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Daniel Chazin's Trip on Amtrak's San Joaquins
(San Francisco)-Emeryville-Bakersfield-(Los Angeles), June 29, 2000
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/2000f26/2000f29.html

It's 9:23 a.m. on Thursday, June 29, 2000, and I've just arrived at the Ferry Building in San Francisco where I will be boarding an Amtrak Thruway bus to Oakland [Editor's note: Although some Thruway busses from San Francisco serve Oakland, Daniel's bus was bound for Emeryville.], to connect with the San Joaquin Valley Train #714 to Bakersfield. I left the home of my friends in Haight-Ashbury section of the city about 8:35 a.m., intending to take the N-Judah trolley/light-rail train to the Embarcadero station. But when I arrived at Parnassus Street -- one block before the stop for the N-Judah train at Carl and Cole Streets -- a #6 trolley-bus arrived, with the destination shown as the Transbay Terminal. Since this would save me a little walking with my heavy luggage, I decided to take this trolley- bus. After a few blocks, the trolley-bus stopped, and the driver went out to the back of the vehicle. When she returned, she explained to me that there was road work being done ahead, and that we would have to detour to the left. Therefore, she had to take down the trolley-wire pole and -- since the bus has no other source of power -- coast down the hill. What if we were going uphill, instead, I asked? She said that in that event, there would be no way to accomplish that maneuver, and a diesel-powered bus would have to be substituted! When we arrived at the bottom of the hill, she went out again to reattach the trolley-wire pole.

Since my ultimate destination was the Ferry Building, not the Transbay Terminal, several blocks away, I got off at one of the stations on Market Street and boarded an historic streetcar. This F route has now been extended all the way to the Embarcadero, and the cars stop right in front of the Ferry Terminal. This proved to be a very convenient way of reaching my destination, and it was much less stressful than my trip to the same place last February.

Our Thruway bus arrived at 9:27 a.m. and departed ten minutes later. After a beautiful ride over the Bay Bridge, we arrived in Emeryville at 9:57 a.m., just as the southbound Coast Starlight pulled into the station. The Starlight was due to depart at 8:25 a.m., so it is about an hour and a half late today. Its consist was essentially identical to yesterday's train, except that it had two Genesis engines (instead of one Genesis and one F-59). I put my belongings down on a bench outside the station and went inside to make a phone call. The Starlight pulled out at 10:07 a.m., revealing our San Joaquin Train #714, which had in the meantime arrived on the track away from the station. I quickly ended my phone conversation and went out to board the train.

Today's Train #714 is pulled by engine #2052 -- one of two Amtrak California engines identical to the 500-series Amtrak engines formerly painted in the "Pepsi-Can" scheme -- and includes a dining/lounge car, a baggage-coach, two coaches and a coach/cab control car. All the cars were opened, so I decided to board the rear car. I stowed my luggage on the lower level and walked upstairs, where I secured for myself a table with two pairs of facing seats and an electric outlet. Actually, I was the only one sitting in this entire car at this point, so I did not feel the least bit guilty about appropriating the whole table for myself. We departed Emeryville at 10:15 a.m., ten minutes late.

I plugged in my computer and video camera and started organizing some of my belongings. At 10:26 a.m., we made a brief stop at the unattractive Amshack at Richmond. Soon afterwards, I walked down to the dining/lounge car to get some breakfast (I hadn't had a chance to eat anything earlier in the morning). I obtained a bottle of orange juice, a cup of coffee, a bowl of cereal and a small container of milk, and I sat down at a small semi-circular table overlooking the beautiful bay -- probably the nicest scenery of the entire trip. Although my coffee tasted okay to me, the conductor complained that the coffee machine wasn't working right, and she called up the mechanical department on her cell phone to see if she could get it instructions on how to fix it!

I soon returned to my seat and, at 10:58 a.m., we stopped at Martinez -- quite familiar to me now after spending some time there yesterday morning with Jim Salvador. My car came to a stop directly in front of the station, but only the two coaches in front were opened. At present, Martinez' platform is low enough to require that a step-box be used to assist boarding passengers, so only two doors were opened here. About 70 passengers boarded here (there were only about 40 passengers on the train up to this point), and baggage was loaded and unloaded. We did not depart until 11:05 a.m., and we were now 12 minutes late.

