Destination: San Diego
I recently fled the Cleveland winter for the happier climate of San Diego traveling as God intended by train. The trip was enjoyable, as trips by air are not. Even off-season the sleeping cars were largely full, a sign others are seeking alternatives to airlines that spit in their customers’ faces. All the crews were very good, a change from Amtrak experiences past. Westbound everything was late, the Southwest Chief by nine hours into LA. But sudden attention by the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to the problem of freight interference seems to have thrown the fear of Mammon into the railroads, as the return trip both the Chief and the Lake Shore Limited ran early. It will be interesting to see if that continues.
The future of the Southwest Chief lies on a knife’s edge because BNSF runs little freight over the old Santa Fe main line. I don’t know why, because their new main line through Texas is congested. In any case, BNSF wants Amtrak to kick in money for track maintenance, which Amtrak doesn’t have, meaning it has turned to the states for help. All have agreed except New Mexico, but if it does not come on board the whole project collapses and the Chief dies. Riding the route both directions shows the heavy dependence of communities along the line on the train, as without it they have no connection to the outside world but driving vast distances, sometimes under dangerously bad weather conditions. Pray that New Mexico comes through.
I cannot pass over the one stupid blunder by Amtrak that is reminiscent of its worst old days. One of my sleepers had just been reconditioned, and idiotically they eliminated the volume control on the speaker in the bedroom as part of the rebuild. What were they thinking? I was almost asleep when “Conductor to the dining car” blasted me awake. Almost asleep again when “announcements” started, again at deafening volume. Could someone kindly inform whoever is in charge of sleeping car rebuilds that we buy sleeper space to sleep, not to listen to a loud squawk box that suggests we are traveling in North Korea?
I finally arrived in San Diego. The San Diego Trolley is one of that city’s amenities and I made good use of it. I bought a three-day pass, once I found the downtown office, which was not easy because signs put it a long way from where it is actually located. I had ridden the Blue and Orange lines before, so I focused on the new (to me) Green Line. The concierge of my very nice Gaslamp District (and restaurant district) hotel, The Horton Grand, told me See’s Candies had closed their downtown store (why?) but that I could easily get to another of their outlets by taking the Green Line to Fashion Valley Mall. She was right, and I made the trip by trolley on and on foot more easily than I could have driven and parked. If friends or family know of See’s, don’t plan on coming home without some.
A three car train (typical consist on the system) pulls into San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot (William S. Lind Photo)
I then took the Orange Line to La Mesa and looped back on the new-construction segment of the Green Line. The engineering and the ride are spectacular, reminding me of Italian highways through the Alps. So was the price tag for its construction. It is built to heavy rail, not light rail standards. Was that made necessary by the terrain? I do not know the area well enough to judge. Has it priced itself out of the market, in terms of more extensions? I would not be surprised, although an extension has recently been approved (the 11 mile project, dubbed the Mid-Coast extension, extends the Blue Line to the University City area north of San Diego). The higher construction cost per mile, the fewer miles we can build. It seems the philosophy behind San Diego’s first line to the Mexican border has been forgotten.
My Green Line train had mechanical problems which brought periodic emergency stops – – the doors seemed to be the difficulty – – and it was taken out of service at the Santa Fe depot. All the trains I saw had two new low-floor Siemens cars fore and aft sandwiching an older high-floor Siemens/Duewag, an obvious U-2 descendent. The new cars rode well and have a classic Railfan seat where you can see forward, but the high-floor cars had more leg room and more comfortable seats. Why does transit equipment design so often take two steps forward and one back? Americans are not getting smaller. If you give them transit equipment that is not comfortable, they will drive.
When it was time to head home to Cleveland and snow, I was easily able to walk the short way to the Convention Center stop on the Green Line and take the trolley to the Santa Fe depot. That saved me a taxi fare and reminded me why cities with good public transit are more pleasant to visit than those without.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation