Rich Kimmel's 1999 Train Trip
Part 8 - Sacramento, CA to Los Angeles, CA
July 4, 1999
AMTRAK Thruway Bus
San Joaquin #714
AMTRAK Thruway Bus
The 3 Thruway busses pulled into the Stockton AMTRAK station approximately 7 minutes before the scheduled departure time of Train #714, the San Joaquin. I had been somewhat puzzled on the bus trip concerning AMTRAK's directive to the passengers connecting to Train #2, the Sunset Ltd, in Los Angeles. If the Starlight had been running on schedule, it would have arrived in Los Angeles at 9:15 PM, which is only 40 minutes before the scheduled 9:55 PM departure of the Sunset. I had always thought that AMTRAK did not "guarantee" connections of less than one hour, yet it appears that there were many passengers today who did in fact have this "guaranteed connection," and that AMTRAK rightfully sent them to Stockton to make this connection. If anyone knows what the AMTRAK policy is concerning "guaranteed connections," please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As the crowd was standing around the platform at Stockton awaiting the arrival of #714, I talked to many people and had to explain this "bus/train/bus" San Joaquin Valley connection to several passengers who were still left clueless concerning where they were going and what time they would get there. I overheard one elderly gentleman talking with one of the Stockton baggage handlers and commenting that he didn't understand how in the world he could make his connection to Train #2 in Los Angeles, since, as stated above, the Starlight was regularly scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles at 9:15, only 40 minutes prior to the departure of the Sunset, and since the Starlight was 2 1/2 hours late, how could this San Joaquin Valley connection possibly get him to Los Angeles in time, especially after all the extra time needed for busses? I, of course, explained to him that the San Joaquin Valley route was much faster than the Starlight route, and everyone would be arriving in Los Angeles in plenty of time to make all evening connections. I don't think he believed me.
In a few minutes, the inevitable announcement came stating that Train #714, the San Joaquin, had been delayed and would be approximately 40 minutes late, and that it was just now departing Martinez. With that in mind, I again confirmed that I definitely could have stayed on the Starlight beyond Sacramento, and would very likely still make the originally-intended connection to #714 in Martinez. Eventually, Train #714, the San Joaquin, pulled into Stockton. This was my first experience in the brightly-colored "California Cars." The California Cars are bi-level cars which are painted blue with gold trim below, and gray above. Inside, there are regular coach seats in the lower level, but in the upper level there is a mixture of coach seats and tables. There were 4 or 5 such coach cars, and a food service car at the head end. We boarded into car no. 4 at Stockton, and the female conductor encouraged most passengers to sit in the upper level and to keep the lower level available for elderly or handicapped passengers. I shoved my suitcases into a small baggage storage area next to the doorway in the lower level, grabbed my map book and video camera case and went upstairs. I found a seat at a table upstairs on the left side of the train, and was joined by a woman and her daughter who had just returned from a trip to Norway, and another woman who had been on the Starlight with me, and who was making the same connection to Train #2 and heading to Jacksonville, FL. The table we were sitting at was at the front of the car, right behind the door between the two cars. For some reason, the door between the cars was open, and someone had approached it and tried to close it, but discovered that the door was actually tied open due to some mechanical problem. Because the door was open, it was very loud directly behind the door; therefore, it was very hard for anyone in the front portion of the car to hear anyone else or to hear the announcements made by the train staff.
We departed Stockton 1 hour 8 minutes late. For some reason, I did not keep track of departure times at all the stops on this train. Shortly beyond Stockton, we were racing through the San Joaquin Valley of California, and I continued the video coverage of my trip. The tracks on the ATSF San Joaquin route are very fast, but rather rough. Considering the roughness of the tracks, the California cars were rather comfortable, however, except for the open door ahead of me which made it quite difficult to converse with my fellow passengers. Shortly after departure, I re-assessed my supply of video recording tape, and decided that I had plenty for the rest of the trip. I wanted to dedicate the last 2-hour tape entirely to the Sunset, and I had approximately one hour left on the current tape, and knew I would not take an hour of video on this route, so I was actually in very good shape.
Before each San Joaquin stop, the conductor makes an announcement and tells which cars will be boarding at each stop. There seemed to be no real pattern to this procedure, however. At one stop, car 3 might be boarding, then car 2 at the next stop, then car 4 at the next, etc. I am not sure what the operations protocol is for this train. Now and then, the conductor would mention certain features of special interest that the train passes, such as the "Blackbird" military plane which is on display in front of Castle Air Force Base north of Merced, or some statue in front of the City Hall in Fresno. We departed Turlock-Denair 1 hour 22 minutes late and were soon flying past the almond groves around Merced. North of Merced, the first views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west are present on the horizon.
