Metrolink Travelogue by Steve Grande
Thursday, June 6, 1996
Note: This rail travelogue was accidentally deleted and lost for many years. We managed to recover it in late 2010 from archives and re-post it to TrainWeb.com. These are some of my earliest rail travels and travel writings. My experience and understanding of Amtrak and other rail operations was quite a bit less than today and my writing style may have been a bit less experienced back then. So please pardon any problems that you might find in these earlier rail travel reports. A number of these earlier reports also have few or no photos or very small photos which was intentional to reduce download time during the early days of the web when almost everyone had slow dial-up connections to the internet!
I'll be taking a nine day train trip from Los Angeles to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, and then Seattle back to Los Angeles about a week from now. I probably shouldn't even be thinking about trains at this time, but that is a lost cause.
I had to get down to Mira Mesa, California, near San Diego, on business for a short meeting. Rather than drive for a couple of hours, I decided to take a train, of course. This wasn't going to be a simple method as there is no train that leaves from where I live that arrives near my destination. It would instead require a change of trains including some coordination.
I was going to Mira Mesa with a business collegue and friend, Ray Burns, who is also into trains. He had left his jacket and checkbook in the overhead luggage rack the previous week in a San Diegan Train. This doesn't seem to be an uncommon event. On my trip to Walt Disney World, I purchased an "Amtrak Florida" Umbrella. Although it was not a folding umbrella and I knew it would be quite awkward to trek all the way back to southern California (where umbrellas are seldom needed anyway), I decided it would make a great souvenier. I did trek it all the way back to my local station, only to forget it on that overhead luggage rack! It never turned up at "Lost-and-Found". Ray was a bit more lucky. They had his jacket and checkbook waiting for him at the "Lost-and-Found" at the Los Angeles Union Station.
I had been wanting to show Ray this interesting Metrolink connection out to San Bernardino that I had discovered and decided this would be a great time to kill two birds with one stone. I planned for us to drop off our cars at the Santa Ana station in the morning, take a Metrolink to San Bernardino and then change to another Metrolink to take us to Los Angeles. We could then go to the "Lost-and-Found", pick up his jacket, have some lunch and take the Amtrak San Diegan down to the San Diego area. On the way back, we could just get off the Amtrak San Diegan in Santa Ana and get in our cars.
The plan started out fine. We arrived in Santa Ana around 7:45 AM, about 30 minutes before the Metrolink train was scheduled to leave at 8:15 AM. We purchased our tickets from a ticket machine using my credit card. Metrolink has no ticket agents. Everything is done by ticket machines. We then went inside and talked to Gary Hurst, the Station Master for the Amtrak Santa Ana station. Gary is also the person that handles orders for souveniers on the http://www.amtrakwest.com web page. I had some web order forms designed for him via CGI code and this gave me a chance to verify they were working O.K.
Since we were going to be taking the train from Los Angeles down to Oceanside later in the afternoon and then only back as far as Santa Ana, I asked Gary if it would be cheaper to buy a round-trip ticket between Los Angeles and Oceanside or if it would be cheaper to purchase just the segments that I would need. He plugged each itinerary into the Amtrak ticket computer. The result was as I had suspected. It would be much cheaper to purchase round trip between Los Angeles and Oceanside than to purchase seperate tickets between L.A.-Oceanside and Oceanside-Santa Ana! I handed him my credit card and AAA card for a 10% discount and purchased the tickets.
Ray and I then went into a little coffee shop in the station and had time to grab some breakfast before the arrival of the Metrolink. This Metrolink officially leaves Santa Ana at 8:20 AM, but can leave up to 5 minutes before the posted time. Most Metrolink trains are only commuter trains. Most of them run commuters into Los Angeles in the morning, bring them home at night, and don't run at all at other times! There are a few exceptions to this. The particular line we were riding, the "Inland Empire--Orange County Line", takes people that live in San Bernardino, Riverside and Corona to their jobs in the Santa Ana or Irvine areas. Two trains run south in the morning (5:26AM & 6:28AM) and two trains run north in the evening (4:47PM & 5:30PM).
