California Hat Trick
February 18-20, 2006
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and most of the freight trains I saw growing up wore the plain gray and red paint of the Southern Pacific railroad. Most Bay Area railfans of a certain age just about worship the "Espee." But not me. My first train set was of the Burlington Northern. Thus from age five to now, the Burlington Northern, its predecessors, and its successor, the BNSF Railway, have been the one for me. Perhaps this was my form of youthful rebellion.
Being a BNSF fan in the Bay Area is akin to be being a fan of a rival sports team from a different city. Recently, I wanted to railfan the BNSF but knew I would have to go down south to do it properly. Having briefly visited Fullerton, California in November, I knew I had to return. Fullerton is on the BNSF's heavily-traveled "Transcon" route from Los Angeles to Chicago. To get there, I decided to use the President's Day holiday weekend to do a nice circle of California by rail, to compliment the North American circle I made in August-September 2005.
Outside of the Northeast Corridor and the Chicagoland area, California has the most developed intercity rail network. This is largely thanks to Section 403(b) of the 1970 Rail Passenger Service Act legislation, which allows for state funding of Amtrak service. California has funded Amtrak trains for decades, but this really took off in the early 1990s with the creation of "Amtrak California." Amtrak California is essentially a separate rail agency-or partnership to use their word-funded by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), in cooperation with local transit agencies, and run by Amtrak personnel.
There are three Amtrak California routes. The Capitol Corridor runs from San Jose to Sacramento, with a few trains continuing on to Auburn. The San Joaquin was one of the first California 403(b) services and hearkens back to old Southern Pacific and Santa Fe passenger trains that ran through the Central Valley. The San Joaquins run from Oakland or Sacramento to Bakersfield. Finally, the Surfliner service started life as Amtrak's continuation of the old Santa Fe San Diegan service from Los Angeles to San Diego. Over time, the San Diegans morphed into the Surfliner service and has extended north from Los Angeles, with selected runs to Goleta and San Luis Obispo.
My plan would be to take the first Capitol Corridor train out of San Jose to Oakland's Jack London Square station. There, I would have a one hour layover before catching a San Joaquin to Bakersfield. Alas at that point, my rail circle would have to be broken with an Amtrak Thruway bus connection to Los Angeles. At Los Angeles Union Station, I would have a short ride to Fullerton on a Surfliner. Two days, later, I would return to Los Angeles on a Surfliner and then home on the regular Amtrak flagship, the Coast Starlight.
Below follows the account of my journey. In Endless Summer style, I will throw in some past experiences to help give you a more complete understanding of rail travel in California, circa 2006.
#724 Capitol Corridor Service (San Jose-Oakland Jack London Square)
Morrison-Knudsen California Car Cab/Coach 8302 "Mount Shasta"
The Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains use special bilevel equipment inspired by Superliner and commuter passenger. These are painted in a blue, gold, orange, and silver livery. Most of the cars are "California Cars" made by Morrison-Knudsen, but some later Alstom "Surfliner" cars are also in the equipment pool. The normal locomotive on these routes is the EMD F59PHI or GE P32BWH. Unique to this service, Caltrans owns all the cars and locomotives. However, locomotive serviceability issues have forced Amtrak to provide several of its own intercity P42DC and reserve P32BWH locomotives to run these trains.
Increasingly, all Amtrak California services have had train consists that included one regular Amtrak Superliner, either a Coach or Coach Baggage car. I suppose this is either to stretch the equipment pool, to rotate the other cars through servicing, or because the main equipment is breaking down. Perhaps their presence is a combination of all three factors.
Running Superliner cars in these trains can pose problems for riders. Because each Amtrak California route features many stops, the California and Surfliner cars have two automatic opening doors on each side. The Superliner car door must be opened manually and generally the two conductors on the train do not man that door. Thus, you have to exit the train by a different car and thus you must be ready when you arrive at your stop, or you risk not being able to detrain in time.
