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Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner at San Diego’s Union Station.
Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

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How Amtrak engineer Blake Phillips-Rios gets around Southern California

What it’s like to drive a train for work

In recent years, the dream of efficient, affordable rail travel in the U.S. has morphed from a romantic vision of slow-motion sightseeing into a high-speed, high-tech solution to the country’s emissions crisis.

For some, that future can’t arrive soon enough. As a locomotive engineer for Amtrak, Blake Phillips-Rios has a unique perspective of the challenges facing the industry—and a lot of ideas for how to get the country’s trains moving again.

When he’s not working on the railroad, Phillips-Rios is in graduate school at Cal State University where he’s getting his MBA, and co-owner of Cabrón Cochino, a clothing line for men of color. You can follow him at @elcabroncochino to peek in on his journeys on and off the rails. Here’s what it’s like to drive a train for work.

Thursday, March 7

I started at Amtrak in 2013 as an assistant conductor—the one with the hat that scans your tickets and makes announcements. I got promoted to locomotive engineer in 2015, and now, I drive the train.

Since I’m still fairly new, I’m part of what’s called the “extra board.” That means that I’m on-call 24 hours a day except on Tuesdays from 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. (My 24-hour “relief day” can also change each month.) As an extra board engineer, I work when those who have regularly scheduled jobs take vacations, mark off sick, or when there are service disruptions or special trains. I don’t have a specific route but can be called for the Pacific Surfliner—the train between San Luis Obispo, LA, and San Diego—and on the Southwest Chief, the train to Chicago. We go as far as Kingman, Arizona, and then work the next train back to Los Angeles the following day.

I live in South LA in Leimert Park with my husband, Jerry, and I am not what we railroaders commonly refer to as a “foamer.” Foamer is a pejorative term for a railfan—because they foam every time a train goes by! However, in my spare time, I’m quite interested in urban planning and development, public transportation, housing, and architecture.

Today’s a day off! I don’t leave the house all day because I’m working on a big grad school paper. In the evening I drive to go visit my business partner in Echo Park for a meeting.

Friday, March 8

On Friday, I start work at 6 a.m. I drive to the southern tip of the Arts District to our 8th Street train yard which is underneath the 10 freeway next to the LA River. By 5:15 a.m. I’m on my way to work.

Heading to work at LA’s Union Station.
Blake Phillips-Rios

While we picked our neighborhood for its history and culture, one of my requirements was proximity to public transportation. Unfortunately, there is no easy way for me to take the train or bus to or from the train yard. There is a bus route from my house to Union Station, but not every bus goes there, the schedule is not regular, and it takes 59 minutes—as opposed to the 15 to 30 minutes even with traffic in the car.

I cannot wait until the Crenshaw Line opens next year! It’s my dream to not drive to work every day. I live three blocks from the Leimert Park station and have been following the line’s development closely. The new Metro line is all that my neighbors can talk about, as well.

With both the huge Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Mall redevelopment and the arrival of the train on the horizon, our neighbors are quite nervous about evictions, rent increases, and the “G” word (gentrification). I sincerely hope that Leimert Park loses neither the character with which we fell in love, nor its sense of community. Where else in LA do people say hello to random strangers walking down the street? I really love my neighborhood.

On the drive back home I go down Martin Luther King Boulevard. Due to the width, I regularly propose to our Councilmember Herb Wesson’s office that protected bike lanes would be perfect for King Blvd. It would dovetail fantastically with the MyFigueroa project’s semi-protected bike lanes that end at Figueroa and the new Crenshaw Line at the other end of MLK at Crenshaw Boulevard.

The architecture of the historic apartment buildings along MLK would be amazing to ride past. More importantly, people in our part of town actually use bikes as their main mode of transportation. MLK is practically a freeway at certain times of the day and cyclists take their lives into their own hands just getting to and from work or the grocery store. Someone from Herb Wesson’s office told me, while laughing, that if MLK is so dangerous, then why would we put bike lanes there? I didn’t even have the energy to explain how stupid that was.