The train we were taking was one of the exceptions. This train runs in the opposite direction of the people commuting to work. It leaves Irvine at 8:10 AM and arrives in San Bernardino at 9:38 AM. Thus, this train was just about empty. One person got on with a bicycle at Santa Ana at 8:20 AM. They were heading to Riverside. That was about it for the entire trip in our train car! I suspect this train is brought to San Bernardino to be used on one of the many daily runs between San Bernardino and Los Angeles, but I am not sure. A train eventually does leave San Bernardino at 3:03 PM in the afternoon, also just about empty, to arrive at Irvine at 4:32 PM. That train is then pressed into commuter service to bring a large crowd of people home from work from Irvine and Santa Ana back to Corona, Riverside and San Bernardino.
I really like these Metrolink train cars. Most of the seats are arranged in groups of 4, 2 facing 2 seats. Many of those 4 groups have a table. The windows are fairly large, much larger than those on the old Amtrak Amfleet cars. The seats don't recline, but I rather be in a straight-back chair with a good view than a reclining seat with a small window (which is all you find in the old Amfleet cars on most San Diegan trains). Since the Metrolink trains are 2 levels (actually 2.5 levels if you count the raised seating at each end of the train car above the wheels), you get a really high and excellent view from the seats upstairs.
This route goes through a part of the city of Orange with which I am very familiar. It then travels along Orangethorpe in Anaheim which is right near both my office, and then further down, my home. I can see just about everywhere that I live, work, shop, eat, and drive in my neighborhood in the view from this train! To me this is very strange. I've lived in this neighborhood for over 15 years and I barely noticed that train tracks existed anywhere near my neighborhood!
We got out to San Bernardino on schedule at 9:38 AM. I spent time taking pictures of the inside and outside of the San Bernardino station. The Amtrak part is in a very large old station building. The size of the station is about the same size of the station in San Jose, California. But, unlike San Jose, most of this station looks pretty run down. The inside part that is open to the public is kept up fairly well, but most of the station has been boarded up. The amount of passenger traffic through the station today does not demand the facilities that were once needed by the throngs of people through this station decades ago.
The Southwest Chief goes west through this station every morning and east through this station every evening. The Desert Wind goes east and west on alternate days through this station just after noon. Metrolink has their own newly built station far to the west of the old Amtrak station building. It is more of a platform than a real station. Metrolink has all their information and ticket machines out at this platform and has nothing inside the Amtrak station building.
Three Metrolink trains leave from hear for Irvine each day (5:26AM, 6:28AM, 3:03PM) and three arrive from Irvine (9:38AM, 6:15PM, 6:59PM). However, on another route, there is practically hourly service between here and Los Angeles Union Station on the Metrolinks. Not many get on or off in San Bernardino except during the commute hours, but quite a few people use the Metrolink on in-between stops all day. This San Bernardino -- Los Angeles route is one of those exceptions where the Metrolink runs more than just during the morning and evening commute times. This train even runs on Saturday!
San Bernardino is a large hub for freight trains. There are many freight trains in the yard. Truck trailers are being loaded and unloaded off of trains continually in the yard. I think I figured out how that policeman was killed by a train the other week without ever having noticed it approach. From my own home, I can hear freight trains when they rumble down the tracks, even though those tracks are more than 2 miles from my home and a major highway is between the tracks and my home! At night, the sound really carries. My ears perk up when I hear (maybe even "feel"?) that rumbling. Often what I hear is confirmed when it is followed by the blast of the horns of the train.
If I can hear the train rumbling over 2 miles away at night, why couldn't that policeman hear the train coming behind him even before the train blew its horns? I think I found out. While taking photos of the station, I needed to stand right at the edge of one set of tracks to get the angle that I wanted. Just joking, I told ray to watch out for any approaching trains as I didn't want one to "sneak up" on me the way a train had "snuck up" on that policeman. After taking the picture, I then went to take some additional pictures another 30 feet away from the tracks. As I finished and turned around, a freight train was crossing right where I had been standing a few minutes before! Neither I nor Ray had noticed this freight train come up those tracks! We weren't expecting a train on those tracks and we were concentrating on something else, just as that policeman was doing on the tracks when he was struck. I was totally shocked how that train was able to pull up that close to us unnoticed! I think it is probably the higher ambient noise level during the day that drowns out the noise of the approaching frieght train, along with the distraction of working on something else. I didn't believe it was possible for a freight train to approach unnoticed before, but I do now.
There is a little side story to this. As I have mentioned before, I'm not your usual railfan. I am not excited about freight trains at all. I'm not even that exceited about pictures of the outside of passenger trains either, other than as part of a complete collection of pictures telling all about a train trip. I don't get excited about photos of a passenger train going through scenic areas. Except when going around sharp corners, you will never see from the train what your train looks like going through scenic territory. I want to see pictures of what I'm going to see out the train window when I'm on the train. Those are the pictures I take and post on the web because I know that you can experience that same scenery by riding that train!