The usual Capitol Corridor train heading north has a Cab/Coach up front so the engineer can control the train with the locomotive "pushing" the train. This saves complicated yard switching but results in people not familiar with the "push-pull" concept thinking that the train is going "backward."
Each Capitol Corridor includes snack service in the form of a California Car "Dining Car." These are more akin to the typical Amtrak lounge car. Microwaved hot food items like hot dogs, cheeseburgers, or pizza are available, along with various other snack items. Prices are a bit high on some items but Amtrak California has a captive buying audience (You are allowed to bring food on board but you must eat it at your seat and not in the Dining Car.). There are a few seats and small tables. Strangely, the designers of these cars did not think to add extra windows like a Superliner lounge car.
The Capitol Corridor equipment pool also includes a few of the Surfliner Café cars, which I will discuss later. On my train, however, there were neither. It was only after I got home and checked car numbers that I realized that the Superliner car in our train was a so-called "Snack Coach." I did not explore this car so I do not know if it had a snack service downstairs-I presume it must have.
For this short trip (only an hour), I decided to sit in the Superliner coach since it had been over 25 years since I rode in one. Only one other passenger decided to join me. A troop of Boy Scouts took up the rear coach of the train. Some of the Scouts who walked through my car believed the Superliner was "first class." It was not, of course, but its bigger seats, which reclined, must have seemed that way to the more cramped seating in the California Cars.
The lighting was dimmer in the Superliner and as I sat in the front row of seats, there was no tray table for me to set my book down upon. It was an okay experience, but I know I could not ride a Superliner Coach long distance for more than several hours. Call me a snob, but that is just the way I am.
The scenery on this part of my journey takes in the salt marshes of the lower San Francisco Bay, with a view across the bay to Moffett Field. There is also a nice segue way through Fremont, near a park and river that comes out of the East Bay foothills. But soon after that, you are running along East Bay residences or industrial scenes-which are no great shakes to look at.
I arrived at Oakland's Jack London Square station with an hour to kill. Jack London Square is one of the last places in America where you can see frequent street-running trains. Beyond Amtrak, Union Pacific (UP) run a number of freight trains, most of them heading for the Port of Oakland. BNSF get in there a few times thanks to trackage rights but too infrequent for my train watching tastes.
I had just arrived when a UP mixed freight came through. Unfortunately, on this morning, the temperature was barely in the low 50s. You have to understand that for we Californians, if it drops below 60, we are freezing.
The station is nice architecturally but it is a boring place to have to wait. There is no snack bar, no newsstand--nothing to pass the time with.
Fortunately, around 20 minutes before departure, the trainset for my San Joaquin arrived. Standing out immediately was the locomotive-a regular Amtrak P32BWH. These are modified freight locomotives that Amtrak bought in the early 1990s and have since relegated to switching or reserve power duties. Amtrak California itself owns two P32BWHs, which are frequently being pressed into service as the F59PHI fleet breaks down. Seeing that a regular Amtrak P32BWH has been thrown into the fray, I can only guess that the Caltrans F59PHI fleet is in even worse shape than usual.
#714 San Joaquin (Oakland Jack London Square-Bakersfield)
Morrison-Knudsen California Car Cab/Coach 8301 "Mount Whitney"
As I strolled the length of the train to take down its consist, I tried to decide which car to ride. The Amtrak California Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin cars each have individual names, based on California geographic features. Call me quirky, but if I see a car name that personally resonates, I will ride it. For instance, if I see "Feather River," which hearkens back to the old Western Pacific railroad, I hop on board that one. I love the Monterey Bay area so seeing both "Monterey Bay" and "Pebble Beach" posed a dilemma. I was broken out of my reverie by a conductor who asked where I was going. I told him I was going with them and he suggested I get on board! I chose the swankier "Pebble Beach" name.
"Pebble Beach" is one of the few Surfliner cars running up north in the northern Amtrak California colors. There are not many discernible differences between these cars and the California Cars. The most noticeable is that the Surfliner cars have an open overhead luggage rack, while the California Cars have smaller closed luggage bins like an airliner. Neither can accommodate large bags, but both types of cars have luggage racks at the ends of the upper level.
