 15, 2000

I awoke around 4 AM on Saturday morning. Not feeling too sleepy, I went to my computer to work on a pretty big backlog of e-mail that had built up. While checking the TrainWeb web site, I noticed that all of the webcams hosted on one particular system at our Fullerton office had been frozen since 3 PM on the previous afternoon. This would be webcams 2, 3 and 6. I decided to take a little ride down to my office to reboot that system. Just then, my older daughter, Jodina, came downstairs and asked if she could go with me.

At that hour of a Saturday morning with no traffic, it takes about 15 to 20 minutes to drive the 10 miles from my home to the TrainWeb office at the Fullerton Santa Fe Depot. Actually, it doesn't take much longer than that during the regular weekday commute once I'm able to get past the jam of cars trying to leave my local neighborhood! Most of the trip from my house to the office is right along the BNSF tracks all the way from where they cross Imperial Highway at Orangethorpe (about 2 miles from my home). I just follow the tracks to the Fullerton Depot along back roads which mostly avoid the regular commuter route and the traffic.

Just as a lark, as long as we were at the station, I thought we might take a little outing and take the first train down to San Diego and back. The first passenger train though Fullerton on Saturdays, which is the southbound train, leaves Fullerton at 6:40 A.M. After fixing the webcams, I purchased an adult and a child one way Business Class ticket from Fullerton to San Diego. I purchased a one way ticket as I did not know what time we would be returning from San Diego. For Unreserved Coach, your ticket is good all day and even good for the next serveral months on most any train. But, when you purchase the Business Class upgrade, you have to know exactly when you will be traveling. Thus, I just wait until we are ready to return before purchasing my return ticket. There is no price break between 2 one-way tickets vs. one round-trip ticket on the Amtrak San Diegans.

The train came right on schedule at 6:40 A.M. We were the only ones to board Business Class in Fullerton, but there were a few other people already in Business Class that must have boarded in Los Angeles where this train originated. Coffee, juice, muffins and danish had been set up for self-serve in the car. There were also newspapers available. In addtion to magazines, we also found a letter from Amtrak in the back of each of our seats describing Pacific Business Class service. Click here to read that letter.

I was happy to see that most of the items described in the letter about Pacific Business Class were true, but I was a bit dismayed to find that for the third time in a row in my travels on the Amtrak San Diegans, the electric outlet at my seat was not working. That wasn't really important to me on this trip. On previous trips where I have needed the power for my notebook computer, I have usually found that when the electric outlets on one side of the car do not work, they usually do work on the other side. I have switched my seat from one side to the other side of the car previously because of this. If you find an electric outlet that is out, your best bet is to try the outlets on the other side of the car. I believe that each side of the car shares a single circuit breaker. Thus, if one outlet is out, probably all the outlets on that same side of the car will not work. Hopefully, if I had reported the problem to the Conductor, all it would have taken to fix the problem would have been for the Conductor to check and reset a circuit breaker.

Once we arrived in San Diego, we wanted to grab some breakfast. We wanted something more than the bagels and danish offered by the cafe in the San Diego Depot. I'm not that familiar with the area around the San Diego Depot. I'd know where to go by the docks for lunch, or even by Old Town San Diego or Seaport Village for lunch or dinner, but I was not familiar with anything that would be open around 9 AM for breakfast.

I decided that we should give the Fashion Valley Mall a chance. It seemed to me that there might be some restaurant open for lunch in that area. We purchased two round trip tickets for the San Diego Red Trolley to take us from the San Diego Depot to Fashion Valley for $3.50 each.

The San Diego Red Trolley serves the San Diego Depot. As a matter of fact, you can't get from the Amtrak train to the depot without crossing the trolley tracks! It was just a short ride up to the mall of about 7 or 8 stops. Each stop is just a few blocks apart. Once at the Fashion Valley stop, we went downstairs, crossed the parking lot, and went into the mall. The mall is two stories and mostly open with quite a bit of shade downstairs and on one side upstairs.

At 9:30 AM, most of the mall was closed. There were a couple of eating places open such as Starbucks and Cinnebon, but that was not what we were looking for. We decided to go back to the Trolley Stop where we saw that there was also a taxi stand. We figured that a taxi driver should know of some nearby local restaurant that serves regular sit down breakfasts.

There was just one cab at the stand. We asked the driver about breakfast places. Without any hesitation, he said he knew the best breakfast place in San Diego for quantity, quality and price and that it was right nearby! The only problem, he explained, is that it is so popular with the locals that we might have to wait 20 minutes or so to be seated, but that it would be well worth the wait. We had him drive us to that place. It turned out to be right by the Old Town Trolley Stop and just a $6 taxi ride. We could see that he was right about the line. There were people waiting everywhere inside and out to be seated. I gave him a $2 tip, thanked him for the suggestion, and headed in to put our name on the list.

