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just a minor derailment on the way home

By enelson
Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007 at 12:17 am in Amtrak, Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), rail, Safety.

move-toward-the-light.jpgI had to post this when I got home; Sprint’s Internet air cards have gone down to $59 a month, but I’m not ready to bite:

7:15 p.m.: I may be crazy, but 15 minutes ago I got on a Capitol Corridor train that promises to take me home, but I’m not so sure.

When I arrived at the station, one of my fellow commuters was walking away from the station in a huff, saying there was a derailment.

“Where?” I asked.

“There’s a derailment. They’re not going anywhere,” he responded, looking at me like I was an idiot for asking.

“Where’s the derailment?”

“There’s a de-RAIL-ment!” he said loudly, pausing for a moment so a simpleton like myself could comprehend the gravity of the situation.

“It’s between Richmond and Martinez,” he said before storming off to find another way to Fairfield.

Derailment. On the Capitol Corridor, that could mean only one thing for a hapless commuter: Interminable hours of delays, interspersed with uncertain announcements as we waited, trapped in our double-decker prison.
I had waited three hours in Richmond once after a shooting victim drove his car onto the tracks and the subsequent police investigation stopped all train traffic. I had a car back in Oakland, so I was able to BART it back, get my car, and bring a fellow refugee with me out to the Central Valley.

I asked the station agent at Jack London Square about the incident and was relieved to hear that no one had been hurt.

As for clearing the tracks, and she said the fact that the San Joaquins train had just departed on its way to Bakersfield was a good sign.

When my Capitol Corridor train arrived at Jack London Square, I asked a conductor if the track had been cleared.

“They’re double-tracking it,” he said, which meant that, at least, trains were getting past the scene, albeit slowly.

Being a transportation reporter, I also had to make sure that I or someone in our Contra Costa offices was covering the event. Another reporter had picked up what turned out to be a minor incident.

“It involves one engine, and it’s still upright,” an editor in my Oakland office told me as I boarded my train, wondering when I’d get home.

7:24 p.m.: Update from the conductor, via public address system on the train: There are delays ahead because of an “incident.”

He ends with an ominous prounoucement: “It’s bottlnecked real bad.”

I have a DVD and a laptop. That will get me through the first 90 minutes.

7:34 p.m.: We’re past Richmond and still moving at normal speed. I can see the Christmas-tree-looking lights of the refinery in Rodeo. But there’s a long way to go before we get to Martinez. I see the lights of the new Carquinez suspension bridge as we wind along the Bay shore. I’m look for Kleig lights and heavy equipment on the tracks but see nothing unusual.

7:39 p.m. We’ve stopped. I can see the lights of the C&H sugar plant beyond the bridge, which we still haven’t passed beneath. A conductor walks by, his radio abuzz with unintelligible voices. We move again, slowly, a minute after stopping.

7:42 p.m.: We lumber under the two Carquinez spans and slow to a seven more, to perhaps 10 mph as we pass close by the sugar processing plant. I hear an air horn, but I can’t tell if it’s from my train or another that’s trying to get by the accident.

7:50 p.m.: On my way to the restroom, I chat up the concessionaire, who is peering ahead through an open window in the lower level of the “Superliner” car, where you can buy food, drink, and all manner of alcohol. We stop again, and I tell him about my three-hour ordeal last year.

“I remember that one,” he says with a sympathetic smile. “Railroading is not an exact science.”

7:55 p.m.: I collect my coat, pack and laptop and move to the Superliner, which has seats that recline like lounge chairs. They’re dimly lit, so when and if we pass the derailed locomotive, I’ll get a good look at it.

8 p.m. We’re still stopped. Another Amtrak train passes briskly by, heading toward Richmond. I decide to start the DVD. I’m thinking: This could be much worse. I could be stuck on an unfriendly platform in Richmond, instead of reclining above a fully stocked eatery. I wonder if they have the stuffed flounder entree today.

8:06 p.m. I think we’re moving, because the train is vibrating, but looking across the Carquinez Strait at the lights on the far shore tell me I’m sitting still.

8:12: The microwave is out, so I’ve returned to my seat with a Pyramid Hefe Weizen and cheese and crackers. The concessionaire told me train 542, the train that departed 85 minutes before mine, has just cleared the¬†derailment site. He guesses that they might pull alongside Train 540, the one with the derailed engine, to take on its passengers, who departed Oakland before 5 p.m. They’re lucky, I think.

8:16: A note to our beer blogger Bill Brand: They’re planning to discontinue the hefe weizen. I’m heartbroken, but then I’ve been hearing this for 9 months, and tonight I’m still drinking it.

If they had wi-fi on this train, I could forgive them and post this blog item in real time.

8:22 p.m. Still not moving. In five minutes, I’m supposed to get off this train. That means we’re nearly an hour late. Laptop down to 25 percent power. I may have to move to one of the other cars, which have A/C electric outlets, bright lights and seats that don’t recline.

8:37 p.m.: Still stopped. Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham returns my call from 6:45 p.m., apologizing that she thought I had called from Bay Cities News Service, not Bay Area News Group, and she’d already informed BCNS.

I tell her I’ve got plenty of time.

