By Noel T. Braymer
Everything was normal until we left the City of Commerce station on Metrolink #604 after leaving LAUS on time at 4:30 PM on Friday September 20, 2013. We barely cleared the station around 4:45 PM when we came to a halt. That’s not usual if the problem was signals or a delay up ahead. After a few minutes the conductor came on the intercom to explain why the train wasn’t moving: there was a problem with the locomotive. The conductor apologized for the problem and explained they were trying to solve the problem and get going. The conductor also said a mechanic was on his way from Los Angeles to work on the problem.
We were able to move a few hundred yards at a time and then stop a few more times. By 5:36 PM we hadn’t moved for some time while we were now in Pico Rivera by Rosemead Blvd. At 5:36 PM the conductor announced that Metrolink Train #606, the next train heading for Oceanside would stop and push both trains all the way to Oceanside. While we had been stopped several southbound Metrolink and a few Surfliners had passed us. The 606 which left Los Angeles at 5:40 PM was expected to catch up with us around 6:00 PM.
One of the things I heard that surprised me was that there was a problem on this train the 604 last night which delayed it. When I was coming up to Los Angeles in the morning I had made connections with the 687 at Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo from the 850. Leaving Santa Ana on time the conductor announced that train 687 would be held in Orange for 15 minutes and that passengers going to Anaheim and Fullerton should transfer to the 633 at Orange which would be in Orange 10 minutes after the 687. I have no idea why Metrolink has 2 trains running within 10 minutes of each other in Orange County. It became clear that Metrolink Train 809 from Riverside due in Orange at 8:16 AM was running late as we left Santa Ana at 9:02 AM. Train 687 was needed for passenger transferring to Anaheim or as far as Los Angeles. We got lucky and train 809 arrived at Orange at almost the same time around 9:07 AM. Still it sounds like Metrolink is having a rash of mechanical problems of late.
After arriving a little late in Los Angeles on the 687, my plan was to go to Bob Hope Airport to take pictures of the train station and new transportation center being built at the airport.There not being any trains in the late morning from Union Station to the airport my plan was to take Metro Rapid Bus 794 to Burbank and the airport. The 794 doesn’t go by Union Station but the schedule showed a stop by the Civic Center subway station, the first stop after Union Station. I got off at the Civic Center station went to Hill Street and walked several blocks in both directions and no 794 bus stops. I saw 794 buses but no stops. A seasoned bus rider confirmed that there were no 794 stops in the area. I decided to hell with it and to do what I had planned for in the afternoon which was ride LA Metro to the Green Line near LAX and take a bus up Sepulveda to Pico. From there I would check out construction of the Expo Line as far as Bundy then catch a bus on Pico to downtown Santa Monica.
I got to see quite a bit of construction near Pico. But taking the bus and walking took longer than I had planned. It was after 2:00 PM by the time I got to downtown Santa Monica. I got lunch at a McDonald’s. When I got my receipt my order number was 666. I joked with the cashier did this mean this was my lucky number? Maybe it was an omen of things to come. By the time I got to Union Station after catching a bus from Santa Monica to the Expo Line it was 4:20 PM. I’d have to rush to catch the 604 at 4:30 PM which meant skipping getting a snack to fill me until I got to Oceanside for dinner. I also missed taking some pictures around Union Station. But I didn’t want to wait an hour and ten minutes for the next train the 606 leaving at 5:40 PM. If only I had known then what I found out later.
The conductor gave instructions after the 606 arrived of what to expect. He warned passengers to stay in their seats in case the train jerked as they coupled. He explained that the power would go off for a short period of time and we would lose lights with air conditioning and toilets not working. We were lucky in that we had head end power the whole time we were stranded. This isn’t true many times for passengers on stranded trains. The conductor also said he would be busy walking outside the train while the two trains were making connections to each other and the engineer of the 606 would be walking to the front of our train.
The power cut off by 6:05 PM. You never notice how noisy the air conditioning is until it is shut off on a train. We still had emergency lights and it wasn’t sundown yet. By 6:16 PM we had head end power back on again. By 6:25 PM both trains were moving towards Oceanside. With only one locomotive driving 2 trains we were warned by the conductor that we wouldn’t go as fast as usual. To further slow us down the trains would have to make double stops at each station since the combined trains were two long for the platforms.
By the time we left Fullerton it was 7:04 PM. The 606 was almost an hour late and the 604 almost 2 hours late out of Fullerton. At least it felt better to be moving. Finally when we got to Oceanside it was just short of 9:00 PM. The 604 was scheduled to arrive at 6:37 and the 606 was at 7:46. I don’t understand why American Passenger Rail service isn’t better prepared for such emergencies? Generally the better prepared for emergencies you are the less often they occur. I know most drivers when they have a break down know they have to call a tow truck. It is an unwanted expense as is the cost to have a vehicle repaired. But unless you are under 21 you are not going to try to get a tow from friends or bum one from people you meet.
I don’t understand why at a busy rail passenger hub like Los Angeles there aren’t plans for a stand by locomotive and on call crew to get broken down trains running as soon a possible. It seems odd to leave passengers and millions of dollars of capital stranded and then tie up an other passenger train and inconvenience another set of passengers using passenger trains to tow another train. The reason for not having a standby locomotive no doubt is that this would cost too much money. Yet when an Amtrak Long Distance trains get stranded it is the Freight Railroad which often gets stuck providing a locomotive and crew to get the train moving again.
Speaking of costs there is such a thing as goodwill. In business goodwill is not just a nice idea, it is something with economic value, it has a clear cut price. With a service goodwill with your customers is very important. It is known that the sooner a service provider reacts to a problem and is seen working and paying attention to solve a problem the fewer lawsuits are filed. Revenue and ridership go hand in hand for passenger rail service. This seeming rash of equipment problems is new on Metrolink. Historically their on-time performance has been very good.
But in the last year Metrolink has been dealing with a budget shortfall and is in a cost cutting mode. I can only speculate if there is a connection with budget cutting and what appears to be an increase in equipment problems. If so this is false economy. If service deteriorates so will ridership and revenues. The best solution for low income is increased ridership. The conductor on trains 604 gave many apologies for the inconvenience of the delays. While there are times when apologies are needed, having nothing to apologize for is better.