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The Coast Starlight Detour That Wasn't
Oakland - Eugene - San Jose
Plus the RailPAC 2003 Annual Meeting in Oakland
By Matt Melzer of TrainWeb.com

http://www.trainweb.com/travelogues/mattmelzer/2003d05a.html

This trip was designed to serve the dual function of allowing me to attend the annual meeting of the Rail Passenger Association of California, and to attempt to take a rare-mileage detour on the Amtrak Coast Starlight between Sacramento and Klamath Falls (click here for details). I would be ticketed for a same-day return from Eugene, Oregon, with the ability to detrain earlier if need be. My day on April 5 started at 6 AM from my Santa Cruz home, where I caught an Amtrak Thruway bus at 7:55 AM to San Jose, so that I could take eastbound Capitols train #728 to the RailPAC meeting in Oakland. Train 728 departed on-time at 9:40 AM. The load was moderate for a Saturday morning. I sat near an off-duty Amtrak/CalTrain employee, who overenthusiastically pointed out every single scenic detail to his observant girlfriend! After some Union Pacific signal delays, we arrived into Oakland at 10:58 AM, 5 minutes late, and 2 minutes before the scheduled start of the RailPAC meeting. I, along with other RailPAC members, was greeted by fellow Directors Ric Silver (who is also Executive Director) and Anthony Lee.

04/05/2003, RailPAC Annual Meeting, Oakland, CA

We walked the quarter-block to the Yia-Yia Sandwich Shop, one of those little-known, family-owned diners that isn't much to look at, but has excellent food. After being greeted by the rest of the RailPAC Board of Directors, I went inside to the rear dining room, which was cozy and easily held the 20 or so attendees. This attendance is, of course, lower than one might expect for an annual meeting of an organization with thousands of members. However, it was only one of several regional meetings that RailPAC has been having across the state, allowing admissions fees to be waived and allowing the meetings to focus on local issues. The result is, actually, far more members attending the meetings as a whole than usually come to the annual meeting. The only reason this particular meeting was designated the annual meeting was due to the fact that it was the meeting where the 2003-2004 RailPAC Board would be appointed.

I sat with fellow rail advocates George Gaekle and Joseph Henchman (who has been a close friend of mine for several years), and the meeting began promptly at 11 AM. Ric Silver wasted no time to confirm, by voice vote, all existing Directors, and to elect a new Director, Marcia Johnston, who is RailPAC's only female Director at this point. The guest of honor at the meeting was Managing Director of the Amtrak Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board, BART's Eugene Skoropowski, who has been hailed by rail advocates, politicians, and the media as having turned the stagnant Capitols into Amtrak's third busiest corridor in the nation. While he did not have a presentation prepared, Skoropowski was quick to address the question of the Amtrak San Joaquins forming its own joint powers board to manage operations. He noted that it is up to the communities along the route to take the initiative to work with the State of California to initiate such a transition, and that his office would be more than willing to assist in the process!

Focusing on the future, Skoropowski reaffirmed that the 12th Capitols round trip would begin with the April 28 schedule change, which is, remarkably, double the amount of service offered when the JPB took over management in 1998. He noted that, upon completion of upgrades on the UP between Oakland and San Jose, 6 round trips would be possible on that segment with the current levels of equipment. Skorowpowski summarized the pending improvements, traveling east to west. Within a couple years, a new station would be opened at Oakland International Airport, by the BART station. The tracks would also receive CTC dispatching and double-tracking. More double-tracking would also be installed in the Fremont-Newark area. However, there are no immediate plans for double tracks through the wetlands area between Newark and Santa Clara, as that will require environmental mitigation that may take a few years. Lastly, a major track reconstruction project will take place between CP Coast (Santa Clara) and San Jose. This includes a complete track rebuild for the 2 miles between CP Coast and the UP Newhall Yard (which has just been downsized, creating additional space for passenger trains), as well as a bit more double-tracking. This will create the capacity for 11 round trips on the Oakland-San Jose segment, pending the eventual purchase of additional rolling stock and locomotives.

