Friday, June 22, 2007

Train Travel Is Slower But More Pleasant Than Air

These days, certainly within California and even into the Pacific Northwest, I usually take the train rather than fly. The airlines have turned me off, while I find the trains more pleasant. Since I'm retired, time is not such an important factor.

In order to visit my grandchildren, I generally take the Amtrak bus to Bakersfield and then the six-daily train, the San Joaquin, to the Bay Area. If I leave Los Angeles Union Station at 10:45 a.m., I am in Richmond and can connect onto the BART system by 7 p.m. Coming back, I catch the San Joaquin train in Richmond at 10:25 a.m. and am in Los Angeles by 6:40 p.m.

The Coast Starlight, a fancier train with a full diner rather than a snack bar, is quite a bit slower to the Bay Area. Leaving Union Station at 10:15 a.m., it is not in San Jose until 8:27 p.m., and Oakland until 9:32 p.m.

Round trip fares to the Bay Area for seniors are less than $100. The Amtrak senior discount is usually 15%.

Flying is a hassle, and not only for security reasons. The fact is that many planes are delayed. Flying back from San Francisco to Burbank the last time I did it, the plane, flown by United Airlines, was more than five hours late in leaving San Francisco. Southwest, to and from Oakland, is more reliable time wise, and Southwest is a far more pleasant experience than United, but Oakland has not been as convenient for me as San Francisco or San Jose. The Oakland Airport is two miles from a BART terminal, and getting there is often slow. San Francisco now has a BART terminal right at the airport.

Southwest, true, is returning to the San Francisco Airport. But San Francisco Airport is more impacted by bad weather, fog and the like, than Oakland or San Jose. It is not certain that Southwest will be able to maintain its on-time habits there.

The other day, on an Amtrak train from San Diego to Los Angeles, I actually heard someone say, "I love Amtrak." There are now 11 trains a day from Los Angeles to San Diego, snd, for a higher rate, one can travel by parlor car, with wide seats and free coffee and soft drinks.

I'd say I like, not love, Amtrak. The conductors are friendly. When I recently had a broken leg and went to Modesto in a cast by train to join in a family trip to Yosemite, they were very helpful.

The Amtrak bus drivers are also accommodating. Baggage is handled expeditiously, and the bus service has been expanded. There are direct bus connections to Bakersfield, incidentally, from several Los Angeles suburbs, so it isn't always necessary to originate trips north through Union station. On a forthcoming trip, I plan to use Van Nuys, only a few miles from my home.

The Coast Starlight, for reasons I am not sure of, is now more than two hours slower reaching the Bay Area than it was after World War II, when I first start taking trains.

I'm about to go to Klamath Falls, Ore., by train. It leaves Los Angeles about the same time as it used to but arrives there about two and a half hours later. There is now a bus connection from there to Medford, which for me is essential, because I'll be on the way to Ashland for the Shakespeare Festival. The last time I went this route, there was no bus service on from Klamath Falls and I ended up hitchiking from Klamath Falls to Medford (something I'm not always loathe to do, even within the city of Los Angeles).

Amtrak food is OK, particularly on the full diners. A sleeping car accommodation includes the food in the diner, three meals a day, and they are not at all bad, although menu offerings are rather restricted.

But three times, when I've taken trains either from Boston or Chicago to Los Angeles, or from Flagstaff, Ariz. to L.A., the diner has not served breakfast past 6 a.m., despite the fact that the train doesn't arrive in L.A. until past 7 a.m. The reason is labor rules. The workers want to have cleaned up and gotten off the train at the same time the passengers do.

Amtrak has worked hard to increase the frequency of train service in California, especially on the Pacific Surf liner runs between San Luis Obispo on the north and San Diego on the south (through Los Angeles), and on the Capitol runs between Sacramento and San Jose (through Oakland). In addition, in Southern California there is frequent Metrolink service from L.A. to San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County, Oceanside, Lancaster and Oxnard. When you add the Metrolink and Coaster trains to Amtrak, Oceanside now is served by more than 20 trains a day. And now there is talk of a second coastal train, using Caltrain tracks in the Bay Area, between L.A. and San Francisco.

It would be nice if Amtrak would restore service from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and there used to be service to within 10 miles of Palm Springs. That is available now only on the three-day-a-week Sunset Limited, although recently the schedule has been revised, so you leave Union Station at 2:30 p.m. and get to Palm Springs station at 5 p.m. Coming back is less convenient. Assuming the train is on time, which it isn't always, you have to leave Palm Springs at 6:30 a.m. A second, daily train on this route would be useful.

Little has been done to speed any of the service, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently killed plans to put a high speed rail system on the ballot which could, with European-style trains, carry a passenger from Los Angeles to San Francisco or Sacramento in two hours. This would lead to most people taking the train within California rather than go by air.

I felt this was worth voting on. The cost was high, about $40 billion, but over time would pay for itself, and, year by year, the cost of building it is only growing exponentially. Even Taiwan now has high-speed trains. Why not California?

L.A. Times coverage of transportation issues, by the way, has been quite extensive and it's good. One of the inspired things Miriam Pawel did was to put Jennifer Oldham on the L.A. Airport beat. Oldham has a young child and can't ordinarily travel very much, and the Times has no one who is the equivalent of Joe Sharkey at the New York Times, who travels the world and has developed air travel into a superb beat. Peter Pae sometimes covers air travel, and he is serviceable, but he doesn't have a huge travel budget like Sharkey. In order to cover air travel, the reporter really has to fly.

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Congratulations to the L.A. Times for hiring David Zahniser away from the L.A. Weekly to cover local politics, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Now, if it will only hire Jonathan Gold back as a restaurant critic, it would be great. After all, working for the Weekly, Gold has won a Pulitzer Prize.

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