Sunday, 12 August 2012

SAN DIEGO Trolley & Sprinter

While staying for a couple of days in Los Angeles, I took a day trip (8 Aug 2012) down to Oceanside to test the Sprinter and then take a few more photos of the Trolley in San Diego.
There are two options to get to Oceanside: Amtrak has several Surfliner trips a day to San Diego which also stop at Oceanside, but as this costs 27 USD I decided to get up a little earlier and take one of two Metrolink morning trains at 8 am, which costs only 15 USD and is almost as fast (just over two hours) despite the larger number of stops.

SPRINTER Oceanside - Escondido
With L.A.'s limited regional rail network nearby, it is amazing that the Sprinter between Oceanside and the inland city of Escondido operates every 30 minutes even during off-peak daytime hours. The line was basically newly-built along an existing rail corridor a couple of years ago, it is partly single-track, but most sections seem to be ready for a second track if required. In Oceanside, where mainline trains have only two tracks available (with Amtrak's through trains and Metrolink and Coaster commuter rail services terminating here!), the Sprinter has two separate stub tracks adjacent to them on the eastern side. There is also a convenient terminal building with an information office (although the Sprinter office is quite a walk from the platform), but all in all a full hub. They even proudly hand out bus maps for the San Diego North County region!

I took the train at 10.33 to Escondido and it was fairly busy, even more so on the way back, which shows that even in almost rural areas - at least not as densely populated as L.A. - people use trains when they run at acceptable frequencies and are well-linked with other transport modes (the timetable coordination at Oceanside is not perfect but this is obviously due to the limitations on the main line which has several single-track sections). The stops are all nicely designed to a uniform design and as a special feature they have platform railings with platform extensions where the train doors are located. I assume that this is to allow the passing of wider freight trains in case this is necessary, although the platform extensions seem to be added permanently and can only be removed mechanically. At one point the two tracks separate from the existing freight track to serve the California State University, for which a double-track bridge was built over Ronald Packard Parkway on the western side and a single-track viaduct on the eastern, before the line rejoins the freight track. As a consequence the Cal State station has wider platforms without these extensions, although the railings were erected also here. So like on manually-driven metros with platform screen doors, drivers need to stop very precisely to match the doors with the platform extensions. To help them, there is sign next to the track indicating the “cab spot” (like on London's Jubilee Line before it switched to ATO). The platform length is laid out for two cars (I don't know if these are used in peak hours).

Announcements on the train are made in English only, but to my ear it sounded more like British or Irish English rather than West Coast American English!
The trains used on the Sprinter are Siemens Desiro DMUs, the type we frequently find on non-electrified regional branch lines in Germany. They have low-floor access in the central section where the doors are located.
Although titled „Light Railway“, the line is operated like a heavy rail line, as far as signals and grade crossings are concerned. This is good because there is no waiting at intersections, where barriers close automatically as the train approaches. Some sections are rather slow due to steep gradients.
Single fares for the Sprinter are 2 USD for any distance travelled, and a day pass costs only 5 USD, and even better, the same Regional Day Pass is also good for the San Diego Trolley and MTS buses and other operators in the region. If one wants to take the Coaster Commuter Railway from Oceanside to San Diego, a RegionalPlus Day Pass is required (I think it was 14 USD). But as there was no Coaster for a while anyway when I wanted to continue to San Diego, I took a crowded Amtrak train (the previous one had apparently broken down...), which cost me 17 USD. Oceanside is just one hour from San Diego and the route follows one of the most scenic stretches along the West Coast.

The purpose of returning to San Diego after my 2008 visit was primarily to take more pictures of the newer rolling stock, the Siemens S70, but arriving at Santa Fe station I was a bit disappointed that all I saw was old Siemens U2 stock, many of which have been sold to Mendoza (Argentina) where they have just started their second life on the new Metrotranvía (retaining their shiny red livery). Most of the Blue Line seems to be served by the U2 still, with some second-generation Siemens trains (SD100) in service too (many with full adverts), but mostly on the Orange Line. This line, however had some power supply problems when I waited for it, but eventually all trains lined up at the Convention Center branch. An employee than confirmed, that the S70 are still only in operation on the Green Line, so I headed up to Old Town for a few shots along the western section of the Green Line. There was a poster somewhere announcing station upgrades (which I saw in two locations, where trains run through without stopping) as well as the arrival of new trains (so I got there too early, as it seems).

