Thursday, July 19, 2012
Our private driver has us flying up the 280 North, the very Junipero Serra Freeway understandably described by its signage as the World’s Most Beautiful Freeway. Even with a stop to pick up some friends, we’ll make it from Salinas’ train station to San Francisco’s Ferry Building in less than two and a half hours. In the meantime, I’m touring the Internet on my MacBook Pro thanks to an onboard WiFi signal, looking up stories about underground fight clubs authored by the guy sitting across the table from me. Our beverages sit in cupholders built into the table. Life on the move is good.
OK – technically it’s not a private driver. It’s a bus driver. And we’re picking up other passengers, not friends, though if they’re anything like the writer from L.A. I just met, they soon will be. It just feels comfortable and quick enough that it could be a private ride.
In other words, this is surprising mass transit: Not just quick and comfortable, but at as little as $16, also relatively cheap. And it’s certainly convenient, as is the small, clean bathroom in the back and the bike rack on the front. But the biggest surprise might be that this is an Amtrak operation.
Surprise at Amtrak’s involvement doesn’t spring from the fact that it’s a bus and not a train – any veteran public traveler can tell you plenty of Amtrak buses provide connections between stations and times – but that it gets there so quickly.
While Amtrak spokesperson Vernae Graham says, “Amtrak provides passengers with stress-free transportation options” – and the joy of hanging in its sunlit lounge cars sleeping, reading, eating and drinking certainly beats the stress of driving – there is no shortage of Amtrak horror stories starring plenty of stress.
The other day, one of Amtrak’s Monday morning bus-train combo trips from San Francisco to Salinas was thrown into chaos when a train scheduled to swoop folks up in Oakland was running more than three hours late (and maybe longer). Mildly panicked lines formed at the Jack London Square info desk, an Amtrak spokesman materialized to answer questions, and at least one local was rerouted back across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco and then south to San Jose and Salinas. The nearly 100-mile trip took more than six hours. Tour de France competitors bike that distance in a fraction of the time.
And that isn’t an unprecedented experience. Amtrak trains can run as many as eight hours late. Moreover, even Amtrak officials admit that the amount of public options between the bay areas isn’t close to ideal.
But all that makes the Route 21 – which is operated by subcontracting outfit American Star – all the more refreshing. Eight buses travel the seven-day-a-week track as far south as Santa Barbara, and Amtrak bus operations leadership says most of the Silverado Amtrak buses are newer, and set up with password-free WiFi, two tables with facing seats, seatbelts (which wasn’t always the case), wider seating areas and toilets.
It leaves a lot more often – at 3:50pm, 5pm and 7:55pm – than the Coast Starlight train, which allegedly pushes off at 6:36pm, but requires nearly another hour and a bus transfer (assuming the train’s on time). Route 21 return trips happen at 6:35am, 8am and 10:29am and take as little as 2 hours and 5 minutes.
That means the bustle of the boutique cheesemakers and foodie restaurants of the Ferry Building, the arresting Cindy Sherman exhibit up now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the first-place San Francisco Giants are just up the road. And the ride there is stress-free.
Call 1-800-USA-RAIL or visit www.amtrak.com for more.