If you want to know where this place is, it is just a block or two from the Old Town Trolley Stop which is just 4 stops up from the Amtrak San Diego Train Station (Santa Fe Depot). When you get off the Trolley, don't head for Old Town. Head in the opposite direction away from Old Town. Take a right at the first signal light and you will see it less than one block down the street. You can't see the place from tracks nor the Trolley Stop. You have to get to that first signal light before you will see the building.

The line moved quickly and we did get seated less than 20 minutes after we put our name in. The food was quite good. They had a huge selection of breakfast options. Everything could be made either American style with country fries or hash browns with a choice of bread, or Mexican style with beans and tostadas. The price was also very reasonable for the quantity of food. Despite the huge crowd the restaurant had to handle, the service was prompt, friendly and excellent. There was no mystery as to why this place is so popular!

I don't remember the name of the place, but you should be able to find it using my directions above.

Normally when I go anywhere in San Diego, I purchase the San Diego Trolley ALL-DAY ticket for $5. Usually I only have time to go to one place and thus end up overpaying for my transit needs. This time, however, I thought I was only going to go to Fashion Valley and just bought 2 round-trip tickets. For the first time, I actually did need ALL-DAY tickets! When we went to the ticket machine, I punched up the buttons that would give me information on upgrading my ticket. One of the notes the machine provided was that a ROUND-TRIP ticket CAN NOT be upgraded to an ALL-DAY ticket! Thus, I went ahead and purchased 2 new ALL-DAY tickets for $5 each, basically wasting the 2 $3.50 ROUND-TRIP tickets that I had purchased earlier in the day.

From the Old Town Trolley Station, we went back to the Amtrak San Diego Station. Since I didn't expect to be doing so much walking, I had loaded my backpack up with my notebook computer, my daughter's notebook computer, my dayplaner, my railroad radio, her CD player and other odds and ends. That was getting a bit tiring carrying around everywhere! Thus, my plan was to parcel check it at the Amtrak San Diego Station and then pick it up before we boarded our train to head home.

The Amtrak San Diego Station would not check my bag, even for an extra charge, unless I had a ticket. Many Amtrak Stations will hold your carry-on luggage for you for a small charge, even if you do not have a ticket. I went ahead and purchased an Unreserved Coach Ticket for each of us knowing that I could upgrade it to Pacific Business Class later in the day. We were then able to parcel check my backpack for a $1.50 charge.

We then got on the next San Diego Trolley and headed back to the Fashion Valley Mall. This time instead of going downstairs to cross the parking lot, we followed a number of people who were heading up a ramp to the parking garage. I think most of them were going to their cars as they scattered in different directions. Fortunately, one of them continued heading walking toward the mall and we followed them until we found a pedestrian ramp that lead directly from the garage to the second level of the mall. I was pretty sure that a bridge existed from the station directly to the mall, but the signs did not make it obvious of how to get to the mall without going downstairs first.

We toured the mall until 2 P.M. I was impressed with the collection of stores. Fashion Valley seems to have many of the stores that are found at the better malls, but most of the better malls in my area are very large and, to me, overwhelming. Fashion Valley is small enough to walk the entire mall without being overwhelmed, yet retains enough stores to make browsing quite enjoyable.

At 2 P.M., we headed back to the Fashion Valley Trolley Stop using the bridges and walking again across the top level of the parking garage. We arrived back at the Santa Fe Depot before 2:30 P.M., upgraded our tickets to Business Class, and got my backpack out of parcel check. My daughter's feet were hurting at that point and she could not walk very fast. It wasn't because there was so much walking at the mall, but more because she did not bring walking shoes since neither of us expected to go to a mall when we started out today. I figured it would be best if we got a head start to where we would board the train since Business Class is all the way down to the front of the train. Thus, we slowly walked all the way down the platform to almost the front of the train and sat at a bench in the shade of the trees.

We didn't have to wait long before they started boarding the train. We found a couple of seats that were in the shade, opposite from the side of the train that travels along the ocean. I grabbed a juice from the self-serve area for each of us.

Departure was ontime at 3 P.M. The Conductor and the Lead Service Attendant from the Cafe Car explained that we could present our ticket stubs in the Cafe Car to receive a cheese and crackers packet along with a single-serving bottle of wine or other beverage.

Jodina and I went down to the cafe car and presented our tickets. I told the Cafe Car Attendant that I would like a white wine and that my daughter would just want a regular drink. I guess he didn't hear me properly as he said that he would need to see her I.D. ! At least he guessed right that she looked under 21. My daughter does look older than her age of 14, but certainly does not look anywhere near 21 ! I re-explained that she just wanted a regular drink like Pepsi or 7-Up.

