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Trip to San Juan Capistrano

A day in San Juan Capistrano

Being an amateur birder as well as a railfan, I couldn't resist the temptation to travel to San Juan Capistrano to see the Cliff Swallows return to Capistrano. It was my day off, so what a great opportunity to ride down there to see the Swallows in person! My two favorite hobbies rolled into one day.

March 19, 1997 07:00 PST Santa Barbara, CA

I arrived at the depot just in time to see San Diegan #774 backing in to load passengers. I could tell it was going to be a fun day since the sun was already up and visibility was very good. Weather has a lot to do with my outlook on the upcoming day and this one looked promising. Once settled into my Custom Class seat, it was time to grab a cup of complimentary coffee and read the current USA Today paper provided to all Custom Class Passengers. I have always wondered what brand of coffee Amtrak uses. The brand probably depends on which hub the train is based out of. This cup of coffee was about the best I've ever had on Amtrak!

At 07:20, the "High-Ball Santa Barbara #774" was given and the train began to move. The one thing that I noticed immediately was the dirty windows on the train! That's the one thing that really bothers me when I travel by ANY means of public transportation. Amtrak boasts about seeing America by train, but through a layer of dust? These windows were beyond dirty, making the scenery look dirty all the way but, unfortunately, I got used to it. What choice did I have? All the windows in this car were filthy, so it wasn't a matter of changing seats to look through a cleaner window. There were about forty passengers boarding in Santa Barbara but only about five or so were in the Custom Class car with me. Among the passengers was a group of thirty elementary school children on their way down to San Juan Capistrano to see the return of the Swallows, just as I was.

07:41 La Conchita

OUCH, the first coffee spill of the day! Actually it wasn't a full-on spill but rather coffee splattering out of the cup due to the horrible condition of the rail bed along the UP/SP Coast Line.

09:15 Van Nuys, CA

The train had been running three to five minutes late the entire time due to a slow order at MP 392.1 where a bridge retrofit was taking place. I would assume that some padding was built into the schedule, for the train arrived in Van Nuys 5 minutes before scheduled departure at 09:20. I enjoyed watching some switching of freight cars in the adjoining freight yard by two SP SW1500 switchers in desperate need of a wash and new paint job! For those keeping track, I believe the numbers on those units were SP-2474 and SP-2637. We left Van Nuys right on time and blew by the switchers pushing their small consist of 10 cars to a loading dock down the line.

09:48 Departing Glendale

Just as I was wondering where we were going to meet #14, the Northbound Coast Starlight, it zoomed by! From what I could tell, it had two Genesis locomotives and 13 cars.

09:58 Los Angeles Union Station

Today #774 was routed onto track #12, which is (I think) the easternmost track. From there, I could see all platforms and tracks in a station which appeared deserted! Every time I've been to LAUS, there has been some sort of activity with switching or the like, but this time our train was the only trainset in the station, except for one F40PH parked next to us. There were no cars attached to it, so I took some photos of the lone locomotive and the deserted station with the Los Angeles skyline in the background.

10:20 Los Angeles Union Station

After a couple of jerks and lurches, we finally began to roll smoothly. I guess there were some false starts with the running air, etc. Before this trip, I had only heard my scanner out of one ear while using my stereo headphones. For only a few bucks, I bought an adapter to adapt a mono plug to stereo so I could listen with both ears. What a difference this has made! I only have to turn up the volume half way instead of three quarters in order to hear. This should help increase my scanner's battery life. It sure is fun to listen to the expert efficiency of the "Metrolink Train Director" on the job. Not only was she in charge of Metrolink trains, but also all freight traffic on the River Subdivision. I followed very carefully on the map I had in my new Altamont Press Timetable #8 as we traversed from the River Subdivision past Redondo Tower onto the BNSF San Bernadino Subdivision. Altamont Press publishes books containing a wealth of information about the hobby for railfans. Radio frequencies, locomotive rosters, hotbox talking and dragging equipment detector locations and speed limits are just a few topics covered in each guide. I love the maps and following along as the train rolls along. After switching onto the San Bernadino Subdivision, #773 passed us going the other direction with CTDX 2004 on the point with five cars trailing.

