AMTRAK Police-CalTrain Ride-along

by Dave Schultheis

December 28, 1995


Upon arrival at the AMTRAK Police office (San Jose Diridon Cahill train station) a little before 1:30 p.m. on December 19th, I met with Detective Randy Anderson in the parking lot (unloading his car); Detective Jim Martino was already in the office. I met another two detectives, one (day-shift) going off-duty and another (swing-shift) coming on duty.

After some discussion about which vehicles were available for patrol and which were going in for repairs, Detective Martino and I walked out to the platform. He showed me some of the safety features of the locomotives and passenger cars, including the emergency fuel cut-off on the locomotive, the emergency window exits and emergency door-opening release (air) valve on the passenger cars. At this point we climbed on board an empty train sitting in the depot that was being cleaned. He showed me how 12 seats had been removed from the cab-cars and replaced with bicycle racks. He said the bicycles-on-board program is very successful. We waited on the platform for just a few more minutes.

When the 2:00 p.m. train arrived in the station from Tamien Station, we hopped on board, climbed up to the very front of the cab car and entered the cab. We met the Engineer and settled in for the 47-mile, nearly 90-minute ride to San Francisco. (The locomotive Engineer sits on the right side and we sat on the left.)

Trains on the Peninsula Commute Service run in "push-pull" operation. The locomotive is usually at the "south" end of the train and the cab-car is usually at the "north" end of the train. The locomotive "pushes" the train to San Francisco and "pulls" the train to San Jose (and Gilroy). This saves a lot of time that used to be spent turning the train around at each end of the route. The cab-car is a regular passenger car that has train controls "upstairs" at one end. Upon arrival at either end of the route, the engineer simply turns various knobs and switches to move control from one end to the other.

The Peninsula Commute Service (PCS) operates with only one person in the cab, the Engineer. Prior to the Joint Powers Board (JPB) taking over the PCS from Cal Trans, there was also a Fireman or Brakeman in the cab. There is still a legal battle over whether it's safe to run one-person crews, but since there's no Fireman or Brakeman on this train, there's a place for a visitor to sit.

[JPB: The Boards of Supervisors of the Counties of San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara.]

We left at exactly 2:00 p.m., "on the advertised." We stopped at nearly every station on the way, picking up and discharging passengers.

(Certain stops are seasonal [like "Stanford" and "Bay Meadows"] and some stations depend upon the time of day [like "College Park," the station near Bellarmine College Preparatory].)

At each station, the Engineer stops the train such that the doors on the passenger cars will be in the right place on the platform for the passengers, depending upon the length of the train (three cars, four cars, five cars). The Conductor is in charge of when the train gets moving again, communicating to the Engineer by two-way radio when all passengers are on board and the doors are closing. The typical message is "Train number xx, highball (name of station)." The Engineer responds by ringing the bell and blowing the whistle as the train starts moving.

While en route, the Engineer must constantly scan the tracks and the right-of-way for obstructions: shopping carts, debris, people sitting on the tracks, people walking on the tracks, children with rocks, animals, cars, trucks, etc. This trip was thankfully quite uneventful. A few people had to scurry out of the way when they heard the whistle blowing, and all the cars at all the grade crossings stayed behind the crossing arms.

At various places along the way, maintenance-of-way crews were doing trackwork, necessitating "slow orders" between certain mileposts. Each of these "slow orders" is communicated to the Engineer by "track orders" handed to him by the Conductor prior to departure on each trip. Upon approaching and passing the work sites, the Engineer relays the information to the Conductor on the radio and the Conductor acknowledges.

On each trip, each train meets three or four other trains operating in the opposite direction. If this meeting is between stations, it's amazing to experience the passing of several hundred tons of rolling stock at high speed about 4 feet apart. If this meeting is near a station, one train hangs back so that both trains are not in the station at the same time. That would confuse the passengers since, at most stations, passengers board from the same platform (same side of the train). After the first train leaves, the second train enters the station.

Engineers have to be especially watchful if passing another train near a grade crossing, since most people assume that once "the" train goes by, it's safe to go. They don't realize that there may be more than one train, regardless of what signs are posted. This is one of the most serious safety problems faced by railroads nationwide.

When approaching San Francisco, the tracks go through four tunnels. Engineers have to be very watchful for pedestrians trespassing in the narrow tunnels because there is no place for people to go when a train is coming.

