Tuesday, April 01, 2008

WHEN YOU WISH UPON A RAIL

It took $478,000,000 to get the Sprinter up and running—just a tad over the projected cost of 60 million in 1990. What did we get for the money? Clearly not a significant dent in Highway 78 congestion. But one can always look on the bright side.

My ride on the rail wasn’t during commuting hours and was basically a function of curiosity. With those caveats, I’m glad to say it was a pleasant journey—an experience reminiscent of Disneyland’s monorail. A slow-motion “Chicago L” sensation did accompany our traversing the 78 Speedway during the San Marcos jog, and I had a Bay Area flashback as we slid under I-5. But mostly it was Disney.

The trains I caught were all on time and boarding (even at the crowded Oceanside Transit venue) was swift. My four-dollar pass entitled me to ride the Sprinter and Breeze buses the rest of the day. Unfortunately, the machines that dispense tickets aren’t as user-friendly as one might hope. Specific credit card directions (like those displayed at most gas stations) were absent.

Fortunately, a security officer filled in the blanks and encouraged a second, and then a third (successful) transaction. Indeed, nattily uniformed Transit District officers were posted at all stops along the Sprinter’s route.

The seating in the train was comfortable, but I was never forced to sit directly opposite another passenger in the four-person groupings that comprise most of the vehicle’s 136 seats. By my calculations less than 24 inches separated my seat from the seat of the imaginary traveler facing me. This “ample legroom” would demand prim and proper posture of both parties and could make for extended games of kneecap pat-a-cake.

Outside of the east-west terminals, only two stops, in Vista and at College Boulevard, are near large shopping centers. Moreover, one has to walk a few blocks and cross Center City Parkway to get from Escondido’s transit station to the theater complex and arts center. By contrast, Oceanside’s downtown and pier are fairly accessible. Similarly, Palomar College is located right by its station, whereas the main Cal State campus is almost a mile from its stop—a gap spanned by the school’s weekday shuttle service.

Scenery was best going from I-5 to Vista’s Melrose Drive. During this stretch passengers can also sample the graffiti that graces a few large surfaces near the railway—most of it artistically restrained and non-obscene. After passing the Vista Transit Center, I gawked at the “Blues Brothers” apartments that couldn’t stand more than 100 feet from the tracks.

Except for a few minor glitches and a plastic Sprite bottle that a young man chunked at his companion on the other side of the aisle, my rides were incident free.

Here’s a final note. When I arrived at Escondido’s aging transit center, the clock was striking 11 a.m., and the carillon greeted me with its rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star”—a song indicative of the triumph of wishful thinking over cold, hard facts. I’ll let readers make their own connections.

2 comments:

Tim R. said...

I'm a tad unclear about this column.

Are you agreeing with SDU-T columnist Logan Jenkins that the idea of a commuter train across North County is an anachronism from the early- to mid-20th century?

Are you stating that *this* train and its costly creation is Disney-esque? If so, is that because any and all efforts to implement any public transportation in Southern California are quixotic fantasies given the driving culture from Imperial Beach to Santa Barbara?

RKirk said...

Tim,
I think Logan is right that a commuter train across North County is anachronistic or, utilizing my own Disney analogy, a triumph of wishful thinking over cold, hard facts. The initial cost overrun (from 60 to 478 million)is indicative if not dispositive.
The train (with its limited capacity and given the possible destinations) will doubtless run at a substantial annual loss. Nor will it make a dent in traffic on major freeways. It's primary value is entertainment and the indulgence of a public-policy fantasy.

So, yes, "this" train is Disneyesque. But no, its embeddedness in fantasy does NOT mean that all efforts to implement public transportation in S. California are quixotic. (Good use of language! And kudos to Cervantes!)

The money wasted on the Sprinter could have been employed more effectively to improve or subsidize bus service or to construct and improve rail service to major urban centers (the Coaster, tram service, additional rail service and connections to downtown San Diego).