Inaugural Morning Amtrak San Joaquin To Sacramento
Well ... unfortunately, this turned into a non-travelogue!
I went to sleep yesterday at 10 P.M. and woke up this morning at about 2:15 A.M., about 15 minuters prior to the time that I had set on my alarm clock. I was out of the house at about 2:45 A.M. and heading for the TrainWeb office. At 3 A.M., I used the cell phone in my car to make sure that Ray Burns was up and getting ready for our trip. I arrived at the TrainWeb office at 3:07 A.M. to pick up a fax that was waiting for me. Then I headed just around the corner and down the street to the Fullerton Motor Lodge.
Richard Hamilton of San Diego Rail (www.SanDiegoRail.com) drove up from San Diego to Fullerton the previous evening and checked into this motel. We had prearranged that I would pick him up at 3:15 A.M. I arrived into the parking lot at 3:15 A.M. on the dot and called Richard's cell phone. He was just about ready to go!
We headed out the 91 and 605 freeways and made it to Ray's house at 3:30 A.M., about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. During normal traffic, it would take me a lot longer to get to Ray's house, but there was barely any traffic on the freeways at this hour of the morning. Fortunately, Ray was also ready early. Thus, we were on our way before 3:35 A.M.
We headed up the 605 and then north onto the 5 freeway. We were driving through the central part of Los Angeles by 3:55 A.M., the scheduled departure time of Amtrak Thruway Bus #5701, the connecting bus to our northbound San Joaquin Train #701 to Sacramento. Thus, we should have been able to make it to Bakersfield well ahead of the bus.
Ray and I originally planned to go from Santa Ana to Bakersfield via an Amtrak Throughway Bus. When I plugged in Santa Ana as my starting point and Sacramento as my destination on the Amtrak online reservation system for March 18, 2002, just to check on availability, I got every combination of buses and trains to Sacramento except for Train #701. I tried other dates beyond March 18, 2002, and just got the same results. It was as if Train #701 didn't exist. For anyone starting in San Diego or Orange Counties heading up to Sacramento, no indication is given that a direct train from Bakersfield exists at all!
Later, I tried using Los Angeles as my point of origin. That showed a connecting bus (#5701) out of Los Angeles at 3:55 A.M. and arriving in Bakersfield at 7:00 A.M. to connect with San Joaquin Train #701 to Sacramento. Having done a little research since that time, I've discovered that there is no connecting bus out of San Diego or Orange Counties to meet up with this train. I'm a bit disappointed about that as a lot of passengers usually come up from San Diego and Orange Counties to meet up with the northbound trains out of Bakersfield. I've often been on those buses when every seat was taken. I even know of some cases where passengers were left behind because the bus was already full!
Without having a connecting bus from San Diego and Orange Counties to this Train #701, I think it is not going to get the passenger load that it could be carrying. This train will probably be a popular route as it departs Bakersfield at a lot more reasonable hour than the 5:00 A.M. train and passengers do not need to ride a connecting bus from Stockton to Sacramento. But, I don't think it is going to get many riders from San Diego and Orange Counties without connecting bus service. That is too bad as it may impact the success of this train.
Thus, Richard was stuck having to drive up from San Diego, a 2 hour drive, and then join Ray and I for another 2 to 2-1/2 hour drive from Orange County to Bakersfield. The other option was to take the midnight bus out of Santa Ana that is designed to connect to the 5 A.M. San Joaquin and then wait 2 to 3 hours in the Bakersfield Station. We didn't like that option and don't think many other passengers coming up from San Diego and Orange Counties will select that option either.
So, that was how we designed our plan for me to leave my house about 3 A.M. and Ray's house by 4 A.M. That would give us 3 hours and 15 minutes to get to Bakersfield. We should only need 2 to 2-1/2 hours, but fog, rain, or traffic accidents can sometimes cause traffic delays. We could lose up to an hour or so and still make it to the 7:15 A.M. train on time.
As we continued to head north, we saw a very ominous sign on the traffic status boards. California has large digital display boards along a number of its highways, especially around Los Angeles, that report road conditions ahead. The sign read "SNOW -- Route 5 Closed Ahead". Route 5 between Los Angeles and Bakersfield does go through and over the mountains. It is a nice drive during clear road conditions, which is the usual status. But, sometimes, it can get pretty hazardous when it rains, snows or is fogged in. Unfortunately, the pass can also receive a good deal of snow when we are just getting rain in Los Angeles and south. The snow can completely close down Route 5 and it can take several hours to plow.
Though it rained very little this winter season in Orange County, it did rain last night. Winter is usually the rainy season in Southern California. This area really needs a lot more rain this year, but last night was just the wrong time for rain for my plans. I had a number of errands to run last night and I was running in and out of the car into various places in the pouring rain. Thinking about having to make this trip the following morning, I was worried about having to drive so far in the rain, especially over the mountains on Route 5. However, it did not occur to me that what was coming down as rain near my house was coming down as snow on the mountain pass!