She tells me much of what I’ve already gleaned or guessed: Train 540 was the train in question, but I hadn’t figured out that it wasn’t a locomotive that derailed. It was the “cab car,” which is a passenger car from which¬†the engineer sits and controls the train while the locomotive pushes from behind the train. So there were probably passengers sitting in the car when it happened. Must’ve been scary, I think.

As the concessionaire surmised, Train 542 did, in fact, stop to pick up its predecessor’s passengers, and they were on their way home.

She told me the exchange took place between 7:45 and 8 p.m., but if that’s so, why am I sitting here an hour later? The disabled train is on its way back to the Oakland Amtrak yard, she tells me.

8:56 p.m.: I’ve moved yet again, to a seat in the front car, which has both reclining seats (they don’t go as far back as the Superliner’s) and electrical outlets. Before I moved, a young man behind me heard me talking on the phone with Amtrak, and asked me if I knew what was going on.

I told him as much as I knew. before that, I called my son and left him voicemail asking him to check on the dog’s welfare.

People are really starting to chatter amongst themselves, the way people do when they’re bound together in a situation not of their choosing.

9 p.m.: another Amtrak passes us heading west. NOW I’m really going to start that DVD.

Oh, wait. No headphones. Drat.

I’ll turn on the subtitles.

9:07 p.m.: Another train passes by. I realize that my movie is based on a novella by Steve Martin. A minute ago, a woman was asking a conductor for an update. “Twenty-five, 30, maybe 45 minutes,” she said. The passenger groaned.

Now I’m regretting that I ever got on.

9:20 p.m. Two things: The air horn gives a gentle hoot-hoot, and a passenger a few seats away goes,”All right! Here we go!”

I hold my breath for five seconds, and we begin to move, first slowly, then faster, and within 70 seconds we’re scooting around the curve as fast as I can remember. I look around to see if there’s a work crew, but so far, nothing.

The engeineer gives if a few solid honks, meaning we’re passing a crossing or passing workers on the tracks. As I recall, the trains always go past workers very slowly, so it’s probably the former.

9:24 p.m.: That was fun. Now we’re stopped again.


Back to Steve Martin’s non-narrative subtitled narrative.

Oh, good. We’re moving again.

9:27 p.m.: Now we’re honking like crazy, moving very slowly. I see workersand a little modular office on a trailer with light streaming through the door past hard-hatted workers standing in front. There are happy voice downstairs, hooting and yakking it up.

A young man in an olive t-shirt with a big knapsack on his back walks down the asile, saying, to no one in particular, “Amtrak sucks.”

I think, if we keep moving from this point on, I’ll be quite pleased with America’s passenger railroad network. I mean, it’s only 9:30 and we’re on our way past a derailment. Had I been on Train 542, I might have a different opinion.

9:33 p.m.: We arrive in Martinez, a mere hour and 50 minutes late.

When you get down to it, when I got on this train, this was not far from the best outcome I could reasonably hope for, under the circumstances.

Maybe I should write a letter of thanks to Amtrak and Union Pacific, which owns the tracks.

I may not have enough time to watch the rest of this movie.

11:20 p.m.: I won’t bore you with tales of missing the last buses home from the train station, but suffice it to say that the train was just shy of two hours late.

I just hope they have the tracks fixed for my journey back to work…

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7 Responses to “just a minor derailment on the way home”

  1. Liz Says:

    It’s too bad the Westcat 30Z line didn’t operate a lot later…

  2. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Yes, last 30Z at 6:18. That’s pretty sad. I could have actually gotten a CAR down by the airport and gotten home about two hours earlier, had I decided not to get on that train in Oakland. But the indicators were good that I’d get home, eventually. I actually missed a bus from my train station by only a couple minutes, squandered on a pit stop at the station. After I walked 15 blocks to the connecting bus stop, I watched that one leave. Luckily, I can walk home from the station in just under an hour.

  3. John T Says:

    Speaking of Wi-Fi on the trains, do you know the status of that?

  4. Laura Says:

    Wish that bus ran later. I do like the schedule format on the WestCat web site. Reminds me of the old schedules that were simple, not the mess that is hard to use.

  5. Liz Says:

    Laura, I miss the old site too. It was a lot easier to use then the wreck MTC the 511 transit site is now.

  6. Dick Friedman Says:

    Maybe if we weren’t spending $1 billion a day on defense, we could spend a few dollars on track signals and switches to make it easier to avoid derailments.

    And maybe we’d a few coins so that ALL cars would have electrical outlets at each (reclining) seat.

    Oh well! Glad you got home. And I’m glad to realize that you could easily get stuck behind an accident on a freeway and go nowhere just as fast.

  7. Capricious Commuter Says:

    Dick, I can live without the a/c outlets as long as I can recline. You’re right about the traffic jams, except that even on Friday afternoon, when I get stuck up and down the East Bay and then again in Fairfield, the train takes as long or longer. That’s because it takes a very long way around the coast, from Hercules to Martinez, then across the Carquinez Strait. I’m fairly confident that Caltrain riders can beat the traffic then. The trade-off is that you don’t have to drive and you can relax during that trip.

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