Sixteen Hours Lost – Waiting On or In a Train.

LOS ANGELES  — I think it was a character in the Sunday Comics back in the days of my youth, who first said, “I shoulda stood in bed!” I’ve been away for a month and it’s been an interesting and productive 30 days … certainly nothing happened that would cause me to wish I had done anything differently. (Well, it might have been better to have stayed in three French towns, each for four days, instead of two towns for six days each. I suppose almost any itinerary can be tweaked and improved in hindsight.)

But — ironically for a train travel enthusiast — it was the rail travel here in the U.S. that disappointed. Specifically, it was the late trains. Here is the unfortunate scorecard:

Lake Shore Limited – New York to Chicago: 11 hrs., 15 min. late.
California Zephyr – Chicago to Salt Lake City: 32 min. late.
California Zephyr – Salt Lake City to Davis, CA: 56 min. early.
Coast Starlight – Davis to Los Angeles: 4 hrs., 15 mins. late.

The three late trains combined for a total of 16 lost hours although, in truth, I probably shouldn’t have included the Zephyr’s 32-minute late arrival into Salt Lake City. That’s “on time” by today’s standards.

Photo: The Coast Starlight arriving in Davis, California … already four hours late.

And, in fairness, I do not want to blame Amtrak for most of those 16 lost hours. As regulars here know, the Lake Shore’s troubles began in Erie, Pennsylvania, when a 33-year-old man deliberately drove his pickup in front of our locomotive. We were already running an hour later, but that set us back another three hours, From then on, it was a foregone conclusion that things would go from bad to worse to much worse and that we would be very, very late into Chicago … as indeed we were.

The cause of yesterday’s debacle occurred before we boarded in Davis. (“We” meaning me and another NARP member who had been at the Salt Lake City meetings.) Somewhere north of Sacramento, our train had been stuck behind a freight that had broken down. My plan had been to board the Coast Starlight, have a Bloody Mary in the Pacific Parlour Car, followed by breakfast in the diner. That’s almost how it worked out … except that the Bloody Mary was followed by lunch, not breakfast. Four hours lost … but if there is anything positive about tho whole saga, it’s that we only lost another 15 minutes over the rest of the trip.

The implications to those four lost hours are several. First, the scenic highlight of the southbound Coast Starlight are the two or three hours running down the coast, often within a hundred feet of the ocean. But last night, it was completely dark before we reached San Luis Obispo, so we missed all the scenery that everyone had been looking forward to seeing.
Then, of course, there were all the resulting missed connections. There were several people on board who were to have connected with trains taking them farther south in the direction of San Diego. Their journeys would be completed by bus. Others would be put up in LA hotels and fed by Amtrak, and most of those folks went to bed not knowing for sure how they would be completing their journeys.

Again: Very little of this was Amtrak’s fault. Car crash, freight traffic and stalled freight train. BUT most paying passengers don’t care. It’s has to be hurting ridership… and it’s got to be fixed.