On the way home, I love driving past our new soccer stadium—so cool!

Saturday, March 9

Today, I operate the train all the way up the coast to San Luis Obispo, a small college town on the Central Coast. San Luis Obispo is the northernmost terminal for the Pacific Surfliners. The trip up the coast is absolutely beautiful. We follow the 101 freeway until north of Santa Barbara and then snake through an Air Force base and untouched, pristine California coastline. We are traveling on a system that was built well over 100 years ago.

View of the Pacific Ocean as a passenger on the Surfliner.
Blake Phillips-Rios

While I am not talking negatively about Amtrak specifically—mostly because it’s my main source of income!—we can all agree that public transportation in Southern California is seriously lacking. If you’ve ever taken Amtrak, chances are you’ve experienced some fairly large delays. IT’S NOT OUR FAULT! The majority of the railroad throughout Southern California—and particularly in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties—has only one track. That means that if one train is late by 20 minutes leaving San Luis Obispo at 7 a.m., it can equal an hour and a half delay in San Diego at 6 p.m. because trains are constantly stopping to wait for other passing trains. “Late trains only get later” is a phrase we say a lot.

I am a staunch proponent of the as-yet-unbuilt, unfunded—and now semi-unsupported?—high-speed rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles. But the building of a second main track throughout the entire system, from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, would increase service and capacity dramatically. As the second-busiest passenger rail corridor in the nation, it is embarrassing to come to a complete stop multiple times per trip. It’s directly related to the decades of lack of investment in our rail infrastructure.

All the while, the state and local governments continuously work to expand and improve our highway system. I was shocked the first time I took a van from LA to San Luis Obispo. On the train, it takes five-and-a-half hours, but we made the drive with little traffic in about three hours. How can we logically expect the general public to not drive when we’ve made it so convenient?

Sunday, March 10

They don’t call me for work today, so I decide to do one of my favorite things in the world. I drive to a dance class at the Heartbeat House in Atwater Village. After that, I take the Gold Line to visit my friend for dinner in Monrovia.

Riding the other rails—LA’s Metro system.
Blake Phillips-Rios

Unfortunately, it’s not that difficult to come up with reasons why even I don’t use public transportation that often. This trip to Monrovia sums it up perfectly. On this day, Metro is doing track work in Highland Park and South Pasadena. Therefore, we have to “single-track.” This is railroad-speak for one track being out of service, so trains in both directions have to use the same one. Remember our problems with delays on the coast?

Because of the delays, each stop is packed with riders, and for some reason, Metro didn’t anticipate completely full trains. So, we ride like sardines in a trainset that has only two cars. (They do, however, have other three-car trainsets.) The total trip takes an hour and 15 minutes. I also arrive at the Monrovia train station 40 minutes later than the trip planner said I would. By car, on a Sunday, with little traffic from Atwater, it would have taken me 25 minutes, max. This is why most people drive, plain and simple.

Monday, March 11

Today I start work at 4:45 p.m. I drive the train bound for Chicago but we only go as far as Kingman, Arizona.

Right after I leave for work, my husband sends a picture to me. Yes, that car is on its side. Frankly, neither of us are surprised, and as a community, we’ve come to expect it. This is at least the sixth major crash at the intersection in front of our house. One time, a car crashed directly INTO OUR BUILDING. Another time, a car hit the light pole on the corner and the light pole fell INTO OUR KITCHEN. The streetlight completely destroyed the window and part of the building.

Yet another crash on a dangerous street.
Blake Phillips-Rios

Twice a car has taken out the row of cars right in front of our apartment building. One time, a car jumped the curb across the street and crashed into one of the huge pine trees, which saved some kids who were playing in the path of the out-of-control driver. And yet again, another car crashed into the building across the street from us—right into their apartment. In the background of the photo, you can actually see the gap in the fence where the last big accident happened. The wall on that building downstairs is completely new. The car totaled all four cars in those parking spaces that late night.

