Dimand also notes that these are people who can be late to work on occasion without risking their jobs. He is the director of operations for the Charen Corp., a clothing manufacturer. It's extremely rare for him to drive to Los Angeles; he doesn't do it more than three times a year. He keeps a car at Union Station and pays $50 a month for a monthly pass for overnight parking. From Union Station it's a five-minute drive to work in the garment district, where he pays another $50 a month to park his car near his factory.
While the train races through Irvine at 70 miles an hour, one of the regulars does a creative reading of the daily horoscope. Farther back, the more solitary types huddle over computers or papers, taking advantage of the free time to catch up on their work.
From another set of four facing seats across the aisle, Dani Stevens leans over to say that she is a recent convert to the train culture and that what she found surprised her.
The manager of a tool and die company in Placentia, Stevens had begun commuting by train only a week before, after moving to Oceanside. She was nervous on her first day taking the train, she says, but she found she was immediately welcomed into the group.
Before relocating in Oceanside, her drive to work took 15 minutes from her home in Anaheim. Now her commute takes an hour and 15 minutes, but it's more peaceful, she says. Her boss sends someone to pick her up when she gets off the train in Fullerton. Although she is job hunting in Oceanside, she has enjoyed the train.
After collecting more commuters in Santa Ana, the San Diegan arrives in Fullerton at 7:20. Commuters stream off the train while another 50 or so wait to climb aboard. Garrett and Ross disembark. Hughes supplies them with automobiles that they leave at the station overnight.
As the train begins to roll again, Bob Sharp drops into one of the facing seats. Sharp, a vice president with Workmen's Auto Insurance Co. in downtown L.A., used to travel on the Chicago transit system. He is less forgiving of Amtrak's foibles than some of the other riders, but he also appears to enjoy his gadfly role in the group.
"Service is totally inconsistent and unreliable," he pronounces. "We're reminded all the time that this isn't a commuter."
His total travel time from his home in Yorba Linda is an hour and 20 minutes, if everything goes smoothly--which he claims isn't often.
Dimand disagrees. In his opinion, the trains run within 15 minutes of their schedule most of the time, and other commuters nearby nod in agreement. Sharp gives his cronies a look that says they're living in a pipe dream. They grumble about the picture he's presenting.
Dimand does admit that the train occasionally is as much as an hour and a half late. Some of the delays are unannounced.
Amtrak is replacing track south of San Juan Capistrano, and that sometimes causes delays. When Amtrak warns of track work, commuter ridership drops off because people don't want to be late.
If the train is running very late, Sharp catches an OCTD Park and Ride express bus that for $2 drops riders in downtown L.A., but he says it's crowded and uncomfortable and he prefers the train.
The group in the smoking car agree that train service could be improved with the addition of more trains. "We need an earlier train, one that leaves Fullerton at 6:30 or 7 a.m," Sharp says.
Such a train would reach Union Station between 7 and 7:30, allowing commuters plenty of time to reach work by 8 a.m.
Sharp also proposes an evening train that leaves later than the 5:50 but earlier than the last train, which leaves at 8:45.
Today, the trip proceeds uneventfully, and at 7:55 the train slides into Union Station. The commuters flood from the San Diegan and hurry through the wide, dark halls of the station.
Sharp walks a block and climbs aboard a city bus with Jim Mitchell. The RTD ride costs 90 cents. Mitchell gets off a half-mile away. Ten minutes after leaving the station, Sharp gets off two blocks from his office. In the evening, when he has more time, he takes Dash, a private commuter bus that costs 25 cents and winds its way around downtown L.A.
That evening, on the commute back to Orange County, the faces change a bit. Wine and mixed drinks replace the morning coffee. The daily crossword puzzles pass back and forth across the aisle, traded when somebody gets stuck.
Dimand takes the 4:45 train, arriving home at 6:30. "Naturally, all this is predicated on the train being on time," he says. Still, to Dimand, the potential for delay is no greater than on the freeway, and there's an advantage. "When you get home at night, you're relaxed," he says.
While the rail commuters' ranks are growing only slowly, that may not always be the case.