Friday, October 3, 2008

The Train is Great...until it ain't...

I'm back from my week in Corvallis, OR. I managed to get the Bilenky cargo bike to OR and back without too much hassle (more on this in a second). Right before I left, I waxed a little misty-eyed about the train and it is indeed a civilized way to travel. I have to confess though, that our ride back to Los Angeles was a good test of patience.

The train was late. 6 hours late. It made a long train ride REALLY long and that's rather frustrating when you're not expecting the delay. We were scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles at about 10pm. We got in at 2:30am. There was no public transportation back to Long Beach at that time. Our choice was either to sleep at the station or somehow magically get a ride back to Long Beach.

To their credit, Amtrak paid for a taxi back to Long Beach. We had to request a van because we had bikes. They had to lower the two rear row of seats to get the bikes in. Laura sat in the front passenger seat and I squished myself between the lowered seats and the door (praying that it wouldn't pop open somehow).

We finally got home around 4am.

Some things I learned on the train:

-It will ALWAYS be late on the west coast. Amtrak in the west coast leases rail time from freight trains and the freight trains get priority. We were 2 hours late going North and 6 going South.

-I can read about 700 pages in 40 hours (managed to finish "The Raw Shark Texts" and "Bad Monkeys") in the train.

-It's a good idea to bring a small blanket and pillow with you. If you're in Coach, you don't get a blanket and trains (esp. in the winter) get cold (esp. when they're stopped for a few hours).

-For a +24h ride, look into getting a sleeper car. All your meals are covered and it works out to be a better (and more comfortable) deal.

So far, I've only ridden the Surf Liner and Coast Starlight, both of which basically go North and South along the west coast. How are the other lines? Are they any more reliable?


2whls3spds said...

I ride the Southeast Coast Corridor trains a fair amount. They too have to share tracks with freight, typically CSX. I have been very fortunate and have seldom been delayed more than an hour.

If you check the on time statistics on the Amtrak website you can get a feel for what really delays them and how much. I am a long time proponent of dedicated passenger rail for the US.

In the NC/SC area the bulk of the delays are caused by freight trains. The second leading cause appears to be people ignoring down crossing gates and causing wrecks which typically delays the trains by 3 hours or more. Pretty pathetic to pay for 30 seconds of time savings with your life!


2whls3spds said...

Forgot to add...the two trains I ride most often are The Palmetto which runs between NYC and Savannah, GA or the Silver Meteor which travels from NYC to Miami. These are the only 2 trains that travel through the town I live near. It also appears to me the longer the train schedule the more likely they are to lose time along the route.


Nicolas Marchildon said...

Blogspot really don't want people to enter comments. First you have to spot the "Post a comment" link at the bottom, in the smallest font. Other sites include the form with an easy-to-spot big white text box.

Then it pops a window that shows existing comments. What's that? Why can't they just show me the freakin' form? Ah, there's a "Jump to comment form". I thought clicking that "Post a comment" link already meant I wanted a form.

Then there's a captcha. I'm already logged into my Google/Blogger account, so why should I prove that I'm human each time I post a comment? I hate captchas. Half of them I enter wrong and have to retry, hoping I haven't lost my comment.

Ok, that being said, trains are late in Canada too. This seems to be typical of America, where trains yield to freight. I don't know how they work in Spain and Switzerland, but trains are frequent and right on time.

I love to travel by train because I can do lots of things and it is much safer than being on the highway close to other cars. They even have free wifi internet, I hear. But because of the delays and general inefficiencies such as indirect routes, I won't be travelling by train in America soon.

I have a friend who was surprised to have free wifi internet in a regional bus. That's more interesting for now!

Tomas said...

Unfortunately Amtrak delays have been more the rule than exception for decades. I'm a frequent Blue Water and Wolverine passenger. These trains run from Chicago to Detroit and surrounding areas. With good luck, the trip can take the same amount of time as driving at a third the price, and probably less than a tenth the environmental impact. So I live with the delays.

lyan! said...

