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Dan Chazin's Trip on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner
Los Angeles-San Diego-Los Angeles

It's 7:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 27, 2002, and I've just arrived at Los Angeles Union Station, where I will be boarding Pacific Surfliner #568, scheduled to depart at 7:20 a.m., on my way to San Diego, where I will be meeting my online friend Brett Canedy. I arrived last night on the special NRHS Convention Train from Williams, Arizona behind Santa Fe steam engine #3751, and stayed over at the Days Inn (formerly the Metro Plaza Hotel) just around the corner from the station. In view of our late arrival last night at 9:30 p.m. (we had been scheduled to arrive at 6:30 p.m.) and my early departure this morning, this was a wise choice.

Upon arriving at the station, I purchased my ticket from the ticket agent. Surprisingly, there was no line. Purchasing my ticket in this manner required the production of four pieces of identification: my credit card, my Amtrak Guest Rewards Card, my AAA card and my driver's license. Interestingly, the agent questioned the 2003 sticker on my AAA card, commenting that in California, AAA cards are valid for two years, and a completely new card is issued upon expiration of the old one.

Interestingly, the price of my ticket for this 128-mile trip from Los Angeles to San Diego ($24.30, including the 10% AAA discount) was actually higher than what I had paid for my 535-mile trip Wednesday night on the Southwest Chief from Los Angeles to Williams Jct. ($23.60)! This is partially explained by the fact that Amtrak charges significantly more per mile for travel on its corridor trains than it does for long-distance travel. In addition, my ticket to Williams Jct. was purchased online at Amtrak's Rail Sale, which offers deeply discounted prices for coach travel on selected trains, and is available only to knowledgeable Amtrak riders who use the Internet.

It was soon announced that the Pacific Surfliner to San Diego would be leaving from Track 11 (the same track that my Southwest Chief left from last Wednesday evening, and on which our special train arrived last night). I went upstairs, along with a handful of other passengers, and boarded the train.

This morning's Pacific Surfliner #568 is pushed by engine #461 and includes a Pacific Business Class car, a coach/café car, two coaches and a cab car. This is only the second time that I have had the opportunity to ride this beautiful equipment (a detailed review of the amenities of the Surfliner cars is contained in the travelogue of my June 30, 2000 trip from Fullerton to Los Angeles). Unfortunately, the cab car is closed to passengers, but the other three cars are far more than sufficient to accommodate the 33 passengers who boarded in Los Angeles. I sat down at a group of four facing seats with a table in the middle of the café car, thus providing me with plenty of room to spread out my various papers. (I subsequently was informed by Brett that the tables on the upper level of the café car were added by Amtrak after the delivery of the new Surfliner cars, in response to complaints that there was inadequate seating space at the few tables provided on the lower level. The other coaches on the train do not have tables between facing seats on the upper level.)

One feature of the new Surfliner equipment which can be annoying to the uninitiated is the moveable headrest on each seat. This adjustable headrest is very uncomfortable if not adjusted properly, so I made sure to adjust the headrest at my seat before settling in. Before we left on time at 7:20 a.m., I heard over the scanner that the coffee maker on the café car was broken and that a replacement could not be obtained before our departure.

We proceeded through the rather ugly industrial area that the Pacific Surfliners follow for the first part of their route to San Diego. As we passed the Redondo coach yard, I noticed several cars from yesterday's trip being stored there. (One of the cars was on a storage track at the station itself.) I then went downstairs to the very attractive café and purchased orange juice and a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast.

Our first stop, at 7:52 a.m., was at Fullerton. About a dozen passengers boarded the train here. Another dozen or so passengers boarded at Anaheim, where the station is adjacent to a large stadium. Just south of Anaheim, we passed northbound Pacific Surfliner #765 - the first northbound train of the day - which goes as far as Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara. This train was made up of Amfleet and Horizon equipment, and featured a dome car as the café car.

