Friday, April 29, 2011

A little perspective, please : A guest post by DLD

A little perspective, please

While I don’t ride the Surfliner every day anymore, I am a member of the Rider Hall of Fame. So hopefully my words carry some weight.

First, a little background… I spent almost three years riding the Surfliner about an hour north in the morning and an hour south in the evening—when things were running smoothly. Some days, it was several hours one way or the other. That’s sort of the way things go on the train. The longest delays, in my experience, were caused by people committing suicide by jumping in front of a train.

Now I ride a few times a month, but I go a heck of a lot further. I take a train, a bus (an Amtrak bus, but it’s still a fricken bus), and another train back and forth to the Central Valley.

This evening I caught my first train in the Central Valley at 5:56 pm. By 9:30, a train and a bus ride later, I was in Union Station. Somebody was filming something in the station (a commercial, I think?), but that’s another story. Only in LA, eh?

More importantly, Traxx was closed. I had to wait ‘till 10:10 pm, when my Surfliner left, to get a Stone. I survived.

Shortly after leaving LA I was happily ensconced in the Café car, working on the computer I am typing this on right now, enjoying my first Stone of the night (I am now on my second, and a third may be necessary). Everything was going fine. Stations were passing by: Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine (almost brought a tear to my eye), and then, well, you regular riders probably know what’s coming.

First I felt the brakes. They were on hard. Then I heard something rattling around under the train. Then I smelled the brakes. They were on hard. We stopped. I’ve been through this before and I was pretty sure I knew what was coming. Less than a minute later, Javier, one of the really good conductors on the Surfliner, was on the horn talking about trespassers and coroners. Yup. I was right. Somebody died. My prediction is it will be ruled a suicide (I’m speculating, here, but I have at least a 90% chance of being right).

Before we get to the meat of my post, let me give my opinion on the selfishness of killing yourself by jumping in front of a train. I’m a pretty easy going guy, so I won’t talk about the interruption of my life. But let’s talk about the other ~79 people on this train (according to Javier). It’s 12:13 am, and every one of those ~79 people is currently an hour late for whatever plans they had when they were supposed to arrive where they are going. And it’ll be at least another hour, maybe two, before we start moving again, if my previous experience is any gauge. Meanwhile, there are other trains waiting for the “accident” scene to be cleared. I have no idea how many people (and freight? There’s probably a freighter or two out there sitting idle, as well) are on those other trains. So, somebody who decided to end it all has just ruined possibly several hundred people’s nights. And then there is the Conductors and Engineer to consider. See below for a discussion on the Conductors’ situation, but let me address the poor Engineer here. The story is that some Engineers can never work again after their train hits a suicide (can you blame them?). And those that can get over it are required to take several months off.

So, PLEASE, if you intend to kill yourself, PLEASE do not jump in front of a train. At the very least, consider the pain factor. Those last few seconds must be excruciating. I heard it, tonight. I know. Pills or booze has got to be a better way to go.

Anyway, back to the real point. I felt pretty unsettled as I realized what was happening. The sound of various body parts rolling underneath the Café Car may keep me awake at night. And when Javier got on the horn, he sounded pretty upset. He apologized for the delay (as if it’s Amtrak’s fault that someone wants to commit suicide) and suggested the Café Car for some solace. Many people took his advice, and my once productive night turned into writing this blog as the line formed, and chaos encroached.

There was one character in particular, “The Hippy” that caught my attention. Shortly after we stopped, he started storming up and down the stairs between the Café and the normal seating area, looking very agitated. There were three or four other “Clowns” dressed for a Night Out on the Town that were acting similarly, though to a lesser degree. The Hippy and the Clowns kept looking longingly out the exit doors of the Café Car, apparently hoping they would inexplicably open and free them from their perceived servitude.

Eventually I noticed flashlights going by outside the car and I could make out Javier and Scott—another conductor that is extremely high on my list of good ones—investigating the carnage, a job I do not envy them for. Next thing you know, they were coming back onto the train via the Café Car doors, and The Hippy and the Clowns immediately accosted them, asking if they can get off for a cigarette. A fricken cigarette? Are you kidding me? The Hippy continued to be quite agitated. Can you say “addiction”?

Someone just died (admittedly, I don’t have a lot of compassion for the selfish suicide), Javier and Scott are on the tracks looking at small pieces of meat that used to be said human being, and now they have to tell several idiots that, “No, you cannot get off the train and have a cigarette.” They handled it way better than I would have.

I believe Conductors have Police Powers on the train, which means they can have people arrested if they have probable cause. If it had been me, I would have arrested the MoFo’s. The Hippy looked like he was on something more potent that Marlboro, probable cause enough for me. Even as a civilian without any police powers I wanted to get up, grab The Hippy by the scruff of his neck, and shout in his ear:

“A little perspective, please! Somebody just died. Scott is taking a pair of gloves off that he had to wear to protect himself against blood born diseases because he was handling detritus of a type that hopefully you and I will never have to be close to. Don’t you think your fricken cigarette can wait?”

But I didn’t. And Scott and Javier were, as always, calm and pleasant. That’s grace under pressure, if you ask me.

It’s now 12:37 am. I have not seen hide nor hair of The Hippy in quite some time, and I will concede that the Clowns have now settled down and appear to be washing away their nicotine urges with alcohol. More power to them. In fact, I think I might join them (time for that third Stone… good thing the wife is picking me up tonight… errr… this morning).