Just past the Fresno station, the conductor made an announcement that we were late due to mechanical problems; however, other than the door, I could not determine what other mechanical problems the train may have had. The air conditioning seemed to work fine; we were keeping up track speed; all the electricity on the train seemed to work, so I didn't know what the mechanical problems were.
I didn't keep track of any more departure times until Corcoran, which we left 1 hour 30 minutes late. As the train got closer o Bakersfield, the conductor made more announcements concerning Thruway bus connections, but due to the tied-open door in front of my table, nothing she said was heard or understood by the passengers in my area. I walked downstartirs to the lower level, where I was able to hear the announcements a little better. We were soon speeding past the oil wells and refineries outside of Bakersfield, and arrived in Bakersfield at 5:20 PM, 1 hour 9 minutes late. Upon departure from the train, there was a plethora of AMTRAK Thruway busses awaiting the train. The scene was quite confusing, and no one knew which bus they were supposed to be on. For some busses, passengers were told to put their baggage on a certain bus, but to ride in a different bus. This of course made several passengers very uneasy, wondering whether their baggage would actually make it to the same city they were going to. Most busses went to Los Angeles to connect with either the Sunset, the Southwest Chief, or the San Diegans. Some Thruway busses, however, did not go into Los Angeles, but served several of the hundreds of cities around the Los Angeles Basin and coastal areas. AMTRAK has a very good and efficient Thruway bus system in California. Again, many passengers who had made the "San Joaquin Valley connection" from the Starlight did not realize that most of the busses at the Bakersfield station are regularly scheduled Thruway busses. I had found my bus, put my baggage in the baggage compartment and asked the driver if I had a couple minutes to take some video before we departed. He said yes, but that I better hurry since we were leaving "any minute" now. I stepped away from the bus, took a few seconds of video, then re-boarded. It was at least 30 minutes until we actually left Bakersfield, so I was hurrying with the video for nothing.
All busses soon left Bakersfield in one big exodus, one bus behind the other. We were soon following Highway 99 toward the southern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, then up Grapevine Hill to the interchange with Interstate 5, through Tejon Pass and the Santa Susana Mountains, past Pyramid lake and Space Mountain, and soon entered that sprawling bit of urbanization called the Los Angeles Basin. I know just a little about the southern California/Los Angeles freeway system, and had assumed the bus would take Interstate 5, the Golden State Freeway, all the way downtown. Instead, the bus pulled off 5 onto the Hollywood Freeway and took that route downtown -- not that it really matters. All freeways eventually end up downtown. We arrived at Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (LAUPT) at 20 of 8, only 55 minutes later than the scheduled bus arrival time. Plenty of time left for all passengers to make all connections.
The bus terminal at LAUPT has moved since I was there last. It is now located on the north side of the station, near the baggage checking area. The last time I was at LAUPT, I believe the busses all arrived and departed from the south side of the station. I wanted to check my bags for a few hours, and I know there is no Metropolitan Lounge at LAUPT, so I hunted around for a baggage person, but could not find one for several minutes, and there was nobody in the baggage check area. I finally corralled a redcap who was driving around the station in a baggage golf cart. I told him I wanted to go and eat and wanted to store my suitcases somewhere, then get them prior to boarding the Sunset Ltd. He told me to put the suitcases in his baggage cart, and when I got back to ask for him (I forgot his name) and he would get my suitcases for me. I tipped him a couple dollars, put the suitcases in his cart, and he and I both left then.
I had dinner at one of my favorite places, Phillipe's, on Alameda Street a few blocks north of LAUPT, at the corner of Ord (just beyond Main Street, for those of you who are familiar with downtown L.A.). I discovered Phillipe's several years ago on a much earlier train trip while I was between trains. It is not a gourmet restaurant or a fancy place by any means -- on the contrary, it reminds me a little of "Mel's Diner" from the 1970's TV show "Alice." There are no "private tables" -- you order your food from a serving area, then sit at European-style long tables, where there are usually other people sitting. The restaurant serves quite a variety of "home-cooked" specials, remarkably -- everything from hamburgers and hot dogs to steak and roast pork. You can also get drinks there -- soft drinks, wine, beer, even champagne, I believe. Usually when I am in Los Angeles between trains, I enjoy going to Phillipe's if I have time. After dinner I walked back to LAUPT and attempted to find my luggage and prepare for the next (and final) part of my 1999 trip!
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