We stopped at Santa Ana, which features a huge, magnificent Mission-style transportation center, at 8:11 a.m. A few more passengers boarded here. Just south of there, we passed a Metrolink detector that announced our speed at 75 miles per hour.

At 8:17 a.m., we made a quick, unscheduled stop at the Metrolink Tustin station. Just prior to our stop, on the scanner, I heard the conductor advising the dispatcher that we would be stopping there. He explained that someone had boarded the train without a ticket and without any money, hoping to get a free ride, and that he was stopping to put that person off of the train! This is one of the very few times that I've seen something like this done.

After our next stop in Irvine, which features a modern but attractive station, I went downstairs again, and I found out that coffee was now available. The friendly café car attendant had swapped the coffee maker in our car with the one in the Business Class car, which did work. (Apparently, there were very few passengers in the Business Class car, and everyone there who wanted coffee had already obtained some.) So I purchased a cup of coffee to finish my breakfast. I then walked through the cars and counted a total of 60 people aboard - still far below the capacity of our train.

At 8:35 a.m., we passed northbound Pacific Surfliner #567, made up of the new Surfliner equipment. Then, at 8:40 a.m., we arrived at San Juan Capistrano. I briefly stepped off the train here and looked at the rather unusual station buildings. The old station has been converted to a restaurant, with the Amtrak ticket office relegated to a few converted boxcars at the north end of the platform. At the southern end of the station, there is a very attractive brick parking garage, covered with vines, with a pedestrian grade crossing protected by automatic gates in the middle!

Soon afterwards, we began to run directly along the beach. This is the most magnificent part of the ride, and since I was sitting on the left side of the train, I walked down to the second coach, where I sat down at an ocean-facing seat to better enjoy the scenery. It was cloudy out, and the beaches were largely deserted, except for some surfers. When we moved inland again at Camp Pendleton, I returned to my seat. At 9:05 a.m., we passed our third northbound Pacific Surfliner of the day. This one, #569, was also made up of the new Surfliner equipment.

At 9:09 a.m. - five minutes early - we arrived at Oceanside. Only a few passengers detrained here, and no one got on. Since we had a few minutes before we could depart, I walked down the platform to take a picture of the train. Oceanside features a modern transportation center which is functional but not particularly attractive. South of Oceanside, we passed the Coaster Carlsbad Village station, followed by the historic yellow frame Santa Fe station, which has been restored.

We arrived at our next stop, Solana Beach, at 9:28 a.m., three minutes early. Solana Beach features an unusual station with a curved roof at street level, with the tracks depressed below grade. The depression of the tracks was accomplished in 1998-99, and when I came here with Tommy Batts in November 1998, the work was still under construction. The new tracks have now been completed and attractively landscaped, with access to street level being provided by stairs, handicapped-accessible ramps, and elevators. One unusual feature of this station is left-hand running: southbound trains use the easternmost track, adjacent to the station building, while northbound trains use the western track.

The stretch between Solana Beach and San Diego will, in a sense, be new mileage for me, as although I once rode this section on a Coaster train, I've never yet covered it on an Amtrak train (on my November 1998 trip, we went only as far as Solana Beach). We soon passed through the community of Del Mar, which used to be an Amtrak stop. The beautiful station is still there, but Amtrak no longer stops there, due to opposition by the NIMBY local residents. The station is followed by another beautiful stretch of running along the ocean. Then, a few minutes later, we turn inland and snake through scenic Soledad Canyon on the way into San Diego. This is a very unusual feature of the line, and perhaps the most interesting (Interstate Route 5 follows the coastline, but the railroad curves inland, presumably to obtain gentler grades). At the apex of the curve, there is a wye and a spur that leads to the Miramar Naval Air Station. Just beyond, we passed our fourth northbound Amtrak train - Pacific Surfliner #771 to Goleta, again made up of the new Surfliner equipment.

