Taking the Train to and from the San Diego Airport

This February I took my vacation in Dublin, Ireland. As an experiment I decided to try taking the train from Oceanside where I live to the San Diego International Airport and back. One of the problems with taking public transportation is that the airports are often busy when there is little bus and rail transit service. San Diego Airport’s terminals are open from 4 AM until midnight. With a little shopping I was able to get a good deal on my plane trip with departure and arrival times at San Diego that I could take the train for my Dublin trip.

My Dublin trip started with a 12:20 PM departure on United Airlines to Chicago. There would be a 2 hour layover for my flight on Aer Lingus to Dublin. There is a Coaster Train on the weekdays departing Oceanside at 7:42 AM and arriving in San Diego at 8:45 AM. With a 7:00 AM bus departure from my local bus stop, I would arrive at the Oceanside Transit Center by 7:30 AM. As a back up there was also an 8:00 AM departure by Amtrak from Oceanside to San Diego arriving by 9:00 AM. Either way I’d have well over 2 hours to get myself and bag checked in and have boarding passes issued. Because of US travel restrictions it is not possible to get checked in and have boarding passes issued on-line for overseas trips. Your passport must first be scanned at the airport before departure so you can then check in and get your boarding passes.

Fortunately almost everything went according to plan. I arrived at the Oceanside Transit Center by 7:30 AM and had no problems buying my Coaster ticket and got on the Coaster’s 7:42 AM departure with plenty of time to spare. The question was if I would make the 8:47 AM departure of the 992 bus at the Santa Fe Depot with my 8:45 AM arrival on the Coaster. During the day on weekdays the 992 bus runs between downtown San Diego and the airport every 15 minutes.

As luck would have it, I made it on time to catch the 8:47 AM bus. But my luck was bad since the 8:47 AM bus arrived at 9:01 AM, just ahead of the 9:02 AM bus which then passed us. This is one of the problems of using a transit bus to make connections to an airport. The 992 bus does carry a good load of people to the airport. But it is still a small fraction of the passengers and airport employees going to and from the airport. Loading and unloading can be slow on the 992. Many passengers are carrying luggage who move slowly and everyone must board though one door. The other problem is most of the passengers on the 992 rarely travel by transit bus and are unfamiliar with the fares or how to use the fare box. The result is the 992 buses are slow and often late with long dwell times at each stop. Transit buses don’t work well carrying large numbers of passengers to the airport.

I got to the airport by 9:20 AM for a 12:20 AM flight, so I had plenty of time before departure. If I had wished to arrive by train in San Diego a little later, say by 9:45 AM, I was out of luck on the Coaster. The next Coaster trains doesn’t arrive until 10:41 AM. Not bad for a domestic flight leaving at 12:20PM, but a bit tight for a connections to an international flight.

The ironic thing about flying is you can arrive over an hour late or arrive up to an hour early on some flights. This can make relying on public transit difficult. I arrived at Chicago O’hare roughly on time about 5 PM Central Standard Time. I had almost 2 hours to make my connection. The problem I had was the International Terminal at O’hare to catch Aer Lingus was at least a mile away from the United Terminal. I was able to ride an automated People Mover train between the terminals to make my connection. The People Mover carries passengers between terminals and to the outlying airport parking lots.The worst part about changing terminals at O’hare was I had to go through the Security Check a second time and it was not as smooth in Chicago as it had been in San Diego or Dublin.

I went directly to my gate and waited until my flight was called. The flight was not a fullĀ  load and was loaded quickly so we were able to leave 15 minutes early. We also arrived in Dublin an hour early. Coming back I flew Aer Lingus to San Francisco. Even though the flight left about 15 minutes late as they tried to get the entertainment system to work, we still arrived about 45 minutes early into San Francisco. Aer Lingus recently returned to San Francisco and is planning in the near future to add flights to Washington DC and Los Angeles.As it stands now Aer Lingus has connecting flights to about 70 airports around the North America region with other airlines.