Skoropowski continued by reflecting on the accomplishments of his office in improving the Capitols as a whole. He noted that the JPB has improved efficiency to the point that it will operate 24 trains with state subsidies designed to run only 16. This is accomplished by targeted, thoughtful, modest fare increases, the elimination or restructuring of lightly used Thruway bus routes, and improvement in the efficiency of daily Amtrak operations. Because travelers now have more choices than ever, with more and faster trains, ridership continues to shatter records, underscoring the fact that Amtrak ridership is dependent on the amount of service available. After all, travelers will not ride trains that don't exist, and would ride such sparsely operated trains as the Sunset Limited or Cardinal exponentially more if more frequencies (at least daily) were available.

Skoropowski concluded his speech by praising Amtrak President and CEO David L. Gunn and giving an optimistic outlook for Amtrak as long as it is in Gunn's hands. Many attendees at the meeting were surprised to learn that Skoropowski has worked with Gunn at 3 different railroads and transit agencies in the past, giving him authority to reassure us that Gunn is genuine when he espouses his beliefs in a single set of financial books, with full public disclosure, as well as honesty and practicality in addressing problems within the company. Skoropowski, who is also a Director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) noted that, almost as soon as NARP coined the term "national network trains" to put a new positive spin on long-distance trains, Amtrak picked up on the term and began to use it themselves, a move that recent previous Amtrak administrations might have never taken. Gunn is straightforward in his call for a national rail trust fund, in which states would put up 20% of funds of rail development and operations, with an 80% match from the federal government, much in the manner transit systems are funded. There is no way to get around the fact that it takes a paltry $300 million to operate the current system of national network trains, and would become even more efficient if the system was further developed. After taking questions from attendees, Skoropowski, who is famous for making himself available for communication for the general public, made a point to announce his e-mail address (eskorop@bart.gov) before he would leave the meeting. Skoropowski wants interested parties to make no mistake that he takes his job very seriously, and takes it to heart, going so far as to gleefully pronounce, "The Capitol Corridor is the best job I've ever had."

Ric Silver carried the balance of the meeting by outlining issues on which RailPAC has recenly focused its attention, such as extension of the Capitols and/or San Joaquins northward to Redding, development of the Los Angeles-Palm Springs corridor, and reinstating an overnight, full-service Bay Area-Los Angeles train. Much conversation was sparked when he brought up the issue of a possible permanent reroute of the Southwest Chief off of the Raton Line, for which BNSF is now demanding $50 million to maintain at FRA Class IV standards, otherwise the line may be downgraded, sold, or put out of service. Talks are currently underway between Amtrak and BNSF to reroute the Chief onto BNSF's transcontinental mainline via Amarillo, Texas, which would mean loss of service to Lamy (gateway to Santa Fe), Raton (gateway to Denver), and other stations. The loss of Raton would be particularly devastating, because of the through ridership on buses to Denver, and because of the thousands of Boy Scouts to take Amtrak to the Philmont Scout Ranch every year. More on this issue remains to be seen.

The meeting concluded at 12:45 PM, and Joseph and I headed to the Oakland Amtrak station, where I placed my backpack into parcel check. We took BART from 12th Street to Berkeley and walked to his apartment, which is centrally located near the heart of Telegraph Avenue (Joseph is a senior at UC Berkeley). After we conversed for a while, I left to meet up with old friends from high school in Los Angeles who were now UC Berkeley students. I returned to Joseph's apartment around 7 PM, and he informed me that my train 14 was running about a half-hour late. We left an hour later for the Oakland Amtrak station, taking BART to Lake Merritt and walking from there. I claimed my backpack and bid farewell to Joseph as train 14 arrived at 9:54 PM, 22 minutes late. The HEP was cut for a few minutes, as a private car (which looked to be the Scottish Thistle, though I couldn't tell definitively in the dark) was cut out from the rear of the train. I was assigned to seat 1 (a bulkhead seat) of the 1412 coach by the attendant Monica. I asked her to send the conductor my way so that I could look into upgrading to sleeping accommodations, but they were sold out. Moreover, no one seemed to know if we would be taking the infamous detour. Though we were less than an hour late, the fact that the change to Daylight Savings Time that night, and thus an automatic delay to our train of an hour, was reason to believe that we might detour. We departed Oakland at 10:14 PM.