Ironically, for the initial part of the journey south to Bakersfield, the San Joaquin heads north out of Oakland, This is because it follows the old Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) route along the East Bay which skirts San Francisco Bay and avoids the East Bay hills. The view of San Francisco Bay here can be terrific on a good day, especially near Pinole, where many of the Amtrak California promotional photos are taken.
Unlike the Coast Starlight or Capitol Corridors, which follow UP rails on to Sacramento, the San Joaquin cuts over to BNSF at Martinez. And at any time I am on a train that ventures onto BNSF track, it is as if I am on hallowed ground.
Though the conductor does put a seat check above your seat once he takes your ticket, I never trust that to deter someone boarding from taking my seat if I am away at the dining car. With the train looking to be near full, I waited until we passed Antioch before getting some food from the dining car. Nevertheless, I left a note saying "This seat taken sorry" on my tray table.
For food on-board a Capitol Corridor or San Joaquin, I wholeheartedly recommend the world famous Amtrak California jumbo cheese pretzel-a hot soft pretzel full of processed cheese. Eat one, and you need not eat again all day. Eat two and you need not eat again all week.
But on this day I opted for my other standby-the Firenza brand ("Made especially for Amtrak") cheeseburger. These are the same as the "Angus Beef Burger" that you can get on Amtrak intercity dining cars. They require a deft touch in the microwave and far too often, you get them on a Capitol Corridor or San Joaquin overdone with the cheese nearly evaporated.
The San Joaquin, unique of the three routes, also offers "plated meals" (more on those later) from "Chef Mario," who is supposedly a famous chef, but I have never heard of him. There are four choices which come on a plastic tray airline-style. You are supposed to take these back to your seat and return the tray later. There are four offerings, which do seem to change over time. Of those that I remember, one was a ham and cheese omelet, one was a chicken salad, and another was vegetarian lasagna. The downside is their cost-around $8-10 dollars or more, though they do come with tea or coffee if you want it. On the few times I have been on the San Joaquin, I have only seen one couple buy the plated meals-and they were tourists from Germany.
Once the San Joaquin reaches Stockton, the train is running amidst the Central Valley (As a side note, Stockton is the junction where the northbound San Joaquins heading for Sacramento leave BNSF rails and use Union Pacific to their final destination.). The San Joaquins are a vital service to the residents there. Though some of the cities along the route have small airports, air service between the cities is either impractical or too expensive. The numbers of passengers who ride this train from cities like Stockton or Modesto or Fresno is probably why this train offers checked baggage, which is contained in one of the lower level areas in the Cab Coach.
If the State of California were ever to cut funding for the San Joaquins, I know that many of these communities would be outraged. For those that do not want to drive, it's the most convenient way of traveling along the Central Valley.
When you think of the Central Valley, great tracts of farmland and small farming communities come to mind. This would make for dull scenery, but sadly, in 2006 it is even worse than that. Because of the high cost of housing in the Bay Area, there has been an explosion of residential and commercial growth at the northern end of the Central Valley. Instead of passing through farmland, the train passes through one new subdivision after another. It cannot be long before the Central Valley begins to resemble the Bay Area. I for one, as a Bay Area native, rue the day when that happens.
It is only once you leave Fresno that the landscape begins to look like the agrarian landscape you might expect it to. You also pass the occasional BNSF freight. BNSF being more pro-passenger, put their freights into sidings and gave us priority. I can only think of one or two times in my train riding experiences nationwide where BNSF did not give Amtrak priority over one of its freight trains. Sadly, I cannot say the same about rival Union Pacific.
One problem with the San Joaquin is the lack of business class. It really needs it. The seats in the coaches do not recline and the six hour journey from Oakland begins to wear on you after the fourth hour. Very rarely are any extended stops made so you do not get much of a chance to stretch.
I also was reminded on this journey of why I do not like to ride coach: loud people talking, babies crying, and the young lady sitting next to me with the "interesting" smell and questionable stain on her jacket.
