Labor Day Excursion
September 3 - 7 2009
by Eric & Pat Beheim
A wedding and family get-together required us to be in Monterey, California over the 2009 Labor Day weekend. After discussing various travel options with our Auto Club agent, we quickly came to the conclusion that going by train would be the best choice. (Neither of us were too keen on undergoing an airport security search during a busy holiday weekend, or having to drive through Los Angeles on Labor Day!) Although AMTRAK doesn't have direct train service to Monterey, it does offer shuttle bus service from its Salinas station, which is only about 20 miles away.
Part 1: San Diego to Salinas (September 3rd)
Stage 1: San Diego to Los Angeles
The shuttle bus from the parking lot where we'd left our car dropped us off at San Diego's historic, mission-style station at 5:00 a.m. Despite the early morning hour, a few people were already on hand for the day's first Pacific Surfliner, due to depart at 6:10 a.m.
Since we had plenty of time before our train left, we sat down on one of the long, heavy-duty, wooden benches that date back to when the station first opened in 1914.
The huge waiting room was clean and well maintained. Security was being provided by a single, unarmed guard who would occasionally stroll by.
As it drew closer to departure time, more people began to arrive. When the first boarding call came at 5:56 a.m., about 80 passengers were already lined up at the boarding gate with their carry-on luggage. We departed on time at 6:10. (As we were making our way out of downtown San Diego, it was just starting to get light in the east.)
When the conductor took our tickets, I asked and was told that she and the train crew would be using radio channels 30/30 (160.560 MHz) for this run. (My asking about the radio channels, and the AMTRAK ball cap I was wearing, identified me as a railfan who had a scanner along!)
By 6:39 a.m., we were running along side the ocean. Despite the early morning hour, there were already surfers in the water and people walking and jogging along the beach.
Passing through the little resort communities of Del Mar, Solana Beach and Cardiff-by-the-Sea, we could see that the beaches and campgrounds were starting to fill up with tents, travel trailers and motor homes.
During the stop at Oceanside, quite a few people came onboard. By now, the sun was up and it was turning out to be a clear, beautiful day.
Approaching San Clemente, there are places where the tracks run so close to the ocean that the view was more like that from a cruise ship than from a passenger train!
After departing San Juan Capistrano, I unpacked my earphones and the little Uniden Bearcat BC 248 scanner that we always take with us when we travel by train. Almost immediately, I heard an automatic sensor report that our train had 28 axels and that there were no defects.
Shortly after leaving Santa Ana, we crossed over a freeway and got a good view of the rush hour traffic, creeping along bumper to bumper.
At 8:43 a.m., we crossed the Los Angles River and made a sharp turn to the right for the approach to Los Angeles Union Passenger Depot. We arrived on time at 8:51.
Stage 2: Los Angeles to Salinas
By the time we had made our way into Union Depot, the day had already become hot and muggy.
Coach passengers for the Coast Starlight were required to line up and show their tickets and ID's in order to be issued boarding passes. We were assigned seats 25 and 26 in car #11 (Superliner coach #34014).
After waiting for a while inside the hot, crowded station, we decided to walk to track 10 on the chance that we might be able to go onboard our assigned coach, even though the Coast Starlight wasn't due to depart until 10:15. This turned out to be a good decision, as we had no trouble getting onboard. By 9:45, we were settled in our seats and enjoying the car's air-conditioning, which felt wonderful! The only glitch came when I went to plug in my scanner. Unlike Pacific Surfliner coaches, Coast Starlight coaches don't have AC power outlets convenient to the seats. (The scanner later came in handy in Monterey, where we used it as a bedside clock in our motel room.)
When it was almost departure time, an announcement was made that there would be a slight delay leaving the station. (Some years ago, the Coast Starlight was referred to derisively as the "Coast Star-late" because of its frequent late arrivals. What with the increased number of people who would be traveling because of the long holiday weekend, we were already anticipating that our arrival in Salinas would be later than the scheduled time. However, when we did get underway, Train 14 was only 9 minutes behind schedule.)
Departing Los Angles, we could see thick haze off to the east where a major wild fire had been burning earlier in the week.
More passengers got on in Van Nuys, and we heard a conductor tell a passenger that the car had been overbooked, and that every seat would be needed.
As we went by the Van Nuys airport, the lounge car attendant came on over the PA to inform us that some of the scenes for the movie CASABLANCA had been filmed there.
By 12:15, we were paralleling the ocean and being treated to a continuous succession of picture postcard views.
Quite a few people got off in Santa Barbara and our coach was now no longer as crowded as it had been earlier.
In Santa Barbara, volunteers from the South Coast Railroad Museum came on board to provide a running commentary in the lounge car about the area we'd be traveling through. Unfortunately, every seat in the lounge car was already taken, and we had to make do with the route guide in our copy of USA BY RAIL. (We made a mental note to catch this presentation on our return trip.)
