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adventures on amtrak
by lucy lediaev

As a native of Los Angeles, the idea of efficient public transportation has always had a mythical quality for me. I have vague memories of being able to travel the city on the old red trolley cars and then, a bit later, on electric trolley buses (no tracks). Somehow between that time in the 40s and early 50s, trolleys and trolley buses became extinct—perhaps buried somewhere in the vicinity of the La Brea tar pits.

Buses, spewing heavy diesel fumes, replaced the electric trolleys and electric buses, but they were few in number and rarely went anywhere someone might want to go; you could spend a full day going across the city. I remember a day in 1953, right after our family had moved from just northeast of downtown Los Angeles to the middle of the San Fernando Valley, when my mother, who did not drive at the time, decided to take my brother, who had an ear infection, back to our family doctor. She boarded the bus with him first thing in the morning and, after numerous transfers, they reached the doctor and my brother was treated. Then, they made the return trek, again by bus. They did not reach home until after 4 p.m.

After that, our family pretty much gave up on bus transportation as a viable option and my mother learned to drive. I’ve ridden the bus in Los Angeles fewer times than I count on one hand in the past forty years—usually it has been to or from a car repair shop, when I had no choice.

Recently, due to an illness that had left me fatigued and also as the result of high gas prices, I decided to try Amtrak as an alternative to driving the 100 miles from my home in Southeast Ventura County to my daughter’s house in South Orange County. The train station is near my home; parking is well lit and safe; and it is relatively easy for my daughter to pick me up in Irvine, 10-15 minutes from her home.

My first three trips were uneventful. I did learn, though, on my first trip that I need to buy a business class ticket (more money, of course) to be assured a seat on a busy weekend. And, the train was once a bit late on one leg of the trip. Otherwise, I enjoyed the trips, meeting new people or reading a book.

Then, I made my most recent trip. The train picked me up on time at my station. I boarded the train and quickly found a seat upstairs in business class. I pulled out my book as we chugged out of the station. Within five minutes, the train came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the mountain pass that separates Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The conductor announced that an Amtrak train ahead of us had been disabled earlier in the morning and had been sitting in the heat. Our assignment, pick up the disabled train and drag it into downtown Los Angeles. We were told that there would be at least a thirty-minute delay. After forty-five minutes of bumping and grinding, we were told that the disabled train had been successfully attached to our train and we would make our way into downtown LA. As we started, I noticed that the train did not pick up speed through the pass as it normally would. We moved steadily, but slowly, with an extra load in tow.

By the time we reached downtown LA, it was clear that we were going to be an hour or more late. I used my cell phone to instruct my daughter to check with AMTRAK before leaving the house.

I finally reached my destination two hours late and found my daughter and granddaughter waiting for me to arrive.

After a slightly truncated visit, my daughter drove me the next day to the station, where my train was posted for on-time arrival. I was optimistic. I boarded the train, but had trouble finding a business class seat. I found one seat, but it was posted as occupied. I then approached what appeared to be a group of three women traveling together. They were occupying four seats around a center table. When I asked if I could join them, they invited me to become a fourth sister. They had decided to become “sisters,” because the conductors insisted, despite the shortage of seating, that the table locations were reserved for groups traveling together. I accepted their familial invitation and joined them. All were women “of a certain age.” One was a retired history professor, one a travel agent, and the third a semi-retired church organist. I found them congenial and interesting and was enjoying conversation with them as we approached Union Station in downtown LA. Usually, there is a longer than normal stop at Union Station while the café car is restocked and the train serviced.

The conductor made an announcement as we pulled into the station: there was a problem with the engine and the “round-house” crew would need at least half an hour to check it out. After about forty minutes, the conductor announced that the crew had found the problem: THE DIESEL ENGINE WAS “OUT OF GAS.” I commented that we should just be glad it was not an airline pilot giving us the same news.

We couldn’t believe what we had just heard. An AMTRAK train had run out of gas halfway through the trip. We were informed that we would have to take a slight detour to get gas at the train yards in Boyle Heights—a few miles from downtown. We spent the next fifteen minutes slowly backing out of the station and then backing into the rail yards, where we could refuel. We were now more than an hour behind. It took ten or fifteen minutes to add a couple of hundred gallons of diesel, which we were assured would take the train to its final destination in San Luis Obispo. We then made a slow trek back to Union Station where we had to wait while another train, apparently on schedule, had to pass before we could get back on the main track.

I arrived at my home station over two hours late. My trip had become a four and half hour trip, instead of slightly over two hours. Call me foolish or insane, but I’m going to try Amtrak again in two weeks when I go south to take care of my granddaughter. Who knows what part of the city or the rail system I’ll see on my next trip?


A freelance writer and full-time grandma, Lucy Lediaev retired recently from a position as web master, tech writer, and copy writer in a biotech firm. She is enjoying retirment more than she ever dreamed and is now writing about topics that are, for the most part, interesting and fun. She also has time to pursue some of her long-time interests, such as crafts, reading, sewing, baking, cooking, and the like.

more about lucy lediaev


is impeachment an option?
choosing the least of the evils
by lucy lediaev
topic: general
published: 9.2.05

memories of combat
healing the wounds
by lucy lediaev
topic: general
published: 5.27.08


russ carr
7.14.06 @ 9:29a

My own paean to rail travel.

Despite the inconveniences — I recall waiting in the darkness on the backside of Toledo at 1:30 am for over an hour, the regrettable food in the lounge car, the challenge of peeing standing up in a shifting train lav — there is still something remarkable about traveling by rail, and I wish I could do it more often. Stick to a coach seat and it's got to be one of the most affordable means of transport out there... without being quite so cramped as taking a bus.

lucy lediaev
7.14.06 @ 7:02p

I'd love to stick to a coach seat and also save money. But, I discovered this past Easter weekend that Amtrak finds it perfectly acceptable to oversell coach so that there is standing room only on the Surfliner, which runs back and forth between San Luis Obispo and San Diego. Still recovering from an illness that left me weak and fatigued, standing for 100 miles did not really appeal to me. Fortunately, I managed to find a seat that trip, but others, including some elderly and disabled people boarding in downtown LA, were not so lucky.


lucy lediaev
4.28.08 @ 5:12p

More adventures recently: Made a trip once again to Orange County. My trip there was uneventful. On the trip back, I had another chance to see the train yards in Boyle Heights. Some unknown mechanical problem had to be fixed. Once fixed (after about an hour), we left Union Station in downtown LA and got just past our first stop in Glendale when the train lost all electrical power. We stopped and the power came back on. After another 15 miles or so, the conductor made an announcement that the auxiliary engine had failed (it was Easter weekend with lots of extra rail cars) and that meant that all unnecessary power would be cut to the passenger cars. Unfortunately, that included the power that flushed the toilets. I got off the train gratefully in another 20 miles and felt for the people going on for another 150 miles, or so.

Nonetheless, I'll probably sign up for yet another adventure.

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