November 23rd, 2005

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Riding the Rails

In a few minutes, I'll be heading off to the train station to catch the 1 o'clock Capitol train to Sacramento, where Lisa will collect me and take me on to Yuba City. I'll spend Thanksgiving with my mother's side of the family; the next day, we'll go to Oroville to visit my father (my parents divorced when I was five years old; I was mostly raised by my maternal grandparents), who I haven't seen in several years. I've tried to stay somewhat in contact, but I'm not good at writing letters, don't really like telephoning most people, and it seems like every time I get an e-mail address for Dad, it bounces, although he swears they've had the same address for a long time.

Normally, I'd plan to buy lunch on the train, but this day-before-Thanksgiving train is likely to be packed to the rafters, and (a) I don't want to lose my seat if I get up and (b) the queue in the snack bar car is apt to run the length of the train. In fact, I'm glad to be catching the train at only its third stop; there's a good chance that I'll get a seat -- maybe even one of the coveted corner singles -- whereas by the time we get to Richmond, we'll probably be SRO. So I'll need to pick something up on the way to the station; fortunately, there are lots of places to eat in the Centerville district. I'm thinking that fish and chips sounds good today.

I'm traveling really heavy for such a short trip. It seems like every trip I accumulate more equipment to carry along. CPAP machine; extension cord because the hotel outlets often don't reach the CPAP easily; laptop computer; Lisa's "spare" laptop and small hub in case she wants to play the two-player version of Locomotion; 2m radio so I can listen to the train radio; charger for same; charger for mobile phone; I could go on. Nowadays I'm carrying more equipment than clothing, it seems.
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Onboard Update

This message is posted from on board Amtrak 534, the eastbound Capitol headed for Sacramento, somewhere between Hayward and Oakland, courtesy of Opti-Fi onboard wireless. It turned out that one of the four wireless-equipped coaches in the Capitol fleet was on my train today, and as I was unable to snag one of the few single seats, I did the next-best thing and got an aisle seat on one of the tables, so there is enough room for me to start up the computer, and in the wireless car.

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The conductor hasn't come round to lift my ticket yet. I presume they will eventually do so, possibly after Richmond when they get a few minutes to do so. This is probably the busiest day of the year for them, and I expect we also have the most-junior crews, everyone with sufficient seniority to do so having "marked off" to take their own holidays.

The normal schedule tends to assume nearly zero time to board/deboard the train, so on days like this, we just get later and later on account of the long delays getting so many people in and out of the train. Still, I'm not in a huge hurry, and I'm not stuck in a 30-mile traffic jam through Cordelia Junction. Things could definitely be worse. And I do have a seat.
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    pleased pleased
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Emeryville -- Balky Doors

Those of you following my train tales know that the "California Cars" used on the Capitol have balky doors. My trainset today is worse than usual. Already running 30 minutes late out of Oakland, we were further delayed when the engineer was unable to get an "all doors closed" indication. The conductors had to run and check every door. To their mystification, they found all the doors were closed. This is Not Good. I was worried that we might end up having to take the train out of service, or cut one car out, either of which would have made for a very long day. Finally, I heard one conductor say that one door was locked out of service and maybe that was the problem, and could the head end override the doors-open reading? The engineer came back a few moments later and said he could indeed do that, and presumably that's why we were able to get moving again. But it will almost certainly mean further delays down the track, as the conductors will have to manually verify doors lest we take off with a door actually open, which isn't healthy.

Here at Emeryville, the conductors announced to people as they boarded that "This train is Standing Room Only. There are no seats at all." I've had to ride SRO for a stretch -- London to York in 1995 -- and it isn't that comfortable for any length of time. I also did once find myself aboard an SRO Capitol, but in that case I had the presence of mind when I heard the SRO announcement on boarding to dash down to one end of the train and stake out the floor space at the end. That's about the best one can do in such a case because the two ends are the only places you won't have people trying to climb over you while you sit on the floor. Everywhere else, you spend the entire trip dodging fellow passengers.

Emeryville: Scheduled departure 1:55; Actual 2:35
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This is the second of the two stops with a connection between the Capitol and BART, and also the last of the big "pick-up" stations (from here on we will probably have more people get off than on). As we approached the very crowded Richmond platform, the engineer called to the conductors, "I hope you've got some room back there."