10:45 between Commerce and Fullerton

According to my book, there shouldn't have been any hotbox detectors along this line until MP 32.0 but this train will not traverse that portion of the line, so I was not expecting any. Much to my surprise, at MP 154.5 (or close to that), I heard an automated voice:

"BNSF, south track. Direction: East. No defects. Temperature: nine- four degrees."

WOW! I was not expecting that. I almost flew out of my seat when I heard that one. I might be incorrect on the milepost location as I was so excited about hearing it that I forgot to write it down. I know it was somewhere after Bandini but before Pico Rivera. On my cross -country trip last year, I heard many types of detectors and their "voices." This detector voice was the same as the one CSX uses. The old Santa Fe detectors use a drunken -voiced robot that is barely understandable. My favorite is, of course, the Southern Pacific female voice detectors. They are nicknamed "Betty." The Burlington Northern and Union Pacific have kind of a serious-voiced man speaking. See my sounds page to listen to some examples.

10:57 Fullerton

A crowd of 200+ boarded the train, most of them part of a pre-school Head Start program. All of them were going down to San Juan Capistrano. This made riding Custom Class worth the extra cost. I'm not anti-children, but children by numbers = chaos! With only a few adult leaders handling the group, they had their hands full.

11:41 San Juan Capistrano

Only four minutes late. Not too bad considering a 15mph slow order north of Santa Ana for two miles. I was very impressed with the area surrounding the depot. Unfortunately, there was no longer a depot because the old station had been converted to a restaurant. There were automated Metrolink ticket machines, whereas Amtrak tickets were sold in a small trailer at the north end of the platform. It was very hot! I waited to see Northbound San Diegan #577 go through before heading to Mission San Juan Capistrano. About 200 people got off #577 train before it left. As soon as it pulled away, I heard mission bells! I simply followed the sound of the ringing bells to find the mission. What a beautiful place. So many places to see right next to the train depot. On my trip last year across the country, I encountered some stations which were in the middle of nowhere. Only by taking a bus would you be able to dive into the local attractions.

12 Noon Mission San Juan Capistrano

Following the stream of people and viewing lots of tour buses parked outside the Mission, I found the entrance. The admission was $5/Adult, $3/Child and $4/Senior. Unfortunately, I only saw a couple of swallows but heard several more in the trees AWAY from the Mission. I didn't blame them, for there was a lot of racket inside the plaza with announcements and Mariachi music. I didn't mind the noise but I'm sure it frightened the birds at first. I spent only an hour and a half in the Mission before going to lunch. The music was fine but there were many vendors selling antiques and I just am not "into" antique collecting. The gift shop was full of mission-related artifacts, trinkets and swallow legend books. The only worthwhile items I saw were those cute shadowbox glass Cliff Swallows. I would have bought a couple, but $20 each (only 3" long) was a bit steep for me. I'd say they were worth no more than $5. Surely it cost only $1 to make them. Feeling weak from hunger (four cups of coffee didn't fill me up on the way down), I had to get some REAL food.

13:45 Mission San Juan Capistrano

A door attendant stamped my hand (red Swallow silhouette) as I left just in case I wanted to re-enter the Mission grounds. At the suggestion of a friend, I went to Ruby's Diner, a `40s-style restaurant with lots of memorabilia, model trains, old-fashioned diner and attractively dressed waitresses . The food was fantastic and the prices were very reasonable. A Santa Fe Superchief locomotive (HO scale I believe) sat on display near the center of the restaurant and another HO scale model train was seen running on another display in a corner of the restaurant. With a bacon burger, fries and ice tea down the hatch, I went back to the depot to look around more. While I was eating lunch, I think the temperature had jumped 10 degrees or more! It was unbearably hot, with very little shade at the depot platform to seek refuge from the sun. The station platform is situated on the east side of the tracks so that the sun pounds down upon awaiting passengers, with no shade until after 4 p.m. when nearby trees provide some relief.