While I was taking some pictures of the station, a freight started to roll into my way. This time I was very far away from the track and obviously in no danger. However, I got the distinct impression that the engineer thought I was an avid railfan taking pictures of his locomotive and started blasting his horn, maybe in encouragement or annoyance. I have no idea which, but in any case, I just wanted the train to get out of the way so I could finish my set of pictures of the station. I apologize to the true die-hard railfans, but I just can't seem to get excited about trains for which I cannot buy a ticket!
At about 10:30 AM we boarded the Metrolink for Los Angeles. There weren't a lot of people boarding, but there were more than I expected. Along the way a lot more people boarded that train. Twice during the trip someone came through the car to make sure we had tickets. First it was the Conductor. About an hour later, a Sheriff Deputy came through. They evidently found someone without a ticket. I'm not sure, but I believe it is a $250 fine to ride the Metrolink without a ticket. At any rate, the Deputy sat down with the person without a ticket. The Deputy had a book of his very own type of "tickets" and wrote one up for that unhappy passenger.
This is also where things began to fall apart in our scheduling. While reviewing our schedule, I realized that I had accidently been looking at Fullerton, my usual station of departure, instead of Los Angeles! The we wanted left fullerton at 1:03 PM, but since we would be starting in Los Angeles, we had to be on that train by 12:30 PM ! Our train was scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles at 11:56 PM. That only gave us 34 minutes to find "Lost-and-Found", get Ray's jacket, and make it onto our train. Los Angeles is one of the larger stations in the nation with the train platforms quite a distance from the main station. This wasn't going to be easy and we certainly weren't going to have time for lunch at the station.
The train arrived on time and we hurried in front of the crowd to the main station. We went to the Amtrak ticket counters and asked for "Lost and Found". They pointed us to an elevator around the corner. We headed that way, but an agent was soon chasing after us. She wanted to catch us before we fell through a hole in the roof! She said they were remodeling upstairs and she remembered that they had moved the "Lost and Found". She directed us over to the baggage area. We ran to the baggage counter. The man at the baggage counter had no idea why they directed us to him and he re-directed us to go through some unmarked doors and up an elevator near the Budget car rental counter.
I know we were in for an adventure as we passed doors marked "Authorized Personnel Only!" We took the elevator up one floor and ended up in a maze of a hallway. We passed rooms marked "Amtrak West", "Coast Starlight", and "Human Resources". I felt like "Alice in Wonderland" that had gone through the looking-glass, except we were so rushed for time to catch our train. Someone then directed us into this area that was like a huge warehouse filled with various express shipments. We thought we were getting close when we found a room that appeared to be filled with lost luggage and articles. But alas, no green jacket! Time was running out.
Finally, someone walked us downstairs and pointed us in the right direction ... which was near the baggage and bus loading area. Someone was standing right outside the door with Ray's jacket in their arms just waiting for us to find them! We grabbed the jacket, thanked them, and ran for the train!
We ran down the ramp looking for a sign indicating where our San Diegan train would be loading. There were signs posted for every Amtrak and Metrolink, except for our train! An announcement for our train came over the loudspeakers, but they didn't say which track it would be on. Then, one of the station personnel grabbed a large sign that was facing the wall and turned it around. It was a sign that said "San Diego" and had an arrow pointing up the stairs! We headed up the stairs and boarded the train.
The San Diegan train left about 5 minutes late at 12:35 PM. Having missed lunch at L.A. Union Station, we just grabbed a couple of hot sandwiches from the San Diegan Cafe Car and ate on the train. All the trains on the San Diegan route as of this writing are Amfleet cars, except for the San Diegan Express which uses the new double-decker California Cars. For some reason, I just don't enjoy the Amfleet Cars. It is the only train that I don't seem to enjoy. I even enjoy riding in old Caltrain commuter rail cars between San Jose and San Francisco more than Amfleet cars. I think I know the reasons. The windows are the smallest I have seen on any train. They seem to extend from a little below your chin to not much above your head. If you lean the chairs back, you can see little more than sky out the window! The trains themselves are only signle level. Thus, all you see out the window is the backs of buildings through much of the urban length of the trip. The windows have a verticle split down the middle that breaks the view. Also, only certain seats give you a wide horizontal view out the window. For many seats, the window ends just shortly forward of your view, or the seat in front of you blocks most of your view out the window.
