Rush Hour by Rail: Amtrak's Uneasy Riders

Times Staff Writer

Train 582 had just left Union Station when a young businesswoman sprinted up the aisle, shrieking like a character in a sexist cartoon.

"It's just a little ankle nibbler," one of her fellow commuters on Amtrak's San Diegan line assured her.

"I'm sorry, I just don't do mice," she said, keeping her distance as the rodent scrambled back and forth beneath the train's window.

Mice are only an occasional distraction for the 300 or so folks who take one of Amtrak's two daily rush hour runs to Los Angeles from San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, Fullerton and as far south as San Diego.

A bigger problem is when "they fumigate . . . and then don't bother to clean up the dead animals, so it smells for a few days," said Jim Robinson, an employee of the U.S. Justice Department who takes Amtrak from Oceanside to downtown Los Angeles each day.

Litany of Complaints

Get one of the commuters talking, and a crowd is likely to gather in the aisles, chiming in with a litany of complaints as the train chatters past the corrugated sheet metal sheds, razor wire fences, and equipment boneyards that comprise the vast backyard of Southern California industry.

The train's air conditioners dribble water on passengers, fares are too high, parking is bad at some stations, and the restrooms often "smell like campground latrines at high noon," they said. And one group of regular riders reported that fisticuffs almost broke out between three businessmen and an allegedly surly conductor a few weeks ago.

A suit-and-briefcase crowd consisting mainly of business executives, attorneys, and medical professionals, many of the commuters have grown as familiar as the conductors with the minute details of Amtrak.

Which is not to say the commuters don't enjoy the two hours or more they spend each day on Amtrak.

"Generally the service is pretty good . . . but commuters get real set in their ways," said Barbara Hanson, a systems engineer who boards the northbound train each morning in Santa Ana, commuting to a downtown job with RTD. "They like to do things the same way every day and not have to make little decisions. . . ."

And although the San Diegan lacks the variety of routes and schedule frequency of the commuter line she rode for nine years in Philadelphia, Hanson said that it does have its advantages.

For example, while Philadelphia employs no-nonsense commuter cars, Amtrak uses regular passenger cars with wide aisles and seats of a plumpness first-class air passengers only fantasize about. And commuters on San Francisco's BART or Chicago's El would probably think they'd gone to commuter heaven if their trains had cafe cars stocked with food and booze.

With conductors in white shirts and black vests wobbling up and down the aisles punching color-coded "hat checks," pigeons cooing on the Spanish-tiled roofs of stations with high, vaulted ceilings, and the ongoing serenade of the horn's wail, there's an air of anachronism, if not anomaly about commuting by train in Southern California.

Nostalgic Mood

That nostalgic mood extends to the way people treat each other, many passengers said. After the Oct. 1 earthquake, when the train stopped for four hours so the track could be inspected, the commuters threw a party. "We purged the liquor cabinets," said Richard Liebermann, a real estate executive who commutes each day from Newport Beach. Many regulars later signed a letter to Amtrak praising the professionalism of the train's crew during the emergency.

On Halloween some regulars dress up and sing "Pumpkin Carols." Passengers have held retirement dinners for departing conductors, and each Friday evening a commuter-created POETS' Club (the acronym roughly stands for Fie On Everything, Tomorrow's Saturday) gathers in the last car for a portable pot luck and party.

Perhaps the most old-fashioned aspect of train travel, though, is the time it provides for such outdated activities as reading, sleeping, and conversation, passengers said.

And with that much time for talking, it's probably inevitable that conversation frequently turns to the one thing everyone has in common: the trials and tribulations of commuting on Amtrak.

Last Wednesday was particularly memorable. To begin with, the train that leaves San Diego at 5:25 a.m. had been held up while the Border Patrol made one of their periodic sweeps for undocumented aliens, commuters said.

At least one of the people who'd come in on an afternoon train had spent almost two hours outside Santa Fe Springs while Amtrak crews repaired a fuel tank punctured by a pile of debris some adolescents had put on the tracks. As he sat watching workers in a welding yard, he inhaled diesel fumes and listened to a car full of elementary students sing campfire songs. "When the Lord passed out brains, Amtrak thought he said trains, and they missed theirs," one conductor joked several times as he walked through the cars assuring passengers that they weren't stranded for eternity.

Ordered to Disembark

Then, on the 5:45 p.m. southbound train, everyone was ordered to disembark. For almost an hour they stood on the platform as the Amtrak crew added a new cafe car to the train. So by the time the train got rolling, the mood was ripe for griping, sniveling and vitriol.

In hopes of advancing their cause with the management of Amtrak, Chris Smith, a vice president with a Los Angeles bank and a couple dozen other commuters recently created the San Diegan Amtrak Commuter Assn.

As Amtrak views things, however, the crux of the commuter issue is that there are no commuters on Amtrak. There can't be. The National Railroad Passenger Act of Sept. 1, 1970, which created Amtrak, "specifically indicates that Amtrak is not to be in commuter business," said Lloyd Arthur, director of public affairs for the company.

Arthur knows that a few hundred people regularly travel to work on Amtrak, and he said that Amtrak would like to accommodate them with discount commuter fares and more frequent service. But "to be in the commuter business, no subsidy can be involved." And the San Diegan line receives a federal subsidy, he said.

"It's been pointed out to (Southern California) counties and to Caltrans that Amtrak would be in a position to operate commuter type service, provided we're (fully) reimbursed" by the communities served, Arthur said.

Caltrans does partially support four of the eight round trips on the line, but unless Amtrak receives full local support, it can't technically operate them as commuter trains, Arthur said.

Still, Amtrak is sensitive to the needs of its regular riders, he added. Responding to complaints that trains are frequently late, he said that the line is on time approximately 70% of the time now, up from 60% a few years ago. And, contrary to what many commuters believe, he denied that the delays are due to freight trains receiving preference on the tracks, which Amtrak leases from Santa Fe.

Expensive Service

Some riders complained that a new, more expensive service called "custom class," is seldom used and wastes seats that could be used by commuters. But Arthur countered that "Custom Class is the most rapidly growing portion of the San Diego-Los Angeles line--we can't meet the demand."

Some commuters also complained that Amtrak's "push-pull" method, in which an engine pulls the train in one direction on the round trip, then pushes it in the other direction, creates a "coffin car" at the front of the train which could be extremely dangerous in an accident.

"That's ridiculous," Arthur said, citing 25 years of safety in other areas where the system is used.

And Arthur advises passengers to write to him about complaints such as rodent odor, leaking air conditioning, and surly conductors. (Most of the conductors are helpful and courteous, but a few, including one who regularly wore a "Pay or Die," pin, cause problems, commuters said.)

"Any letter that I receive in this office is answered personally . . . " he said. "I bend over backwards trying to help people."

A lot of self-described commuters on the line, however, said that they have written and called Amtrak, and that their complaints were often ignored. It's the arrogance that comes with being "the only game in town," that's so upsetting, many said.

In fact, there was only one thing that the group criticized with as much unanimity as they did Amtrak.

"I drove the freeways for three years," Liliana Cabrera, of Mission Viejo said, glancing at the slow-moving river of headlights out the train window. "They're disgusting."

"No can do! Never, never, never again! You just get hammered!" others chimed in.

"There's no comparison," said Liebermann. "I'd never go back to the brain damage of driving."

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