04/05/2003, Amtrak Train 14, Oakland to Eugene

I settled into my seat with the intention of going to sleep after finding out definitively whether or not we would detour. Seated across from me was a lady and her 3 year-old daughter (who was, thankfully, very well-behaved). They too were going to Eugene, having taken the San Joaquins from Southern California to Oakland. I asked why they didn't board this train in Los Angeles, and the lady responded that she was the friend of a conductor on the San Joaquins, affording her and her daughter a free ride for that portion. On a hunch, I asked her if her friend was a particular conductor who's also an acquaintance of mine, and it turned out to be the same person! Needless to say, it was fun to converse about someone I knew with a complete stranger! By the stop in Davis, the rest of my entire car was asleep, and I enjoyed the quiet, beautiful ride over the I Street Bridge into Sacramento, where we arrived a couple dozen minutes late. There were no announcements about any possible detour as we departed at 12:46 AM, 47 minutes late, or, 13 minutes too soon to detour! I asked the new conductor once more if we would detour, and he responded, "Not unless you come up with something!" After moving my watch an hour forward, I stayed awake until I saw, with my own eyes, our train take the north leg of the wye at Binney Junction and diverge onto the UP Valley Sub, the Coast Starlight's normal route. I then went to sleep at about 1:45 AM

04/06/2003, Amtrak Train 14

I awoke 4 hours later around Delta, as we weaved through the gorgeous Upper Sacramento River Canyon. After changing clothes and getting freshened up, I noticed a seemingly endless caravan of UP track maintenance equipment, ready to begin the day's work of concrete tie installation. I detrained briefly in Dunsmuir and went to the dining car for a breakfast of french toast. I had the fortune of being seated across from a gentleman who seemed to be, to put it lightly, a bit eccentric, if not mentally ill. Sure enough, not a half-hour later, he was discovered to be drunk and belligerent in the lounge car. The conductors confiscated a mostly empty bottle of Jagrmeister from him, and informed him that Klamath Falls would be his end of the line. North of Shasta City, snow appeared on the ground, and as soon as we entered Oregon, it began to snow, in April! Snow was still falling steadily as we arrived into Klamath Falls, and every child on the train immediately ran outside to play in the white stuff! Surely, many of these kids were from California and had never seen snow before. One child even yelled, "It's Christmas now!" I'm sure the sentiment wasn't shared by the drunkard -- he was met by police from Klamath Falls and UP, and was escorted away after being questioned briefly.

We departed Klamath Falls at a bit over an hour late. The concensus of what I had overheard from other passengers was that, if it was necessary, a detour would've been far preferrable to having a bus bridge overnight between Sacramento and Klamath Falls. I welcomed this flexible mentality, which I had hoped might prevail among non-railfan passengers. The snow stopped briefly around our 1 hour 45 minute-late stop in Chemult, but became very heavy as we ascended Willamette Pass. I went to lunch in the diner at the first call at 12 noon and had a very hot chicken pot pie, soul food perfect for the atmospheric conditions outside. As we approached Cascade Summit, the snowfall became so heavy that visibility was less than a quarter-mile! I later overheard an elderly lady from Minnesota comment that this was the most snow she had ever seen in her life! It was certainly the most I had ever seen. Feet upon feet had accummulated on the ground. The trees were completely white. The mountainsides were completely white. Even the trackside signals were completely white. Naturally, I took as many photos of this rare April weather as I humanly could! The snowfall and accummulation finally stopped completely at Heather (milepost 565, near Oakridge) and Oregon began to show its famous green colors once again. We waited in a siding for a UP mixed freight train to pass in Oakridge, and we passed the famous red covered bridge. Passing Lookout Point Reservoir, I even saw a handful of boaters on the water.

Train 14 arrived into Eugene at 2:25 PM, 1 hour 41 minutes late. Walking into the station, I was disappointed that this structure, which is beautiful on the outside, featured the non-descript Amshack-type interior, with prefabricated everything. The dated look was exacerbated by the presence of obsolete Amtrak posters as old as circa-1979! Hopefully this station can be restored to its original glory, much the way Seattle's King Street Station will (hopefully) soon be. I inquired with a station agent about the availability of sleeping accommodations on my train 11, and he informed me that only Deluxe and Family bedrooms were available. I was willing to pay the price for anything that was available, so that was fine by me. I passed the time in Eugene working on my computer, as I was too tired to venture into town. Around 5 PM, when train 11 was already supposed to have arrived, an agent announced that it was stuck 14 miles away behind a UP freight that was disabled due to a broken air line, and that train 11 would take 25 minutes to arrive once it was on the move. I eventually called Amtrak to ask for an ETA, and they said 6:02 PM. I went outside to wait, and noticed many trespassers using a hole illegally cut into a fence on the other side of the UP tracks to cut across them to get between Downtown Eugene and what looked to be a hiking trail. I also noticed that the station PA was broadcasting an annoying, staticky mix of 2 local radio stations simultaneously.

