Pacific Surfliner Roundtrip
December 23-26, 2001
My wife and I traveled to visit our grandkids (and their parents) over the Christmas holiday. As usual we booked Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner from San Diego to Van Nuys CA (in the San Fernando Valley). But this wasn't entirely a typical trip.
Northbound: Sunday, December 23
Train 775, noon departure from San Diego
775 is the northbound "Central Coast Pacific Surfliner", so named because it's the only Pacific Surfliner train that goes all the way to San Luis Obispo on the central California Coast. It's a popular train at any time, but on this Sunday it was very well patronized.
Partly because we had to change our booking late, and partly because of the date, Business Class was sold out. We boarded the bi-level Surfliner train at the Business Class door anyway, walked back a car to the Coach-Cafe car (the upper level is standard coach), and rode there. While this car has less leg room than Business Class, the seating is otherwise identical, including an electric socket on the wall at each seat-pair.
We departed San Diego on time, but with some ominous remarks heard on my scanner. Engine 458 was not "loading" well and having difficulty pulling this atypical 6 car train (one additional coach). This situation gradually deteriorated at each stop until as we approached San Juan Capistrano (SNC), the engine "died". We coasted for about a mile and just barely made the platform at SNC -- actually the rear coach was off the platform.
After several "reboots" engine 458 was declared out of commission. We were stuck, on single track, with southbound 776 soon to be waiting a few miles to the north, and northbound 777 soon to be overtaking us. Several options were discussed, including busing the passengers and putting our trainset in a house track siding. But in the end it was decided to have 777 couple on behind, "multi-unit" the two trains, and have 777 push us to L.A. That is what occurred, with slow running and double spotting at each station (platforms are too short for a double train). We must have looked rather odd, but I had no way to get a photo.
Ultimately we were about 2:40 late at L.A. Union Station (arrived at 5:20pm), where a new engine was waiting to take 775 on north. However, Toni and I didn't go along. We had coordinated with our daughter by cellular to pick us up in L.A. and that's what happened.
One more note about our 775 trip. Thanks to the scanner I was aware of what was going on, so as soon as it was clear that our engine was dead, I headed for the snack bar and got us sandwiches for a second "lunch" -- we anticipated that food might not be available for much longer and in fact the snack bar did sell out of most items well before reaching L.A. But we didn't go hungry as we enjoyed more than the usual amount of "quality time on a train".
Southbound: Wednesday, December 26
Train 776 11:26am departure from Van Nuys
776 is the southbound equivalent of 775, also the "Central Coast Pacific Surfliner". But on this busy Wednesday it wasn't a "Surfliner", rather an all Amfleet consist which included two Business Class cars (one 60-seat Amfleet Business Class car doesn't cover the reservations for a 77-seat bi-level Business Class car).
Business Class was heavily patronized but a few scattered seats were available most if not all the time.
This train operated quite normally. It was on-time picking us up in Van Nuys after it's 204 mile trip down from San Luis Obispo. And except for 3 or 4 track-work slow areas which put us down as much as 20 minutes, we would have been on time in San Diego.
Although Toni and I had to sit across the aisle for much of this trip, it was quite pleasant overall.
While both trains were quite full, I didn't see any standees so everyone traveled in relative comfort. The crews on both trains were great, including the snack bar attendants, handling all issues calmly and professionally. The crew on 775 was a bit slow to announce the problem at San Juan Capistrano, but after the initial announcement they kept the passengers well informed.
Unreserved coach on a Surfliner is quite comfortable, but somewhat noisier than Business Class (on average), mostly because of more young children.
Notwithstanding the delays incurred, we enjoyed this "Am-Trip" and will soon be back on the rails again.