From here on would be new mileage for me. I watched as we passed the tracks leading to the Suisun Bridge and continued along the bay, now proceeding through a relatively unattractive area with many oil refineries. We soon switched from the Union Pacific to the Santa Fe tracks, and at one point we stopped for a few minutes while the conductor checked a switch and then received clearance to pass a red signal. As a result, we lost a little more time.

Our next stop, at 11:38 a.m.. was Antioch, which features a relatively small, modern station of rather unusual design. Only about six passengers boarded here, but they were all directed to my car, so I finally had a little company. We now left the bay for good, and proceeded inland through a largely agricultural area.

We arrived at Stockton at 12:09 p.m. This stop, which lasted for five minutes, was announced as a smoking stop, at which passengers were encouraged to step outside and smoke, if they so chose to do. Stockton features a beautiful Santa Fe station in the Mission style, and I briefly stepped inside the station. A number of passengers boarded here, and they were directed to my car. Finally, the other groups of four seats were occupied by boarding passengers (although one of the groups of table seating was used by some passengers just to store some belongings). When we departed Stockton, we were 22 minutes late. I watched as we went by the site of the former Stockton Tower, which was demolished last year.

We proceeded down the San Joaquin Valley, through agricultural lands, to our next stop, Modesto, where we arrived at 12:43 p.m. Modesto features a new Amtrak station -- just opened earlier this year -- which replaced the former stop at Riverbank. The station is set far back from the tracks, and the conductor told me that she heard this was done so that the station could be built on Amtrak property rather than on the railroad right-of-way. The design of the station appeared relatively attractive, but I did not have a chance to walk inside. Only a handful of people boarded here, but our stop lasted for three minutes in order to permit the loading and unloading of baggage.

The next stop, Denair, features nothing more than a small canopy shielding several benches and a ten-space parking area (which appeared to be pretty full). It seems to be a very new station, serving the small community of Denair and the larger nearby community of Turlock. A few people got on the train here, and when we departed at 1:01 p.m., we were 26 minutes late.

At 1:12 p.m., we paused for a few minutes to permit northbound Train #713 to pass us. This train was due into Denair at 1:05 p.m., so it is a few minutes late. Here, as at some of the previous stops, only the last three cars were opened because the platform was not long enough to accommodate more than three cars.

Our next stop was Merced, which we reached at 1:29 p.m. There is a very attractive stucco-and-brick station here, built in a classic style. It looked like an historic station, but it also looked very new. The conductor explained that it actually was a brand new station, built to replace the previous station, which had been condemned some time ago and temporarily replaced by a trailer. Amtrak has certainly done a beautiful job here! A number of passengers boarded here, including a boy with a bicycle. The California Cars have special bicycle storage areas on the lower level of the coaches, thus encouraging passengers to bring their bicycles along. Our stop here lasted for two minutes, and we departed Merced at 1:31 p.m.

We have been traveling along a line which is largely single- track, passing a number of freight trains along the way. Now, just south of the Merced station, we were put on a siding to allow a freight train to pass, resulting in a delay of about five minutes. A few minutes later, we stopped again because of a work crew on the track ahead of us. In each case, the conductor made an announcement on the loudspeaker, giving the reason for the delay.

It was time for lunch. Since I had a late breakfast, I wasn't all that hungry, so I obtained a bagel with cream cheese, a bag of potato chips and a can of soda. This time, I decided to take the food down to the lower level of the dining/lounge car, which has four tables seating a total of 11 people. This area is not really used for any purpose, since waiter service is provided at the upstairs tables, and passengers who purchase less than a full meal generally sit down at one of small semi-circular tables upstairs, or else bring the food back to their seats. I brought my computer with me and plugged it in to an outlet on the other side of the aisle. Ordinarily, I would not do this, but no one else was down here, and the downstairs section of the car did not lead anywhere. Indeed, during the entire 45 minutes or so that I was down there, not a single person came by. It was a pleasant change of pace, and I was able to update these memoirs (and those of yesterday's trip on the Coast Starlight) while eating lunch in a quiet, attractive setting.