Another odd situation happened that got me a little befuddled. Another Business Class passenger was there and told the Cafe Car Attendant that he could just give me his wine! I don't know exactly what was going on before I stepped into the Cafe Car, but my guess is that this passenger wanted a beer, but the free beverage for Business Class passengers only covered wine and soda, not beers! Thus, the Cafe Car Attendant charged the person for the beer. That passenger then turned to me and said, you can have my wine if you like. I just said "Sure!" and thanked the passenger. I'm not really good at thinking on my feet. In retrospect, I probably should have offered to pay for that passengers beer. Instead, I just got totally confused. I didn't see that person tip the Cafe Car Attendant. Thinking there was something wrong in this entire protocol if I were to provide the Cafe Car Attendant with a tip, yet not offer any money to this person that just gave me a free wine, who at the moment might be a bit miffed with the Cafe Car Attendant who would not give him a free beer instead of a free wine, I ended up neither leaving a tip nor offering to pay anything for the person's beer. In retrospect if I would have been able to think faster, I think I would have offered to pay for that person's beer and still left a tip for the Cafe Car Attendant. In any case, I ended up with 2 glasses of wine which I almost needed after that awkward situation!

My daughter and I spent most of the rest of the trip up in the dome car instead of in Pacific Business Class. Each time the Conductor came by, he said: "I already took your tickets, didn't I?" After the third time of doing this, he decided to give us another seat check to keep on the table. Thus, we had one seat check at our seats in Pacific Business Class and another at our table up in the full-length dome car.

The seating policy in the full-length dome car has been floating around for a while, but I think it has finally settled down. At first, seats in the dome car were sort of treated like the seats in any other San Diegan Cafe Car. Basically, it was for people who purchased food in the Cafe. However, since there were so many tables, it was highly unlikely that you would be run out of the Cafe Car if you did not have food in front of you that was purchased in the cafe. Often when the train started from an endpoint and the Cafe was not yet open for service, the dome car doors would be locked. Some Conductors would ask that you remain in your seat until your ticket has been collected and a seat check placed above your seat before going to the dome car. Now, every Conductor that I have encountered treats the dome car as revenue seating. You do not have to have another seat on the train. The Conductor will take your ticket at your seat in the dome car and place your seat check on the table. The part that is still confusing is that you are allowed to have a seat in regular coach and just go to the dome car to eat or relax. Thus, the Conductor can be a bit confused about who has and has not already had their tickets collected since everyone in the dome car will not necessarily have a seat check at their table. That is what happened when my daughter and I kept our seats in Pacific Business Class but also spent a lot of time in the dome car. As a side note, in most cases you can now go directly to the dome car when you board the train even at the station of origination. I have not found the dome car locked as it often used to be until the Cafe Car Attendant was ready to open for service.

We were back to Fullerton shortly after 5 PM and drove home from there.

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Monday, January 17, 2000

Today was the Martin Luther King Day holiday for schools and other government offices. Most businesses were still open today, but enough were closed to make the traffic lighter than normal and the travel patterns a bit different than usual. TrainWeb was officially open today, but we thought it might be a good day for a short rail trip.

Although Shivam Surve, new to our TrainWeb staff, has traveled by rail in India quite a bit, he had not yet traveled in the United States by rail. That just would not do for a member of the TrainWeb staff! I'd been considering a good opportunity for us all to take a ride on the Amtrak San Diegans and today seemed like a good day to do that.

For such an outing, it would only be worth making this trip if we could do it in one of the full-length dome cars or in one of the Amtrak California Car Trainsets with either a Sightseer Lounge Car or an Amtrak California Cafe Car. I noticed a dome car head north on the 9:11 AM Amtrak San Diegan. Checking the schedule, I noticed that this was Train #571 which terminated in Los Angeles. It would head south again shortly as Train #574 and be through Fullerton at 11:32 AM.

I explained the idea to Ray Burns and Shivam Surve and everyone thought doing this outing today in the dome car would be a good idea. I had also told about my travel over the weekend and the breakfast place that I had discovered. It would be a bit tight, but everyone thought we should head down to San Diego and have a late breakfast at that place before heading back. We purchased our tickets and headed up to the bridge to Track 2 (BNSF Track 3) to wait for our train. We waited on the bridge so that we could see the train coming from far off and see if it had a dome. If Amtrak had switched the sets and it did not have the dome, we decided that we would postpone the trip to another time.

Fortunately, the train came right on time and was the same set with the dome car! We boarded the train and went directly to the dome car.

