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Trip Report

TRAC Board Meeting On Board the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Emeryville

January 13, 2007


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It's early Saturday morning. Members of the Board of Directors of Train Riders Association of California (TRAC) trek to Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) to make their "fateful" rendezvous with the Starlight. Some from SoCal have jumped on MTA or the Surfliner. NorCal members (including me) used the San Joaquin or big silver wings to meet at LAUS thirty minutes before train time. It's a hoot to be having the quarterly board meeting aboard the train.

Early on, I walked from my nearby motel and passed a vignette of Angeleno street life. An unkempt man straddled part of the sidewalk in front of me, with a sign (paraphrasing) "disabled hungry plees help". As I approached him a vintage red Ford sedan pulled up to the curb next to him. I half expected trouble, thinking the auto's occupants were targeting the denizen, but he briskly walked to the car's window and handed them money. They drove off and he retook his sidewalk station. At least he was busy as I walked by.

Inside LAUS, that wonderful shrine to rail travel, I marvel at the sanctuary. The station never suffered as many indignities that others have, so still has a patina of age and grace. Light still streams through the windows onto the dark mahogany seats and makes LAUS an intriguing spot. A non-romantic can see how glamorous it must have been to wait there in the heady days of yore.could that be Marilyn or Clark over in the corner, there? This is a busy spot, too. It's Saturday and there's a crowd even though the commuters stay home polishing their BMWs. The Public Address System outdoes K-Mart's and Wal-Mart's easily. Amtrak seems to lose track of scores of passengers and expects to call them from within a five mile radius. I try to escape to Track 10 but that voice bleats all the louder on the platform. To Amtrak passenger Jones: "Please, please, please, please report to the service desk!"

Train 14, the Coast Starlight, now boarding on track 10! At 9:40 the Starlight backs into place, sighing loudly as it takes its spot. I stroll along the quay jotting down the consist (Genesis 117,114, baggage 1248, sleepers 39041, 32085, 32117, diner 38061, lounge 33022, coaches 34064, 34510, 34058 and diner 38018) and well-intentioned Amtrak station agents warn me away from their dangerous habitat. Why, some of those tugs are as big as golf carts. I board my sleeper car early and Car Goddess Santi says that it's a light load today - she must be deity as she produced much out of nothing over the next two days - and I return to the cathedral to meet the group.

Once collected, our group stumbles to Track 10 and clambers aboard. We had asked for a separated downstairs section for eight to ten, and eventually we're accommodated in the lounge car. TRAC's President is pretty much "chair bound" and getting him situated took some cajoling, but it worked out well. The station crew worked hard to satisfy us.

Precisely 10:15 am and Starlight rolls north. We clear the station and run up the Los Angeles River west bank. It's good track and so quiet you could miss that we're moving. Along the river you see a continuous advertisement for a paint company. Nothing escaped artistic adornment - maybe even the river bottom sports a tag except that there's water down there. Every so often I spy a sandpiper or a duck in this otherwise sterile aqueduct. Did I say water in the LA river?

"Let's all gather at the river." plays in my head as we take our tables in lounge-lizard land. Passenger Service Master Lionel.that's a name to reckon.welcomes us personally. He's well known to many on the board and some reminiscing sets the tone. He promises great care and feeding and we settle in. Darren, the Master of the Mini Bar, brews a mean cuppa. Keep it coming, we're thirsty.

Burbank airport whizzes past the window - Eat your hearts out airline cattle! - and we slip into Van Nuys. Stop. Sit. Sit. We're five minutes ahead of schedule. Amtrak? Starlight? Beep, beep and away we go, whizzing past another airport, Van Nuys. Those of us of the aviation persuasion smile that inner smile - this is the only way to travel any more.

Traverse the San Fernando valley quickly, smoothly, quietly and ease up to a low range of wild looking hills. Looks like one of those places in the movies where the injuns roll monster stones onto wagon trains below. Turns out, it is one of those places. Corriganville, just north of 1100' Santa Susana Pass, hosted lots of silver screens takes in the day. The Duke tread here in '48, fightin' off them Apaches. Rin Tin Tin, too.he rescued Timmy from (maybe these same) the railroad tracks. No more, though. Unions have killed off more than just the hapless wagon riders.

Another shushed arrival into Simi Valley station. If you can't see out the window you'd be hard pressed to tell when this train is moving. Oh, wait, it's stopped. Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit. Starlight's twenty-two minutes early. Simi Valley is famed for its wine.all we can tell is that someone sprinkled house seeds all around the tracks. Not too long before they're saying "Hush up on those whistles and horns,'s hard on our grapes."

Another beautiful valley traversed and 14 comes to a halt in Camarillo. One board member grew up locally and we get the grand tour - so to speak. We're still looking for the Lockheed Constellation that calls the old Air Force Base home. Making lemonade out of lemons, someone has sculpted monuments onto the highway overpasses over the Camarillo station - our tax dollars at work.