But I won’t forgive the Clowns—and most certainly not The Hippy—for making Javier and Scott’s job a little bit harder on an already awful night. A little perspective, please.


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Sense of Scents

We regulars on the 784 encounter many pleasant aromas during our nightly travels: a warm pepperoni pizza-for-one and the simply awesome jalapeno cheeseburger that recently made a comeback spring to mind. Tonight, we were assaulted by a completely different olfactory experience: broccoli.

Now, you may be thinking "Broccoli? Heh?" But it begins to make sense if you consider how many passengers enter and exit the lavatory between LA and San Diego. According to one of my comrades, this foul odor made its way into the cafe car starting at Fullerton. Of course his first instinct told him the city of Fullerton itself was the culprit.

As said comrade covered his nose and mouth to ward off the pungent stench, I began to ponder the unknown traveler sitting directly across from me. At first glance, he reminded me of Matthew McConaughey's character in "Dazed and Confused": longish hair, mustache, a mid-70s vibe. He appeared to be the kind of guy who would hug a tree every so often and was quite possibly a vegetarian, particularly fond of green vegetables.

Suddenly, my comrade muttered from behind the hand still covering his face, "What smells like broccoli?" The unknown traveler promptly stood up and marched out of the cafe car.

Case solved.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Good Job Amtrak

Lest one think all we do is complain on this blog, I thought it only fair to point out some positive news. The 784 has been on time pretty much the last couple of weeks. (I hope this doesn't jinx it). This photo shows the train flying into the Irvine station at 6:09

And another thing to appreciate - as gas rapidly approaches $5/gallon, Surfliner tickets have not gone up one cent. With any luck Amtrak corporate won't have time to react before fuel prices start going down again.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Last Call?

Frequent commuters get to know the rules and procedures (some unwritten) better than "newbie" employees on the train.Here are a few of them:

1.Commuters  in the cafe car  should buy the products, and tip the LSA well.
2. Don't bring your own food or drinks.
3. LSA should reciprocate with "free refills" on coffee - even  if it that's not written in the Amtrak handbook.
4. As you head up to LA in the morning , somewhere around Del Mar,  call in the order for drinks and food required for the ride back to San Diego that evening.
          Hint: Fridays and holidays sell more.

The photo to the left is the cooler on the 784 just north of Solana Beach, on  Friday April 15 at 7pm.  I was alerted to this sad condition when I heard the odd announcement on the PA of "Last Call".

Last Call? WTF? Last call should be reserved for 2AM at your local bar. The riders on this train had 37 minutes left to go.

Newbies - reach out to us. We'll be happy to help We don't want to resort to breaking rule #2.

PS: Do they put up with this on the Acela? More about that in future posts....

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Increased Ridership Can Be Bad For Business

Amtrak is on pace to set a new ridership record this year based on it's latest press release. This is good news from the standpoint of overall interest in the rail system. Hopefully it spurs a new era of track improvements and system efficiency. In the meantime, it means more crowded trains and complaints from both regular riders and tourists.

The following photos document a rare, but increasing problem. This is the record of my horrific ride home on 3/18/11.

Picture #1 could be a shot of a Tokyo commuter train (not actually, but you get the point). There were not enough seats for riders. There was not enough standing room either.

Picture #2 shows the riders who were fortunate to make it on the train, but unfortunate enough to have been stranded on the stairwell.  I was shocked to see a conductor make his way through this to punch tickets.  So were some of these people who voiced their displeasure.

Then to add insult to injury, I made my way to the bar only to find it had no beer!

Not a happy commuter...

This particular train did not accept new passengers till Irvine, so I am sure the next one (2.5 hours behind it) was just as joyful.

How Will Amtrak Be Impacted By A Government Shutdown?

With all of the news floating around about the potential for a federal government shutdown, a question came to mind. How will Amtrak be impacted by a government shutdown?

Although Amtrak receives significant government subsidies, the expectation based on a brief article in the USA Today is that the system will continue to operate as normal with ticket revenue providing adequate operating cash flow for a short period of time.

Good news for commuters who want to get to work, but you may want to share this information selectively if you plan on using the shutdown as an excuse to "work" from home.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

It's Back!

I am shocked to find out that the ridiculously good tasting Jalapeño Burger (I also understand that it is ridiculously good for you) has found its way back into the refrigerator of the Sea View Cafe. I am not sure if this is the result of Amtrak actually listening to the voice of the customer, or if they are simply trying to unload stock prior to expiration. I don't really care what the reason is, all that matters is that it is back.

Please be sure to enjoy the best food on the Amtrak rail system while it is still here. Just be kind enough to leave one for this friendly commuter on Fridays.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

763 Power Spot

The Surfliner Cafe car has 4 tables and seats  11. One of these tables is by far the superior position for the following reasons:
1. Is a single seat with its own table.
2. Has an AC power outlet - the only one available.
3. Good viewing angle  on the coast side of the train.

Like elementary school there is a defacto seating chart on the 763. The power spot goes to a regular with seniority in terms of most miles/year. If that regular is "working from home" on a given day the next senior person  takes it.

One thing that can completely hose this up are non-regulars that get on early in downtown San Diego. Most of us get on in Solana Beach or later. We seldom have the heart to kick out the tourists. Generally speaking they eventually move on their own out of discomfort.

In case you might forget where you are sitting, Amtrak has thoughtfully numbered the 4 tables. And of course the power spot is table # 1. Please respect the seating chart the next time you ride.