Clemson-San Diego With Many Intermediate Stops
March 17-31, 2002
I needed to attend a business conference in San Diego the last week in March and my wife and I had relatives near Anaheim, CA and a former neighbor now living in Phoenix whom we wanted to visit. Clemson University's Spring Break was the week before the conference allowing plenty of time to take the train westward. But the conference in San Diego ended March 30 and I had to be back in Clemson SC on April 1 (not enough time to take the train home), so this seemed the perfect opportunity to try out Amtrak's Air-Rail partnership program with United Airlines. The actual scheduling of the trip was relatively simple, although Amtrak said they couldn't include our final rail segment (Atlanta-Clemson) in the package deal because it occurred after the United flight segment (Orange County - Atlanta). So I had to purchase the Atlanta-Clemson tickets separately - a minor inconvenience.
SEGMENT 1 - CLEMSON - WASHINGTON DC (Sunday, March 17)
My wife and I left Clemson SC on Sunday evening. As usual, train #20 was about 30 minutes late, but made up time during the night so we arrived in Washington on schedule. We normally ride coach and bring along some extra padding to make the seats more comfortable. This worked fine except for some annoying folks a few seats back who sat up most of the night talking - which made it hard to sleep - but I guess they have the right to talk if they want. The train was packed - as usual - by the time we reached Washington. Union Station has a nice facility to temporarily store carry-on bags so we were able to visit some DC attractions during the day before returning to catch the Capitol Limited to Chicago later that afternoon.
SEGMENT 2 - WASHINGTON DC - CHICAGO (Monday, March 18)
Train #29 left right on time (an unfamiliar experience for me) and provided a beautiful ride through the hills of Maryland before dark closed in. I do most of my train travel in the summer and didn't think about it getting dark so quickly in the evening. Of course in March we're still on standard time. Dining car meals and staff were excellent, although I noticed prices were higher than I had expected (how high can they go before they discourage customers?). Uneventful, pleasant trip. This time everyone in coach decided to sleep through the night and we were able to sleep comfortably. On Tuesday morning, it seemed we would arrive in Chicago a half-hour early, but we had to back in to the station and waited in some rail yard long enough so that we actually arrived in the station a few minutes late. Chicago has a very efficient locker set up for day storage of carry-on bags, much cheaper than Washington. We took advantage of this service and spent about three hours walking around downtown Chicago - including a delicious lunch at the Berghof Restaurant.
SEGMENT 3 - CHICAGO - PORTLAND (Tuesday, March 19)
Train #27 also left approximately on time (could this really be Amtrak?) and the staff in Chicago had a pre- boarding announcement for Senior Citizens which was very helpful. I like to tell folks that although I do not yet qualify for that designation, my wife passed the magic '62' this year and we took full advantage of the opportunity to board early and pick out a good seat. I was surprised that the train seemed less than half full, and in fact stayed that way all the way to Portland. I spoke with one of the conductors who said that during this time of year, ridership is typically low on the Empire Builder. We took full advantage of the situation, occupying two coach seats so we each had a full seat on which to spread out our bedding. It started snowing halfway through Wisconsin and never stopped until we passed Glacier National Park in Montana. The dining car food and staff were again excellent. This was a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing couple of days with magnificent scenery and delightful peace and quiet. We were early into St. Paul - Minneapolis, early into Minot, ND, early into Havre, MT, and early into Portland. At each of these stops we had lots of time to wander around outside the train and stretch our legs. I couldn't really understand why all this schedule padding was needed - although the last time I rode the Empire Builder we were three hours late reaching Portland so I guess it must be. The baggage attendant checked our carry-on luggage for us and we were able to walk to downtown Portland for lunch. A good chance to stretch our legs.