On whee go! Starlight's in the middle of the greenest valley - they must have invented that color here. Every Brassica known to man thrives here, the sprouts, the broccoli, the cabbages, cabbages with college educations (a la Mark Twain), they cover these enormous fields. Oops! Remember those 22 minutes back at Simi? Pffft! Gone. We crawl. Our Tech guy figures that several crossing gates went belly up and we're flagging each crossing. Remember those minutes at Van Nuys? Pffft! Gone, too. Ah, fun while it lasted. At least, yoU Pee held a southbound freight of empty autoracks at Oxnard until we passed into the station. Roll out of Oxnard only slightly late with visions of 22 minutes dancing in our heads.

The TRAC board meeting will come to order, sez Mr. Executive Director. We dig in to the agenda. "Mister EeeDee! Point of Interruption! This here is the site of the (in)famous Carpenteria siding - it's that place where some SoCal-ler commuter stomped his gas pedal and said `No more! Not one penny more in conveniences for those rail huggers!'"

Point of Interruption!  Look at all those dolphins. L to R: Alan Miller, Executive Director, Michael Kiesling, Mike McGinley, and small portion of Rich McLaughlin, Vice President We adopt the "Point of Interruption" into the new Robert's Rules and Mr. Eee Dee says to no one in particular: "Boy, this was a great idea to have our meeting here."

Back to business and it seems like only seconds and the ocean starts waving to our left. Another P o I! "Look at all those dolphins!" Well, there are lots of them. Mr. Eee Dee says to no one in particular: "Boy, this was a great idea to have our meeting here." Dolphins, pelicans, otters and surfers wave as we find Santa Barbara.

Back in the `70s when the Arabs squeezed the oil can for more dimes, the country reacted to the "oil crisis" by passing that famous "Double Nickle". It grabbed our lives and held on for almost thirty years as countless speeding tickets accumulated under the seats of our four wheelers. Now, we're in the "track crisis" and a famous "Single Nickle" has taken hold. Ol' 14 enters the Starlight Zone and we gingerly creep over the rails. At least the scenery between Goleta and Vandenburg makes this a slow order worth watching - this is why God invented the Coast Line ROW. Mickey's big hand gets the shakes and it's hard to tell the duration of the slooooow down. But! Let's hope we can all ditch the "Single Nickle" before thirty years pass, or even thirty months.

I thought it was pretty inconsiderate of the Air Force that they didn't schedule a launch as we cross their space station. All-in-all it's an impressive sight with launch towers, tracking radars and other thingamajigs standing everywhere. I hope future Wild Blue Yonders realize the flack value in showing off - I'll be on that train 14 for sure, with thousands of friends!

TRACís rolling Command Post:  L to R:  Bill McGeehan, President, John Tellez, Bob Reynolds, Alan Miller, Executive Director, Michael Kiesling, and Mike McGinley We're going Dutch for lunch. Some smart guys brought goodies with them and the sight of their gnawing on chicken bones gets the rest of our tummies growling. I corner Darren and ply him for a recommendation: "Bratwurst!". Warum nicht? And it tastes great. Other entreás got mixed reviews so go for the brat when you ride along.

Here's an interesting turn. We enter divine, er, Devine territory, a broad sweeping curve with siding allowing a spectacular view of the consist. Too bad the train won't stop while we focus or cameras. Oh, wait! It is stopping. "Well, thank you." Our tech guy overhears Conductor Stanley's radio barking (he just visited the now famous Board Meeting to swap reminisces) and translates: "We're stopped so the engineer can copy his authority, the rules say he cannot drive and write at the same time - they are silent as to chewing gum, however." Those of us of the aviation persuasion frown that inner frown - this is the only way to travel any more except when you have to copy your instructions from Dispatcher 64.

Once the authority is committed to paper we whiz over Casmalia into the Santa Maria Valley. Is there any valley that ain't planted with greens in this state? Veggies as far as the eye can see, interrupted to the east by a long silver line of unused Amtrak express cars parked on the Santa Maria Valley Railroad. It's a long line and it's quite a sight! SMVRR has just added a dinner train to their operations. Call them early and call them often! Once past the "long silver line" we rest - the engineer has to write some more stuff down and so we've pulled off to the side to catch our breath and order more wine.the town of Guadalupe shimmers in the late afternoon sun - taunting us with that "come hither look". We'll be there after the Great Coastal Railway Novel is transcribed.