Roy Redenbaugh, Conductor

As we started to depart, we heard the very familiar voice of Conductor Roy Redenbaugh bellow over the P.A. System "Boys and girls ...". Roy is very well known on the San Diegans and the Coast Starlight by passengers that travel between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. We were surprised to hear his voice down here in San Diego! We asked Roy about the change and he just replied: "Nothing ever stays the same with the railroad!". If he is no longer on the route north of Los Angeles, Ray and I are both going to miss his unique way of announcing: "Glendale! Glendale is the next stop!"

Roy took our tickets and placed a seat check right on our table. As usual, the scenery was great from the dome car, especially along the ocean and cliffs between Oceanside and Solana Beach. We all talked about the uniqueness of this experience and how it will only be available for a limited time. Amtrak started running these dome cars on the San Diegans just about a year ago and they are expected to stop running before the end of the year. Since the Dome Car is designed to be used with single level trainsets with the car to car doorways on the lower level, they are not compatible with the new bi-level Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trainsets with the car to car doorways on the upper level. Thus, this short 24 month period might be the only opportunity for one to be able to travel up and down the coast any day of the week in the full length dome car!

The train ran right on schedule to San Diego arriving about 5 minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival time which was 1:40 PM. We walked immediately to the vending machine for the San Diego Trolley tickets and purchsed 3 round-trip tickets to Old Town. As soon as we crossed over to the waiting platform, the trolley arrived and we boarded it! We got off at Old Town and walked to the restaurant. To our dismay, we discovered that this was truly a restaurant devoted to breakfast ... it closed at 2 P.M.! We arrived at the door at 1:55 P.M., but they had already locked the doors and closed up for the day.

Since we were right near Old Town, we decided to eat at a Mexican Restaurant in Old Town. Ray new a short cut through a store in Old Town over to the closest restaurant and that is where we went. We left the restaurant at about 2:40 PM, 20 minutes before the scheduled departure of our return train from San Diego. We were all highly skeptical that we would be able to make that train, but knew there was another a 4 P.M. if we missed the 3 P.M. train.

As we were getting closer to the Old Town Trolley Station, we could see a trolley already in the station on the southbound track. I figured that it would depart any moment, but it did not! The closer we got to the train, the faster we started to walk. We began to see that there wasn't any motorman in the train! That was a good sign and we were able to board that trolley before the motorman came onboard and the trolley departed just a few moments later. By 2:50 PM, we began our journey of 4 stops to the Santa Fe Depot. We had just 10 minutes to get to our train!

We arrived at the Santa Fe Depot just a minute before the 3 P.M. departure of our train and were probably the last ones to board before departure. We would be traveling north on the same train that we came down on. This was the first train to depart San Diego after the time that we had arrived. As we sat in the dome car, we watched the next southbound San Diego Red Trolley arrive into the station. Our San Diegan departed before the doors even openned on that trolley. Thus, if we had missed the trolley that we took, the next trolley would not have arrived at the Santa Fe Depot in time for us to make the 3 P.M. San Diegan train!

Ken Barrett, Amtrak Ticket Agent & Web Designer!

When we stopped in Oceanside, we saw Ken Barrett by the station building. Last time I talked to him just a few days ago he was working the Amtrak Anaheim Station. Ken is an Amtrak Ticket Agent and has also done the web design for a number of web sites at TrainWeb. But, most noteably, it was Ken Barrett that designed the TrainWeb logo that you will see on every page at TrainWeb!

Photos inside the full-length dome car.

The timing on each and every segment of our trip was perfect! Every train arrived and left right on time. We did not have any long stops in sidings waiting for trains to pass in single track areas. We arrived right on time into Fullerton at the scheduled time of 5:10 P.M. The train door even openned directly across from the openning through the station building so that we didn't even have to walk down the platform when we got off the train.

Having the dome car both ways, trains all running on schedule, and no delays during travel, this was the perfect Amtrak outing! This was a great trip for Shivam's first Amtrak experience. We just had to prepare him for his next trip and let him know that the chances of everything going so perfectly on his next Amtrak trip are a bit less than 100% !

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Saturday, January 22, 2000

I made the trip again from Fullerton to San Diego on the following Saturday. I decided to take photos of as many of the highlights along the way as possible. Because of the speed of the train at various points along the route, it was not possible to capture photos of everything that I would consider a highlight along the route. However, these photos should give you a good sample of the scenery that you will see from the train window as you travel from Fullerton to San Diego.

I took photos of the ocean side of the train (west side) on the trip south and of the "in land" side of the train (east side) on the trip north. The first train leaves Fullerton at 6:40 AM. That is the train that I usually take as I like to get an early start. In January, that is a bit before sunrise. There are many trains between Fullerton and San Diego all day long, but since I decided to return at 4 PM from San Diego, it got too dark out to take photos beyond San Juan Capistrano on the way back. But, you will see photos from the most scenic part of this "in land" side of this route which is across from the ocean between San Diego and San Juan Capistrano.

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