The best thing about the San Francisco Airport were the connecting corridors between terminals which meant connecting passengers didn’t have to go though a security check to transfer between flights. Also the United Terminal was next door to the International Terminal which was even better. My flight to San Diego left on time and arrived about 10 minutes early. I flew on a 50 seat commuter jet which was full with a waiting list for stand-by passengers.

Coming in early to San Diego I hoped I might be able to catch the last Coaster train of the evening departing at 7:10 PM. I was on the ground in San Diego by 6:30 PM. If I could catch a 6:49 PM 992 bus, I should be able to get to the Santa Fe Depot by 7:00 PM or so.

The only problem; there wasn’t at 6:49 PM bus at San Diego Airport Terminal #2. I soon learned that after 6:30 PM the 992 buses go from buses every 15 minutes to every half hour. This meant I caught the bus at 7:04 PM and missed the 7:10 PM train by a few minutes.

Having awoken at 11 PM on Tuesday, Pacific Standard Time in Dublin, I had been up and on the run for 20 hours by 7:00 PM on Wednesday. Saving a few hours getting home would have been welcomed. The next train was the Amtrak Surfliner departing at 9:05 PM. The next departure to Oceanside after that was the 10 PM Ambus to Bakersfield. The Amtrak Ticket machine sells tickets to Oceanside from San Diego on both for $18 one way. This last train of the night on Amtrak makes all of the Coaster stops and accepts Coaster tickets. Coaster fares one way between San Diego and Oceanside are $5.50 and $2.75 for Seniors and Disabled.

Finally I left San Diego at 9:05 PM after arriving at 6:30 PM. It takes less than an hour to drive from San Diego to Oceanside most of the time. It would have been faster to catch a shuttle van to get home which start at around $50 one way. I had the feeling that the trains crews were less than thrilled to be carrying Coaster passengers. There were constant announcements for passengers to get to the doors before the train stopped and that the stops were only 30 seconds. No doubt many passengers in the past had missed their stations by not reaching the doors on time.

As my luck would have it, when I got to the bus stop for my bus ride home at the Oceanside Transit Center: the bus had just left less than 5 minutes before. So I now had almost a 30 minute wait late at night for the next bus. At least there was a next bus. I got home a little after 11:00 PM . By this time I had been up 24 hours since I woke up in Dublin to go back home.

The trips to and from the airport were partly an experiment to discover what worked and what didn’t when taking the bus and train to and from the airport. What is needed to attract more airline passengers to take the train to the airport are more frequent trains earlier in the morning, later in the evening and more during the holidays when air travel is heaviest. Better bus connections and People Movers are needed from the train to the airports.

This should be coming to San Diego soon. San Diego will have most of the railroad between Oceanside and San Diego double tracked by 2020. This should lead to more frequent rail service. More train service is already on track in the next year or so. By 2016 the San Diego Airport will start the process to have passengers enter the airport next to the railroad and I-5 Freeway to reduce traffic congestion at the current entrance on Harbor Drive. This will include by 2016 dedicated free shuttle buses using a new internal airport road to carry rental car passengers at a new consolidated rental car facility by the freeway and railroad tracks to the terminals. These shuttle buses will also carry passengers parking at nearby airport parking lots next to the freeway and tracks. Some of these shuttle buses will also stop at the nearby Washington St. Trolley Station for Trolley passengers headed to the airport.

It would be nice if some of these shuttle buses could also be extended to serve Coaster and even the Amtrak trains stopping at Old Town which is less than mile from the Washington St.Trolley Station. There are plans by 2020 to build a new train station near Washington St. for Coaster, Amtrak and future High Speed Rail Trains. The airport wants this to be the primary train station in San Diego and the airport to be a major surface transportation hub. This will include a pedestrian bridge over Pacific Highway to a new airport entrance with security check in and a People Mover to carry all passengers in a tunnel under the runway for a fast trip to the rebuilt terminals.

More trains, 7 days a week, all day and evening long with good bus and train connections will make a big difference attracting more airport and other passengers to take the train more often. Such basic service improvement and better timed bus connections would go a long way not just in San Diego, but to other airports in California to attract more passengers to travel to and from the airport by rail.

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