"Yeah, right," came the sarcastic response. The conductors began seriously considering denying boarding altogether. They began to worry about the safety hazard presented by having so many people in the aisles, and called Amtrak Operations in Oakland (and spoke to the Union Pacific train dispatcher) to see whether they can deny boarding. Operations gave them permission to turn people down. The conductors made an announcement heard on the platform telling people "sorry, we can't let you on. The next train is in approximately an hour." I bet that is a messy scene on the platform. (I can't see it from my seat up on the upper level. The conductors were asking people to please get clear of the doors so the doors will close. Finally, they got the doors closed and the lead conductor came upstairs and let himself into the driving cab. I suspected he was going to hide there, but he came back out a few minutes later and started looking for passengers planning to get off at Martinez, the next stop, because it's going to take so long to get them out of their seats and downstairs to the doors through this big crowd.

As I expected, passengers are complaining bitterly about this, and I expect the conductors won't dare collect tickets.

Scheduled departure: 2:07
Actual departure: 2:47

Another "interesting" thing today. As we started to accellerate, the cars began to "bottom out," bouncing surprisingly hard on their suspension, as if we had a flat wheel. The engineer was sufficiently concerned to call the dispatcher to report it. I don't think it's bad track -- I think we are actually physically overloaded. It's not something one thinks about often, but we may actually be carrying more weight today than the cars' suspension is designed to handle.
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I'm one of the lucky ones, having a seat and all that, but I'd like to be able to go use the bathroom; unfortunately, doing so might lose me my seat, and besides, the stairwells and aisles are jammed with people. It was difficult enough just standing up to get into my backpack and pull out the auxilliary battery for the laptop. (There was still a fair bit of power in the main battery, but as I had the auxilliary and am not using the CD drive (they both use the same slot), I figured I should go ahead and drop it in.)

Passing through Crockett and the C&H Sugar refinery, I got another look at the triple bridges there that will eventually only be double, as the oldest of the three will soon be dismantled.

At Martinez, we do actually have some folks getting off, but I expect there will be even more people waiting to get on, which is going to make for unhappy passengers again. And I'm not sure waiting for the next train will be that good a bargain for them, as the next one is apt to be just as jammed.

In the old days, the railroads would put together "extra sections" of additional equipment, pressing into service anything that rolled. That meant you might have to ride in a clapped-out coach, but at least you got to make the trip and weren't left waiting on the platform. Nowadays, there just isn't any spare equipment to comandeer this way. I reckon the Oakland Amtrak Operations people are looking at whatever equipment they might have on hand and trying to see if there is anything they can tack onto the later trains today.

Heard on the radio as we approached the platform: Conductor 1: "Did you need the Amtrak police here for any reason?"

Conductor 2: "No, but I'm glad they're here!"

Dispatcher: "They just decided to show up in case you happened to need them."

Now they've brought up some road buses and are telling people they can ride buses to Sacramento. Yuck. I think that if I were a standee, I'd still stay on the train standing rather than ride a bus sitting down, as the bus is just going to get stuck in wall-to-wall traffic. It's a shame that the railroads have to use buses this way. It sends completely the wrong message to prospective passengers, particularly those who have never rode the train before. Next time, I bet they won't take the train.

Scheduled Departure: 2:34
Actual Departure: 3:38
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Suisun City-Fairfield

At least we take no further delay at the Benicia drawbridge. Ships have the right of way here, and I have been delayed here due to an open drawbridge. To our left as we crossed the bridge was the existing road bridge with a long, slow line of cars creeping northward. To our right, the new Benicia bridge continues to take shape, with the partically-completed concrete arches seeming to reach out for each other.

We passed an auto carrier train who gave us a "highball" (everything looks good) over the radio.

Passengers are saying "this must be the Calcutta Express," which is certainly overstating things. We are very full, but not true crush load, with people jammed up against each other. And we certainly have nobody riding on the roof!

This stretch of track between Benicia and Suisun City-Fairfield is normally the real speedway, with trains allowed the maximum (79 MPH, the US national maximum in areas not equipped with Automatic Train Stop, cab signals, or similar systems). We just passed one of the automated detectors (they check the train for hot running wheels and other defects) and it announced we were going 70. Presumably the engineer has backed off due to the overload. But we're still bottoming out pretty hard whenever we go through switches like those at the junction with the California Northern railroad line to Schellville.

