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Rail Commuters Lose Track of Time--and Some Trains

October 04, 1990|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amtrak's northbound San Diegan pulls into San Juan Capistrano on time, loads up with about 100 passengers, blows its lonely whistle--and promptly heads south.

After riders scream obscenities at the conductor and he does the same to the engineer, the train comes to a halt, idles a few minutes and then gets back on course, having lost only eight miles and about 20 minutes to schedule.

Welcome to the wacky world of commuting by rail to Los Angeles, an adventure undertaken each day by several hundred of us who live in San Diego or Orange counties and work downtown.

We all tell ourselves and our co-workers that it beats driving the freeways, but sometimes it takes all the skills of a Hesperia land agent to make it convincing.

Like the recent day when the train didn't show up at all, which is not that unusual an occurrence and one that is particularly bedeviling to those boarding at such places as San Juan Capistrano, which has no station and consequently no station master or other personnel to pass on information.

I generally take what is supposed to be the 6:40 a.m. train and passengers begin lining up on the platform about 6:30. By 6:45 on this particular day, people are staring down the tracks and straining to hear the whistle as the train makes the curve at Capistrano Beach.

Suddenly, about 7:05, the crossing lights activate and the guards come down. We all line up again--only to watch a freight rumble through at a high speed, its open cars densely populated by waving illegals.

By 7:15, the grumbling has gotten louder and someone finally goes across the street to the phone and calls Amtrak. He comes back, talks to a few people and they all start leaving.

The word is that the train had broken down somewhere south of Del Mar. The second train, due at 7:40, has left San Diego and barring any mishap will be arriving about half an hour late after picking up those stranded south of Del Mar.

It arrives about 8:15, pulling six cars. The earlier train boasts seven cars, so we wind up with 13 cars of passengers crammed into six, all envying the illegals on that freight with the wind blowing in their faces.

The cars are so crowded, no one can make it to the club car for coffee or to the restroom, either, and it is a credit to the dedication of the conductors that they are able to collect every single ticket.

"Where's Mussolini when we need him?" yells out one passenger, leaving it unclear whether he's referring to the myth that the Italian dictator made the trains run on time or whether he's wishing for someone to hang up by the heels, as the partisans did when they caught up with Il Duce.

Just outside Anaheim, the train pulls into a siding and sits there idling. About 10 minutes go by and finally so does a freight (America is the only nation where freight has priority over passenger trains).

Sometimes the train will pull into a siding and nothing but time goes by. When asked why we're sitting there, conductors will reply "Orange Block" or "Red Block," as if we're all familiar with rail terminology. (After about 12 years of riding the San Diegan, I still don't know--nor care about, if truth be known--the difference between the two.)

And while it is extremely rare for the train to go in the wrong direction, it is fairly common for passengers to do so because the locomotive these days always points north.

Southbound trains are pushed, northbound pulled. So at those stations (Fullerton and Santa Ana) where the twain meet, it is easy for the neophyte to assume both are heading for Los Angeles and board a train going to San Diego.

Engine breakdowns are also fairly common and always in unlikely places, far from an escape route. And when the engine goes, so go lights and air conditioning.

Several months ago, I had an afternoon doctor's appointment in Mission Viejo at 4:30, so I took the 2:45 out of Los Angeles, scheduled to arrive in San Juan Capistrano at 4. Somewhere between Santa Ana and Irvine, the train hit something left on the tracks (when kids aren't throwing rocks at the train, they're piling rubbish on the tracks) and lost all power.

We sat for about 20 minutes while train personnel wandered around outside scratching their heads and muttering to each other, but not saying a word to the passengers (like doctors who are extremely reluctant to share professional information with patients).

Finally, one passenger disembarked, suit jacket slung over a shoulder, briefcase in hand. "Hey!" hollered the conductor. "Get back on the train! You can't just get off. What's wrong with you? Get back here!"

"What are you going to do, shoot me?" the passenger snapped as he scrambled up an embankment and headed into a grove of trees. The rest of us waited the 40 minutes or so for repairs to be made.

Sometimes we're lucky and the engine breaks down close to Union Station and they can send a new replacement locomotive and get it hooked up in a few minutes.

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