Because of BNSF's beneficence, the San Joaquins are usually on time unless there is major track work going on. We arrived to Bakersfield only fifteen minutes late.
Bakersfield has a recently built station that is designed completely with the Amtrak California rail/bus partnership in mind. You have just a short walk from the platform to the bus shelters. On the day I arrived, six buses were waiting to take passengers to cities and towns that spanned from Los Angeles Union Station to Lancaster.
I do not care much for buses, even though the dedicated Amtrak California or contracted charter coaches are nice as buses go. If I wanted to ride Greyhound, I would ride Greyhound. But the days of train service to Bakersfield to Los Angeles ended before I was born. So though I could see Tehachapi Mountain looming in the distance and imagine the thrill of a BNSF freight struggling against its grade, the best I could do was hop on board the coach and hope the journey south over I-5 was quick.
#792 Surfliner (Los Angeles Union Station-Fullerton)
EMD F59PHI 463
We arrived at Los Angeles Union Station to find the classic station lit up with some orange and purple spotlights. Southern California railfans go absolutely ga-ga over this place. While it has a classic mission-style look, it is an absolutely terrible place to have to wait for a train. There is almost nothing to do. As it is a stub station (that is, the tracks go into but not through), the railfan is denied any passing freights to watch.
The station has one apparently formal restaurant, a Starbucks-like bagel counter, and one small newsstand/snack shop that sells absolutely no train magazines of any kind.
I headed up to a platform where an inbound Surfliner was arriving-only to find it was a northbound Surfliner. From some Amtrak employees and a waiting train crew, I overheard that my 7:00 Surfliner was delayed. The northbound train that would turn around and become my train had apparently died south of Los Angeles. I overheard that a Head End Power cable from the engine to the first car had broken. I am not sure of the mechanics in this (A broken HEP cable would kill the power to the train, but the locomotive should still run right?). The northbound Surfliner conductor told the others that the dead train had asked him if they had an extra cable, which they did not. Eventually, another Surfliner had to come and couple the dead trainset. This led to the extraordinary sight of one Surliner train coupled onto another, coming into Los Angeles Union Station.
The 8:00 southbound Surfliner soon arrived and it was clear that it was going to be full up as passengers for both the apparently canceled 7:00 train and this one boarded. It was while I had been waiting that it dawned on me that I had turned a unique hat trick-riding all three Amtrak California routes in one day.
The Surfliners run under the banner of Amtrak California but there are some accounting differences. From what I understand, the F59PHI locomotives used on this route are owned by Amtrak, not Caltrans. The cars might be owned by Amtrak as well-they do not bear "California Department of Transportation" decals like their northern cousins, though they do have "Amtrak California" titles.
The Surfliners also are painted in a blue and silver scheme with white striping. Some of the Cab/Coach/Baggage cars are named, but most of the other Surfliners do not bear any car names. Like their northern trainset brethren, regular Superliner coaches have been pressed into duty to make up numbers.
Surfliner cars are very similar to the California Cars. Their Coach Cafés, however, are different from the California Car dining cars. The upper level on the Surfliner Coach Cafés has revenue seating upstairs and the snack bar downstairs with no seating. I suppose this gives the Surfliners more capacity if a less pleasant eating experience.
The Surfliners also feature one to two Pacific Business Class cars. Though I did not ride Business Class for a thirty minute journey to Fullerton, I did so from Santa Barbara to Fullerton in November 2005.
From that trip, I must say I was not impressed. Though I did appreciate the quiet, the amenities were lacking. Each seat back has a television monitor, but on that trip, nothing was shown. Each passenger is supposed to get a free soft drink but I never received one. You are also supposed to get a free snack pack but we got our own-and only after another passenger discovered them in the back of the car.
We did have a car attendant who was supposed to facilitate these things, but the man was nearly worthless. He spent most of the trip sitting in a seat-great work if you can get it. I will never forget our arrival at Fullerton when I waited on the lower level near the doors as we pulled to a stop and the man scrambled to get on the intercom to announce the bleeding obvious-that we had arrived in Fullerton.