My wife and I recently went to Colorado. We had planned to do some training around the mountains, figuring it would be relaxing after cycling in and around Aspen. We also decided that we'd take a bus from Denver to Glenwood Springs, because the train was at least twice as expensive as the bus/train back.
Unfortunately, when we returned to Glenwood Springs to take the train back to Denver, we were told that there was a mechanical malfunction with the coach car and that it wasn't coming. We (my wife, I and about 50 other oldsters) were all shooed onto a bus going back to Denver, thereby robbing us of our train ride -- which wasn't horrible as we got in 3 hours early, but still had we known we might have done things differently.
And that's my beef with Amtrak. Apparently this happens all the time in the summer months. There was no mention of this online when we purchased the tickets the night before, nothing on their automated phone system, nothing until we rocked up ready to ride.

A little frustrating. Later we had heard that apparently the train the previous day -- mechanically intact -- rolled in 3 or 6 hours late, which would've dropped us into Denver after 1 am. So Mountain Amtrak isn't any better than it's Westcoast brother.

I guess the bus worked out for the best, but I really wanted the train ride, dammit!

Brian said...

I too am a rail & bike fan. I've ridden Amtrak mostly on the East Coast and to Chicago, but not with a bike yet. Delays from Boston to NYC seem few. The Downeaster from Boston to Portland, ME is very good. The Chicago train had some delay, maybe a couple hours on an overnight ride.

How was taking your bike on the train? Having never heard first hand how traveling with a bike works, I've been a bit hesitant. But I'd like to start more rail/bike traveling.

Apertome said...

I used to take a train between Indianapolis and Chicago frequently, when I was in college, to visit home and return. The train took anywhere from 4 1/2 hours on up. I think it took nearly 10 hours one time. This is for a trip that's maybe a 3 or 3 1/2-hour drive. The train is nearly always late, and there's only one train per day in each direction, one late at night, one very early in the morning, making it incredibly inconvenient.

All that said, I much prefer the actual experience of riding on a train to a bus, or even driving. However, the inconsistency in timing makes it a lot less appealing. And yes, it always seems to be a freight train that's causing the delay.

2whls3spds said...

Couple of choices on the bike and it also depends on the route. On the East Coast trains that I ride I can take a folder in the car with me (suggest it be bagged) or you can buy a bike box for $15 (or provide your own) and have the bike travel as part of your luggage for free. I have done the bike box a couple of times, but had a truck on each end to deal with the box. I took my Raleigh Superbe on one trip and used the same box for my Redline R530 on the return trip. All I had to do with my bikes was remove the pedals and turn the handlebars sideways.


Potty Mouth Cyclist said...

Back in 2000 my gf and I bought a 30 day rail pass to travel the country exclusively by train as part of a project I was doing for school. Our route went down the East Coast from NY to Philly to DC, then across to the west coast by way of Chicago on the Capitol Limited (24hrs) and LA on the Southwest Chief (48hrs), up the west coast to SF and Portland on the Coast Starlight, across to Minneapolis on the Empire Builder, and up into Canada for a brief stint in Toronto.

To my knowledge, all of the rail that Amtrak uses throughout the US is leased from the freight companies except the Northeast Corridor, so all the other routes are subject to those freight delays. If an Amtrak train is more than thirty minutes late leaving from a station, they are at the mercy of the freight schedules. Same goes for if something goes wrong on the train. We got stuck for several hours on the Coast Starlight and they shut the power down on the train. We were sharing our train car with a large group of traveling students from overseas, and they kept trying to use the toilet, even though the electric flushing mechanism was shut off. Pee yew.

The only trip we had sleeping accommodations for was the Capitol Limited leg from DC to Chicago. Despite the price it made all the difference in the world: the meals were included, the privacy was great and it was much more comfortable sleeping strapped into a ceiling bunk then trying to sleep in the seats in coach.

In spite of all the pain and aggravation we experienced on that trip, I'd do it again... but this time with a bike.

Anonymous said...

I ride the Amtrak Capitol Corridor commuter 4 days a week between Roseville and Sacramento, CA. They're currently running an on-time performance of 82%. If the train is late, it's usually only 3-4 minutes at most - not bad at all. The CC shares the route with freight trains, but for the most part it doesn't seem to be an issue on this route.

Alan @ EcoVelo

enrique said...

How did you like RAW SHARK?

Kwikfile said...

Hey Russ,

Sorry to hear that about your trip. Your previous entries have inspired me to take the train with my wife to Venture and then on to Ojai - that's the Plan. Anyway - did not know about freight trains having the priority and about the lateness frequency. I guess it's something you will have to add time for especially on the long trips as they add more variables. Greta pictures and story about Corvalis.