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Daniel Chazin's Trip on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner
Los Angeles-Fullerton-Los Angeles, June 30, 2000
TrainWeb.com/travelogues/dchazin/2000f26/2000f30.html

It's about 12:05 p.m. on Friday, June 30, 2000, and I've just arrived at Union Station in Los Angeles where I will be boarding Pacific Surfliner (formerly known as San Diegan) Train #776 to Fullerton. Since I stayed last night at the Metro Plaza Hotel, right across from the station, I could just walk across the street to the station. I noticed from the departure board that the train would be leaving on time, so I proceeded straight to the ticket window. After purchasing my round-trip ticket, I walked upstairs to board my train.

I had hoped that my train might feature the new Surfliner cars -- or at least California cars or a dome car. But that was not to be. Today's Train #776 has F-59 engines at each end and includes four Horizon coaches, a Horizon dinette, an Amfleet Pacific Business Class car and a baggage car. Although all four coaches were open to passengers, only one door was open, and that door led into the fourth coach. I boarded the train and walked through that coach, finding it quite crowded. Initially, I put my backpack down at a table in the dinette car and then walked down the platform to record the car numbers. Doing so, though, I noticed that although the last three coaches were very full, with few empty seats and no empty pairs of seats, the first coach was almost entirely empty. So when I reboarded, I retrieved my backpack and walked forward to the first coach, where I sat down at an empty pair of seats next to an electric outlet. Although the door to the third car from the front was subsequently opened by the conductor, the first car remained pretty empty for the entire trip to Fullerton, with only about 20 people sitting there.

We pulled out of Union Station at 12:26 p.m., one minute late. I watched as we passed the Amtrak coach yards and Redondo Jct. roundhouse, scheduled to be demolished in the near future. I plugged in my computer and did some work, as the route from Union Station to Fullerton goes through a very unattractive industrial area. Only south of Fullerton does the line run through more attractive scenery.

At 12:59 p.m., we arrived at the Fullerton station. To my surprise, no announcement was made of this station stop. I got up and walked to the end of my car, where I found that the doors remained closed. To get off the train, I had to walk down to the end of the next car, where the conductor had opened the door.

I was a little surprised that no announcement of the station stop had been made. I was also surprised that the conductor -- who had seen that Fullerton was my destination -- did not either open the door to my car, or at least warn me that I would have to walk down to the next car to get off the train. Of course, as a knowledgeable rail traveler, I knew that we had reached the Fullerton station and that the door to my car would presumably not be opened. But a less knowledgeable passenger might have missed the stop entirely.

As I was about to get off the train, I noticed a passenger boarding with a TrainWeb.com cap on. It was Steve Grande of TrainWeb, one of the people whom I had hoped to see in Fullerton! Steve told me that he was leaving a little early today for the weekend. He also mentioned that a double set of the Surfliner equipment had been spotted heading south earlier this morning, and said that I might get that set on the way back. It was nice to meet Steve, even though rather briefly.

I finally got off the train, and the train departed at 1:02 p.m. I then took the elevator to the other side of the tracks and walked around the station to the TrainWeb offices. Matt Meltzer was waiting for me, having just received a cell phone call from Steve advising him that I would be there momentarily. Everyone else in the office had gone out to lunch, but Matt had decided to remain behind. I planned on taking the 2:02 p.m northbound train back to Los Angeles, so we would have about an hour together.

Soon, an announcement was made over the station loudspeaker that my northbound Train #779 would be running about 30 minutes late. I was actually rather glad to hear this, as I was in no particular rush to get back to Los Angeles, and this would give me a little extra time to spend with Matt.

About 2:30 p.m., Matt decided to go downstairs to get something to drink at the station cafe. As we walked down, we met Ray Burns and several other TrainWeb.com employees, who had just returned from lunch. The cafe is a very attractive place, decorated with railroad memorabilia and featuring a number of outdoor tables which overlook the platform.

Finally, at 2:44 p.m., my train arrived. As Steve had predicted, it was a double set of the new Surfliner equipment, with an F-59 engine at each end. I said goodbye to Matt and boarded the train. Only the first five cars (the forward trainset) were open to passengers, and they were quite full. At least one person was sitting in almost every pair of seats, but I finally found an unoccupied pair of seats at the back of the last coach. (Steve had mentioned to me that the southbound train this morning also had only one trainset open to passengers. Why both trainsets were combined for this run is not clear; perhaps Amtrak wanted to test how they would operate in a combination.)

