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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak San Diegans
Los Angeles-Solana Beach-Los Angeles
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/1998k27a/1998k27a.html

It's 7:21 a.m. on Friday, November 27, 1998, and I've just arrived at Los Angeles Union Station in an attempt to board the San Diegan train #568 to San Diego. I'm in Los Angeles for my cousin's wedding on Sunday, and I thought I would take advantage of the opportunity to meet Tommy Batts (AmtrakTB1), an online friend of mine who lives in the Los Angeles area. Tommy is a dedicated railbuff and particularly loves to ride Amtrak trains. He also has a comprehensive web site dedicated to Amtrak, and has posted many of my Amtrak travelogues to his site. We decided to take the train to San Diego, since this would be one stretch of an Amtrak route that I would not be covering in my Coast Starlight trip beginning on Monday. We exchanged e-mail messages, and agreed to meet at Union Station around 7:00 a.m. to take the 7:20 a.m. train to San Diego.

My day began around 5:00 a.m., when I got out of bed. (Actually, I'm still pretty much operating on Eastern Time, so that would be the equivalent of 8:00 a.m., which is later than I normally get up, anyway.) I left my Beverly Hills hotel at 6:05 a.m. and caught the first #3 bus to downtown Los Angeles about five minutes later. I had been told that the trip to downtown should take about half an hour, so I thought that I would arrive in Union Station with plenty of time to spare. But it turned out that I had been given incorrect information by the concierge at the hotel. In fact, the bus ride took nearly an hour. I got off at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Grand Street at about 7:05 a.m., and was told that Union Station is about two or three blocks further down the street. But the directions I was given by the bus driver were confusing, and I made several wrong turns before I finally found Union Station via a roundabout route. I ran up the stairs to Tracks 9 and 10, where Tom and his mother were waiting for me, just as the 7:20 a.m. train was pulling out of the station.

Well, we just missed the train. But, part of our plan was to ride a train with California cars, and the 7:20 a.m. train was made up solely of Horizon and Amfleet equipment. In any event, we now had an hour and ten minutes to wait for the next train, which leaves at 8:30 a.m. That train arrives in San Diego at 11:25 a.m., and the next train back would arrive at Los Angeles at 2:40 p.m. I had to be back at the hotel soon after 4:00 p.m., and given the fact that the bus ride back to the hotel would take about an hour, I thought it would be a little risky to take that 2:40 p.m. train back to Los Angeles. So we decided to ride only as far as Solana Beach, the next stop north of San Diego, where we could catch a return train that would arrive back in Los Angeles at 1:15 p.m.

We went downstairs, where I purchased my round-trip ticket to Solana Beach from an agent. Then I used the ticket machine to obtain the tickets for my trip next week to Portland, Chicago, Washington and back to New York. I also walked around this beautiful station, noticing the large, empty room in front which was formerly the ticket office and waiting room. (The ticket office is now further back in the station, and the waiting area is in what apparently formerly functioned as the station concourse). I also talked to Tom and his mother about their forthcoming cross-country trip on Amtrak at the end of December. At one point, I saw a notice posted explaining to passengers that there will be delays on the San Diegan route during the year 1991 because of track work. It seemed incredible to me that no one in this busy station ever thought of removing this notice, which was now seven years old and completely out of date!

About 8:10 a.m., we decided to go up to the platform to board our San Diegan train. We walked up to Tracks 9 and 10, where we saw the Coast Starlight being pushed into the station. It included five coaches and three sleepers. It looked like a beautiful train, and I am really looking forward to taking it on Monday. Since our train was not on either one of these tracks, we walked down and then climbed up the next stairway, leading to Tracks 11 and 12. Sure enough, our San Diegan train was on Track 11. The first thing I noticed when we got to the top of the stairs was full-length dome car #9302, which was part of the train. Could it be that we would actually have the opportunity to ride in this car, with its fantastic views? I checked with the conductor, and he confirmed that this car was in fact in service as the lounge car on the train, and that it was open to all passengers! Well, I was so glad that we had missed the 7:20 a.m. train. This was really an unexpected treat. It will be the first time in nearly five years that I will be riding a dome car on a regularly scheduled Amtrak train! And this will, I think, also be the first time that I will have the opportunity to ride any full-length dome car.

Indeed, the consist of today's San Diegan #570 is certainly rather unusual. At the front of the train is Amtrak West engine #459, followed by three Horizon coaches, a Horizon dinette and an Amfleet cab car. Then, behind this equipment, are two more Horizon coaches, the full-length dome lounge car, another Horizon coach, a 60-seat Amfleet I coach for Custom Class, a baggage car, and -- at the rear -- Amtrak West engine #463. (I might also add that this will be the first time that I will be riding a train powered by these new engines purchased by Amtrak West.)

We initially boarded one of the Horizon coaches, but when I noticed that the dome car was already open to passengers, Tom and I moved our belongings up there, since we knew that we would want to ride there for the entire trip. The upper level of this dome car is equipped with table seating, and there is a piano (covered with a plastic shield) on one side in the front of the car. Another railfan had already appropriated the seat by the piano, but we took the seats immediately behind him. The front windows were a little dirty, but you could certainly see through them reasonably well. (One of the conductors mentioned to me that, beginning November 30th, this car is supposed to be assigned to this train on a regular basis.)

We departed Los Angeles on time at 8:30 a.m. Besides the dome car and the Custom Class car, only the three rear Horizon coaches were open to passengers. Tom explained to me the various features of interest along the route, including the Amtrak coach yard and roundhouse, as we proceeded on our way south. The first part of the trip out of Los Angeles passes through an industrial area, but even this was interesting to observe from the vantage point of the dome.

At 8:45 a.m., we stopped at the Commerce station. Our train is not scheduled to stop there; in fact, this station is a stop for only Metrolink trains, not for Amtrak. A number of passengers boarded the train, nevertheless. The conductor subsequently informed me that there was a problem with the Metrolink train that was scheduled to precede our train on this route, and that our train was therefore instructed to make all Metrolink stops and pick up all Metrolink passengers. Thus, ten minutes later, we also stopped at the Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs station.

We arrived at the Fullerton station at 9:06 a.m. Here, the old Santa Fe station -- a beautiful pink stucco building in Spanish Mission style -- serves as the Amtrak station. Mounted on the building are video cameras installed by Steve Grande to provide a constant panorama on his web site of the trains passing through the station. We stopped here for three minutes, so I had a chance to step off the train briefly. Just to the west is the former Union Pacific station, now converted to a restaurant (the Union Pacific and Santa Fe lines used to run right next to each other here, and each railroad decided to build its own station.)

Our next stop, at 9:16 a.m., was Anaheim. Here there is a new station constructed by Amtrak. This station is located immediately adjacent to the Anaheim Stadium, and is quite a distance south of the original Union Pacific Anaheim station, which was visible from the train as we passed by. Then, several minutes later, we made another unscheduled stop at the Orange station, also normally a stop only for Metrolink trains.

I did not have a chance to eat anything before boarding the train, so I went to the lower level of the car and purchased a bottle of orange juice, a blueberry muffin, and a cup of coffee. Tom followed me, and he purchased a turkey dinner, which to him would be lunch. We brought the food upstairs and continued watching the views from the dome.

We arrived at the Santa Ana station, denominated a "regional transportation center," at 9:28 a.m. This station is a huge, magnificent Mission-style building. On the scanner, I heard the conductor mention that a wheelchair passenger will be boarding the train. Since the platforms here are low-level ones, it is necessary to employ a hand-cranked lift to raise the wheelchair to train level. I knew this would take a while, so I stepped off the train. It turned out that there were two wheelchair passengers, each of whom had to be lifted onto the train separately, so our stop here took five minutes.

After we left Santa Ana, I walked through those coaches that were open to passengers, and found that the three coaches open at Los Angeles were quite full, and that the Amfleet cab car ahead of them had now been opened to passengers. The dome car was also quite full. Subsequently one of the conductors told me that there were 302 passengers on the train. It should be noted that, despite the relatively heavy passenger load, the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend is considered an off-peak day by Amtrak (and the price of my ticket reflected this fact).

I also had the opportunity to step off the train at the next station, Irvine, which features a very modern station building. We spent four minutes here because a number of passengers were waiting at the wrong area of the platform and had to walk several car-lengths to board the train. When we departed the Irvine station at 9:45 a.m., we were nine minutes late.

