Railroading North America

22/ Tehachapi Loop

22-1sac-staion-111008-mondsc06685-usemeDAY 22
Arriving Los Angeles, California
Amtrak Train #11, “The Coast Starlight”
Monday, November 10, 2008

In Seattle the Amtrak counter clerk had warned me that the Sunday train would run down the central valley after Emeryville, CA and go directly into Los Angeles. Work was being done of bridges on the coastal route causing the re-route.

“It’s be a couple of hours faster, but not nearly as scenic,” I was told. “Fair warning.”

Arriving in Seattle, I want a day off after sitting up all night from Jasper to Vancouver. Delaying an additional day until Monday to ride along the coast would cut into my remaining days — and I only had eight days left. I planned to ride a few trains around Los Angeles — maybe to San Diego and back.

The central valley route was shorter anyway; I did not mind getting into Los Angeles at 6 p.m. instead of nine.

It was a great decision. The Sunday train ran through the Tehachapi Loop.

At Emeryville all passengers except those going directly to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles got off and were hauled off on buses.

After Emeryville, we were an express train. We would make a few stops, but no passengers would get on or off. Moreover, the freight lines cleared the tracks for us. We expected to arrived at 6 p.m. We actually would arrive at 4:45 p.m. — fully 4 hours and fifteen minutes early.

22-2leanne-and-photo-101-usemeSo why did the train fill up with passengers at Emeryville?

Because of the route through the Tehachapi Loop.

After Emeryville, The Coast Starlight turned onto tracks that had not carried passengers in 22 years. At the Tehachapi Loop the train tracks circle gaining altitude. If a train is long enough it runs right over itself.

The train buffs clamoured on the train and knew all about this. They arrived with cameras and two-way radios. They listened into the engineers. They were photographing and videotaping everything. It was a train convention of rail junkies.

I was in heaven.

At one point the radio crackled from someone who watches trains along the route. They were stunned when we, a passenger train, roared by and were alerting train watchers down the line. “Hey,” he said. “You won’t believe this. An Amtrak passenger train just came by.”

22-3ext-sac-sta-111008-mon-dsc06676-useme“A what? — Did you get the number?”

“179.” (This was us). “What are they doing out here? Are they lost?” And a moment later, “Here they come. I’ve got them! It IS a passenger train!”

I moved to the observation car along with the crowd as we approached the Tehachapi Loop. It was near mayhem. I was almost trampled when we crossed the bridge over tracks where moments before we had been.

Dinner is served in both the dining car, and next door in the concessions car. The menu is different in the two cars, but no one (me included) seems to get it, including me. They announce the menus and I try to order something in one car that is only served in the other. It is very confusing. Maybe in summer when loads are heavier both cars are needed. Who knows? In any case, most people eat in the dining car and not in the concession car.

I have found the concessions car a perfect place to work. Unlike much of the train, there are plenty of plugs. The tables are big, and the booths comfortable enough.

The trouble is every few hours the concessions guy comes through and shoos us out so he can set tables that no one will use. He is very earnest about setting up these tables, and vaguely anal about their appearance, stopping periodically to straighten a knife or fork that the wobble of the train has turned askew. He waits attentively for customers that never come.

Eventually being thrown out of the car every few hours irritates a college professor who had claimed one of the tables adjacent to me. He and the car attendant mix it up. I watched in hopes the college professor would win, but he didn’t. And so, as usual, I packed up and moved elsewhere for two hours while these tables sat idle and unused.

A cleancut kid, age 20, with a name tag, Matt, passes. I ask him a question. He wears an Amtrak lanyard, has identification hanging around his neck and wears an Amtrak dress shirt. He answered my question smartly and concisely. I am impressed. I ask him how long he had worked for Amtrak.

“I don’t work for Amtrak. I just ride the trains — I love trains.” Matt is one of the rail buffs who has hopped on the train for the trip through the Tehachapi Loop.

Matt settles in with a couple who have told me they love the trains so much they wanted to get married on Amtrak twenty-five years ago. “Amtrak told us no, absolutely not,” the woman says.

“We should have gotten on, preacher, guests and all and just done it,” her husband says. She agrees.