I spent most of the time aboard walking through the five cars on the train that were open to passengers and checking out the various features and amenities. Each of the new Surfliner train sets is made up of five passenger cars, including a combination coach/baggage/cab car, two coaches, a coach/cafe car, and a Pacific Business Class car. The coach cars have 72 seats on the upper level and 18 seats on the lower level, while the coach/baggage/cab control car has 70 seats on the upper level and 12 on the lower level (with the remainder of the lower-level space used for baggage). The lower-level seating areas feature 2-and-1 seating, while the upper level has two seats on each side of the aisle. There is a small restroom on the upper level (something not available in either Superliner or California car coaches) and a very large handicapped-accessible restroom on the lower level. Each car has two straight stairways leading from the lower level to the upper level (like those in the California cars) and two vestibules on the lower level, which are equipped with electronically-operated sliding doors.

I found the seats to be quite comfortable, with significantly more legroom than found on the Horizon equipment (but nowhere near the legroom of the Superliner coaches, which have only 60 seats on the upper level, and no restroom or luggage rack on that level). The seats include a footrest, but there was not enough legroom for it to serve any purpose. (Perhaps it was designed to be used by children, who have shorter legs.) The seats also include a moveable headrest, which can be moved up or down to suit the height of the passenger. I've never seen this on any other rail equipment, and it was a nice feature. Although the seats can apparently be turned, all Surfliner trains have to reverse direction in Los Angeles, so the seats were arranged with half facing forward and half facing backward. Some of the seats were arranged in facing pairs, but no tables are provided between pairs of seats (as they are in the Talgo equipment and the California cars).

I was sitting right in front of the cab control compartment (which, of course, was not used for this run). The compartment is enclosed in glass, permitting you to look inside. One interesting feature I observed was a digital speedometer, and at one point I noticed that we were going 80 miles an hour (I think that the maximum authorized speed is 79 mph). The cars are also equipped with an electronically-operated message board which stated (incorrectly) that Los Angeles would be the "next and last stop" on the train. (In fact, this train continues beyond Los Angeles and proceeds all the way north to San Luis Obispo.) Several passengers who were riding to stations north of Los Angeles were puzzled by this message; they were assured by the conductor that the message was the result of improper programming of the computer.

I walked down to the lower level of my car, with its 2-and-1 seating, apparently designed to permit a wheelchair to be moved down the aisle. Unlike those on the California cars, which are placed awkwardly and designed to permit a handicapped person to use the adjacent table (which is situated so far away from the seat that no non-handicapped person could possibly use it), the single seats on the Surfliner equipment seemed very comfortable and ideal for a passenger traveling alone. Although signs on the lower level of the car indicated that the seats on that level were intended for handicapped passengers, no announcement to this effect was made, and I observed a number of young people who did not appear to be suffering from any disability sitting on the lower level of the coaches. Like the California cars, the Surfliner equipment features bicycle racks on the lower level of each coach, and I noticed several bicycles being stored on the train.

I also observed that a pair of doors leading to one of the vestibules on the lower level of my car was about one inch ajar, with the "door open" light in the adjacent panel lit. I was surprised that the operating crew allowed the train to move under these conditions. Yesterday, while riding the San Joaquin train from Emeryville to Bakersfield, the same thing happened with one of the doors to my car, and in that case the conductor walked through the train to remedy the problem before the train started moving again. Perhaps some effort had been made to deal with this situation, but the crew was unable to fix it.