Discussing the next California Rail News.  L to R:  Bill McGeehan, President, Rich Tolmach, Editor (with galley proof) John Tellez and Bob Reynolds Mr. Hostler-up-Front, the best selling author, has completed another chapter and can now get on "down the road". We're actually going "up the road", as we visit San Luis Obispo as the sun sets. "Hurry, hurry! We want to see Cuesta before dark." We only need 13 minutes to conduct our affairs in the home of the Ponies and we hustle to the bottom of the grade in the receding light. Wherever you're from, know that the Cuesta grade is real mountain railroading and an interesting pull. We hear stories of having to double the hill in days gone by. Espee Daylight 4-8-4's mastering the long climb. Steam helpers for lesser trains. Two Genesis diesels pull the ten car consist pretty well and we crest the pass just before darkness overtakes us. We're doing pretty well, only about an hour and twenty late and I saw what I had anticipated seeing at Cuesta. Darren finds me another vino and we're back to the board discussion, after many Points of Interruption - appropriately enough we talk about California High Speed Rail.

We need to meet and pass the southbound Starlight somewhere along the route. The schedule sets the encounter for south of SLO. Here's a question for a high school algebra quiz: "If the south and northbound Starlights leave Seattle and Los Angeles on time, why will they always meet where there are no sidings available?" Somewhere in the hills between Cuesta and Santa Margarita we see the scenery receding as we back up the track. What is this, a "do-over"? Tech guy says "Point of interruption: the next few sidings are clogged with unused freight cars so we're going back to the one that's still clear." Words are no longer adequate for this. Extra credit on algebra quiz: "How does it make you feel when your train is late?"

We're set up for the Six PM seating in the diner. Amtrak must know how we're big wheels because they broke out the crystal and Grandma's best bone china for us. This is new. The menu is new, too. I settle on the pork shanks, Mr. Eed Dee sitting next to me, picks the salmon. Later on this trip I have the chicken and all the entreás that I saw looked pretty good. Casey and Karol, our dining car crew, ply us with liquor, beer and wine trying to crack into our thinking, but nobody spills any beans about our TRAC position on the Starlight Zone, being late or riding rough. The service is good in the diner and the two personalities stand out. Casey has that dry wit that used to show well in old movies and Karol plays off of it. Oh, man, the chocolate dessert could cause diabetes if you're on the borderline - it's so good that the witticism "Life's short, eat dessert first!" has real meaning. Several times on the trip we heard that Amtrak may bring the old diners back and, having experienced both services, I can't see why. The food may be slightly better but, frankly, it's the service that makes this meal.

The Coast line rails themselves vary significantly in their state of repair. The host railroad knows this and hopes to renovate the whole plant, but as of now there are some segments that would appeal more to George Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythms" than to the passenger. That passenger may even have George's track music playing on some electronic gizmo, but the bouncing will make it hard to sing along.this too, takes its toll on the ever later Starlight. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clickety-clack has disappeared most everywhere Amtrak runs so take advantage while it's still here and join the Starlight crowd between Santa Barbara and Salinas.

Day ending weíre still on the water.  L to R: Alan Miller, Executive Director, Michael Kiesling, and Mike McGinley We visit the Salinas station after nine, over two and a half hours late. The stop happens during one of those arcane discussions that train riders alone can sustain as we settle on the idea that California needs its own, independent dispatching authority and center. Who knows? Mr. Sixty Four doesn't seem to be very effective as our northward progress comes in fits and starts even after passing the southbound Starlight and with nary a freight train in sight. At least he "knows the way to San Jose" and we reenter the industrialized world. The valleys of verdant vegetables probably include land up to just south of San Jose, but who'd know on a moon-less night? But it's easy to see that the industrial revolution included the south bay, we pass mile after mile of factories, plants, and warehouses.

We're warned by the crew that SJC will be a quick stop, so "Smokers please stay more than 25 feet away from the doors but don't get too far or we'll leave without you". I think you can smoke a short cigar in those fourteen minutes, but TRAC is finishing our conference and we skip the temptation to get some fresh air. It's 10:44 as we skulk north again and we have, at looong last, stopped talking. Move to adjourn at 10:42, seconded and unanimously adopted. Whew! Only 353 pages of minutes to transcribe.

Our board members hail from all over the state. Several get off at Oakland, where the ever later train subtracts the dead-head diner on its tail and adds some UP business cars. Why does it take so long to do all this? You'd think that the crews would be standing by for a train that's this late. But who knows. We're, after all, still in the Starlight Zone. We bid some of our buddies "So long, see ya' in March." and after they've probably settled into their hotel bunks we slide over to Emeryville to drop off a few more. One of our long-time TRAC members volunteers at EMY welcoming arrivals but we didn't see her on the platform. Well, I'll be!

On the "Capitol Corridor" once you leave Emeryville late, you're late. The odds of picking up even a minute or two have fallen to zero. Of course, the odds of getting later haven't but we manage to pass Martinez without further tardiness. We rattle across the bridge at Martinez and I call my Honey giving a progress report and hoping to snooze a little before our link-up in Sacramento. No luck. Like in flying, there must be night lurkies or something that make the tracks extra bouncy.

Mr. Eee Dee lives in Davis and I watch him detrain there. I can't hear him but I think Mr. Eee Dee says to no one in particular: "Boy, this was a great idea to have our meeting here." I'll drink to that!

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