Commentary

Sacramento to Tucson, on Amtrak and in the Dining Car

Trip Report and Comments by Mike Barnbaum, RailPAC Associate Director

Six months ago, I reserved with 11,000 Guest Rewards points, a round trip from Sacramento to Tucson. I have already traveled one-way, and will be returning on Sunday 26 May from Tucson, arriving into Sacramento on Monday 27 May. This was a sad trip in the wake of what just recently happened in Sacramento. Sacramento put up a good fight in an effort that turned out successful with all involved (Mayor, City Council, Fans, Grassroots, Local Investors, Major Equity Investors, bipartisan state legislature support and more) to save the Sacramento Kings for present and future generations to come. While that was a success in Sacramento, it was no the case in Tucson, Arizona, where the community’s only professional sports franchise, the Tucson Padres, will not be the Tucson Padres in 2014. The franchise is packing their bags and moving to El Paso, where we have found out through Twitter that their new ballpark will be located in a location in Downtown El Paso that require the demolition of both a Natural Science History Museum and El Paso City Hall. City offices are being housed in a building there in El Paso, Texas, where an old newspaper printing factory used to be, according to sources on social media giant, Twitter.

Fans in attendance at two ballgames between Sacramento and Tucson had mixed reactions of losing their only professional sports team. Many of the faithful mentioned in their conversations to me similiar reactions as to why Seattle lost the Sonics in 2008 and why San Diego lost the Clippers in the 1980s. A lack of community support and a lack of political aspirations of having professional baseball in Tucson is part of the reason why the Tucson Padres are moving to El Paso in 2014 and the reason why the Tucson Sidewinders left in 2007 to become the Reno Aces in 2008.

As far as the train trip is concerned, the Southbound Coast Starlight pulled into Sacramento Valley Station a full 55 minutes early compared to the printed schedule for the date of Wednesday 22 May 2013. Based on the arrival of 5:20 A.M. at Sacramento Valley Station, the Coast Starlight had to sit for 75 minutes before it was allowed to depart and continue onto Los Angeles. There were no major delays along the way, but the train did depart Oxnard 15 minutes late, and arrived into Los Angeles 15 minutes early. There is a great amount of “pad” time as is often said in the passenger railroad business. That is true for this particular route. I had breakfast in the dining car twice – once on the Coast Starlight, and once on the Sunset Limited. The breakfast choices were exactly the same and ended up costing $10.50 each time. I had the scrambled egg substitute with potatoes and Applewood Bacon Strips. The entree was $7.50, but Amtrak has a policy to charge separately for breakfast meats. This is a practice that needs to stop, and the sooner the better. How often do folks in communities Amtrak serves go into major national chain restaurants like Denny’s, Carrows, or International House of Pancakes and be told by their server that on their order their breakfast meats will incur a separate charge? Never, right? Right. Why should Amtrak get away with this? Please stand up and make your voice heard regarding dining practices at Amtrak. We must develop “Change We Can Believe In” in dining inside the dining car of our National Passenger Railroad. On the Sunset Limited, we arrived into Tucson on Thursday 23 May 2013 at 7:45 A.M., just slightly behind schedule. Both detraining passengers and entraining passengers had to flash their State Identification Cards to Border Patrol Agents and to Immigration Naturalization Agents at the Tucson Station. As an experienced Amtrak traveler, I have never encountered that before at an Amtrak Passenger rail station. Numerous times in Sacramento, I have encountered local and regional law enforcement officials teaming up with Sacramento Regional Transit District’s Transit Officers to check I.D. and fare paid so that it was proper fare, but never have I seen what I encountered in Tucson in California, be it at an Amtrak Station or a station that is property of the local and/or regional transit district/authority.

Now for the return trip. I was required to check-out and return my room key card to the front desk of my hotel by Noon, Mountain Standard Time. The Westbound Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle is not scheduled to depart Tucson, Arizona until 7:35 P.M. Mountain Standard Time. The large gap in time has allowed me to compose this Electronic Trip Report and not be concerned at all of missing the SunTran connection to my train. SunTran is the public transit system in the Tucson area. SunTran, in my experience in Tucson, is a safer travel option that walking because many of Tucson’s streets are all torn up. Bus Operators on the SunTran advise me that Tucson is getting ready to build a trolley system, but in doing so had to inconvenience folks in the walking community, making SunTran the safest way to travel in the Tucson Metropolitan Area.

The Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle pulled into the Tucson Station on Sunday 26 May 2013 at 6:10 P.M. Mountain Standard Time and was required to wait until 7:35 P.M. to depart. Once on board the train, with my seat assignment at 6:18 P.M., I went straight for the Dining Car, knowing that dinner was being served. The head Dining Car Attendant said that the best he was able to do for me was a time known as “last call” with no other option. I retreated back to my seat, not knowing what was going to be for me having dinner that night. It was not my fault that I did not have a pre-arranged reservation for the fact that I did not even step onto the train until 6:18 P.M. The top of the 7:00 P.M. hour rolled around and I had heard on the P.A. System that there were three no-shows for 7pm dinner reservations. I re-approached the Dining Car, asking if I could come in for dinner in lieu of one of the no-shows. He said “no” with a but, and that was that he will have room to accommodate me at 7:30pm. The Dining Car Staff held their word, and I was accommodated at 7:30 P.M. Once in the dining car, I had the Healthy Meal Option with Coffee and a vanilla filled custard dessert with chocolate on the outside. It was delicious, even though it set me back $22.50 for the ride. Once I finished and had a couple of complementary coffee refills, I settled in for the night in my coach seat.