04/06/2003, Amtrak Train 11, Eugene to San Jose

Indeed, train 11 arrived at 6:03 PM, 53 minutes late. I found the conductor and inquired about upgrading. He directed me to the 1114 rear coach and said he would come by soon to take care of me. I was greeted at my coach by the friendly attendant Hugo, who placed me upstairs in the seat directly in front of the top of the staircase. I noticed that this Superliner II coach, 34113, was peculiar in that the seatbacks were replaced with the old, dated Superliner I decor! Just when I thought Amtrak was working to modernize their fleet, this seemed like a step backwards. I noticed the same phenomenon in one of the other coaches, 34116. I had also noticed the same in coach 34114 on my train 14 that day, but I didn't think anything of it at the time. As we departed Eugene, my seatmate walked in from the lounge, obviously very irate that Hugo had placed me next to him! He used some choice words that I wouldn't repeat, then said he'll never take Amtrak again! I told him to settle down and assured him that I would be leaving very soon, as I would be moving to a bedroom. He lamented that he had inquired about getting a bedroom to wherever his destination was, but would not stomach the $150 accommodations charge. We departed a few minutes later, and the friendly conductor quickly came by to inform me that there was one Standard Bedroom available. He said that if I could hang out in the lounge car for a moment, he would inform my sleeper attendant that I would be on my way.

After I spent a few minutes in the crowded Sightseer Lounge car, the conductor came back and took me to the more peaceful Pacific Parlour car, where I was met by my attendant, Bryan Payne. He asked me to sit tight while he prepared my room, and came back about ten minutes later to show me to my accommodations. Bryan is the kind of sleeping car attendant every Amtrak traveler would want to be served by! From the moment he first saw me, he was friendly, attentive, and professional in every way. He greeted me with a firm handshake, and made sure he learned my name quickly, as he clearly knew all of his passengers on a first-name basis. Without hesitation, carried my bag to my room, and ensured I had everything I needed. He also let me know that I could eat at the last call for dinner, which would be around 8 PM. I would later notice that Bryan was always out and about in the hall, every time I went outside! Far too many sleeping car attendants are complete ghosts, seemingly going out of their way to hide from their customers and not serve them. Bryan was the exact opposite. I got settled into my room, Standard Bedroom #11 in the 1132 Superliner II Sleeper, Illinois. The conductor soon came by to collect my accommodations charge, which was an even $100 from Eugene to San Jose. It took him a few minutes to collect my credit card information and produce my receipt, so he told me a few interesting stories from the debacles of the recent Coast Starlight detours.

I soon went to the Parlour car to wait to be called for dinner. Walking through the sleepers, I noticed that Amtrak has eliminated 10-ounce glass bottles as their nonrevenue Pepsi products, and replaced them with the more familar 12-ounce cans. Presumably, the old style of those bottles is falling out of favor. I also noticed bottles of Evian water as well as the usual Dannon water. (Evian is a product of Dannon, but tends to be more expensive for consumers. I'm not sure if Amtrak had to pay extra for that water.) The Parlour car was filled with other hungry travelers waiting for the final call for dinner. By coincidence, I sat across from a railfan and TrainWeb reader, Paul Wilcox-Baker, who had e-mailed the TrainWeb office, knowing that a TrainWeb employee would be on his train! He was traveling with his partner, Michael, to Emeryville. I got into a lively discussion with the travelers around me about euthanasia, as a lady recalled how she had to obey her father's wishes and not keep him on life support in the last days of his life. I was certainly traveling with an irreverent bunch, considering all the laughter that was had over the topic of assisted suicide! The daylight faded as we climbed Willamette Pass on the first day of Daylight Savings Time, and I pointed out how increasingly snowy the scenery would become as we gained elevation (though it would be increasingly difficult to enjoy without daylight).