We continued driving with the hope they would have the road open by the time we got to the pass. As we got closer and closer to the pass, there were more and more traffic status boards indicating that Route 5 was closed. When we got to Castaic, we saw hundreds of trucks parked in the breakdown lane. This was certainly not a good sign! They knew the road was still closed and were just parked waiting for the road to re-open.
In Castaic, there were traffic cones and signs forcing all the traffic to use the exit ramp to leave the highway. There was a cafe just off the exit ramp. We went in and had breakfast. It was 5:00 A.M. Our schedule would allow us to lose an hour and still make the train. We figured there was a possibility the road would re-open by the time we finished breakfast. Since the waitress was probably used to people dropping in when the road is closed, we figured she might have an idea of what the chances were of the road opening within the next hour. Her response was: "Not a chance. They'll probably have it opened around noon."
That was it for us! It was about 6:00 A.M. when we finished breakfast. The road was still closed and there was no indication that it would re-open anytime soon. Even if the road were to re-open in the next 30 minutes, there would be no way we could get to the train in Bakersfield by 7:15 A.M. So, we got back on Route 5 and headed south back to our office.
Trucks were parked everywhere in Castaic and were now lined up parked in the breakdown lane on both sides of Route 5! I'm not sure why they were parked on the southbound side of Route 5. All I could imagine was that they couldn't find anywhere to park in Castaic and just pulled back onto Route 5 South and parked in the breakdown lane on that side. Once the highway did re-open, they would just have to drive a short way down to the next exit, turn around, and head north again on Route 5.
Below you can see some of the photos of the trucks lined up all along the road.
By 6:00 A.M., there is a massive amount of cars heading into Los Angeles during the morning rush hour. We certainly did not want to get stuck in that! We were far enough north of Los Angeles that we weren't encountering much traffic yet. We decided to take the long route back and skirt the Los Angeles traffic. We took 5 south to the 210 freeway east. From there, we took the 57 freeway south. The only place we ran into any traffic problems was where the 57 and 60 freeways merge. That jam appears to have been caused by a fender-bender in the left lane where the parties involved just parked there cars in the middle of traffic and exchanged paperwork. Once beyond that minor collision, the traffic moved smoothly again. South of the 60, we were able to take the car pool lane on the 57. We were able to stay in the car pool lane for the rest of the 57, take the special car pool exit to the 91 freeway, and then take the car pool lane on the 91 all the way to Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton. We headed up Harbor and dropped Richard off at the hotel at about 7:00 A.M. The TrainWeb office is just around the corner from there and we were into the TrainWeb office before 7:15 A.M.
7:15 A.M. is a lot earlier than I normally get to work, but I felt like I had already put in a full day!
In retrospect, I think the best thing to have done would have been to drive up to Bakersfield on Sunday afternoon. We could have checked into a hotel in Bakersfield, got a good nights sleep, and arrived refreshed in plenty of time to take the train. I have never been blocked by Route 5 being closed before. If that was part of my personal experience, the idea of spending the prior night in Bakersfield would have crossed my mind. But, never having had anything like this happen to me on any of my prior bus trips or driving trips to Bakersfield, it just didn't cross my mind.
There are actually no alternate routes that could have gotten us to Bakersfield in time for this train. There are other ways to get from Los Angeles to Bakersfield that involved driving more than one hundered extra miles east or west of Route 5, but we would not have been able to detour through one of these routes and get to Bakersfield in time. Whenever Route 5 does close, the Amtrak throughway bus is either anulled or delayed until the road opens. Since there are now six (6) Amtrak San Joaquins in each direction each day, passengers can just take a later San Joaquin train. But, in our case, there was only one inaugural northbound Amtrak San Joaquin train to Sacramento. Thus, it made no sense for us to wait for a later train.
This once again points out the need for a direct Amtrak San Joaquin train between Los Angeles and Sacramento. In most cases, the train would be able to get through, even when the Amtrak Thruway Bus is blocked by the snow closed highway. There is a missing passenger rail link between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. The tracks exist and are used by freight, but there are no passenger trains on that route. Instead, all passengers are bused from Los Angeles to Bakersfield. I know that this bus link has disuaded many passengers, including myself, from making the journey to Sacramento or Oakland by rail as often as we might otherwise.
Please do check back with TrainWeb and this page at a later date. There are some passengers that were on Amtrak San Joaquin Train #701 that may be sending us photos and other information about the inaugural run within the next week or two. If you were on this train, please send us whatever photos you may have taken of this event. If you can write something about the inaugural run, that would be even better, but is certainly not required. TrainWeb will provide proper credit to anyone that shares their photos or stories about this event.