The Surfliners that come up from San Diego or down from northern points have about a twenty minute layover in Los Angeles if they are continuing onward. This led to the rather lame sight of us passengers having to wait outside the cars while those continuing on got off to stretch or smoke. Finally, as 8 o'clock approached, we were let on-board. I was lucky to find a seat right away. I took the aisle which left the window seat vacant. Despite the crowd on board, nobody asked to sit with me. I don't know if I should take that personally or not!
Thirty minutes later, I was in Fullerton. Though this is not quite the forum, I will make some brief notes about railfanning at Fullerton's Amtrak station. In one word: awesome. Sitting on BNSF's Transcon route, a huge number of freights-mostly intermodal-come roaring through. Add to that Amtrak and Metrolink commuters and the station is hopping with activity. I came to train watch on a holiday Sunday and still saw 14 BNSF freights in 5 r hours. As Metrolink does not run on this route on the weekend, and the Surfliners have a reduced schedule, I can only wonder what the place might be like on a regular weekday.
The station is also safe, the surrounding neighborhoods seemingly safe, and there is the excellent Santa Fe Express Café that offers drinks, snacks, and some hot food or cold sandwiches. It sure beats some lonely mountain outpost. The café has a patio area where you can sit and watch the action. The one downside of the café is that on the Saturday nights I have been there, they have local bands play-most of which will surely never see a record contract (Sample song lyrics from that night: "She's my dork and I'm her shoe"). Thus, the place can attract a decidedly non-railfan young audience. This leads to the bizarre sight of a BNSF stack train ripping through right near the platform at 79 miles an hour drowning out the band and their young audience.
If you happen to visit Fullerton station, there are not too many motels nearby but I can recommend the Fullerton Plaza Inn, on 1415 S. Euclid Street. It is almost two miles away but it is walkable (the route seems safe). The motel itself will never make a Conde Nast list but it is clean and the rates (especially through Expedia) are very good. Two nights cost me only $118.
One final note-as alluded, the BNSF freights do not normally slow down on approach to the station. You need a camera with a quick shutter. Also, if the freight comes in on track 1, then be prepared for a huge wind tunnel effect as the passing train kicks up the air around it and throws it toward you. It can sometimes be unpleasant! There is a pedestrian bridge you can watch from-but the one time I decided to use that as a vantage point, four General Electric C44-9W locomotives nearly suffocated me with diesel exhaust!
#763 Surfliner (Fullerton-Los Angeles Union Station)
Alstom Surfliner Coach/Cab/Baggage 6951
After a great day of train photography, I had to head home. As my taxi dropped me off, I could see a BNSF locomotive stopped at the station. I hurried to get out of the car and out to the platform. I was also stunned to see a Metrolink train and then had to remember it was Monday-not Sunday.
BNSF freights sometimes do stop at the station as they wait for other trains to pass. On this morning, a BNSF GP60 and Dash 8-40CW waited with a short string of eight empty well cars. What they were waiting for, I could only guess. The train crew consisted of a man and a woman and both got out and walked into the Express Café. The woman apparently used the restroom in the station which surely must be better than what the GP60 offered.
Her presence was certainly interesting. Though average in looks, every guy at the station was watching her as she walked around the Dash 8-40CW or into the station. It was akin to the looks a female airline captain must receive. I was wearing a BNSF baseball cap with the new corporate logo but she passed me without a word.
As I waited, a guy was trying to explain to two Japanese elderly women about what train to board. They had Surfliner tickets but could not understand why their tickets did not have a train number. Like most Amtrak California tickets, they were good for any train that day. I told the women they needed to board a blue and silver train, and then realizing they were going northbound as well, told them to board whatever train I got on.
As noted earlier, Metrolink also run from Fullerton to LA and this can cause problems. Though there is a joint railpass scheme, I watched as a Metrolink commuter arrived and the Amtrak ticket agent coming out to corral several passengers who were trying to board it in error.