We stopped at 9:51 a.m. to await a northbound Coaster train. This portion of the line is largely single-track, and we had reached the end of a double-track section (at the intersection of Route 52 with Interstate 5) and could not proceed until the northbound train had passed us. The northbound Coaster train, with an engine and four cars, finally came by at 10:02 a.m., and then we proceeded ahead. Then, on the scanner, I heard our conductor calling a foreman to obtain permission to proceed through a work area. Permission was soon obtained to proceed past the red flag without stopping, provided we whistled to warn the "men and machinery" adjacent to the tracks.

At 10:15 a.m., we arrived at the Santa Fe Station in San Diego. We were five minutes late, due to the delay we encountered while waiting for the northbound Coaster train. I detrained and looked around for Brett, but did not see him. So I walked over the station building, but he was not there either. It turned out that Brett had walked to the north end of the platform to see my train arrive, and he soon walked back to the station, where we met each other. I really enjoyed my ride to San Diego on the Pacific Surfliner, and now we would be doing some sightseeing in San Diego.

We first walked through a newly developed area adjacent to the San Diego waterfront which used to be occupied by warehouses and piers, but now is being developed with luxury hotels and apartment buildings. We then walked through the Gaslamp Quarter and visited the unusually-designed Horton Plaza, a multi-level shopping center with a large outdoor courtyard in the center. Next, we had lunch at a local restaurant. We then boarded the Orange Line of the San Diego Trolley, which we took to the transfer station of 12th and Imperial, where we transferred to the Blue Line. I had ridden the Blue Line south to San Ysidro, at the Mexican border, only once before, and that was over ten years ago, so I wanted to ride it again.

After a short wait, a southbound train arrived. It had three cars, and they all were quite full. We found seats in the second car, but some people were standing! It was quite impressive to see this train so full in the middle of the day. The train remained at least half full all the way to the last stop, where quite a number of people continued along by foot towards Mexico. We got off the trolley, walked around to the opposite side, where you are supposed to board, and reboarded the same trolley - this time, sitting in the rearmost car. Again, the northbound trolley was well patronized, although not quite as full as its southbound counterpart. This part of the Blue Line follows the right-of-way of the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad, which formerly continued south into Mexico and then back into the United States to reconnect with the American railway system in Arizona. Although most of the line beyond Tijuana has been abandoned, and the line from San Diego to just north of Tijuana has been co-opted by the trolley, freight service is still provided at night to industries along the trolley line, and I was amazed at the number of active sidings that still connect to the railroad. We observed a number of freight cars on several sidings, and also saw two engines of the San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad (which currently provides freight service on the line) along the way.

At Iris Avenue, the second stop on our northbound trip, a transit policeman boarded the trolley to inspect tickets. Like most modern light-rail systems, the San Diego Trolley operates on a "proof of payment" system. No one collects fares as you enter a station or board a train, but prior to boarding, you are required to have purchased a ticket from one of the machines located on each platform. Riders who do not have a valid ticket in their possession are subject to substantial fines. (I chose to purchase a day pass for $5.00, good for unlimited rides on all trolleys and buses in San Diego.) The policeman entered in the rear of car, just beyond where we were sitting, and started inspecting tickets. Of course, Brett and I had valid tickets, and so did the other passengers sitting adjacent to us. But a man sitting in front of me produced a ticket that the inspector found to be invalid. He was escorted off the train, where several other policemen started talking to him. The train soon pulled out of the station, so I don't know what happened to him, but this is one of the very few instances I have observed of fares being checked on a light-rail system with the result that a passenger is accused of fare evasion.

This time, we proceeded on through the center of town and all the way to the last stop at the northeast end of the Blue Line trolley - Mission San Diego. This would be new mileage for me, as I've never previously ridden the trolley beyond the Mission Valley Center station. This section of the line, east of the Old Town station, is the only place where the trolley follows a new right-of-way (rather than existing streets or a former railroad right-of-way). It is also both the most scenic stretch of the line (since it goes through the Mission Valley, paralleling the San Diego River, which it crosses twice) and its least used segment. This is explained by the fact that most of the stations along this part of line are at large shopping centers, and most patrons of these establishments - where ample parking is available - choose to drive there, rather than arriving by light rail. When we reached the end of the line, there was only one person in our car besides the two of us!