I proceeded through the other four cars of the train. After passing through the two coaches, I walked into the coach/cafe car and went downstairs. The lower level contains a counter for sales of refreshments, a huge handicapped-accessible restroom, and four tables -- two of which seat 4 people, one of which seats 2 people, and the other of which seats only one person. The total seating capacity is only 11. Were it not for the handicapped-accessibility requirement, at least 24 seats could have been provided, and probably as many as 32. To me, this is a perfect example of an inappropriate application of the ADA requirements. Since there is no way that a handicapped person could travel from car to car on a Surfliner-equipped trainset, if he boarded the lower level of the cafe car he would have to remain there at least until the next stop. I have never seen anyone do this on Superliner train, and there is little reason to assume that many handicapped people would try this on a Surfliner train. As a result of Amtrak's interpretation of these ADA standards, the lower level of this car, which could have been outfitted with a significant number of seats, now can serve only a handful of "guests." For all practical purposes, the Surfliner trains do not have table seating, and this is, to my mind, a serious deficiency -- probably the most serious deficiency -- that I have found in this equipment. I should point out that I've never seen a huge handicapped-accessible bathroom in an airplane. Nor have I seen airplanes with rows of seats removed so that a person in a wheelchair may be accommodated on the plane. Why are the airlines seemingly exempt from these requirements, while Amtrak must follow them to extremes?

[I should add that, several weeks after I took this ride, I was informed by Steve Grande that future sets of Surfliner equipment will be equipped with five tables in the upstairs area of the cafe car, and one table in the coach-baggage car, thus providing table seating for an additional 24 passengers. Existing Surfliner equipment is scheduled to be retrofitted with these tables. This is a welcome development and a very nice enhancement of this equipment. I still feel, though, that the application of the ADA to require full handicapped-accessibility to the food service area in the lower level of the cafe car is unnecessary and inappropriate.]

As might be expected, virtually all of the limited seating on the lower level was already occupied, so I did not spend any time down there, but instead moved on to the next car, the Pacific Business Class car. Interestingly, there was no notice on the door leading into this car stating that this car was restricted to Business Class passengers, and no one stopped me when I walked through the car. I found the seating to be slightly more roomy than the seating provided in the other cars for coach passengers, and there were a few tables (with folding leaves) between some of the seats. Overall, though, there did not appear to be a very great difference between the seating in the Pacific Business Class car and the seating in the regular coaches.

I returned to my seat and started writing these memoirs, but made very little progress, as we pulled into Los Angeles Union Station at 3:27 p.m. We were 47 minutes late. I informed the conductor about the door that did not close properly, and then stayed on the platform to take a few pictures and watch as the two trainsets were separated, with only one set continuing on to San Luis Obispo. It seems that problems were encountered with the uncoupling operation and with some other features of the train, and the train was still on the platform when I finally went back down into the station at about 3:45 p.m. (The scheduled departure time is 2:55 p.m.)

I had one more item of business to take care of, though, before I was ready to walk over to the Union Plaza Hotel, retrieve my car, and drive to North Hollywood, where I would be spending the weekend. While I was talking to Jim Salvador in his office in Martinez on Wednesday morning, it dawned on me that my scanner was missing, and that in my hurry to detrain, I must have left it in my room. When we returned to the station to pick up my luggage, Jim spoke to the station agent, who said that he would put out an alert for the scanner. I suggested that I could pick it up on Friday at Los Angeles Union Station, and I was told to go to the Customer Service counter and ask for Phil Reiner- Deutsch. I finally had the chance to do this, so I went over to the Customer Service counter, where I observed a man arguing with the Amtrak representative regarding an alleged missed connection with a late-arriving Sunset Limited. The Amtrak representative could find no record of the reservation, but the man kept on insisting that he had made such a reservation. Finally, I got the representative's attention, and she told me that Phil was out in the courtyard where the buses arrive. I walked outside and, sure enough, he was there. When I told him about the scanner, he accompanied me back to the Customer Service counter where, after I presented identification, he handed me my scanner. It had been wrapped in a sheet of paper which appeared to contain a detailed computer printout explaining what was to be done with the scanner once found. Needless to say, I was very, very pleased! Thanks to an alert attendant, and two very helpful Amtrak station personnel, my scanner was returned in perfect condition to the location to which I had asked that it be sent.

My trip to Fullerton on the Pacific Surfliner worked out very well. I got to say hello to Steve Grande and to spend some time with Matt Meltzer, and I also had the opportunity to ride the beautiful new Surfliner equipment. This would be the last of my five Amtrak rides on this trip to the West Coast, and it was interesting that I was able to sample five different kinds of equipment: Talgo, Superliner, California car, Horizon and, finally Surfliner!

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


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