SEGMENT 4 - PORTLAND - LOS ANGELES (Thursday, March 21)
Train #11 left Portland 30 minutes late and never recovered. In fact, the whole way to Los Angeles we were repeatedly stalled on sidings waiting for freights to pass. Are the freight lines that incompetent or do they purposely try to mess up Amtrak schedules? I asked one of the train crew about this and the response indicated that Amtrak was completely at their mercy and that the Coast Starlight was a train that was singled out for excessive delays. He also quipped that the unofficial name for the train was now the Coast StarLATE. I might expect such cynicism from travelers, it must be really bad when even the train crew is affected. We were over two hours late leaving Oakland and by the time we reached the California coast at San Luis Obispo, darkness had descended. Again, I hadn't counted on the sun setting before 6:00 PM, but I also hadn't counted on the train being so late. Our major reason for taking the 'long way around' to reach California was to ride the California coastal route again (we think it's one of the most scenic parts of the entire Amtrak network). By the time we reached Santa Barbara, we were over three hours late and we were told that all passengers transferring to Train #2 would be bussed to Ontario, CA instead of continuing to Los Angeles. The Starlight did have railfone service which proved useful as we were able to contact our friends in Phoenix and update them on our progress.
SEGMENT 4A - BUS FROM SANTA BARBARA TO ONTARIO (Friday, March 22)
What can I say. It was a bus. I don't pay Amtrak so I can squeeze into an uncomfortable bus seat. But I guess it was better than missing the connection completely. It took a little over two hours to reach Ontario and seemed to take almost as long to board train #2 when it arrived. They said the platform was not long enough to board everyone at the same time, so they boarded the sleepers first, then waited a while (for who knows what), then finally pulled the coaches up for boarding. The crew seemed to be in no hurry at all, which was a little annoying at the midnight hour.
SEGMENT 5 - ONTARIO - MARICOPA (PHOENIX) (Saturday, March 23)
Woke up to daylight in Arizona, around a half-hour late arriving in Maricopa. The station is a converted observation car and quite comfortable - all things considered. They have a nice waiting area - complete with TV - and a very helpful and pleasant staff person. Nearly 20 folks detrained here, which was surprising considering we were in the middle of nowhere (no offense to rural Arizona) - Phoenix was nearly an hour's drive from the station. If Amtrak can get that many people to use a makeshift station that far from town, this must be a very worthwhile stop. Now why doesn't Amtrak provide a shuttle bus to downtown Phoenix? Our former neighbors picked us up in Maricopa and we enjoyed the day together. They returned us to the Maricopa station around 10:00 PM, in plenty of time for the scheduled 10:50 PM departure of Train #1 to Los Angeles.
SEGMENT 6 - MARICOPA (PHOENIX) - LOS ANGELES (Sunday, March 24)
Around 11:00 Saturday night, the station attendant informed us that Train #1 had just arrived in Tucson - the stop before Maricopa - 90 minutes late. Around midnight, the attendant informed us that the train was still in Tucson. For the next two hours, the attendant and some of the train crew who wandered in weren't able to figure out exactly where the train was. With the advent of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology, it seems that Amtrak would have some way of knowing exactly where its trains were located at all times - and of communicating this information to their station staff. Around 2:00 PM an eastbound freight passed by. After another long delay several westbound freights came through followed at last by the Sunset Limited. One of the crew informed us that this line is single-tracked through much of Arizona and once one train gets off schedule, the whole system goes haywire. Amtrak trains are obviously not given priority and once again it seems Amtrak is caught at the mercy of the freight railroads. Several passengers (there were again about 20 folks in the station waiting on the train) mentioned that this was their first - AND LAST - travel with Amtrak. Sitting in a small waiting room in the early morning hours with nothing to do but watch late night TV talk shows is not the best of public relations. A late train in daylight is bad enough (at least there are things to do outside). A late train at 3:00 AM, when everyone is tired to begin with, is a minor disaster. I enjoy train travel immensely and even I started to wonder if I really wanted to keep traveling this way. The following morning, we were still running about four hours late and it became obvious we would miss our connection in Los Angeles for the San Diego train. This is not a big problem, because there are many daily trains scheduled to San Diego. But we had no way to contact my wife's relatives who were to meet our train later that morning. The Sunset Limited did not have railfone service, but we did find a sympathetic fellow passenger who allowed us to use her cell phone. I guess we need to bring a cell phone with us next time we travel.