Needless to say, if you want to discover the wonders and beauty of rail travel, I would not recommend attempting to do that in an Amfleet Car! If you must travel the San Diegan route, do everything in your power to do it on the San Diegan Express. That train leaves San Diego at 6:33AM Monday through Friday to arrive in Santa Barbara at 11:30AM. That train then turns around and leaves Santa Barbara at 2:15PM to arrive back in San Diego at 7:35PM. Not only is that train double-decker with spacious windows and a clear view up and down through the car, but it also comes with a sightseer lounge car and is soon to have a new dining car!
We arrived on-time in Oceanside at 2:28PM. We purchased our tickets for the San Diegan Coaster train that would take us to Sorrento Valley, the closest stop to Mira Mesa. The San Deigans do not stop at Sorrento Valley, only the Coaster Trains stop there. After we purchased our tickets, I noticed that new schedules were available from a pocket at the side of the ticket machine. This was NOT a good sign. I don't often get down to San Diego and I hadn't planned on the schedule to change. Instead of our train leaving at 3:05PM, I noticed that our train was now scheduled to leave at 3:40PM!
I didn't mind spending an extra 35 minutes in Oceanside, but that would not leave us enough time to get our task done in Mira Mesa to take the early train back to Santa Ana. We called the people who would be picking us up to let them know that we would be arriving late. To kill some time, we headed out of the station. We discovered an amazing "news store" with more magazines than I had seen in my entire life! They had just about every magazine on railroads that I have ever heard of. We then headed back to the station. The Coast had already arrived and was just waiting for its scheduled departure time. We boarded the train. It was identical to the Metrolink trains except for the color scheme. These trains stop about every five minutes all the way down to San Diego. We got off at the sorrento valley stop that is a couple of stops before San Diego.
After we completed our business in Mira Mesa, we were trying to decide what to do to kill a couple of hours since we would be taking a later train back to Santa Ana. It was too late to drive down to San Diego and too early to go back to Oceanside to wait for the train. We decided to just take the train from Sorrento Valley up to Solana Beach where there are many interesting restaurants near the station. After checking our watches, we realized it was going to be really close to try and make the next train leaving Sorrento Valley. We got to the station as fast as we could, but Ray ended up running up to a train door that had just closed!
We had to spend the next 40 minutes in Sorrento Valley. This wasn't totally wasted time. We spent the time discovering that there is nothing worthwhile to see or do within walking distance of the station! There is a small strip mall that is unreachable from the station except by crossing the tracks, making your way down a steep embankment, across a small muddy stream, and up a muddy construction road. This effort confirmed our suspicion that there wasn't anything worth seeing at this shopping center. Of four small eateries, two were out of business, one also did "check-cashing", and the forth was a fast Chinese Food place. We walked back to the station via a much longer, but less muddy route. We did not find any other signs of stores or food places along that longer route either. We sat at the benches in the sun at the station as there were no seats in the shade. I busied myself making a few calls on my cellular phone until the next train arrived. We took that train back to Oceanside.
In Oceanside we had about 40 minutes to kill. I called my friend Ken Barrett who is a ticket agent at the Anaheim Amtrak station. He is also the WebMaster of the http://www.amtrakwest.com page, and until the prior week, was stationed at the Oceanside station. I figured he would no a fast and good place to eat in the area. Of the places that he suggested, we decided to go to the "Wok-In". The food was buffet style and we would not have to wait for it to be cooked and served. The food was quite good there.
The clock in the restaurant showed that we only had 5 minutes to return to the station. My watch said we had 10 minutes and Ray's said we had 15 minutes. I'm sure the restaurant clock was fast, but I was equally sure that Ray's was slow. Rather than take any chances, we headed for the train station quickly. Pretty quickly after we arrived, the train pulled into the station and we were on our way back to Santa Ana!
We arrived back to Santa Ana and drove home each in our own cars. All and all an interesting day on the rails. We were able to get quite a bit of constructive business done on the San Diegans since the design of those cars does not provide enjoyable outside viewing. I can't say we were as productive on the Metrolink and Coaster segments since the scenery can be quite captivating at times, especially the coastal segments on the way to San Diego. I also got quite a few pictures of the San Bernardino station, a few smaller stations along the routes, and some inside and outside shots of the Metrolink and Coaster rail cars as well as a few shots of outside scenery.