A few minutes south of Irvine, the line becomes single track and we begin running right along the beach which borders the Pacific Ocean. This is by far the most beautiful stretch of the route. It was a somewhat hazy out, but the views from the dome car -- with the beach and the ocean on the right, and homes precariously perched on the cliffs to the left -- were really great. If it had been a sunny day with a clear blue sky, the views from the dome would have been absolutely spectacular.

Our next stop is San Juan Capistrano. Right before reaching the station, the buildings of the historic mission are visible on the left. The old brick station has been converted to some other use (apparently, a restaurant), and the Amtrak ticket office is now located in a converted boxcar at the northern end of the platform. Quite a number of passengers got off and on here, so our stop lasted for three minutes, and we departed at precisely 10:00 a.m.

Eight minutes later, we stopped at the San Clemente station. While the other regular stops on this route are made by all or most of the 11 daily San Diegan trains, our train is the only southbound train that stops at San Clemente. (Why this is so, I am not sure). A man who was hanging out with us at the front of the dome car explained that Amtrak trains used to stop right at the San Clemente pier, but now they stop some distance to the north at the new Metrolink station (also constructed in the Mission style), where parking is available. The scenery along the coast here is particularly beautiful.

Around this time, the batteries in my computer were running low. Quite conveniently, I found an outlet alongside the aisle immediately adjacent to my seat, and I was able to plug the computer in. I might add that the trip was so exciting that I hadn't even started to write any of these memoirs yet, but I did use the computer to add the numbers of the cars on the train into my list of Amtrak equipment that I have traveled in. (I might add that I had never previously ridden in or even seen any of the cars on this train, which presumably are regularly assigned to short-haul California service.)

Our next stop, at 10:28 a.m., was Oceanside. Here there is a low, modern, spread-out station, which resembles a shopping mall. The station apparently functions as a regional transportation center. On the adjacent platform was northbound Amtrak Train #575 (scheduled to leave Oceanside at 10:13 a.m.), made up of California cars, with two Superliner coaches included in the consist. I had hoped that our San Diegan train would be made up of these cars, which I have never yet ridden, but having the opportunity to ride in the full-length dome was certainly more than sufficient.

Since we would be detraining at Solana Beach, the next stop, I gathered my belongings together and took one last walk through the train. I found, to my surprise, that the Horizon dinette car on the train was now open and serving passengers -- in addition to the dome lounge car. It is quite unusual for two food service cars on a train to be open simultaneously to all passengers. When I mentioned this to the attendant in the dome car, she indicated that it was probably because of the expanded business on this holiday weekend.

We arrived at Solana Beach at 10:44 a.m., four minutes late. Tom and I detrained and walked into the modern station, shaped in the form of an upside-down "U." The area between the platform and the station was being bulldozed, and a sketch posted in the station indicated why. Apparently, the tracks in this area are being lowered so as to create a grade separation and thereby eliminate grade crossings in the area. It seems that the existing track and platforms are only temporary.

I looked around the station and noticed a bulletin posted regarding the requirements for purchasing and using tickets with the 10% AAA discount. Then I discovered that the paper was signed by none other than my good friend Carleton MacDonald! This was the first time I have seen his name appear on a notice posted at a station. (I might add that, in my experience, the requirements set forth in the notice about presenting AAA membership cards on trains and signing the back of tickets have never been followed, and can in any event be evaded by using a ticket machine to obtain the tickets.)

We didn't have too much time to spend there because our return train was due at 11:03 a.m. So we went back out to the platform and waited for the train, which arrived one minute late. This northbound Train #577 was pulled by California West engine #462 and included a baggage car, a Custom Class car, four Horizon coaches, a Horizon dinette and an Amfleet cab car. We boarded the train and found seats in one of the coaches. Then I walked down to the dinette car, which I found to be pretty empty. So Tom and moved our belongings down to the dinette car, where we ending up spending the rest of the trip. However, I left my jacket at our coach seats, since I thought that we might want to come back there.