At 2:18 p.m., we paused at Madera to pick up a handful of passengers. The station here is located in an isolated, unattractive industrial area, and it consists of nothing more than a small platform and a plastic-and-metal graffiti-covered Amshack. It is by far the least attractive station on the line (only Richmond even comes close!). Since I was in the middle of my lunch, I didn't step off the train here. We were now 45 minutes late, and I doubt that we will be arriving in Bakersfield on time. However, our bus connection to Los Angeles is operated by Amtrak and will therefore wait for us even if our train is late.

An announcement of our approaching Fresno station stop was soon made, so I returned to my seat in the rear coach. Fresno was announced as a smoking stop, so when we arrived at 2:41 p.m., a number of passengers detrained. This is actually the second time that I have arrived in Fresno by train -- the first being in 1966, when I traveled with my parents from Bakersfield to Fresno, where we rented a car and drove to Yosemite National Park. Then, however, the passenger service was operated by the Southern Pacific Railroad, so this is the first time that I'll be arriving at the Santa Fe station.

The Fresno station complex includes a sprawling Mission- style building to the north that is apparently used for offices of the Santa Fe (now BNSF) Railroad, and a smaller stucco building to the south that looks more like a house than a railroad station. This latter building, described in the Rail Ventures book as "rather bedraggled," is the Amtrak station. I walked inside to the rather cramped and unattractive waiting room, where quite a few people were waiting for the northbound San Joaquin Train #715, scheduled to arrive at 2:53 p.m. A large number of people were also waiting for this train outside the station. I walked down to the front of the train, where I snapped a picture of our engine, and watched the agent unloading the baggage from the coach/baggage car (there was quite a bit of baggage destined for Fresno, and when he finished, his baggage cart was full). Finally, an "all-aboard" call was made, and we departed at 2:48 p.m., still about 45 minutes late.

As I figured we would, we encountered another delay in the Calwa yard, just south of Fresno. Here, we had to wait five minutes for the northbound Train #715. We then continued south through more agricultural country.

Hanford, our next stop, features a classic brick station with a blue awning in front. Apparently, most of the original station is used as a restaurant, and the Amtrak waiting room (which is not staffed by an agent) is located in the northern part of the building (in what seems to be an addition to the original structure). Here, three people with bicycles got on the train. Our stop lasted for three minutes, and we departed at 3:47 p.m.

I started talking to the man sitting with his young daughter at the table opposite me. He mentioned that for him, it was cheaper to take the train to Los Angeles than to drive his pick- up truck there! He seemed quite pleased with the ride, although a little upset that we were running somewhat late (since he was supposed to be picked up upon our arrival in Los Angeles).

Only a handful of people got on at Corcoran, where we arrived at 3:44 p.m. There is a beautiful Mission-style Santa Fe station here, although it is unstaffed, and only a handful of people got on or off here. Our stop lasted for three minutes, though, as one of the doors in my car did not close properly. I was down at the lower level, and closed one door manually, but I didn't realize that there was a problem with the other door until the conductor came back to check it out. We were now 53 minutes late.

I fell asleep for a few minutes, but woke up before our next stop, Wasco. Like Denair, the Wasco station has only a shelter with benches and a small parking area. Only one or two people got on here, and we left at 4:20 p.m., 55 minutes late.

For the last time, I walked through the train, counting about 140 passengers aboard. I then returned to my table and began to stow my belongings in preparation for our arrival in Bakersfield.

At 4:46 p.m., we pulled into the Bakersfield station. We were 31 minutes late, having made up 24 minutes due to make-up time built into the schedule. The existing Bakersfield station is a small wooden building with a cramped parking lot. There are eight connecting buses, all of which are parked on one side of the parking lot. The present facility is unattractive and was never designed to handle the level of traffic that Bakersfield now generates. It is being replaced next week with a new station further south.

I watched as some of the baggage checked to Los Angeles was loaded onto Bus #1, which I boarded, and we departed at 4:57 p.m. We soon were on Interstate 5, which provides a direct and quick route to Los Angeles. It would be nice to continue all the way to Los Angeles by train, but the rail route winds through the Tehachapi Mountains on switchbacks, taking about twice as long as the bus to get from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. In addition, the Union Pacific Railroad has argued that this line is already congested with freight traffic and cannot support any passenger service. Even before Amtrak, the Southern Pacific Railroad operated connecting bus service between Los Angeles and Bakersfield (although there was one train a day then operated between Los Angeles and Bakersfield), and there seems little chance of getting rail passenger service on this route soon.

