Story and Photos by Noel T. Braymer
I have known for years that July and August are the busiest months for Amtrak California. Having had 2 trips on Amtrak on Fridays this month I’ve learned that Fridays and Sundays are the busiest days on Amtrak in California. Unfortunately when there is a problem on the railroad, those problems can snowball into other problems.
I have known for some time that it is never a good idea to have a single track at a station. It is too easy to create a bottleneck when a trains needs to stop at a station on a single track. I’ve also known for some time that besides having 2 tracks at a station, 2 platforms on the opposite ends of the 2 tracks are also important to avoid bottlenecks. Bottlenecks like these can cause one late train to also make others trains late.These problems are more common on the San Joaquin trains . They are California’s most productive trains, but is also in the most need of more track work and station improvements. When things go badly on the San Joaquins, they are particularly vulnerable.
Last Friday I took a quick trip to Fresno. I caught the 713 at 10:05 AM from Bakersfield and was told over the PA that this would be a busy train and every seat would be needed for passengers. Things got off to a bad start by our first stop at Wasco. The conductor got on the PA and told all passengers that the train was approaching Wasco and that passengers getting off there needed to go the car doors now because the train would only stop for one minute. Despite this clear warning, somebody didn’t listen and as the train departed Wasco they got on the PA asking to stop the train. The train didn’t stop.
Train 713 was approaching its next stop at Corcoran on time. But train 702 which normally would have left Corcoran before the 713 reached it was running about 40 minutes late and still hadn’t reached Corcoran. There was double track at Corcoran but only one platform at the station. The 702 was allowed to stop first while the 713 waited. After the 702 departed the 713 had to back up to switch tracks and reach the platform. The result was that 713 was 35 minutes late reaching Fresno. A second platform at Corcoran would have allowed the 713 to stay on time.
I spent the afternoon rambling around Fresno, mostly checking out sites for future High Speed Rail construction. I headed back to the station early to insure I wouldn’t miss my train and to take advantage of the air conditioning. My return train the 716 wasn’t due out until 5:20 PM. But an hour before train time the electronic information boards at the station were reporting that the 716 would be late and the train kept getting later with every new update. There had been problems all day north of Fresno with “train congestion”.
Click on Photos to enlarge.
As this developed the northbound train, the 717 which was due at 5:45PM would be arriving at about the same time as the 716. The Fresno Station isn’t set up to handle a meet at the station. There is a long segment of single track just north of the station where the 716 would be coming from. There are 2 tracks at the station itself and there are 2 platforms. But the second platform is a center platform between the two tracks. It wouldn’t be safe for both trains to unload and load passengers at the same time with one using this center platform. The center platform ins narrow and would be crowded with passengers. They could also be killed or injured trying to cross the tracks or got too close to a train if one was moving.
The best solution would have been to hold the northbound 717 on the second track to the station to wait to allow the 716 to reach the station, unload and load passenger and head out before the 717. But this wasn’t possible. When it was clear that the 717 would arrive first the 716 had to wait at the siding nearest to the station. The 717 needed priority because it had a passenger with a medical problem and an ambulance had been called in case the passenger needed to be taken to the hospital. To make matters worse the 717 was a Comet Car Train
The Comet Car have manually opened doors which means passenger can only get on and off at 2 doors on the train while needing to climb several step in a narrow doorway. The Comet Car Trains take longer to unload and load than the California Cars used on most San Joaquin trains and are often late as a result. The 717 was due out of Fresno at 5:45 PM and left around 5;50 PM. The 716 was due out of Fresno at 5:20 PM and left around 6:20 PM.
My main concern when I got on the 716 was making my connections to the 796 Surfliner which was the last train of the night out of Los Angeles to Oceanside. I asked the conductor when he pulled my ticket about this. He said don’t worry, the connection was guaranteed. Amtrak would hold the 796 for bus passengers from the 716 if they are running late.
The conductor was very helpful. As the train was entering Bakersfield the conductor got on the PA and went into great detail about the bus connections at Bakersfield. I believe there were 6 buses waiting for the 716. The bus at bay 1 would be for passengers making connections to the 796 for Union Station. The next bus at bay 4 was for passengers to Glendale and Union Station but not making connections. The bus going to Glendale would likely arrive after the bus just going to Union Station. The other buses where going to other locations.
