Nobody's perfect, not even my train dispatcher

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, August 12, 2011

Two nice things happen while train 14, Amtrak’s northbound Coast Starlight, stands at the Santa Barbara, Calif., station today. First, the sun comes out. This means we should have a good view of the Pacific Ocean from there to Surf, 68 miles up the coast. Second, the dispatcher gives our train a track warrant to take the siding at Surf, a lonely outpost (population apparently zero) sandwiched between the ocean and Vandenberg Air Force Base. In other words, there is a lot to look forward to in the next couple of hours.

My last two trips along here were wipeouts, as coastal fog socked us in; for all you could see out the window, we may as well have been crossing the New Mexico desert. Today was special. Light frothy clouds filtering the sunshine a bit. Those beautiful, unpopulated beaches between Gaviota and Surf, made so by the lack of public access. And, of course, one of Amtrak’s nicest trains. A pretty good combination, wouldn’t you say?

While the Starlight moves up the coast, three representatives of the National Park Service are in the Sightseer Lounge to provide historical and geological commentary. I enjoy their recounting of historical events, but I especially enjoy the jokes. Sample: What lies on the bottom of the ocean and quivers? Answer: a nervous wreck. Another: Where will you find a legless dog? I think to myself, inside a frankfurter bun. But the real answer is, right where you left it. And for the kids: Why do gorillas have such big nostrils? Because they have such big fingers.

As we approach Surf, one of the NPS reps recalls that when Vandenberg began launching rockets, the Air Force agreed not to do so in the path of a Southern Pacific passenger train. But freights were required to hold back. As for employees in the wood depot at Surf, a bunker was dug into the side of a hill adjacent to the building for them to occupy during launches. We see the remains of it as our train creeps into the siding; it looks very primitive.

Well, a misguided Vandenberg AFB missile never endangered a train or the depot, so far as I know. But what they didn’t so, an SP freight did, derailing in (I think) 1981 and taking the Surf depot with it.

We’re in the siding at Surf by 2:40 p.m., and it is becoming clear that the Union Pacific dispatcher is having us execute a wacko meet. The only train we would be taking siding for is Pacific Surfliner 798. However, it is not due by Surf for another 30 minutes. Why not do the meet up the line, at Tangair, Narlon, or Devon? There would have been a lot less delay. I never learn the answer, train 798 itself is 10 minutes late (see the top photo), and we don’t leave Surf until 3:20.

And then, as if to make it up to us, the dispatcher gives us a track warrant that takes us all the way to the start of double tracks, in South San Luis Obispo. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, for us. But our southbound counterpart, train 11, leaves San Luis Obispo on time at 3:20 p.m. and loses 55 minutes waiting for us to sail by South S.L.O. at 4:25. This doesn’t make sense, either.

At San Luis Obispo, I introduce myself to the engineer, who I’ll call Dave. Are these two of the worst meets you’ve ever experienced, I ask? No, Dave replies, I’ve seen worse. “I just go along with whatever they do,” he says, “because I go back tomorrow, and, well, you know.”

We leave S.L.O. 59 minutes late after a smoke break (bottom photo). But hey, it’s a beautiful California summer day, I’m having a good time watching all this happen, and nobody’s perfect, not even my train dispatcher. — Fred W. Frailey

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