At about 8 PM, the last call for dinner was made, and I went along with a good number of passengers into the dining car. I was seated next to a rather obese lady who easily took up the majority of the bench. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that she was wearing a vest that was filled with her various belongings! After she moved the side of her vest onto her lap, I was able to sit down. Seated across from us was yet another rail enthusiast, whose name escapes me. He too boarded in Eugene as a coach passenger, but upgraded to a Deluxe room. He said that he would've taken the Standard room had I not gotten to it first, but said that he was enjoying his first trip in a Deluxe Bedroom. Amazingly, in his 400,000 miles of rail travel to date, he had not traveled in a Deluxe room until that point. Our server for dinner was Nina Smith, who used to be part of the famed Crew Ten of the Amtrak Southwest Chief. The Crew Chief for the now-defunct Crew Ten was Bob Stone, who is also the webmaster of their web site. I told Nina that I had seen Bob working on the Coast Starlight as well just one week previous! To eat, I had the Special, which was meatloaf. The seasonings that were used made a tremendous difference in the taste. Much meatloaf is bland and tasteless, but this meatloaf was excellent. I finished my meal with a slice of key lime pie, which was also very tasty -- even tastier than the key lime pie Amtrak used to serve. I definitely approved of the new menus Amtrak has begun to use! Soon after the train paused briefly at Chemult, I returned to my car to shave and shower, one of the many things I could not have done had I stayed in coach! After getting dressed, I went to the Parlour car to watch our train pass Crater Lake. I detrained to get some fresh air during our service stop in Klamath Falls. The air was colder outside than it had been that morning when it was snowing, but the snow had completely melted during the day! I noticed that our new crew was the same crew I had going north out of Sacramento on train 14. After our departure (about an hour late), I went to my room to retire for the night, falling asleep sometime before midnight.

04/07/2003, Amtrak Train 11

I had asked Bryan to wake me up at 8:15 AM, which would've given me sufficient time to eat breakfast in the diner before our 9:55 AM arrival into San Jose (I knew that, after all, our train could've made up a significant amount of time during the night). However, I awoke on my own at 7 AM, and noticed that we were nowhere near the Bay Area -- we were passing through Red Bluff! That would've made us well over 3 hours late, presumably due to UP freight congestion during the night. We stopped at Chico about 4 hours late, and I went to the dining car for breakfast. While I was not enjoying rare mileage, I was enjoying rare scenery not usually seen during the daytime. It was especially beautiful because of the plentiful rains Northern California had received this past winter.

We made an unexpected stop in Marysville at 8:35 AM, as our crew from Klamath Falls was not going to be able to make it to Sacramento without going over their legally mandated hours of service, so a dog-catch crew was dispatched to relieve the crew at Marysville. I got my computer from my bedroom and brought it to the Parlour car to begin working on this story. We didn't depart with the new crew until 9:30 AM, and were delayed an additional 15 minutes by another freight train, making our late train even later. The new conductor soon came over the PA to instruct all passengers connecting to train 6, the eastbound California Zephyr, to detrain at Sacramento, and for passengers connecting to the San Joaquins to detrain at Martinez and catch train 716 there. Passengers destined for points between Los Angeles and San Diego along the Pacific Surfliner route were also told that they had the option of taking train 716 to Bakersfield and taking the bus to LA, which would allow them to connect to train 796, the last southbound Surfliner of the night. Any passengers who wished to stay aboard could do so, but would be bussed to their destinations beyond LA. Amazingly, I noticed many passengers who went out of their way to stay on the train, as they would rather have taken advantage of the full Coast Starlight experience than arrive a couple hours earlier!

I noticed that our new assistant conductor was the same one I had going out of San Jose a couple weeks previous on an 11-hour-late Coast Starlight to Los Angeles. After a while, he came over the PA to repeat the connecting train information that was given before, and reiterated multiple times that Amtrak is not to blame for Union Pacific's dispatching practices! He also let everyone know that we would encounter further delays arriving into Sacramento, as the west leg of the wye at UP's Haggin Junction near Sacramento was out of service. We would have to go over the east leg of the wye, but that would point our train backwards. So, we would have to proceed about 2 miles eastward past Elvas Junction, back the train onto the east leg of the Elvas Junction wye, and proceed in the correct direction over the west leg of the wye, past Haggin again, and into Sacramento. In a sense, our train did take a detour between Klamath Falls and Sacramento, albeit a much smaller one than I would've preferred! We arrived into Sacramento at 10:51 AM, 4 hours 36 minutes late. I stepped off briefly and noticed the restoration and reconstruction work that was occuring on the beautiful Sacramento Amtrak (ex-SP) station building. Our train double-spotted so that the coaches could be watered, and we departed at 11:26 AM, 4 hours 51 minutes late. We soon passed train 6 at West Sacramento.