Brett and I then took the same trolley back to Fashion Valley, where we got off and walked around. Like the Horton Plaza downtown, this is a very attractive open-air shopping center, quite appropriate for the temperate climate in the San Diego area. We stopped into a MAC computer store (Brett is a devotee of MACs!), where I had the opportunity to sign online and talk to my friend Mike Kirschenbaum. Then we took a bus to the campus of San Diego State University, where Brett goes to school.

Of course, Brett wanted me to see the attractive campus of his school. But the primary purpose of the campus visit was to show me the progress of the extension of the Blue Line of the San Diego Trolley that will cut through the university campus and extend to the Grossmont Transit Center, where it will connect with the existing Orange Line. In order to avoid bisecting the campus with a surface light-rail line, the line will tunnel under the campus. Much of the tunnel is being built by the cut-and-cover method, and a significant part of the work has already been completed. Brett showed me the eastern portal of the tunnel, which was recently finished, and an artist's drawing showed a beautiful, high-ceilinged station for the university stop. As Brett explained, when this line is finished, it is anticipated that patronage on the northern end of the line will significantly increase, as it will be used by thousands of students at the university.

About 5:00 p.m., we decided to call it a day. Brett took me to a bus stop, and explained that I could take the #81 bus to the Grossmont Transit Center, where I could catch the Orange Line trolley back to the center of town. We then said goodbye, Brett headed over to his nearby apartment, and I sat down to wait for the bus. I then took out my Amtrak timetable and discovered that the next train to Los Angeles left at 5:50 p.m., and the following train (the last train of the day) departed at 8:20 p.m. I waited a few minutes, and no #81 bus appeared. Soon it was 5:15 p.m., and I began to realize that the chances of my catching the 5:50 p.m. train were rather slim. I also knew that there were a number of restaurants on El Cajon Boulevard, not too far from the university. So rather than waiting for the bus and trolley, which would probably not get me to the station in time to catch the 5:50 p.m. train, I decided instead to proceed down to El Cajon Boulevard, get something to eat, and then catch the 8:20 p.m. return train.

I took a rather indirect route back to El Cajon Boulevard, walking along winding streets through a quiet residential area. When I finally got there, I found a dairy restaurant with an all-you-eat buffet for only $6.95. I took advantage of this opportunity to have a nice, leisurely meal.

It was now 7:00 p.m., and I had an 8:20 p.m. train to catch. No sooner had I reached the bus stop at El Cajon Boulevard than a westbound #15 bus to the center of town appeared. My plan had been to take a bus in the opposite direction to the El Cajon Transit Center and then take the trolley back to the station, but I wasn't sure when an eastbound bus would come, so I decided to take the bus that had already arrived all the way to the station. The bus proceeded west on El Cajon Boulevard, then turned south onto an expressway, and finally headed west on Broadway to the American Plaza, just opposite the station, where we arrived at 7.42 p.m. I could have just walked across the street to the station, but I noticed that a Blue Line trolley to Mission San Diego was just pulling into the American Plaza station. The Santa Fe Station would be the next stop on this trolley, so I decided to arrive at the station "in style." I boarded the trolley and took it for one stop to the station, where I got off and walked inside.

The Amtrak station in San Diego is one of the most beautiful stations in the entire Amtrak system. It was built by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1915 for the Panama-California International Exposition, and it has survived almost intact ever since, with a Santa Fe neon sign still gracing the roof of the building, and classic Santa Fe logo tiles embossed on the walls of the majestic waiting room. Only the modern Amtrak ticket office on the north side of the station mars its classic beauty. The station remains a hub of activity, with 11 Amtrak arrivals and the same number of departures daily, besides another 11 Coaster trains to Oceanside, as well as numerous trolleys.

