By Noel T. Braymer
October 12th found me with a day off, so I used it to ride most of the trackage in San Diego County. I particularly wanted to check out the lines of the San Diego Trolley which is planning a major overhaul as it nears its 30th anniversary on July 26, 2011.
As part of a 619 million dollar project the Trolley will spend 205 million for 57 new low floor cars from Siemens to be delivered by 2011.Starting in 2010 and finishing in 2013, 234 million dollars will be spend overhauling the older Blue and Orange Lines. This will include major track work, catenary replacement, station repair and raising the older stations platforms from rail level to 6 inches above rail. This will allow all the stations to be used by newer low floor cars with ramps for handicap passengers. The original Trolley line for San Diego to the Mexican Border was single tracked, cost 86 million dollars and used much of the rail now 70 years old from the old SP branch line used by the Trolley.
I also wanted to try out the Regional Plus Day Pass. For 14 dollars and available at any Sprinter, Coaster or Trolley ticket vending machines (TVM) it was good on all those trains and most buses in San Diego Country. My problem started at the Sprinter Station when I couldn’t find the pass on the TVM. Rather than miss my trains I got a $2.00 one way ticket to the Oceanside Transit Center. At Oceanside I had extra time since the connection time for the 9:23 AM Coaster departure from the Sprinter was 27 minutes. Having no better luck on the Coaster TVM, a friendly railfan who was helping passengers at the TVM directed me to Compass Cards to find the day pass I wanted. The trip on the Coaster was unremarkable, which when you think of it is a good thing.
In San Diego I “tapped” my day pass at a Trolley Compass Card reader and headed down on the original Trolley route to San Ysidro. The line is getting old, but the older U-2 cars looked in good shape on the inside and all of the U-2 cars that I saw were bright and shiny looking as if they had been recently painted and polished. The stations looked tired and in need of remodeling. The tracks even though getting old were smoother than I had ridden them in some time. Ridership is strong and growing with the Blue Line averaging 60,000 riders a day. I made a quick turn around at San Ysidro and head back to the edge of downtown San Diego to the James Mills transfer station. Here the Blue and Orange Lines trains meet across a shared platform for connecting passenger before the two lines spilt. To connect at the terminus of the Orange Line there is platform around the corner for those headed to the Convention Center and Gas Lamp District.
The Orange Line after splitting from the Blue Line runs down Commercial St. in an older rundown mixed industrial, homeless shelter and residential neighborhood. As you travel east the most scenic part of the trip is through a cemetery. Past the cemetery the area becomes more suburban and affluent as you head east. Also you are going uphill and can look down on the El Cajon Valley. In El Cajon near the Grossmont Station the Orange and Green Lines meet and share stations except for the last one at Santee. I got off at the El Cajon Station to transfer to the Green Line to head to Santee. I was going there because the station was in the middle of a shopping center and the station was next to several good places to eat and by now it was lunch time. The Trolleys all run most of the day every 15 minutes. This can seem like a long time when you don’t have a schedule handy. I kept looking at an electronic sign at the station hoping it would tell me when my train or any train would arrive. It kept telling me I was in El Cajon and the time. I didn’t need an electric readout sign to know that. Most commuter and light rail stations have such signs but they are usually used as clocks if that.
The most frustrating thing about traveling by public transport is the uncertainty. Is my train late? Will I get to work on time? Will I make my connections? How long will I have to wait for the next train or bus if I miss my connection? With the uncertainly is the waiting involved for trains or buses. It is very difficult to be spontaneous taking the train because unless you plan things ahead you find yourself waiting a lot. For lack of planning on my part and going to Santee, I missed catching the 2:15 PM departure from San Diego of the Coaster. By the time I got the Green Line to Old Town I had an extra hour until the next train at 3:37 PM. The Green Line is the newest and most expensive line on the Trolley. Much of it is elevated so you can look down at the cars on the I-8 freeway in Mission Valley or the San Diego River which unlike most in Southern California isn’t encased in concrete and has water year round. You can also stop at a station at the stadium the professional baseball team use to play and the football team wants to move out of. The best thing about the Green Line is it has stations at several large shopping centers. It also has the only tunnel segment with a subway station at San Diego State University.
I finally got home by 4:38PM. A Sprinter Train headed for my station had left at 4:33. I had to wait until 5:03 as I saw the sun getting lower as well as my hopes of getting more things done before it got dark. Things would be easier if the Coaster ran trains every half hour. They have enough equipment to do it, but with a single track railroad there isn’t enough track capacity. San Diego County’s hopes to receive 377 million dollars to double track the Coaster Line were dashed when the Governor didn’t submit it along with a billion dollars of other projects for the High Speed Rail Stimulus money. But San Diego has never given the Coaster Line the priority it needs to get it doubled track. The money to cover the cost overruns of the Sprinter construction came out of hide of Coaster capital projects. San Diego is rebuilding the 15 and 5 freeways, yet not double tracking between Oceanside and San Diego.
As I write this I will soon be traveling by bus and rail to San Carlos and the RailPAC meeting for October 24th. Travel by Amtrak between north and south is about 12 hours. I could drive faster by several hours and with reserved tickets fly for less. I hope we have a reasonable way to travel by train across California in my life time. I’d settle for overnight service in a coach chair as opposed to an overnight bus. I hope the HSR trains get running and make traveling California a good way to get around. But it won’t work if you end up spending as much time waiting to make connections as you are actually traveling.