Friday, January 01, 2010

American Train Systems: Amtrak from Stockton

Entry for 28 December 2009:

On our way back from Murray Creek to Pleasanton, we’d agreed to drop my nephew Luke off at the train station in Stockton, so he could take the San Joaquin train down the Central Valley to Hanford, where he would catch a bus over the Coast Range to Paso Robles. We left Murray Creek at a bit after 7am. As we drove down out of the foothills, the fog thickened into a classic Central Valley pea soup. We found the Stockton Amtrak station without too much trouble, about 45 minutes early. There was almost no one there. Luke went inside to pick up his ticket. There were only 3 trains scheduled to stop there that morning. The woman at the ticket counter told us apologetically that the Bakersfield and Oakland trains were expected to arrive at about the same time but no one knew exactly which one would get there first. She carefully explained that the Bakersfield train, the one that Luke was taking would be going in that direction (pointing East, to our left), while the Oakland train would be going the opposite direction (pointing West, to our right). We found this puzzling, but when we went out to the platform to check things out, we discovered that although there were two platforms, they were not in fact numbered, nor was there an overpass or tunnel for getting between the two platforms. If both trains were in the station at the same time, it would be quite difficult to get to the one on the far platform.

We then drove a few blocks north and spent a half an hour wandering around downtown Stockton, including the County Courthouse where my father, who was a lawyer for his day job, used to argue cases.

When we returned to the train station, there were lots of people there, waiting for one or the other of the two trains. A female announcer came on the PA system to report dramatically that the two trains were racing to see which one would arrive at the station first. Finally, we spied a light in the West: it was the Bakersfield train! Then we noticed that there was also a train coming from the East: the Oakland train; however, this train had apparently lost the race, because it stopped approaching. The Bakersfield train, all 4 double-decker cars of it, pulled into the station. Now it became apparent to us that this station could only accommodate one train at a time. We hugged Luke goodbye and wished him well for his second semester at University.

After the train had left, we didn’t stick around to watch the Oakland train, now 20 minutes late, come in. On the way back to the car, however, we did stop to read the commemorative plaque for the train station, citing it as an historic building, constructed in 1900. This is about as good as train service gets in California, more a relic of the past, a kind of hobby transport, rather than a really useful service. It’s clear to me that plenty of people like to take the train, because it was pretty full, but it’s a shame to see it so poorly supported and provided for. It gives all the more reason to appreciate the level of train service in the Scotland and the UK, not to mention Europe more generally.

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