Kevin Standlee (kevin_standlee) wrote,
Kevin Standlee

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A Trip That Could Tire Even My Patience

It has been a bit of a slog getting back to the Bay Area these past two days and sending Lisa home by train.

Lisa came down with what appears to have been food poisoning the day before the trip, so was tired and ill and couldn't drive us to Salem; her father did so, which ordinarily would be okay if the train arrives back at anything approaching a reasonable hour, not too many hours after its scheduled 2 PM arrival. (More about this later.)

Our train was, for a wonder, on time out of Salem. I poured Lisa into the top bunk of our roomette and she went to sleep. A few hours later, she felt well enough to eat a little bit of dinner, and the sleeping car attendant brought us a couple of nice meals. (A nice part of being in the sleepers is that the attendants will bring your meals if you ask; I don't normally do this.)

We lost some time heading south, but no more than expected and "usual," fighting our way up against train traffic coming the other way. I went to bed a bit after Klamath Falls. When I woke up around 6 AM, noting that we were not moving and that there was still snow outside (6 AM should be around Sacramento), I knew something was wrong. Turned out that Union Pacific had derailed a train at Dunsmuir Yard, and our train sat at Mt. Shasta City for 4-5 hours waiting for it to be cleared.

Meanwhile, down by the Bay, a section of track on the Sacramento-Oakland line washed out. It was unclear how they would handle us. As we approached Sacramento, we were informed that we would be rerouted through Stockton to Martinez, which would be a delay, especially because it would involve a long, slow back-up move out of Sacramento onto the former SP Fresno Subdivision, but Lisa and I didn't care, because it meant we'd be on new-to-us trackage.

After sitting a long time at Sacramento, we were told the reroute was canceled, UP was going to have the track reopen by the time we got there, so off we went.

UP lied.

We sat a few miles out of Suisun-Fairfield station with one Amtrak Capitol stopped ahead of us and one behind us, waiting for UP track repair crews to get the track reopened. After at least another two hours of sitting there, we were allowed to creep through at restricted speed (<10 mph).

While we sat, our car attendant opened the window and let us look around outside. We could see the water flowing through the ballast on which the track sits. This is disconcerting, to say the least. The track could have washed right out from under us!

The train behind us had to make an emergency back-up move to Suisun-Fairfield because one of the passengers had a seizure and paramedics had to be called. That train being Capitol #741, a back-up move is somewhat easier, I suppose -- the engineer could just change ends, as the train has a driving cab at the other end.

The only good thing personally about #741's problems was that it meant there was no chance they might decide to route it around us, because Lisa and I needed to catch it to get to Fremont. Our train arrived at Oakland 7:03 PM, ten and a half hours late.

My premonition about #741's further delay being good to me was well taken. Just as we were claiming our checked luggage, #741 showed up on the center platform. #11 hadn't left yet, as they were dealing with attaching a private car to the end of the train. We had to walk around #11 to get to the center platform. #741 left before #11. If #741 hadn't been delayed, there would not have been enough time for me to claim my luggage before having to board #741.

Another good thing: Amtrak ran the weekend schedule yesterday, counting it as a holiday. Had they not done so, the train behind us would have been 541, not 741, and 541 terminates in Oakland, so it would have been a bus ride to Fremont.

Getting to Fremont (and my van) was unremarkable. Lisa asked about the status of #14, the northbound train onto which I was supposed to put her that night and that is scheduled for 8:37 PM. I knew #14 was late, but didn't realize how bad things were until Julie the Amtrak Computer refused to even guess at an arrival time, which is a sign of things having gone seriously wrong.

We drove down to San Jose and found that a large tree had blocked the line down by Santa Barbara, and it was taking a lot longer to clear than anyone expected. (Maybe Union Pacific didn't own any chainsaws?) They were sort-of predicting a 3 or 4 AM departure. Maybe. They didn't know for sure. They took my cell phone number and promised to call "ten minutes before the train arrives," which wasn't very useful.

Given that we clearly were going to be there for many hours, but couldn't get too far from the station in case things changed quickly, Lisa and I checked in to the Arena Hotel for the night. The theory was I could probably get at least five hours sleep until they called us, and we could walk to the station if we had to do so.