Near the San Francisco depot at 4th and Townsend, the train dispatcher radios the Engineer what Track they will be arriving on. Each train has to go through several switches to get to an unoccupied track, so the Engineer has to compare what the dispatcher tells him with how the switches are aligned, which signals are yellow and which signals are red.

We arrived at the San Francisco depot at just about 3:30, so there was time to make a pit stop, walk around for a few minutes and then board the 3:45 p.m. train back to San Jose.

This time we were able to climb aboard the locomotive for the return trip. It's noisy, as could be expected, but not as noisy in the cab as it is while standing on the platform right next to the locomotive.

The Engineer for the return trip used earplugs, saying that they're all hearing-impaired. He turned the two-way radio up loud enough to hear it over the roar of the locomotive and it was REALLY LOUD. Fortunately my place to sit was away from the loudspeaker but it was still quite loud. The locomotive cab is quite roomy. Again the Engineer sits on the right side of the cab, mostly surrounded by gauges, dials and handles mounted on stalks attached to the floor. But the rest of the cab is quite spacious. It was possible to ride seated or standing and still see everything that was happening in front of the train and to both sides.

At one of the stations, a wheelchair passenger needed to board. The Conductor radioed to the Engineer that there would be a slight delay for "an ADA passenger*." The Assistant Conductor (low-seniority man) was the one who unlocked and positioned the wheelchair lift, turned the handle, boarded the passenger and replaced the lift, locking it in place at the station. The Conductor radioed to the Engineer where the "ADA passenger" would be deboarding the train. That information, and the three-minute delay, was radioed to the train dispatcher in San Jose.

[* No doubt derived from the "Americans with Disabilities Act."]

At one point we observed some school kids walking near the train with rocks in their hands. I brazenly opened the locomotive window and pointed at them, telling them "don't even think about throwing those rocks at the train." They didn't throw them at us but because the train was 5-cars long, I don't know what happened at the back.

The ride back to San Jose was quite uneventful after that. We passed other trains and stopped at nearly every station. We got off the train in San Jose and it continued to Gilroy.

Next we got into an unmarked Explorer patrol vehicle and drove over to the AMTRAK offices on West San Fernando Street. We got upstairs to "AMTRAK SAN JOSE CONTROL" where all the radio communications for the Peninsula Commute Service are conducted. Each of two train dispatchers has a large screen displaying various switches and track segments (blocks), in color. I wasn't able to get too deeply into the radio equipment but between the two dispatchers, they handle radio traffic for all trains and equipment coming through the San Jose depot and for maintenance-of-way crews.

In a nearby room is some earthquake monitoring equipment. Their computer gets information from a statewide system showing every earthquake that has been detected. For example, there had been several very slight tremors that very afternoon from the area south and east of San Jose. If earthquakes get to a certain strength, trains have to go into restricted speed operation until all track has been inspected and verified to be safe.

For the duration of the shift, we patrolled the San Jose Depot; the abandoned Roundhouse at Lenzen Avenue, which is fenced to keep out transients; the College Park "depot" (shelter); Tamien Station and surrounding areas. We were able to visit the abandoned College Park Tower, a mere shadow of it's former self, with numerous hand-thrown switches that kept a man (or woman) busy during the heyday of the railroad. All functions of the College Park Tower and the (abandoned) Santa Clara Tower are handled by train dispatchers at San Jose Control.

At one point we copied a radio report of an audible alarm sounding at Tamien Station and responded because we were close. Someone had opened one of the "emergency" pedestrian gates at the north end of the station, so we reset the alarm.

Near Julian Street we caught three transients who appeared to have jumped off a freight train. It was hard (and pointless) to try to explain, in English, to these Spanish-speaking men how dangerous it was to jump on and off moving trains, but we did persuade them to "move along" and stop trespassing on railroad property.

Back at the AMTRAK POLICE office I was afforded the opportunity to watch an Operation Lifesaver video which was (mostly) computer-generated trains crashing into idiots who either "went around the arms" or by some other means ended up on the tracks. Very interesting information for non-railroad types who are not aware of how serious this topic can be.

The entire experience was very eye-opening and very worthwhile. Thanks to Detective Jim Martino, AMTRAK 198 for his expertise.

If you are an emergency services or public safety professional and would like to arrange an AMTRAK POLICE or Peninsula Commute Service ride-along, contact Detective Martino at 408-271-4960. Be prepared to leave a message with your name and phone number in case he's not available at the time you call.


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Created on April 9, 1996. Last updated at 18:15 PDT on March 13, 1997.
David W. Schultheis, San Josť, Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County, California, USA