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Irvine to San Luis Obispo, California
Surfliner Equipment Travelogue

Click here for more information on the Pacific Surfliners.

This is a partial travelogue of the trip that I took on the new Surfliner equipment in Business Class on Friday, July 14, 2000, from Irvine to San Luis Obispo.

I ran into a problem on the segment from Irvine to Los Angeles. I was definitely "not satisfied", but I don't know if this fits under Amtrak's new "guaranteed satisfaction policy" or not. On the surface, since Amtrak's new policy is a "satisfaction guaranteed - no questions asked", it seems anything fits under Amtrak's new policy! However, the first responsibility of a passenger to make a claim under the new guarantee is to bring the problem to the attention of any Amtrak employee and give them a chance to make it right. I did bring my predicament to the attention of the Conductor, but I did not make a big deal about it and I did not indicate that I was not satisfied with their response. Actually, I think I would not have been happy if the Conductor did take action to try to solve my problem!

The problem that I ran into and am about to describe, I have experienced a number of times before, especially when traveling with my children. It is a problem that makes my kids dread train travel. And, I can almost guarantee, they will probably not travel by train at all when they are old enough to make their own decisions! For those people that decide they don't like train travel, it is usually a number of little things that add up to give them the overall impression that they do not like the overall experience of travel by train. This problem is probably one that turns a lot of people away from trains, it turns my kids away from trains, and it even often inhibits me from taking others along with me on my travels!

So what is this problem? When my daughter and I boarded the train in Irvine, we had Business Class tickets, and there wasn't anywhere that we could sit together! There were a lot of pairs of seats where there was just one person at each pair of seats. It is true that we could have each sat with someone else and talked across the aisle, though that is not as easy on the Surfliner as most other trainsets since many cross-aisle seats don't line up with each other. But, I am certainly not satisfied with this arrangement. I'm especially not satisfied when paying the significant premium for Business Class.

As I mentioned before, I've run into this problem a number of times when traveling with my kids and they dread being scattered around the car sitting with strangers! I've also certainly seen many groups of 2 to 4 people board the train and eventual split up with looks of disgust and disappointment on their faces when they could not travel together.

There is only one solution that I can see, and that is to put into use those seat numbers that have been so dillegently placed above every seat. If you are booking "Reserved" seating, you should be able to select your seats on the train, just like you do when you have "Reserved" seating on an airline! I don't think Amtrak should implement this for Unreserved Coach Seating, but I think it should be used on any train that implements "Reserved" seating. That includes all of the long-distance trains and Business Class on other intercity routes. With actual reserved seat numbers, Amtrak really would be providing a significant upgrade for the extra cost of Business Class. Just like in an airline, I think people traveling alone should still be able to reserve a window or aisle or any particular seat in the reserved seating section. There would be many advantages to providing reserved seat numbers. If I'm traveling alone, I know ahead of time if I can have a guaranteed window seat. If none is available on that train on that day, I might select a different day to travel. I'd rather that than be apprehensive right up until I've boarded the train and obtained a desired seat, or worse, not obtained a desireable seat! When traveling with my children, I would definitely make decisions about what days to travel and which trains to travel on based on whether or not seat reservations were available for us to sit together and travel as a family! It would certainly eliminate the fear of my kids that they will be sitting alone with strangers and we'd travel by train more often as a family. If Amtrak just wants to partially implement this feature and set aside just part of the coach section of each train with pre-assigned seat numbers, I'd be in favor of that. I'd be more than happy to pay a reasonable surcharge to have a guaranteed seating position on the train.

So what did happen? After seeing there there were no seats available together in Business Class (except for one pair of seats on the lower level that had no window at all!) we went into Unreserved Coach Seating and found a pair of seats together just a few steps from the door to Business Class. My plan was to wait until at least one person departed from the upper level of Business Class which would free up a pair of seats. I had taken a glance at the seat checks while we were searching for a pair of seats and did not notice any that indicated people would be leaving the train prior to Los Angeles. However, I did check the car at every stop: Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton, just in case I missed one indicating a person would be getting off earlier. No luck! More people boarded Business Class, but a pair of seats was not freed up until Los Angeles. So, instead of being able to sit back, relax and enjoy our journey starting in Irvine, we were literally on the edge of our seats until we pulled into Los Angeles! A couple of people did get off in Los Angeles and we were then able to sit together.

