Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Coastal Cruise

There is something strangely romantic about the open road; vast horizons that go on forever, blurs in the distance that slowly take shape as you get closer. That kinship with travel has been captured in dozens of classics like ‘Bound for Glory,’ ‘On the Road’ and many more tales from the road.

I wrote about my last road trip in ‘The Great Escape, April 21st, 2020. It was a three day, two thousand mile exercise in exhaustion, mind-numbing scenery mixed in with a sense of adventure on the open road. Fortunately, we had a land cruiser that made the miles go by easier but it was still not of my liking.

Train travel turns out to be another experience all together and one I find more to my liking. While the pandemic has curtailed my rail travels for now, I still have some very fond memories of past travels on those silver rails.

Closer to home, California has done a great job of laying track up and down the West Coast. One can travel from San Diego to their northern borders with Oregon with few layovers and reconnections. Riding in business class instead of steerage can make for a generally relaxing and interesting way to travel.

Along its southern border with Mexico and as far north as the community of Oceanside, they have a commuter rail line called the Coaster. It’s a nice quick trip between those ocean communities and San Diego.

Conversely, Minnesota is limited in its transportation options. We have a good bus system and the light rail is fast (OK, semi-fast) and efficient way to get around (parts of) town. But it’s not like California’s Amtrak service up and down the coast or the localized Coaster service. It’s a different way to travel and I love it.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times back a couple of years ago that spoke directly to me. It was entitled: “Why the West Coast is suddenly beating the East Coast on Transportation” by Ms. Camille Fink.

“It is an incredibly exciting time to be in urban transportation,” the New York transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, told a breakfast gathering of powerful New Yorkers, pointing to California’s progress. *

The Los Angeles area, the ultimate car-centric region with its sprawling freeways, approved a sweeping $120 billion plan to build new train routes and upgrade its buses. Seattle has won accolades for its transit system, where 93 percent of riders report being happy with service – a feat that seems unimaginable in New York, where subway riders regularly simmer with rage on stalled trains.

“It’s a tale of two systems,” said Robert Puentes, the president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan research center in Washington. “These new ones are growing and haven’t started to experience the pains of rehabilitation.” *

While I’m hardly an urban kind of guy and big cities are more my nemesis than a friend, I did find the article scored a direct bullseye on my interest level in transportation. It’s not just my love of the bicycles or walkabouts that garnered that attention. Rail travel has always been on my short list of imaginative ways to get about.

Sharon and I have done the Amtrak commuter run from D.C. to New York several times.

The views along the way are always a wonderful snapshot of east coast living at its most normal.

It’s a great way to visit the ‘Big Apple’ and leave the driving to someone else.    

We’ve ridden the rails from San Diego to Santa Barbara and hopped the Coaster for a day trip to San Diego.

The San Diego Coaster is part of a much larger Amtrak network of rails that weave their way up and down the West Coast.

The Coaster’s normal run goes from Oceanside, just south of Camp Pendleton, down to San Diego. The ride from Oceanside to San Diego costs a little over six dollars round trip and takes about an hour. One glance at traffic on highway 5 morning or evening and its benefits can’t be denied.

The run up the coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara does the same reveal on the opposite side of the country. The Coaster is an amalgamation of the two with commuters, long distance rail riders, suburban Moms on a quick jaunt into town and a wide assortment of humanity in-between. I was just there to look, listen and sneak a picture or two.

Los Angeles plans to build 100 new miles of rail – essentially doubling the Metro system, whose first rail line opened in 1990. There are now six lines and 93 stations. “I made sure we included funding for long-term maintenance,” said Dow Constantine, the executive of King County, which is home to Seattle, “so you don’t get the situation we’re seeing in New York and Washington where the systems have been neglected and it’s expensive and inconvenient to rebuild.” *

There’s even talk of a rail line extending from downtown Los Angeles to the Coachella Valley sometime in the future. Having spent some time on highway 10 going into L.A., I can only hope it will come sooner rather than later. Until then, Sharon and I want to try more train travels up and down the California coast perhaps as far as Vancouver, Canada. It’s always a fun way to check out the sights along the way and let someone else do the driving.

Works for me.

**Excerpts taken from the New York Times article “Why the West Coast is suddenly beating the East Coast on Transportation” by Ms. Camille Fink, January lst, 2019.

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