We had been due in Bakersfield at 7:30 PM and we arrived by 8:21 PM so we made up a little time of the hour we were late out of Fresno. It was hard to believe that things could get worse after how things went in Fresno, but then it did in Bakersfield. After all the help from the conductor, the people loading the buses at Bakersfield undid all the goodwill created by the conductor of the 716.
There was a long line for the bus at bay 1. But the bus driver didn’t seem in any hurry to let people on, he seemed more interested in sending people away. An older man I assumed was his supervisor stood nearby doing very little except stand around with his armed crossed while trying to look impressive. This “supervisor” asked me where I was going and I said directly to Union Station. He said I was at the wrong bus, I should go to the other one. This made no sense to me but I asked the other driver where he was going and he said Glendale and then Union Station which is what I thought. I came back and told the “supervisor” what the other driver said and he just said “I’ll have to talk to that driver, later”. He did nothing except stand around and fold his arms. There was plenty to do like open the luggage compartment under the bus and start loading the large bags to speed up loading or help the driver check tickets to help make sure passengers had connections at Union Station which we had been told was being held for us.
I was asking the driver for straight answers to my questions of where the bus was going and if I was at the right bus. I was pretty sure I was but I wanted a straight answer. The bus driver refused to talk to me because I was upset.Sure I was upset, I find being stranded all night at Union Station because I missed a connections these people where suppose to help me make very upsetting. I was getting confusing and contradictory answers. Finally the “supervisor asked me where I was going and I said to Union Station to connect with the Surfliner. “Oh this is the bus for the Surfliner, the other other bus is for Union Station.” Finally I was getting somewhere, but this didn’t stop an Amtrak Agent from getting involved and threatening to throw me off the bus and leave me stranded in Bakersfield because he didn’t like my attitude!
About 20 minutes after we arrived, at 8:41 PM the bus left. The driver said little or nothing to passengers before we left. He didn’t even give the safety briefing that drivers usually give before the bus leaves. I think ours was one of the last buses to leave, I know the bus going to Glendale and Union Station was right in front of us as we left.
We got to Union Station at10:40 PM and the bus which went first to Glendale got to Union Station before us. The people on the bus all expected to catch the last Surfliner of the night being held for us at Union Station. Most of us went straight in the station to find our train. But the only trains shown scheduled to depart was an 11:00 PM Metrolink train to San Bernardino . I talked to one young man from my bus who had looked at the platforms for our train. He said there were trains, but none with people. I then went over to Amtrak Customer Service at Union Station and asked if the last Surfliner was being held. She told me the Surfliner had gone, but that another bus was going to take us to our stations between Los Angeles and San Diego.
When I got back to the buses, the new bus and driver was there and people where lining up waiting to get in. We must have left around 11:00 PM or a little after.The bus was almost full when we left. When we got to Oceanside the driver who had been doing a good job so far missed the off ramp and ended up turning back it to get to the station so we lost a few minutes. It was 1:15AM when I finally got off the bus in Oceanside. That was an hour and 23 minutes later than the scheduled time for the 796. That wasn’t bad all things considered. I didn’t object to them using a bus instead of holding the train. What was upsetting was the lack of straight answers let alone good information about what Amtrak was going to do. The Customer Service agent at Union Station knew about the connecting bus, why weren’t the passengers on the bus from the 716 told?
Amtrak often makes a bad situation worse, when it doesn’t have to be. I understand there are things out of Amtrak’s control. Track and station improvements are needed to reduce conflicts and delays to trains are out of Amtrak’s control. But problems with late trains happen all to often, so Amtrak should have plenty of practice handling them and the procedures to handle them should be well known by all. Why can’t the people loading the buses know which passengers go to which bus and tell us what to expect when we get there? Oh an apology for the delays and thanking us for our patience would have been,… good customer service.Calming upset passengers is part of customer service. Bad customer service makes upsets customers more upset. There are many Amtrak employees who are very good at customer service, but there are others who don’t understand the concept.