I have lots of baggage tags from VIA Rail Canada. I unclip one from my computer case and give it to Matt. “Is this for me?” He asks.

“It can be,” I tell him, “for $8.” He goes for his wallet.

“Matt.” I say. “It’s yours.” He holds it like the Holy Grail. “I’d give $10 — I have friends who might pay $15 for it.”

I give Matt more luggage tags. Maybe he can make a few bucks.

Matt has decided I am hilarious. “Are you a grandfather?” He asks. “I wish you were my grandfather because you’d be a heck of a grandfather.” Hmm, I’m sure there’s a complement in there somewhere.

Then, Matt is on to Death:” When I die I want to be cremated,” he says out of the blue. “I want to be put in an engine and ride all over the country.”

We talk about trains, and I mention that my wife, Carol Anne, at that moment is loading our car and herself onto AutoTrain in Sanford, Florida. She is on her way overnight to Lorton, VA outside Washington, DC. We take AutoTrain fairly often when going north.

This news electrifies not only Matt, but the entire group I am sitting with.22-autotrain-useme2

Would I call her? Could she tell us what she is seeing and doing?

She can do better than that — she can snap some pictures and send them to us, and she does. Using her iPhone three pictures arrive in minutes.

A group gathers around the glow of my iPhone. But then, Wait! What engines do they use on Auto Train? It looks like one big heavy train that needs a lot of engines. Would she take a picture of the engines? Sure.

Moments later they are studying the engine. “It’s the same generation pulling our train,” someone says and after some argument, and turning my phone thiswayandthat to see better, they all agree that it sure is.

Alone on the tracks our train barrels toward Los Angeles along Highway 99, through Merced, Stockton and then comes down onto the high desert west of Edwards Air Force Base.

I have packed everything in my compartment so I can press my nose against the windows for the last hour-and-a-half. The high desert, like Los Angeles, is home country — I have spent a lot of time up here covering NASA Space Shuttle landings at Edwards in the early 1980s. That was back when the program was just beginning.

We thunder past Lancaster and Palmdale, where the Shuttles were built and now, instead of following the tracks east to Barstow, we slow and being winding down through narrow gorges toward Valencia and the San Fernando Valley.

For awhile we are way off the beaten path in the mountains and I study the area.

INTO LOS ANGELES // “Army of Darkness”
I have been here too. I appear in “Army of Darkness”, a movie that was shot here. In Army of Darkness (part of the Evil Death trilogy) I am the “common village peasant” almost trampled by the horse. When being cast, I argued my acting abilities were better suited to “Noble Knight”. Casting, however, saw me as a “common village peasant” and decided to give that horse a shot at killing me.

INTO LOS ANGELES // San Fernando Valley
Now the train flashes through a Metrolink station at Valencia and we are into the San Fernando Valley on the Metrolink tracks. We pass Burbank Airport (and my storage unit), and run flatout along San Fernando road, ripping through Glendale and within minutes slow and ease under Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

The train was due at 9 p.m., but because we went inland, we expected to arrive at 6 p.m. I look at my watch: It is 4:45 p.m.

The freight trains have stood aside for a passenger train, and that — like the trip through the Tehachapi Loop today — doesn’t happen much.

As I gather my stuff, Matt appears in the door of my sleeping compartment. “Thanks again for the pictures of AutoTrain,” he says, adding that he wants to thank my wife again for taking the pictures of AutoTrain in Sanford, FL. “That was really nice of her.” He holds up the three VIA Rail Canada baggage tags I have given him. “Thanks for these, too.” Nice kid.

We shake hands. Don’t worry about the next generation if it is filled with Matts.

“You owe me eight bucks for each VIA Rail tag,” I tell him as he turns to leave. “That’s 24-bucks.”

(Photographs: interior, Sacramento, CA, station; train buffs, Leanne and husband who wanted to get married on Amtrak; exterior, Sacramento, CA Amtrak station; train buff Matt; AutoTrain loading at Sanford, FL, taken by Carol Anne Crow as she was boarding AutoTrain at same time I was with train buffs on train in California)


Amtrak Train #11, “The Coast Starlight”
Distance: Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA:
1377 miles / 2216 kilometers

Trip Distance Total: 7,516 miles / 9,981 kilometers


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