September 2011 Amtrak California Trip Report, Part I

Traveling The Web Of California Bus/Rail Connections
Report and Comments by Ralph James

I. Trip Overview

A fairly unusual circumstance set up the opportunity for a round trip on Amtrak California beginning and ending at the “away” terminal of Grover Beach and turning at the “home” terminals of Auburn and Colfax. Due to the limited schedule options available for thru travel on and off both the San Joaquin and Capitol trunk lines and the desire to travel once on each, the San Joaquin was chosen over the essentially equal Capitol alternative northbound and the Capitol was chosen over the decidedly less suitable San Joaquin options southbound.

Comment: Another example of the value of intermediate stations vs. just the major city end points. Using Colfax, Auburn, and Grover Beach instead of Sacramento and San Luis Obispo greatly shortened the pick-up/drop-off mileage at both ends and made leaving a vehicle at the home terminal much easier.

Grover Beach to Auburn (San Joaquin)

My wife and I enjoyed breakfast at the Station Diner adjacent to the Grover Beach Amtrak station. The diner was open in plenty of time to make the 7:30AM bus departure for Hanford and all buses and trains load just a few steps from the building, serving Pacific Surfliner, Capitol and San Joaquin schedules. The morning Surfliner 774 to Los Angeles and San Diego stopped on time at 7:05AM while we were eating.

My bus was out on time and we picked up additional passengers up to Paso Robles for a total of about 16 on board to Hanford, where we arrived several minutes early despite delays for road construction enroute. There was no business at Atascadero, Kettleman City or Lemoore.

Train 713 was approximately five minutes late departing Hanford, and maintained that status all the way to Stockton. The train was moderately populated and had regular turnover at all intermediate stops. Two buses met the train at Stockton—one express to Sacramento and the other making intermediate stops at Lodi and Elk Grove. After a fairly long 45 minute layover and change of buses in Sacramento, I caught the “Auburn Express” bus to Auburn (not noted in the public timetable, but used to position the 5:10PM departure from Auburn back to Sacramento) where I picked up the car for the final leg home. It was pleasant to note that the Stockton shuttle buses, formerly best described as rattletraps, are now up to standard with modern equipment.

Colfax to Grover Beach (Capitol Corridor)

For the return trip about a week later I arranged to be dropped off at the Colfax station to catch the 10:05AM bus from Reno to Sacramento. The bus arrived early as usual for a 15 minute rest stop before boarding for Sacramento. At the Auburn stop, the driver held back a minute or two as the RB/B&B circus train made its way up the mountain through the station on its way east to the next engagement. It was obviously an interesting and unusual sight for many of those on board the bus.

Arrival at Sacramento was early and there was about a half hour wait to board train 537 to San Jose. Construction for the new platform area and relocated UP trackage was evident with a “bridge to nowhere” overpass with no approaches standing over the future track location and an underground pedestrian tunnel making its way from the new platform area back toward the existing station.

We were out on time but lost about six minutes immediately due to a door alarm that would not clear. After two impromptu stops the problem was resolved and there were no more issues. It was refreshing to overhear a radio conversation near the Suisun stop with the UP dispatcher wanting to know why we were running so late (six minutes!). There was minimal delay meeting an on-time train 530 and weaving around a westbound auto-rack train approaching Martinez. Departure from Oakland was almost on time and arrival at San Jose was early. Major track and platform construction was evident where we joined the Caltrain line at College Park and at the San Jose station. Ridership was light to moderate at all points.

The Santa Barbara bus was waiting a short distance from the station and, after a nominal wait, we departed on time with about 20 on board. At the King City meal stop we had five minutes to dart inside the McDonald’s restaurant, order, use the restroom and get back on board. It sounds worse than it was, and everyone who participated in this exercise was back on board to eat their dinner in motion.

At San Luis Obispo, all passengers continuing south are required to change buses, which consumed a bit more than the allotted time so we were about five minutes late at Grover Beach for the end of the trip.

Summary Comments

The travel described occurred on a Thursday and Monday and was as punctual as one could want. Most intermediate points ran about five minutes behind schedule, but most end points were early. Bus patronage was about 50% of capacity (except for only a half dozen or so on the Auburn express), which allowed people to spread out comfortably while still representing a decent load factor. The San Joaquin was fairly crowded at times, the Capitol less so with plenty of seats available. Food from the lounge cars was adequate.

The only problem with either of these trips is that they were mostly bus rides and transfers. Using Auburn and Grover Beach as the end points, the San Joaquin consisted of one three-hour bus ride, one three-hour train ride, one one-hour bus ride and another one-hour bus ride. The Capitol consisted of one one-hour bus ride, one three-hour train ride and one four-hour bus ride. Counting the non-timetabled bus to bus transfer in San Luis Obispo, each trip required eight hours of actual travel, three transfers and an elapsed time of nine to nine and a half hours from point to point. Driving time is approximately seven hours. In short, I am glad it is available, it works in an emergency and for the dedicated rail traveler, but it is never going to attract a meaningful share of the available market with all the transfers, connecting time, long bus rides and hassles with luggage that are required.

NOTE: Part II of this report is further commentary about the difficulties of making this trip that are built into the current timetables and makes recommendations for improvements. Mr. James lives near Blue Canyon in the Sierra, and is a long time RailPAC member.

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