We arrived into Los Angeles Union Station at 4:35 A.M. on Monday 27 May 2013 (Memorial Day Observed 2013) with three hours to spare before Train #1761 was to depart for San Luis Obispo. During my waiting time, I used a Sacramento River Cats Grand Slam Certificate at Denny’s across the Street from the Nick Patsaourus Transit Plaza on the East End of Union Station. They accepted the certificate, but reminded me that next time, the certificate surrendered, will only be valid, according to Los Angeles Denny’s Staff, at participating Denny’s in the cities of Sacramento, Stockton, and Modesto only. I said, OK, and told them how greatful they were to accept the certificate as I was leaving. Upon returning to the waiting area for Train 1761 to San Luis Obispo, I stopped over at the Los Angeles MTA Schedule racks to pick up schedule and route information for my Calabasas High School 20-Year Reunion that will be held in Santa Monica on October 5th. After finding what I wanted, it seemed to me that many of the LA Metro Bus services to/from Santa Monica, only operate during the “Owl” Hours. Most day time bus services now require that passengers transfer in West Los Angeles to Big Blue Bus of Santa Monica. Only two “Metro Rapid” Routes (704 Santa Monica & 733 Venice) operated from Union Station to Santa Monica during daytime hours. I told myself that so long as there was one to get me there in the day and one to get me back in the “Owl” hours, I was good with that and would make the trip in October.

In the waiting area, security was notified several times of obnoxious, loud, and rude people that yelled at passer-bys and at store clerks in Union Station. While waiting at Gate “F” for Surfliner North, I made the conscious decision to pull out my 8 1/2 X 11 E-Ticket that I had printed at an office computer back in Sacramento, just in-case all were going to be asked to show their travel documents and I.D. as well. I was prepared. A Red Cap Service Employee did ask me for those documents out of my concern and fear of the folks that were loud and obnoxious towards other people in the building.

We eventually headed to Gate 9 for the Northbound Surfliner to San Luis Obispo. We boarded single level equipment that one would mainly find on the NorthEast Corridor. I was in Pacific Business Class where I enjoyed a USA Today Newspaper along with coffee, juice, morning pastries, and an afternoon lunch pack at no additional cost, just for showing my travel document on a full sheet of paper to three on-board staff members. We arrived into San Luis Obispo just after 1:00pm where the trip went from good to bad. The San Jose bound bus was nowhere to be located in the San Luis Obispo Depot. Several folks, including myself, became concerned because we had one more train to catch to complete our trip. Once the bus did show up, we did not leave San Luis Obispo until 1:35pm (30 minutes late) and did not recover en route to San Jose. We stopped in King City for a 15-minute break wher I quickly went into Taco Bell (not McDonalds) and ordered a 3-Item Combo (Chicken Burrito – Dorritos – Bottled Water) that cost exactly three dollars. Staff there was made aware by me that I was on the bus, and they considered my order a priority order over those folks that came in there by car. It was back on the bus within twelve minutes. The bus driver was still inside McDonalds receiving a complementary meal for being an Amtrak Bus Driver for Silverado Stage Lines. We eventually arrived in the San Jose Station at 5:58 P.M., and were supposed to be ther at 5:05 P.M. We had to grab our luggage from next to the bus and run for Train 744 to Sacramento. We hit a great amount of U.S. 101 Traffic from Salinas to San Jose that was just unprecidented. On the outside of San Jose, I asked the driver as a courtesy, if the train could hold for our late arriving Amtrak Bus at San Jose. After some hurdles to go through by the driver and his Silverado Dispatcher, the answer was yes, but only for 15 minutes. No matter what happened, Train 744 to Sacramento was going to leave at 6:05 P.M. Thanks for the fact that it waited, the train had an additional 20+ passengers versus if it had left right on time. We arrived into Sacramento at 8:48 P.M. (10 minutes early) where I was able to catch Sacramento Regional Transit Diostrict’s Route 30 to 9th & J, and then a Blue Line train towards Watt/I-80 on K at 9th at 9:08 P.M. I got back home by 9:30pm, and was able to go to work on Tuesday 28 May 2013.

Some Thoughts After The Trip:

  • Schedules. Both Southbound Train 11 on May 22nd, and Westbound Train(s) 1/421 were way too early based on their printed schedules. There needs to be some re-timing and/or modeling done based upon the historic performance of these trains. No one should need to board a train, and then be told that they are going to sit for over an hour until departure time. That is ridiculous.
  • Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle. This needs to be a daily Texas Eagle giving Los Angeles to Chicago and back two daily trains, rather than one plus a train that is three days a week. That is not right.
  • Dining Car. Passengers who are just beginning their trip need to be accommodated for a meal during regularly scheduled meal times. Luckily for the Coast Starlight, I did not encounter this because Breakfast had not started yet. Breakfast is a meal, by the way, that does not require reservations. For at least on the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle and the Coast Starlight, lunch and dinner do require advanced reservations, but are impossible when you are not on the train yet, and then attempt to eat, but possibly may not just because the meal is in progress when you begin your trip. Something has to be done about this in the future.
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