Near the station, there are lots of arts, crafts and antique shops, most of them selling swallow-related material! Gee, I wonder why? I walked across the tracks and came upon a small barn in which you could pay a $0.50 charge to enter and pet the animals. There were somewhat open fences with goats, chickens, donkeys and horses standing and running along side so you didn't have to go into the barn to pet the animals. Those horses looked pretty runned-down and lazy! I'm no expert when it comes to horses but I know a good coat and muscle tone when I see it. That horse was definitely no Seabiscuit! Nevertheless, it was fun to pet them and watch all the children enjoying the animals. I remember going to a petting zoo when I was in nursery school and even going on a pony ride. I was VERY scared I'd get bitten by the animals or fall off the back of the pony. There were three of us riding at a time and I was the last kid on the pony's back! To a little kid, it IS a long way down from atop even a small pony's back.

Tired of the animals, I went across the road to a wholesale / retail nursery and browsed around. Soon, I panicked and thought I was at work so I almost ran out of there.

15:00 San Juan Capistrano Depot

I was really beginning to get tired now. The heat and all the walking around had me tired and nearly disoriented. I went over to a parking structure and sat on a planter wall which was between two buildings in the shade. Then, I remembered a taco stand up the street, so I went up there and got a large Coke with EXTRA ICE! I came back to my spot in the shade, sat down, turned on my scanner and enjoyed my beverage. Then the crossing gates came down in front of the depot. Interesting, I thought. It wasn't time for a San Diegan until 15:45 so I didn't know what to expect. I casually walked over to the platform and was surprised by a heavy C-C five-unit lashup freight going the maximum 55mph! What a surprise that was! I had heard on the Internet that there would be more freight traffic on the San Diego Subdivision so I guess the reports were correct, or I was just very lucky that day to see a freight in the middle of the day! I was very upset with myself as I didn't have my camera out. I had stupidly put it away as I was tired and didn't have the energy to have to run after a would-be thief who might yank it off my neck! The head unit was Santa Fe #313 (War Bonnet paint scheme), followed by three units with the old blue and yellow paint and the last locomotive was another War Bonnet style. Seeing that freight was just what I needed to wake up! I found a better place, in the shade, to watch the tracks. Actually, it was a very comfortable rock just across the tracks on the west side of the platform. My camera was out and ready so I could shoot some photos of #578 due in at 15:45.

16:21 San Juan Capistrano Depot

Amtrak San Diegan southbound #578 pulled in 40 minutes late. I don't know why it was late as I had turned off my scanner to favor picture-taking. My train, #781 pulled in five minutes late due to the meet with #578 down the line. This was the same train I had ridden down on from Santa Barbara! I rode in the same car I had ridden down in! The train was nearly full. I sat next to a Japanese businessman on his way home from San Diego. We talked a few minutes about trains and the weather before I put on the headphones to my scanner to listen for rail traffic.

16:56 Santa Ana

The businessman got off at Santa Ana so I got both seats to myself for the rest of the trip. We ran about four to eight minutes down all the way into Los Angeles. I tried to listen to the surprise hotbox detector near Pico Rivera at MP 154.3 but as soon as the detector spoke up, the conductor decided to call the head end and yack at the engineer! With my pen at the ready, I waited for the milepost but just before the detector got to it, the conductor keyed his radio just as the detector stated the milepost. BLAST! If anybody reading this could tell me the MP, I'd be grateful.

18:00 Los Angeles Union Station

There was more action this time but not as much as I'd hoped for. There was only one Metrolink train in the depot, but one had just pulled out as we were cleared onto track #10. While we were pulling in, I looked to the east and saw seven material handling cars, probably going out on the Southwest Chief at 8:30 p.m. The rest of the train was not there yet. To the west, there was a complete consist of Superliner cars, Dining car and Sightseer/lounge car with Phase III and IV striping. The power was AMTK #10 and AMTK #300. Still, I had no idea which train this was, but since the power was facing south, this train had pulled in head end instead of backing in. I would assume it was an arrival. We only had five minutes until our scheduled departure. Even so, I grabbed my camera and ran out on the platform to shoot some pictures of #10 from the front. I then went over to the Transition Sleeper on the consist and looked at the car number. That would give me an indication of which train had arrived earlier. The car was #3530. Oh yeah, it's train #35, which is the Desert Wind from Chicago that arrives in Los Angeles on Mo, We, Sa at 15:35. I rode that train last year on my cross-country trip.