Continuing north, the ocean was on our left and rolling grazing land was to our right. The weather was perfect.
At the northern boundary of Vandenberg Air Force Base, the right-of-way swung eastward and away from the ocean. At 2:41, we stopped to allow a southbound train of AMTRAK coaches to go by. (These were not Superliner coaches, so it wasn't our sister train No. 11.)
We'd packed along a light lunch, which we'd eaten after leaving Oxnard. By 2:30, we were starting to get hungry again and Pat went down to lounge car to get us coffee and snacks. I asked her to bring me back a Polish sausage sandwich. I'd had these on previous AMTRAK trips and they were always good. However, the lounge car attendant informed her that the snack bar was no longer offering them, even though they had been a popular item with passengers. The decision to drop them from the lounge car menu had apparently been made by AMTRAK. I certainly hope that someone in a position of authority reads this and then reconsiders bringing them back.
By now we were traveling through an agricultural region, and could see farm workers in the fields, harvesting crops.
Jeff, the chief dining car steward came through our coach, taking diner reservations. Since the train was running on time, we signed up for the 5:00 p.m. seating, figuring that it would give us plenty of time to eat and be back in our seats before the Coast Starlight reached Salinas at 6:36.
Just outside San Luis Obispo, we passed the southbound Coast Starlight.
A crew change occurred at San Luis Obispo. Since this was an extended stop, we got off for a few minutes to stretch our legs, never straying too far from the door to our coach.
Leaving San Luis Obispo, we went passed the California Men's Colony (i.e. prison) and started up the Questa grade. Approaching the summit, we could see Highway 101 off to the right and far below us.
As soon as the 5 o clock seating was announced, we made our way to the dining car. Perhaps because it was a holiday weekend, the tables were covered with paper tablecloths and the plates, dishes and cups were all of the disposable variety. The AMTRAK flatware was still stainless steel, however. Our server was Donald. We were seated with a delightful couple from Tarzana who were heading for Emeryville. From there, they would be continuing on to Salt Lake City, where they would begin a tour that would take them to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
After a leisurely dinner, we made our way back to our coach seats and got ready to detrain. The Coast Starlight arrived in Salinas at 6:41, only 5 minutes behind schedule.
At the Salinas station, the AMTRAK shuttle bus was already waiting for those passengers who would be continuing on to Monterey. So far, all train movements had been on time, and everything had gone exceptionally well.
Part 2: Salinas to San Diego (September 7th)
Stage 1: Salinas to Los Angeles
Our return travel schedule almost unraveled before we had even left Monterey! The AMTRAK shuttle bus we would be taking to Salinas was due to depart from the Travel Plaza in downtown Monterey at 10:40 a.m. We arrived almost an hour ahead of time and found the sign indicating where the AMTRAK buses stopped. So far, so good. About 20 minutes or so before our shuttle bus was due to depart, a bus marked AMTRAK pulled up and passengers with luggage started to get on. When we got on, the bus driver looked at our tickets, tore off the stubs, and fed them into a ticket chopper. Pat immediately realized that something was wrong. Usually, when conductors take our tickets, they take the long end and leave us the stubs. She was even more concerned when the bus left earlier than the scheduled 10:40 departure time. At her insistent urging, I went up to the bus driver and asked him if this was the bus to Salinas. No, it wasn't. YIKES! Quickly gathering up our luggage, we got off and started double-timing it back in the direction we had come from. We were then probably only about a third of a mile away from the Travel Plaza, but since we were not familiar with downtown Monterey, it seemed like we had miles yet to go and were in real danger of missing our bus and our train! As it turned out, we made it back to the Travel Plaza with a little time to spare. When we arrived, another couple bound for Salinas was already waiting at the AMTRAK stop with their luggage. Shortly afterwards, a second AMTRAK bus arrived and this time it was the right one. (We later learned that the first bus we had gotten on was heading for San Jose! I don't think our pulse rates settled back to normal until we were safely onboard the Coast Starlight and heading south.)
Shortly after our shuttle bus arrived at the Salinas station, the southbound Coast Starlight pulled in ahead of schedule. We had to walk almost the entire length of the train to get to our assigned coach (Superliner #34029.) We departed on time at 11:48.
We immediately made our way to the dining car to see about getting reservations for lunch. Much to our surprise, we were seated immediately. We shared a table with an interesting couple from Tasmania who had flown in to New York City and who were now traveling around the country by train. After visiting Chicago, they had taken the Empire Builder west to Seattle and were now heading south for Anaheim and a visit to Disneyland. For lunch, Pat and I both ordered the "hot sandwich of the day," which turned out to be toasted cheese and sliced turkey. Everything was delicious.