#14 Coast Starlight (Los Angeles Union Station-San Jose)
GE P42DC 182
I have written in this forum before about the Coast Starlight so I will keep my comments about this part of my journey brief. Perhaps the most noticeable thing was that the Lounge Car attendant from my first trip last July was now in the Pacific Parlour car.
This trip marked what is probably my last experience with the old Amtrak dining car service. As part of the fight over the FY2006 appropriation for Amtrak, certain members of Congress were able to attach language in the legislation that requires Amtrak to show a profit in dining and sleeping car service or else risk losing federal subsidies for it.
Many-myself included-see this is a back-handed way of doing away with Amtrak intercity trains, something the current Administration has been trying to do for the last two years. Without meal and sleeper service, far fewer people would want to ride trains like the Empire Builder or California Zephyr.
As a way to stave off the end of dining car service, Amtrak has begun implementing "plated meals" on the Texas Eagle and Capitol Limited. I have now learned they are spreading system-wide. The Coast Starlight is to have them by May.
"Plated meals" are essentially airline-style meals-prepared off-train and requiring only to be heated up. These are essentially the "Chef Mario" type meals on the San Joaquin. They need not be bad in quality-not all airline food is bad-but it will mean that Amtrak will be laying off cooks and reducing wait staff in the dining cars. I suppose if it comes down to plated meals or no meals, I will take the pre-prepared ones, thank you. And I am also pretty content with the microwaved lounge hamburgers or pizza. But for a long trip, you must have some food options.
The dining car staff on this run, led by Penny, was outstanding as usual (though they already seemed shorthanded). I had my normal Angus Burger for lunch and the Tri-Color Tortellini for dinner.
I had lunch with a young UC Santa Cruz student and his girlfriend. The man said he was a railfan and claimed to have ridden the Coast Starlight 51 times. He had gamed the system regarding Amtrak Guest Rewards and tie-in frequent flier plans. He certainly knew his Amtrak trains well. He was the one who mentioned the spread of plated meals-a fact my sleeping car attendant, Ronald, confirmed.
At our stop at San Luis Obispo, I asked Ronald about himself. He had worked for Amtrak for 28 years. He was not happy that dining car staff were losing their jobs.
I told him that I had spent most of 2005 contacting elected officials just to get funding for Amtrak. I told him now it seemed I would have to spend 2006 doing the same to save the dining car and sleepers. Ronald seemed very serious about this. "Keep writing," he told me. If you are so inclined, I would ask that the reader do the same. Sadly, we can never take Amtrak-even an under-funded one-for granted.
It was a given that with me on board-someone in no hurry to go home-that the Coast Starlight would break land speed records getting to San Jose. True to my luck, we were 30 minutes early into San Luis Obispo.
I had told Ronald that I was the only person in America who wanted my train to be late. He looked at me and said "You're not the only one."
Near Salinas, however, we passed #11, the southbound Coast Starlight, nearly seven hours late. Throughout the day, whispers and rumors of track work and mudslides in Oregon and points north suggested that #14 would eventually be late as well.
We arrived in San Jose around 25 minutes early. With San Jose being an engineer change stop, the Starlight loitered an extra five minutes past its scheduled arrival time to keep itself on schedule.
It's a personal tradition since childhood to watch the Starlight leave. I did so again, though this time, the extended stop made staying in the cold night a bit harder. I did see Penny outside her dining car and I told her that lunch and dinner were excellent, to which she responded, "Bless you." Now if we can just get Congress to agree.
I watched the red rear lights of the last coach disappear out of the station. In November, I had dined with some folks on the Starlight who had claimed to have had some bad experiences on this train. The UC Santa Cruz student said he could not remember one bad trip in 51 journeys. I suspect he is right. Each time I have rode what I consider to be Amtrak's flagship, the crew and experience have been top notch. I can only hope that in a few years time, those of us in California are not just left with the Amtrak California "hat trick" as our only means of intercity rail travel.