An ambulance pulled up to the Suisun-Fairfield station as we pulled in. I expect there must be some sort of medical emergency on board, but the conductors aren't talking about it on the train radio, and I can't see what's going on from my seat here, and I sure don't want to get up and let someone take my seat.

The conductor just came on the PA to announce, "There is a small medical emergency on board car number two. Paremedics are on the scene and everything is under control, but there will be a short delay."

Now there is a bit of talk with the dispatcher, warning him that we're stuck here while the paramedics work on whatever's gone wrong. The dispatcher says he'll keep this station clear of any conflicting train movements until he hears from this crew.

The horn on the engine back behind us at the rear of the train sounded once. The engineer here at the lead end in the cab car called the conductor: "Did you put someone on the engine?

"No." said the conductor.

"Then why did the whistle blow! Go back there and check it out!"

They couldn't find anything wrong, so there are obviously ghosts on this train.

The paramedics got the woman who was sick off the train and we're back under way again.

Scheduled: 2:53
Actual: 4:08
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People on the train were complaining about why Amtrak didn't add more cars to the train. I explained that (a) the cars belong to the state of California, not to Amtrak, and (b) There aren't spares to add to these trains.

We're being further delayed here because, if I heard the radio correctly, Amtrak #5, the California Zephyr is making its stop coming the other way and we need to wait for it to finish its work at Davis before we can make our station stop. We pulled into Davis station, but did not open the doors, waiting for #5 to get out of town. As #5 pulled out, I saw that there were two private dome cars tacked onto the end of it. Ah, that's the way to travel!

Scheduled: 3:27
Actual: 4:43
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Sacramento -- Last Stop

There is a bit of padding in the schedule of the Capitol: it shows 15 minutes to travel westbound Sacramento-Davis, but 23 minutes eastbound. Nevertheless, we will be more than 1 hour late into Sacramento. Because it takes a minute or two to shut down my computer, I will make this final entry as we hit the bridge over the Sacramento River just before Sacramento, not the station proper.

Scheduled: 3:45
Actual: 5:00

For those of you who follow my LJ: thank you for my self-indulgent train geekery.
Conrunner Kevin

Yuba City

I needn't have hurried to shut down my computer. It was at least five minutes before I could move (other than to get out of the way of other people) because my large luggage was in the luggage rack at the opposite end of the car from me, and I had to wait for everyone else to get out before I could go get it. I couldn't see Lisa from where I was sitting, so I switched my radio back into the ham bands to the frequency we monitor (147.540) and hailed her. She came back right away, and said it was good that I was taking my time, because she hadn't been able to find a place to park anyway and was still driving around the area.

A few minutes later, I got down out of the train and off the platform. Getting off to the side of the crush of people still pouring into the station and toward the connecting buses, I called her again. She said, "I'm just approaching the head of the train now." Looking up, I saw her walking toward me. While I'd been working my way out of the train, she'd found a curbside space near the station and had walked over to meet me.

After using the restroom, we rolled my luggage over to the van and were shortly on our way to Yuba City. Traffic was heavy, but moving, as we did the hardest part (the ten miles from downtown to the CA-99/70 interchange north of Sacramento) without too much delay. From there, it was routine, except that they've torn up the frontage road by which we normally access the hotel from the north, so we had to turn around and go a couple of miles roundabout to get at the south-facing entrance. We took that opportunity to get some take-out food and groceries for the four nights we will be here -- although it's likely we'll eat Thanksgiving leftovers tomorrow and the next day.

After dinner, I needed a walk, and realized that I'd forgotten to get Diet Coke, so we went walking toward the construction site (there is a Raley's supermarket on the other side of it) and found that while the road is closed, there is still pedestrian access, barely.

Finally (and obviously, since I'm posting this), I got the internet service working in the room. I'm pleased to find that the wired service gateway can be shared between two computers using the small hub I brought with me. This may be handy to know in the future.
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Conrunner Kevin

Time Warp

I noticed while making the series of entries about my train trip earlier today that the time stamps didn't seem right. Investigating between stops, I discovered that my LJ settings had me in the Central time zone. I think I may have set myself to Central when I went to Chicago a few weeks ago and never remembered to set it back. That means the past few weeks' entries have been two hours post-dated.

In this afternoon's messages, the times in the texts of the messages are correct; the time stamps are more doubtful.