Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Trolley-Coaster Dash

I missed the coaster twice this week. On Monday, the trolley I catch in El Cajon left the station almost two minutes early, so i missed it. On Tuesday, some harried woman with two young kids hit the emergency button because she left her back pack at the last station. The trolley driver came back to talk to her for five minutes, which did no more good than if she had just told the woman to get off the trolley and catch the next one back, which she eventually did.

My afternoon commute involves catching a San Diego MTS trolley that is scheduled to get into the Old Town Station three minutes before the Coaster is scheduled to arrive. If I miss this connection, the next Coaster train comes forty seven minutes later.

Commuting by public transportation over the last two years has been good for me over all. The benefits have outweighed the downside. The advantages are;

• $ - When I started doing this, a $154 monthly rail pass saved me about $50/mo over the cost of gasoline alone. And my Pontiac Vibe gets 32mpg on the highway. At current gas prices, and even with a fare increase, my savings are about $80/mo.
• Time – It takes longer than driving, but I can make better use of that time by reading, working, or writing this. The Coaster is laptop friendly. I read, or talk to some of the regulars on the Trolley.
• Health – It is a two mile walk, or bike ride, to work. If I bike, I get in early and sit at Starbucks across the street and work on the laptop (I don’t use the WiFi. At four bucks a cup, it should be free AND no strings attached), or get off a station earlier so I will have a longer ride.

The main disadvantage is time also. I get up an hour earlier than I would if I drove, and get home forty minutes later. If I miss the connection at Old Town, I get home over an hour and a half later.

Here in lies a problem, and the source of numerous complaints by many of us who ride the Green Line Trolley that is scheduled to pull in just before the 5:28 Coaster. The Coaster operates on a “Get ‘em off-Get ‘em on, and lets get the hell outta here” model. If the train starts its route two minutes early, as I have seen it do, it gets into Old Town only a minute before the Green Line is supposed to. If the Green line pulls into the station a minute late, and the Coaster is shutting its doors, there are a lot of irate people on the Trolley.

The problem seems to be that the two trains are operated by two different agencies, and have no regard for us “intermodals” who regard it as a single system. The Coaster WILL NOT wait for an inbound Trolley, even if the Coaster is running early.

If this has happened to you, please leave a comment, and I will try to bring this blog to the attention of the San Diego MTS, and the North County Transit District, NCTD.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

This is the first installment in a story that will chronicle my daily adventures commuting by public transit, and bicycle. I start by going off on a tangent. My usual commute takes me from Carlsbad to Old Town San Diego by Coaster; From Old Town to El Cajon via San Diego Trolley; then the last two miles to work by bicycle.

I heard a couple of weeks ago that there was a flap about bikes on the North County Sprinter. Today was the first chance I had to ride the Sprinter, and I took my Bike. It was not a pleasant experience.

NCTD had moved to restrict bicycle access to the trains, but rescinded it later, according to a report in the San Diego Union. I decided to find out what it was about.

I arrived at the Melrose station in Vista, got the bike out of the car and pedaled over to the platform. I was harangued over a loud speaker to not ride my bike on the platform. Looking around I saw an array of cameras that would make George Orwell shudder. (The only other person there was smoking a cigarette at the other end of the platform-Big Brother seemed to be O.K. with that).

There were minimal instructions on the platform, and none pertaining to bikes. The train pulled into the station to the forward two of four platforms. I moved from the middle of the platform to the rearmost platform serving the train to find three bikes already shoehorned into the narrow space at the door.

I must mention now I flaw I noticed the first time I ever saw the Sprinter, and what I suspected may be a fundamental cause of the bicycle problems. This suspicion was confirmed on the unpleasant ordeal that the trip to the Palomar College Transit center would become.

NCTD, it would seem, blew almost half a billion dollars on a set of trains that has too few doors. A double car unit of the San Diego Trolley, that is about the came size as a double unit Sprinter train has four five foot doors per side, as opposed to the Sprinters two. (I will measure the doors and post the exact measurements within a week)

As you can see from the pictures,( ) the vestibule was packed with our four bikes. God help anyone trying to get out in an emergency. The four of us wound up doing, what I would come to call, the “Sprinter/Bike Shuffle”. This was a little exercise necessitated by another of the Sprinters design flaws. Instead of a double track for almost all of its length, as on the Trolley, the Sprinter is on a single track for most of its length. On the Trolley you can place the bike against the door opposite the platform and leave it because the platform is on the same side of the car for the entire length of the route until it reaches the end.

On the Sprinter, the door to the platform changes sides depending on the station, requiring the bikers to shuffle the bikes from one side of the cramped vestibule to the other, while dodging pedestrian passengers trying to enter and exit the car. I talked to the other guys, and one of them thought there was more room at the other end of the train. I doubted it, since I was very familiar with the SD Trolleys, and they were symmetrical; the front unit being a mirror image of the back unit.

I was wrong.

When I boarded the train at Palomar College for the return trip, I once again boarded the aft car, which had been the lead car going the other way. There was plenty of room for bikes at this end. There was even a bicycle access placard on this end of the train. (This was the end that had sped past to quickly at Melrose for me to have seen it.)

Why can the NCTD not put placards on the platform that say “Bikes go to that end”?