For the first half hour of the bus ride, the topography is completely flat. But then, we climb the mountains, ascending about 2,500 vertical feet in 15 minutes. Even the bus has to slow down for this steep grade, which could not be negotiated by a train. We reached Tejon Pass, elevation 4,144 feet, at 5:45 p.m., and began our descent to Los Angeles. I must say that the mountain scenery was a little more interesting than the flat agricultural land traversed by the train!

The bus seats were quite comfortable (actually, they were softer than the seats on the train) and since the bus was quite empty (with only about a dozen people aboard), I was able to keep four seats for myself. The ride went very smoothly until about 6:30 p.m., when we began to approach Los Angeles. We suddenly found ourselves in the midst of heavy traffic on the freeway. The bus driver explained that there was a baseball game at the nearby Dodgers Stadium that was scheduled to begin at 7:00 p.m., and much of the traffic was headed there.

Up to now, the bus had been entirely quiet. But now, I started talking to the woman sitting in front of me. She was traveling with her two children from the San Francisco Bay area to Anaheim (I think they were going to Disneyland for a vacation), and she wanted to know why she couldn't take the train all the way to Los Angeles and had to change to the bus, which she found to be a hassle. I explained to her the reason, but suggested that next time she consider taking the Coast Starlight which, although it takes longer to get to Los Angeles, offers a one-seat train ride for the entire distance -- not to mention the vastly superior scenery. She also noted that they were planning to connect in Los Angeles to the 7:20 p.m. Surfliner train to Anaheim, and expressed concern that they might miss that train. In response, the bus driver stated that he had called in and determined that that train was running late, so that there should be no problem with missing the connection.

This woman also commented how disappointed she was with the meal service on the San Joaquin train. She mentioned that she and her two children had each ordered a meal which costs $8.99, and that she had expected to receive freshly cooked meals for that price. Instead, she said, they received microwaved frozen meals, which were not at all what she had anticipated. She complained that the meals were a "rip-off" -- not at all worth what she had paid for them. I have heard other complaints about the meal service on this train, and this is a matter that Amtrak needs to be concerned with.

It took us about half an hour to get through the traffic jam, but we finally started moving again, and we arrived at the bus court at Union Station in Los Angeles at about 7:20 p.m. Even with the heavy traffic we encountered, the trip had taken us no more than the two hours and 20 minutes that it is scheduled to take. We were about 35 minutes late, but that was due to the late arrival of our train. If both the train and bus had been on time and we hadn't encountered any traffic, we would undoubtedly have arrived early.

I walked into the majestic station, where I noted that not only was the departure of the southbound Surfliner delayed to 7:55 p.m., but the Southwest Chief, scheduled to leave at 7:05 p.m., was also shown as being delayed. (It later dawned on me that my friend Tom Batts was supposed to be taking that train with his mother to the Grand Canyon; had I thought of that at the time, I would have tried to find him and say hello.) I proceeded through the main concourse, part of which had been closed off for restoration of the ceiling, and then walked over to the nearby Metro Plaza Hotel, where I would be spending the night.

I found my trip on the San Joaquin train to be quite pleasant. This was my second trip on the California Cars, and I found them to be a very delightful way to travel. It is true that the seats could be a little more comfortable (especially for this six-hour trip), but I enjoyed the luxury of having a table to myself, with an outlet for computer, and with the opportunity to walk around the train and spend some time in the dining/lounge car. The scenery for almost the entire route is relatively nondescript and boring -- indeed, I found little to write about, except for the stations along the way -- but I had expected that, and the San Joaquin Valley line is no worse than the industrial wasteland that the Northeast Corridor traverses for much of the Washington-New York route. The trains appear to be relatively well used by the local residents, and it's heartening to see Amtrak service expanded and new stations being built along the route. I would not hesitate to take this trip again, although I must admit that the Coast Starlight route along the coast is far more scenic.

Many more rail travelogues for you to read:
Dan Chazin / Other Writers


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