Luckily, in all the accidents we’ve witnessed, no one has died, but many, many cars have been totaled. We also live one block away from a middle school, and this intersection is a way home for kids walking. I have called my councilmember’s office every time something major happens and more or less get the total runaround by his deputy.

Tuesday, March 12

We arrive in Kingman at 2 a.m., and I spend all day in my hotel room sleeping and hiding from the cold. It looks beautiful, but it’s about 35 degrees outside.

I think that every party involved in rail transportation has the intention to provide quality service to the general public—and that’s not just lip service. However, because of the governmental or agency red tape, lack of money, lack of political will, and the good old fashioned NIMBYism of neighborhoods near our rail corridor—ones that the railroad preceded sometimes by 100 years—to move forward with even the simplest projects draws fierce opposition. You can see why a double-tracking project in the San Fernando Valley from Van Nuys to Chatsworth might fail.

Consider that LOSSAN (Los Angeles/San Diego/San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor), the agency that’s in charge of Amtrak’s coastal Pacific Surfliners, is made up of six county governments: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties. And then, these agencies have to interact with four separate railroad agencies: the Union Pacific, the BNSF, Metrolink [LA’s regional rail], and North County Transit District [San Diego’s regional rail].

Short of a complete shift in the mindset of those neighborhoods, here are a few ideas that I think would completely change our rail experience.

  1. The state should double track the entirety of our territory.
  2. The state should buy all or as much of the railroad from the freight companies that they are willing to part with.
  3. California should remove all interaction with pedestrians and trains. It will be amazingly costly, but grade separation is key to speeding up the railroad, and saving lives. People in SoCal live and play really, really close to some highly trafficked 90 mph railroad tracks.
  4. The state should work to straighten the tracks and bring the average track speed everywhere to at least 50 mph. We snake through Orange County at 35 and 40 mph at certain points; the same goes for San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
  5. Something that is already in the works: hourly service everywhere we go. I used to live in France and never thought about a schedule when taking the train. I just showed up to the train station. It’s so easy to get stranded for hours in SoCal currently.
  6. LOSSAN (or some similar state-level agency) should take over the governance of all transportation for our region, from regional to local. In Paris, the subways and regional rail (for the most part) are run by the same agency. We should strive for uniformity across our region. This would cut red tape, confusion, delays, and duplication of service. From San Luis Obispo to San Diego, I should be able to use the same agency’s ticket everywhere—buses, trains, light rail, subway, etc. For example, Metrolink single-ride tickets aren’t accepted on Amtrak. If we belonged to the same company or agency, it wouldn’t matter because the money was going to the same place.
  7. Also, all transportation workers in Southern California should become State of California employees—not contractors working for 50 different agencies and small transportation companies. Each company has different policies, and what is okay with one carrier sometimes will get you kicked off another one. It can be really confusing.

Wednesday, March 13

After driving all night, I get back from Kingman at 8:30 a.m. I drive home in rush-hour traffic heading back to South LA and Leimert Park. I’m so tired!

View from the hotel room of a chilly Kingman.
Blake Phillips-Rios

Writing this transit diary has allowed me to express my personal thoughts and opinions about how to improve our transportation system in Southern California. My answer is usually, “JUST BUILD IT, ALREADY!” But this is something that I spend a lot of time contemplating every day. While I can read about Metro’s amazing expansion, the train service that Amtrak and the state of California plan to add, the electrification of Metrolink, or even our high-speed rail system of the future (supposedly), all which will happen in the semi-distant future, the truth is nothing will really change until we all take steps today to change how we move around our region.

At the end of 2018, I wrote a little essay about what I was going to do to change my own transportation habits in 2019. I mean, if I can’t figure out how to make taking public transportation work for my life, and I am public transportation, how can I expect someone to do anything differently—with kids, poor transit connections in their neighborhood, or just a lack of knowledge about how our system works?

For now, until my transportation options change dramatically, I’ll have to be okay with being a pedestrian only “from time to time”—and continue to support those in power that promote my values.

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