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Signal Failure Stalls Amtrak Commuters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Signals malfunctioned along 72 miles of track Thursday, temporarily halting all Amtrak trains and delaying commuters for up to two hours at stations from San Juan Capistrano to San Diego.

Amtrak spokeswoman Stephanie Miller said the signals were out between Old Town in San Diego and east Irvine, starting at 5:35 a.m.

The problem was fixed by 11:30 a.m., but not before Amtrak officials were forced to hastily arrange replacement trains and charter buses to take commuters stranded at seven stations to their destinations, Miller said.

Southbound commuters from Los Angeles were bused to San Diego from San Juan Capistrano.

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“All of our San Diegan trains were two hours late this morning,” Miller said. “When the signals aren’t functioning, the trains can’t move. The signals are necessary to let the engineers know if there are trains approaching and it is OK to proceed.”

The malfunction was the second time this week that Amtrak commuter service was interrupted in the South County. Eight freight cars derailed in Irvine on Sunday afternoon, causing Monday morning commuters to be rerouted on buses until the damaged tracks could be repaired.

Debbie Wood, Amtrak’s district supervisor for Southern California, said Thursday that signal stations are located every five miles along the tracks and, by 10 a.m., some were working well enough for trains to move at restricted speeds.

However, for early morning commuters at the busy Capistrano Depot waiting for their ride north, Amtrak was forced to send trains south from Los Angeles to pick them up because northbound trains from San Diego were affected by the malfunction.

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The shift was successful, but it did not happen quickly. Commuters who usually depart the Capistrano Depot at 6:37 a.m. finally chugged north at around 8:15 a.m.

But since no one knew exactly how long the delay would last, commuters had to decide whether to find alternative transportation or wait out the delay, said Jane Wieneaga, who works at the depot bakery.

“Oh God, it was crazy,” Wieneaga said. “News of the delays came in dribbles, about every 15 or 20 minutes. People didn’t know what to do. The worst was all the judges and lawyers who were due in court.”

Some of the vacationers at the Capistrano Depot took the delays in good spirits.

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Carole Matson of Capistrano Beach was headed toward Santa Barbara for a few days with her boyfriend and didn’t seem to mind waiting at the station for two hours.

“After a bottle of champagne, it doesn’t really matter,” Matson said, laughing. “Besides, I love riding trains. This is the third train I’ve taken this week.”

To serve southbound riders at the Capistrano Depot, Amtrak chartered three 47-seat buses that made stops at Oceanside, Del Mar and San Diego, Wood said. Most of those people were probably headed toward the Del Mar Race Track, Wood said.


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