19:10 Strathearn Siding, 5 Mi. east of Moorpark

When I went to get a cup of coffee, I noticed that there were coffee cup lids! All right, no more spills from the train jumping around! I had two such spills on the way down. The trip since Los Angeles was uneventful; we were running two minutes early into every stop along the way...until would get much worse! We were put in the siding at Strathearn, MP 432.3, to let the eastbound Leesdale local pass us. After we got a clear signal, Metrolink called us to inform us that #11 was on time (Southbound Coast Starlight from Seattle to Los Angeles); therefore, the usual Camarillo meet would take place at Moorpark instead. Because of our delay meeting the Leesdale local, we were now 10 minutes late into Moorpark and that was the reason we couldn't meet #11 at Camarillo. After all, we were not the late train and that equals low priority! #11 was running right on the advertised so it was given priority. Our engineer wanted to make a run for the Camarillo siding but the DS wouldn't hear of it, as that would delay #11. The Camarillo siding has a spring switch but requires a hand-throw when running against it into the siding. A crew member must get off the train and throw it manually. Camarillo is just beyond CTC range so life is 50 years more primitive with DTC (Direct Traffic Control) and ABS (Automatic Block Signaling).

19:26 Moorpark

After our stop at Moorpark, we had to pull down to the end of the platform and hand- throw a switch so we could enter a Metrolink storage track where they keep Metrolink trains at night. An announcement was made on the P.A. that "we would be here for a few minutes waiting for a train to pass." Having a scanner, I could concur with their story. Ten minutes passed, followed by another ten minutes, which concluded with yet another ten minutes! A total of 30 minutes had gone by before I heard any traffic on the scanner. Our engineer broke radio silence and called the engineer on #11 to ask what the hold up was, and he (Mr. Kreiger), informed us that he had been "flagging red signals" for the past four signal blocks! Oh no, he was still seven miles away from us and traveling at restricted speed because there could be wire, power lines or hazardous debris on the tracks. There could even be a broken rail.

20:10 Moorpark

Amtrak #11 rolled by at a good clip to make up for lost time. Until now it had been running on time for most of the trip from Seattle. We, on the other hand, were now 54 minutes down. No big deal to me but other people were getting upset since no announcements were being made regarding the delays. I take the train to San Diego at least once a year. I've noticed an explosion of cellular flip phones in the past two years!! They are pretty nice but I think they're too expensive. Besides, I have no need for one. If I were a sales rep. for a major corporation, maybe I'd get one so I could be bothered at ANY time! This one nice doctor on the train let at least five people use his phone so they could call waiting relatives in Santa Barbara. Not at any time did I see people use the Railphone at the end of the car. When we went westbound through the same territory as #11, we had all greens and flew through. The siding we were one was 4912 feet and at a 5mph speed limit over the siding, it took awhile to clear it.. On top of that, we had to stop so the switch could be re-aligned to the main.

21:40 Santa Barbara

We pulled in at exactly 21:40, fifty minutes down. The conductor opened the door (car- to-car door) to the rear of our car and opened the baggage car door. I was able to look right into the baggage car and see the whole length of it while I watched the conductor unlatch and open the sliding outer door. I have always wondered where the baggage attendant rides while on the Coast Starlight or any other long-distance train. I have always seen a baggage handler close the door with him remaining inside the car. I guess the door opens into the transition sleeper? The baggage car door is not at the same height as the double-decker Superliner sleeper.

I enjoyed the trip very much except for the excessive heat down in San Juan Capistrano. If March 19th falls on my day off next year, I'll take this trip again to see the return of the Swallows to Capistrano. Next week, I begin another long rail journey to Chicago via Portland.

Consist of San Diegan #774 and #781 (same train both ways)

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Trip report © 1997 Steven Reynolds