The hotel had wireless internet service, albeit somewhat slow and prone to dropouts. Julie was predicting arrivals again and suggested about 3:15 AM. Lisa and I got some take-out dinner, she took a bath (the rooms in that hotel are very nice and include jacuzzi-style bathtubs), and I went to sleep.

Lisa didn't feel that sleepy and played computer games for a while. By the time she was sleepy, she figured it was almost 3 AM and she should just wait for the train. Around that time, Amtrak's station agent (for who I have sympathy) telephoned me and said, "the train should be here between 6 and 7 AM." I immediately fell back asleep, but now Lisa was agitated and unable to sleep until maybe 5:30 AM or so.

On the assumption that "between 6 and 7 AM" for an Amtrak train means "sometime after 7," I reset the alarm for 6:30. Julie's predictions were not that useful, but the train had apparently cleared Salinas, the last stop before San Jose, so we went to the station.

The station agent still said "between 6 and 7" although by now it was nearly 7. I foresaw more trouble. #14 was about to get caught in the morning parade of Caltrain's commute (not "commuter") trains, and wasn't likely to have any priority at all.

The agent couldn't give us any new predictions, although eventually she reported when the train had reached Gilroy. If we had only known when the train would really be there, we could have stayed at the hotel and gotten richly-desired sleep.

The train finally arrived at 8:32 AM, fully twelve hours late. I helped Lisa board, but based on past bad experiences, I couldn't leave until the train did. On the mildly brighter side, she would not miss breakfast if she felt like eating it.

The train was delayed further attaching a private car to the rear, but this wasn't a big deal, because by now a pair of southbound Capitol trains were heading toward us on the single-track section between Santa Clara and Newark, so the dispatcher couldn't let #14 go anyway. Caltrain's dispatcher, who controls the track as far as Santa Clara, let #14 out of the station, but only as far as Santa Clara, where it would have to wait for the pair of Capitols. #14 departed San Jose at 9:11 AM, 12:32 late.

I went back to the hotel and managed to (barely) make it in time for the included breakfast. I tried to log into my e-mail to let people know I'd be late, but the connection foiled me, so I gave up and got showered and dressed -- I fortunately had brought one set of work shirts with me, although I'm wearing black sneakers today instead of wing-tips -- and headed to the office, where I finally arrived just before noon. Good thing there were no must-do-today projects.

I called Lisa's father and warned him about the huge delay. The bad news is that (as of when I type this) Julie shows #14, with Lisa aboard, somewhere between Sacramento and Chico, running over 15 hours late, with a predicted arrival time in Salem of 4:40 AM tomorrow morning. The (sort of) good news is that Julie-the-computer's prediction is clearly full of it, as they'll continue to lose time all night tonight, so they might well end up delayed so long as to arrive at an hour more convenient for Lisa's father tomorrow morning.

Assuming the train gets there at all, that is. By the time they left San Jose, they'd already been told that the train would be annulled (canceled) at Portland, with onward passengers forwarded by "luxury motor coach" (a bus by any other name rides just as badly) to their destinations. Unfortunately, if they lose too much more time -- quite likely at this point -- they may annul the train at Klamath Falls instead of Portland. (K-Falls being the last convenient place to turn the train before Portland.) That would put Lisa on a bus from there to Salem, a prospect that I assure you fills her with much bile. "If I wanted to ride a bus, I wouldn't have bought a train ticket," is the gentlest thing she will say about this prospect.

It's not really the delays that bother me on this trip. Nearly every one of the delays was completely out of Amtrak's hands. They were the results of natural disasters -- washouts, downed trees on the line -- or of the host railroad -- UP derailments and slow orders. What bothers me is how it seemed nearly impossible for Amtrak to relay meaningful information to the passengers. They should have been able to make a more reliable revised arrival time to us, and allow us to go get some sleep.

I do feel sorry for the Amtrak station agent who had to work all night long, and there were a lot of hard-working Amtrak employees who told us all they knew, but who clearly didn't know a lot, about what was going on.

I am very tired and am going to try to get to bed early tonight, especially as I have to be up up and at it quite early tomorrow.

Update, January 4: Upon re-reading this, I realized a couple of paragraphs were telling the story out of order, so I rewrote them, and I also corrected a couple of typos.

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