I mentioned above that I really would not have wanted the Conductor to solve the problem. What could the Conductor do other than ask someone who was sitting alone by a window if they would kindly move to an aisle seat with someone else? Most people might be agreeable to this, including myself if I was the person by the window, but I would not be happy about it. I don't think it is right to disrupt someone else that is settled in and is under the assumption that they will be able to keep their desired seat for the rest of their travel. I don't think asking people to give up their desired seats onboard is the proper solution. The proper solution is the implementation of assigned seat numbers as described above.

One Amtrak staff person on the train was asking another what to put in for the "route number" on the new GPS controlled station display equipment. The other staff member replied that they didn't know and to try "911". The two staff members may have been the Conductor and Assistant Conductor. Because the equipment was set with the wrong route number, the displays were showing "Next Stop Los Angeles" while we were on our way from Santa Barbara to Goleta. Earlier, when we were on our way to Los Angeles, the announcement system was saying that Los Angeles was the last and final stop for this train! The Conductor had to make an announcement giving the correct information about this train continuing on to San Luis Obispo. They did try various entries like "779", "0779", and "SNAN" (for San Diegan North). None of those worked. Evidently, nobody trained this crew on how to set up the GPS controlled display. The manuals, and one or more CD players on this train seem to have vanished. Hopefully they are with the technical people for the train!

Another comment that came up from one to the other as we departed one of the stations was how nice it was that this equipment gets in and out of stations real fast! That is very true. I've commented about that myself in my postings on other Surfliner pages at TrainWeb. On the old equipment, a line would form inside the train as the train approached the station. Since a conductor had to man each open door, and since there were usually just two conductors per train, only two doors would be open at each stop. One door would usually be for Business Class and one door for the regular coach passengers. The passengers would then have to step down off the train single file out each door. Since there was a short stairway at each of the two doors, this would greatly slow down how fast people could step off the train. People who had luggage, especially elderly passengers that needed the assistance of a conductor, would slow down the process even further. Once all the passengers destined for that particular station had departed, the passengers waiting to board could begin to do so, once again, single file. This was a slow process, once again due to the stairs and the extra delay by those that needed help with their luggage. To make matters worse, people would often pause at the top of the stairs while they decided whether to look for a seat in the car to the right or in the car to the left!

With the new Surfliners, however, two double doors open in almost every car of the train. The only exception is the Coach Cafe Car, but they now seem to be opening at least the one double door that is designed for passenger use in that car. Thus, a total of 9 double doors open at each station! That is more than 4 times the number of doors that usually open on Amfleet or Horizon equipment (counting a double door as 2 doors). But there is an additional factor that makes the loading/unloading even faster: the doors are at the level of the standard low level platforms so that passengers can step right on or off from the lower level of a Surfliner Car without having to deal with a vestibule stairway.

With the tremendous dwell time savings of the Surfliner equipment, I seriously think that Amtrak should revisit the idea of serving additional cities where complete stations already exist that could accomodate the Pacific Surfliner new equipment, including Norwalk, Orange, and San Clemente. I don't know a lot about Norwalk other than they built a beautiful station to accommodate the trains on the Amtrak route, but Amtrak opted to discontinue service to Norwalk. Metrolink still stops in Norwalk, but only during commute hours. Metrolink also serves Orange and San Clemente, but also only during commute hours. I used to live in Orange and I still frequently visit historic Orange Circle which is just a couple of blocks from the train station. There has been a lot of revitalization in that area and there are now many popular restaurants, shops and events held at the Orange Circle. There have also been a number of movies filmed at the Orange Circle. Plus, it is also a major bus hub where people can connect to local transit buses to many destination is Orange County! As far as San Clemente goes, that is right on the beach! No other Amtrak stop is as close to the water as the San Clemente stop. I've often wanted to just take the train to San Clemente, take a walk for a couple of hours, and then take the train home. That option, however, is not provided. Amtrak only stops one train each way in San Clemente, and they don't stop there at all outside the summer months! If you want to go to San Clemente, you have to take the train that arrives there at 9:58 AM and then you are trapped there until the train that leaves there at 4:12 PM. You also can't stay any longer if you wished to since that is the last and only northbound train! I've heard that years ago, San Clemente used to be one of the most popular stops on the route, bringing people directly to the beach from all over.

Despite what historical data says about the number of passengers that used these stops, and the trade-off between faster runs versus more stops, I think Amtrak would gain passengers if they would provide service to those stops and keep up that service for a long period of time so that people had a chance to learn of the new service and begin to use it. I'd rather see the addition of those stops that see the Pacific Surfliner schedule tightened up, as I imagine is probably the plan for the reduced dwell time.

Click here for more information on the Pacific Surfliners.

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