SEGMENT 7 - LOS ANGELES - SANTA ANA, CA (Sunday, March 24)
We were able to catch Pacific Surfliner #776 for the short run from LA to Santa Ana. The ride was uneventful, except that I got into a conversation with some members of the train crew at one point. Apparently most of these folks think Amtrak made a mistake by cutting service jobs (baggage handlers, station attendants, etc) while middle managers who do nothing productive were spared such cuts. Probably the workers in any bureaucracy would express the same sentiments in similar situations - I know I would. Amtrak will live or die based on public opinion which is based on services rendered. Cutting passenger amenities is a very short-sighted policy.
SEGMENT 8 - COMMUTE FROM SANTA ANA TO SAN DIEGO (Thursday- Friday, March 28-29)
I commuted from Santa Ana to the convention I was attending in San Diego while my wife remained with her relatives in Santa Ana. This plan worked well except for Thursday night, when the last northbound train left San Diego two hours late due to an accident (pedestrian was killed) near Fullerton which shut down all traffic on the San Diego line for quite a while. An Amtrak representative at the San Diego station handed waiting passengers several food vouchers which were good in the Surfliner Cafe Car. I thought this was a very considerate thing to do and showed that Amtrak realized we were inconvenienced even though it wasn't really their fault. I wonder where this concern was when the Starlight and Sunset were so late. I don't remember getting as much as an apology from the train crew in those other cases. Perhaps the delays are expected. If so, the timetable should be changed to reflect reality.
SEGMENT 9 - UNITED AIR LINES FROM ORANGE COUNTY - ATLANTA (Sunday, March 31)
Other than having to get up so early, the flight back to Atlanta was reasonably pleasant. We had great weather for viewing the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains, so I spent most of my time looking out the window. We had to change planes in Denver, which wasn't too bad. Airline food still leaves much to be desired, but the Food Court in Denver wasn't bad. Security delays weren't as long as we expected, but maybe the early morning Sunday departure had something to do with that. The plane was on time in Atlanta, although it took forever for our luggage to appear in the baggage claim area. We transferred to the MARTA rail system (then bus at Art Center Station) and arrived at the Atlanta Amtrak station in plenty of time to catch the northbound Crescent. The Air-Rail portion of this trip worked perfectly.
SEGMENT 10 - ATLANTA - CLEMSON (Sunday, March 31)
The short trip from Atlanta to Clemson on Train # 20 was uneventful, except for a rather rude comment from the conductor as my wife boarded the train. We had a couple of large suitcases (necessary for a two-week trip) and she asked the conductor to help her with one of the bags. He did, but commented that "if we couldn't carry it we shouldn't bring it". Not the best public relations tactic. One important note. In 25 years of my riding the Crescent, this was the very first time ever that a northbound train that I was riding both departed Atlanta on time AND arrived in Clemson on time.
In summary, I was very pleased with the Air-Rail option, both from the standpoint of price and convenience. I continue to note very different attitudes and performance levels of train crews on different trains around the country. I can't praise the experience on the Empire Builder enough. This was travel at its finest. The Crescent and Capitol Limited I would rate very good. The fact that most of the trip time on these trains is in the overnight hours doesn't leave a lot of time for contact with the crew. The Sunset Limited and the Coast Starlight have some problems, but my guess is that having to continually deal with very late trains doesn't make for happy passengers or happy crew and this is bound to affect the way the two interact. I firmly believe that service is the key to success. If Amtrak makes passengers feel welcome and provides a pleasant experience, more and more people will switch to rail travel. Poor service - and especially poor on-time performance - will have the opposite effect.