Ten minutes later, we came to a stop. As I mentioned previously, this is a single-track line, and we had pulled onto a siding to permit another train to pass. A few minutes later, a southbound Coaster train passed us, and we soon moved on. It is interesting to note that the entire line from Los Angeles to San Diego is also used by local commuter services -- Metrolink trains operate from Los Angeles to Oceanside, and Coaster trains operate from San Diego to Oceanside. So it is possible to cover the entire San Diegan route from Los Angeles to San Diego by using these two commuter trains. This is kind of like the Northeast Corridor, where one can travel from New York to Philadelphia by Amtrak, or one can choose instead to take NJ Transit to Trenton and then change to a SEPTA train to Philadelphia. I know a number of people who do this because the price of a combined NJ Transit/SEPTA ticket is less than half the price of an Amtrak ticket. But, unlike the situation with the NJ Transit/SEPTA combination, here there are relatively few commuter trains, and they run primarily during rush hours. This particular Coaster train was supposed to have left Oceanside, our next stop, at 11:00 a.m., so it is somewhat late.

Both Tom and I got something to drink, and I took out my computer and started writing the story of the trip. After a while, my batteries started running low. I remembered from my previous trips on Horizon cars that there are outlets in these cars, but they are awkwardly located and very hard to find. Sure enough, I located an outlet near the floor underneath the table in front of the one we were sitting at, so we moved our belongings to that table where I could plug in my computer.

At 11:24 a.m., we stopped at the Oceanside station. Then, at 11:43 a.m., we passed southbound Amtrak Train #772. This train was scheduled to have arrived at Oceanside at 11:31 a.m., so it is about half an hour late. (Train #772 originates at Goleta, north of Santa Barbara, so it might have been delayed by track conditions north of Los Angeles.) During this time, when we were running along the ocean, Tom and I sat on the left side of the Horizon dinette, which offered excellent views of the beach and the ocean right beyond. The relatively small windows of the Horizon equipment don't offer the kind of expansive, panoramic views that you get from the dome car, but you actually got to see more detail of the close-up views.

Around this time, it became apparent that we would not be returning to our coach seats, so Tom volunteered to go back to the next coach and retrieve my black jacket. He came back and reported that it was not there. I then looked very carefully, and also could not find it. It seems that someone walked off with it, either intentionally or accidentally. The jacket was not very valuable, and there was nothing in it, but I decided to inform the conductor so that if anyone reported it, I might get it back. He also looked for it, to no avail.

Unlike the southbound train, this train was pretty empty north of Oceanside. All four Horizon coaches (plus the dinette) were open to passengers, but I counted only about 50 passengers or so aboard. We stopped for three minutes at Santa Ana to let off a wheelchair passenger, and left there at 12:25 p.m., five minutes late.

The rest of the ride was uneventful, and we arrived on Track 12 at Los Angeles Union Station at 1:15 p.m., exactly on time. After walking around the station with Tom for a little while, I decided to report the missing jacket. First, we went to the baggage claim area, where the attendant instructed us to take an elevator to the second floor. We did this, and found ourselves in a hallway with several doors. One was labelled "Baggage," so we opened that door, only to see a large open area where baggage was being stored. That didn't seem right, so we pushed a buzzer labelled "Personnel." The employee who answered the buzzer told us that we were right the first time, so we again opened the "Baggage" door, looked around, and eventually found an office in one corner of this huge expanse of open space. (This set-up is certainly not user-friendly to people who want to report lost objects.) An employee saw us and gave me a form to report the loss. We will see if it ever is found -- I doubt it.

We went back down again, and this time Tom located his father, who had come to pick him up. We said goodbye, and I walked down the street to catch my #3 bus for the hour-and-ten- minute ride back to my hotel, where I arrived at about 3:20 p.m. I used the time on the bus to continue writing this story, until the batteries ran out.

This trip turned out much more exciting than we had expected, due to the unexpected presence of the dome car on our San Diegan train. This should be a great plus for ridership, and for a good part of the way there is scenery that can really benefit from the inclusion of this car on the train. Amtrak West should be commended for taking the initiative to restore this beautiful car to regular service. It was also great to meet Tom Batts, whom I had talked to online many times before but had never met in person. Now I'm looking forward to my trip on the Coast Starlight, beginning Monday!

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