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October 23, 2013
Viewpoints: Train trip from L.A. starts on bus

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(Oct. 23 -- By Joe Mathews, Zocalo Public Square)

I'm not a big fan of trains, but my oldest son, Ben, 4, loves them. He'd been lobbying to go on a "big train trip," and his school would be closed for a couple of days at the end of September, when I had a meeting in Sacramento. Why not take the kid on a train trip from Los Angeles to the state capital, by Amtrak?

It would be useful research, too. California governments are still close to broke, but we are preparing to spend big money on one thing: connecting L.A. to San Francisco via high-speed rail through the San Joaquin Valley. The Amtrak line in the Central Valley goes through some of the same communities that would be connected under the high-speed rail plan.

So, on a recent Thursday morning, I found myself waiting on the platform of the train station next to Burbank Airport with a very excited 4-year-old. Then a bus pulled up to the train station and we boarded.

Getting on a bus at an airport train station might seem like a strange way to begin a train trip, but if you want to go from anywhere in Southern California to the Central Valley by train, you have to take a bus to Bakersfield first. Only a single track goes through the Tehachapis, and it's jammed with freight trains. Even if you could clear that track of freight trains, the speed limit of the winding route is just 25 mph.

At least those Amtrak buses to Bakersfield are comfortable, with clean bathrooms and strong Wi-Fi. Our bus arrived early at Bakersfield's beautiful and immaculate station, one of the country's 25 busiest. On board the train, we found second-floor seats with a table, so we could enjoy the lunch my wife had packed. Ben spread out his train books - from the "Thomas the Tank Engine" and "The Little Engine That Could" series - and for the first few minutes, he ate as I read.

As the trip went on, we spoke to several of our fellow passengers, many of whom use this train to shuttle between their Central Valley homes and work in the East Bay. The Amtrak San Joaquins (longtime riders add that last "s" so I do so here) is the fifth most popular line in the United States, and third in California after the Pacific Surfliner (coastal Southern California, including the L.A. to San Diego line) and the Capitol Corridor (between Sacramento and the Bay Area). Its passenger numbers have been increasing in recent years, now surpassing 1.2 million annually.

We spent most of the trip looking out the window, glimpsing the full wonder of the San Joaquin. The fruit and nut trees in perfect diagonal rows. Oil tank farms and oil train cars. Dairy sheds. Sloughs full of farm runoff. A Del Monte plant. A field of old military airplanes, somewhere between Turlock and Merced. Big piles of tires, plastic buckets and wooden pallets. And soybeans, and corn, and lots and lots of cotton.

Then, in Hanford, the train stopped abruptly, for a minute, then 5 minutes, then 10. The track - and there's only a single track for stretches of the journey - belongs to the freight railroads, and their trains have priority. On the particular day we traveled, there was also a problem with a big switch between Hanford and Fresno.

It would be the first of four unscheduled stops, which annoyed me but didn't bother Ben.

All the stops made the train an hour late by the time we arrived at Stockton. We could have reached Sacramento many hours later by train, but by bus the city was only an hour away, so we, along with dozens of riders, got off and boarded Amtrak buses.

"That was fun, Daddy," Ben said.

Fun, yes, but also frustrating. Why are we still relying on single tracks owned by freight lines to move passengers on a train through the Central Valley? I've dumped on high-speed rail for years - for outlandish ridership projections, for its failure to attract private investment, for not starting with a connection between L.A. and San Diego. But high-speed rail does provide solutions to the gaps Ben and I encountered firsthand. It would provide a proper route for rail passengers through the Tehachapis. It would provide a dedicated track for passenger rail in the Central Valley. And it would connect the state in ways that we have otherwise failed to do.

However you feel about our high-speed plans, California is a state in need of more rail capacity. On the flight back to Burbank from Sacramento the following evening, Ben began lobbying for a second train trip, this time with his 2-year-old brother. That increased capacity can't come soon enough.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.org).

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