After lunch, we went to the lounge car and found two seats together. The "Trails and Rails" volunteers from the South Coast Railroad Museum were already there and giving the running commentary that we had missed on the trip north.
At 1:02 p.m., the Salinas River could be seen flowing off to our right. When we crossed over it 15 minutes later on a double truss bridge, the riverbed was bone dry! One of the volunteers explained that the river was now running underground. (The right-of-way followed the dry riverbed for the most of the ascent up Questa grade.)
We had been steadily gaining elevation since leaving Salinas. The summit of Questa grade is actually located inside Tunnel #6. One of the volunteers produced a carpenter's level and had someone check it to see when we had started the descent.
We soon passed through three more tunnels. A fourth tunnel, Tunnel #10 is boarded up and hasn't been used since it caved in back in 1912. (That's the year the TITANIC went down!)
The descent of Questa grade was made at the mandatory speed of 30 miles per hour. (Freight trains must descent it at 20 miles an hour!) Off in the distance could be seen the first of the "Seven Sisters," a series of conical volcanic peaks located in this area.
Passing through the grade's two horseshoe curves, we had views of both ends of our train.
Shortly after reaching the bottom of the grade, we crossed over Spanner Creek on a 931-foot long trestle.
Once again, there was a change of crews in San Luis Obispo.
We departed on time at 3:20 p.m. and passed the northbound Coast Starlight about 2 minutes later.
Passing through Grover City, we had a good view of two old AMTRAK coaches that have been converted into a restaurant.
As we passed through Guadalupe, one of the volunteers commented that some of the old sets from Cecil B. DeMille's 1923 silent film THE TEN COMMANDMENTS had been uncovered a few years ago in the sand dunes to the west.
At Casmalia, we passed by a working oilfield and learned that the mechanisms that pump the oil out of the ground are called "grasshoppers" because of their distinctive appearance.
Further south, we could see the remains of the Airos Mine, which had once been used to extract oil that was contained in the rocks.
As we passed along the northern border of Vandenberg Air Force Base, we learned that Vandenberg is ideally situated for launching satellites into polar orbits.
We were soon paralleling the ocean on a right-of-way that originally had been built in the 1880's and 1890's.
At Pernales (or Hondo) Point, the volunteers pointed out the location where, on April 8, 1923, seven U.S. Navy destroyers had all run aground while traveling in formation. The wrecked ships are still out there, underwater.
Further south and to our left was Space Launch Complex 6, originally built as the West Coast's first space shuttle launch facility. The complex includes a runway intended for use by shuttle flights, if it became necessary to divert them to the West Coast. This facility was mothballed after the Challenger disaster, but is now rumored to be used for launching spy satellites.
At 4:39, we got a good view of Point Conception, off in the distance.
When Jalama Beach went by on our right, it marked Vandenberg's southern boundary.
By the time we departed Santa Barbara at 6:17 p.m., the sun was starting to go down and we could see people on the beach, packing up their belongings.
Highway 101 was now on our right. Traffic was moderately heavy, but seemed to be moving along at normal speed.
Approaching Van Nuys, we had to stop and wait for a northbound passenger train to go by, and then for a southbound train to clear out of the section we'd soon be traversing. An announcement was made that this slowdown was the result of "an earlier incident." However, we were soon back up to speed and arrived in Los Angeles at 9:00 p.m. and right on schedule.
Stage 2: Los Angeles to San Diego
We had about an hour to wait before the south bound Surfliner departed for San Diego. Pat was hoping to get some coffee in Union Depot, but the snack bar and restaurant were already closed for the day. By this time, the waiting room was mostly empty. Finding two comfortable seats, we passed the time by enjoying the Depot's historical ambience.
Once onboard our Surfliner coach, I got out my earphones and the scanner, and was soon listening to the crew discussing the preparations for departing.
Once we were underway and the tickets had been collected, the lounge car snack bar reopened for business. Pat bought us coffee and a box of "doughnut holes," which proved to be one of the highlights of the trip!
The passage between Los Angeles and San Diego was made without incident. Using earphones, I monitored the scanner for most of the trip and was able to listen in on the conversations between the conductor and the engine crew. (At one point, I heard an automatic sensor report our speed as 89.5 miles per hours!) North of Oceanside, I started picking up radio traffic from the San Diego Trolley.
We arrived in San Diego on time at 12:50 a.m. For the entire trip, and despite the extra passengers traveling during the long holiday weekend, all of our trains had run on time and without serious incidents or major delays.
Shortly after we arrived, our parking lot's shuttle bus picked us up and we were soon reunited with our car and driving home. All in all, it had been a perfect AMTRAK vacation!