I made a few phone calls, then walked outside to find out when our train would be boarding. The gate attendant informed me that the Surfliner set on Track 1 (the same set on which I had traveled down to San Diego this morning) would remain here overnight, and that our 8:20 p.m. train would be made up of the equipment from Train #784, scheduled to arrive at 7:50 p.m., but now running about 25 minutes late. He indicated that it would then take about 10 minutes to clean the train, and that the train should be ready for boarding about 8:25 p.m. I knew that Train #784, which originates at Goleta at 1:40 p.m., would be made up of the same equipment as this morning's Train #765, which I had seen as we passed it going south to San Diego, and that was a set of Amfleet/Horizon equipment which included a full-length dome. So I would have the opportunity to ride in this dome car which, as far as I know, is the only dome car still owned by Amtrak and used in regular passenger service!

I returned to the station to await the arrival and boarding of our train. Train #784 arrived at 8:13 p.m., and the first boarding call for our Train #593 was made at 8:25 p.m. I walked out to Track 3 and found that our train consisted of an F-59 engine, a baggage car, a Pacific Business Class car, full-length dome car #10031, two Amfleet I coaches retrofitted with blue seats and electric outlets at each seat, two unreconditioned Horizon coaches with the old red-and-orange-striped seats, and an ex-Metroliner cab car. The two Amfleet I coaches were in rather shabby condition. Many of the new blue seats were stained, and some of the seat cushions had been haphazardly replaced with ones salvaged from old red-and-orange seats, or even from Superliner seats (in their original Indian-style pattern)! Only the cab car was actually closed off, but all passengers ended up sitting in the first three coaches. We departed at 8:33 p,m.,right after the last passengers boarded.

After the conductor came by to collect tickets, I walked up to the dome car. This full-length dome can seat over 60 people upstairs in the dome section, which primarily features low-backed chairs arranged around tables. Unfortunately, it was already dark out, and it was difficult to see all that much out the windows, especially since the lights in the dome were left on for the entire trip. (In addition, having a high engine such as the F-59 in the front of the train also blocks some of the forward view that one would normally get from a dome car.) But I did not want to pass up this rare opportunity to ride in a dome car on an Amtrak train. I spent about half of the time at my seat in the Amfleet car right behind the dome and the rest of the time in the dome itself. One nice feature of sitting in the dome car at night is to watch all of the green signals turn to red as we pass them by. Another is to see the headlights of approaching trains as they pass us on adjacent tracks.

At one point, I purchased a cup of herb tea from the lounge car attendant. I did not attempt to step off the train at any intermediate stop, as we were running late and - unlike the Surfliner equipment, which has doors at platform level - the equipment used on this train requires each door to be opened manually and for passengers to climb and descend steps from and to the platform. About 60 passengers boarded at San Diego, and at one point, I counted about 80 passengers aboard the coaches.

As we passed the location of the former roundhouse at Redondo Jct., I noticed Santa Fe steam engine #3751 on one of the tracks, still under steam. It was undoubtedly there when we passed the same location this morning, but I wasn't looking in that direction and didn't see it.

Despite the fact that some of our station stops lasted for several minutes, we made up a few minutes enroute, and we came to our final stop on Track 9 at Union Station in Los Angeles at 11:09 p.m., only four minutes late. I detrained and walked to the front of the platform to record the numbers of the baggage car and engine (I didn't have time to do that during the rather hurried boarding at San Diego). Interestingly, I was able to read the erased number (3548) that had originally been assigned by the Santa Fe Railroad to this baggage car (Amtrak #1213), built in the 1950s, which appeared on a special number board on the lower part of the side of the car. I then walked down to the train concourse. There were no further train departures this evening, and our train was the last arrival. Thus, as might be expected, the station was almost completely deserted at this late hour (although there were several Thruway buses that were yet to arrive and depart). I walked through the station courtyard and back to the Days Inn, where I would be spending the night.

I had a great time today with Brett, exploring parts of San Diego I had never previously seen and checking out the progress of the extension of the Blue Line of the San Diego Trolley through the campus of San Diego State University, and the presence of the dome car on tonight's return train was an added bonus.

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

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