I hope it is also due to the lack of trains that the Green Line terminates at Old Town where most passengers need to transfer to the Blue Line. It would certainly be wise to extend the Green Line into the city centre instead of taking the Blue Line out to Old Town. Preferably all lines should circle around the downtown area (all routes somehow seem to miss the central area, with only 5th Avenue station being really close to downtown destinations).

While the Green Line through the Mission Valley was built almost grade-separated, the Blue Line also features interesting grade-separation between Washington Street and Little Italy stations, where it runs parallel to the mainline tracks which stay at grade. But to avoid an excessive closing of barriers on this section, the Trolley first rides over a viaduct and then through an underpass (southbound), so car drivers only have to wait when an Amtrak or Coaster train passes (and probably some freight trains, too).
Trolley stations in San Diego are equipped with electronic indicators, but these are not used to full potential, they are just switched on when a train enters the station, but do not show the time remaining between trains.
Qualcomm Stadium on the Green Line was renamed Hazard Center some months ago, but those special peak services terminating there still show Qualcomm Stadium on the trains' destination blinds.
After a short 4-hour visit I returned to Los Angeles on the 6.15 pm Surfliner. The L.A. - San Diego corridor is among the busiest in the U.S. (probably second busiest after the Northeast Corridor), and this also shows that people choose trains when the offer is acceptable, so no need to say that this train was quite full. The 3-hour journey cost me 36 USD.

LINKS (San Diego's transport portal)

Sprinter (Official Site) 

San Diego Trolley at UrbanRail.Net


  1. I'm living in La Jolla, near Pacific Beach and San Diego Old Town until early September. I rode all three San Diego Trolley lines this last month. They have a good fare system, using the "Compass Card", for a $2.00 deposit, plus any time card from the day pass to a month pass. They work also on the busses but not the Coaster commuter rail system. I have not tried the Sprinter yet, maybe I can try this weekend if I make it to Oceanside. My place is very close to the North County Breeze bus line 101 which stops at the UCSD campus, and from there it's a 1 1/2 hour ride to Oceanside via Encinitas.

    The blue line is the only one using the Siemens U-2 and SD100 trains that I was able to see, since now the orange and green lines are almost exclusively S70 and the stations have long since been upgraded. There still remain several stations from Barrio Logan on to Beyer Boulevard that are being rebuilt or are in the planning stage thereof. The train really slows down at E Street and continues that way to Iris Avenue. A few weeks ago when I rode all the way to San Ysidro/Tijuana, the northbound track was being rebuilt and many stations were using just the southbound track. I imagine that will be the case for the next couple of months. I guess the stations between Barrio Logan and E Street, will be completed by the end of this year, and SD MTS will rebuild the rest some time in 2015. By then, the SD100's and U2's will likely be phased out.

    The Coaster system is the San Diego equivalent of the Trinity Rail Express for Dallas/Fort Worth, and the Caltrain System for the San Francisco Bay Area. It runs on its own fare system, separate from that of SD MTS. It shares the same tracks as the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.

    I'll let you know my impressions of the Sprinter as soon as I can make it to Oceanside this weekend.


  2. I think the Sprinter DMU's were manufactured by a German company, and the canned station announcements seem to have been recorded by a nice British woman with a pleasant voice. Why? Then again, why not? I think it's a nice touch.

    An oddity I've noticed about these trains, and also those the SDMTS Trolley: The doors don't open by default and you have to press a button to do so. I nearly had the train leave without me once or twice. This situation usually only happens at intermediate stops during the less busy times of day.

  3. With regard to the SDMTS Trolley, I'm little short of amazed to see that a considerable section of C Street in downtown San Diego has been given over entirely to the transit lines; I don't think you're allowed to drive on it. For a city in SoCal to have done this is surprising.

  4. Regarding the Sprinter platform extensions, they are folded up each night to give the wider passage for the freight workers. I assume this is done automatically at the required hours each night.

    On the Sprinter railcars, each door has its own narrow tongue-like extension that protrudes to meet the platform extension, whenever the doors are opened. I wish consumer products like umbrellas and my cat door were so well thought out.

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