Along with most everyone else in the Parlour car, I went to lunch at the first call at 12 noon. I was seated across from two ladies who were heading to Simi Valley. They were not worried about our train's certain late arrival there, as they had their car at the station and lived just a few blocks away! I had the grilled chicken sandwich with swiss cheese. It was undoubtedly the best sandwich I had ever eaten aboard Amtrak! The quality of the ingredients used in the preparation of the meals clearly improved by leaps and bounds along with the new dining car menus. During our stop in Martinez, the ladies noticed the numerous railfans sitting around at the station there, writing down our train's consist, and commented at the novelty of their hobby. One of the dining car attendants joked that these are the people who visit sites like TrainWeb, and I immediately interjected that I was working as a correspondant for TrainWeb! While TrainWeb is much more than a web site for railfans, it's always refreshing to know that our name is well-known in the Amtrak community.

I returned to my room as our train hugged the San Francisco Bay. My view of the Golden Gate Bridge was not as good on the lower level as it would've been upstairs, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I stepped off during our brief stop in Emeryville, which saw a tremendous amount of passengers detraining and boarding. As we passed Amtrak's 10th Street Yards in Oakland, I noticed the private rail cars Royal Gorge and Plaza Santa Fe coupled with F59PHI 455 and and P32-8 510. A yard crew soon informed the dispatcher that they would need permission to proceed to the Oakland Jack London Square Amtrak station after us, so that they could attach the private cars to the rear of our train. Our engineer also informed the dispatcher that we would not be receiving new locomotives, only the private cars. We arrived into Oakland at 1:34 PM, 4 hours 59 minutes late. No sooner did I walk to the rear than did the private cars show up. They must've literally been right behind us! I also noticed that our train was receiving a hefty amount of food from Amtrak's contract commissary, GateGourmet, for our depleted diner. I watched the private cars be attached, the returned to my room. The dispatcher informed us that we would be taking the Niles Subdivision between North Elmhurt and Newark (the route of the Amtrak Capitols) instead of the usual Coast Subdivision. This was, in a sense, yet another detour, but still not the desired one! We departed Oakland at 1:57 PM, 5 hours 7 minutes late, and I stayed in my room for the duration of the trip. I could not help but laugh when I heard the dispatcher address a train over the radio beginning with the words, "Umm...Like..." That was clearly not the professional language I've usually come to expect from a Class I railroad dispatcher! She must've either been confused or overwhelmed, both of which can easily happen.

We finally arrived into San Jose at 3:15 PM, 5 hours 20 minutes late. Ironically, had we been that late at Klamath Falls, we almost certainly would've gotten detoured! Our train arrived onto track 5, as the VTA Vasona Light Rail construction project had track 1 shut down for the time being. This meant a very long walk down the platform, as well as a walk through the pedestrian tunnel to the station. I boarded the 3:35 PM Amtrak bus to Santa Cruz, which did not depart until 4:10 PM, due to a late connecting Capitols train. I finally arrived home at 5:25 PM, ending an exciting weekend of Amtrak travel. Though I did not receive the detour I had hoped to take, I understood that the detour was, of course, not a foregone conclusion, and enjoyed the travel for what it was. The amazing scenery, good food, and pleasant people made the experience well worth the trip. Detour? Disappointment? It was neither.

Click on the below links to view each set of photos:
Set #01 - RailPAC Annual Meeting in Oakland
Set #02 - Snow in and around Klamath Falls, OR
Set #03 - Snow between Klamath Falls and Chemult
Set #04 - Snow through Willamette Pass
Set #05 - Eugene Amtrak Station
Set #06 - Marysville to Sacramento
Set #07 - Emeryville, Private Cars at Oakland
Set #08 - Oakland to San Jose

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