California Forum

Losing my children to California’s overcrowded trains

Joe Mathews
Joe Mathews

If California’s train deniers are right – that no one ever rides trains here, that Californians prefer to drive or fly, and that high-speed rail is a boondoggle that won’t attract riders – then how do you explain my wife’s public humiliation?

Recently, our family was on Amtrak from San Diego to L.A., when an announcement came over the sound system: “Mrs. Mathews, we have two of your children here in the café car. Mrs. Mathews, you should never let your children walk unaccompanied on an Amtrak train.”

The Pacific Surfliner that day was mobbed, with every seat taken and passengers standing in the aisles and the stairwells. So when I took those two hungry boys in the direction of the café car, the crowds were so thick I couldn’t squeeze through.

Mrs. Mathews, upset at the scolding, looked for someone to blame: me.

Her accusation was based on an overly limited reading of the facts. True, I had been in charge of our two older children when they went to the café car. But she missed the larger context, which both absolves me and debunks the idea that Californians are train-phobic.

The Pacific Surfliner that day was mobbed, with every seat taken and passengers standing in the aisles and the stairwells. So when I took those two hungry boys in the direction of the café car, the crowds were so thick I couldn’t squeeze through. The boys, now nine and seven, are very skinny and insisted on continuing on, despite my pleas, beginning a memorable adventure.

Our story may be singular, but the situation is not. Crammed Amtrak trains are commonplace in California. California is now home to three of the busiest intercity train lines outside the Northeast Corridor of the United States. The Pacific Surfliner has three million riders annually on trains from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, America’s second busiest passenger rail corridor.

Two others are in the top ten: Capitol Corridor, from San Jose to Sacramento, has 1.6 million yearly riders, and the San Joaquins, serving Central Valley cities that train deniers claim have no taste for rail, tops 1.1 million annually.

All told, Amtrak carries 12 million riders in California each year. Amtrak would like to accommodate more of us, but service is limited by the lack of tracks and the fact that Amtrak must share tracks with commuter rail and freight. Amtrak’s website now offers advice on managing crowding. For example, avoid riding Pacific Surfliner on Fridays and Sundays, the busiest days.

The sardine-like state of Amtrak California suggests that, contrary to claims of train deniers, high-speed rail would be popular. Studies in other countries suggest high-speed rail inspires people to take trips they otherwise wouldn’t. And why not? Over the holidays, I was on a Pacific Surfliner along the Santa Barbara coast as the sun set over the Channel Islands. Even the off-shore oil platforms looked beautiful.

Amtrak is not perfect; the cars could be cleaner, the Wi-Fi more reliable, and then there are those crowds. But that argues for more rail, not less.

After her public shaming, Mrs. Mathews ordered me to retrieve her children. But I couldn’t reach the café car through all the passengers in the aisles. I found a conductor, but he couldn’t get through the crowds either. He had me wait until the until the next stop, where I could get off the train and then re-board directly into the café car. As we waited, he told me crowding is even worse on horse racing weekends at Del Mar.

Before the next station, our train stopped for 20 minutes to let two other trains pass us on one stretch where there is only one track. Eventually, the train stopped, and I reached the boys, who were happily covered in cookie crumbs. From there, we got back off the train again and sprinted up to re-board at the car where my wife was. It took us five minutes to navigate the final 40 feet to their seats.

Don’t let the train deniers win. More train service – including high-speed rail – can’t get here fast enough.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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