Thursday, July 6, 2017

Train Notes

Ticket, table, wifi
What a civilized way to travel.

We head out of San Jose slowly, blowing our horn quick and low. Through Santa Clara and by Levi Stadium.

The lady running the train announces the stops as if she loves her job. All the worker bees aboard seem happy to be here. No one has asked for my ticket.

We head out into the salt flats, over the rails between the salt ponds, tracks they laid especially to haul the heavy salt to market.

I see old wood frame buildings sinking in the muck. I sit bold upright.

Drawbridge! An old drinking & gambling ghost town out here on the mud flats. We used to hike out the railroad tracks to explore it when I was a kid. It doesn't look much different, just a little more sunken and ramshackle.

We get to Fremont, and I think of Jerry, taking us on BART with proprietary pride. My love of trains goes back to those days, holding my BART pass and swanning around the Bay Area like a world traveler.

When we get to Jack London Square, I realize we're on the old Southern Pacific Tracks. My paternal grandfather used to be a train engineer on these tracks, back in the first half of the 20th century. 

I have trains in my blood.

In Jack London Square, Ben & Jerry's "Peace and Love" rubs elbows with Bev-Mo. A fruitful juxtaposition, discordant at first, but with a light aftertaste of parallel addictions.

By the Emeryville mudflats and on by the Berkeley marina. I imagine Malvina Reynolds writing Morningtown Ride on a train like this. My route traces hers from the sleepy sound of the train whistle to the little travelers snug and warm inside.

The South Bay passengers were all white. Unusually white for public transit in the Bay Area, in fact. As we got closer to the old industrial hub of the Bay Area, the train population shifted. New passengers were more likely to be black. 

Very few Asians on this train. I didn't see a single one board until Richmond. The South Bay is so Asian, why would this be? Why would Asian people not choose Amtrak? There are lots of Asians on BART and Caltrain, why not Amtrak?

Everybody is playing on their phone. Two African American kids at the table across from mine wear neon orange hoodies. I can hear the blast sounds from their phones despite their headphones.

Trains have always seemed like engines of democracy to me. More likely to reach up socioeconomically than buses, more likely to reach down than planes or cars. You rub elbows with everyone, but it's a more dignified elbow-rubbing than on a bus.

I've been mulling the ratios of pubic to private spaces recently. I'm a believer in an expansive commons -- lots of public and shared spaces and infrastructure. I think it makes sense. Instead of privatizing everything and letting the free market put us all on the slave block, I want to see lots of public spaces and shared infrastructure to make us both rich and free.

That's an odd divide. What makes a people prosperous and free? Looking at California, with its expansive public educations, parks, open spaces, infrastructure projects, building codes, etc, etc, I see a very strong argument for broad public works. You shall share what you have, and it will make you thrive.

Heading through Crockett, there's a huge flock of coots paddling in the mud. Slowing on the approach to the old railroad ("ray-road") bridge, I see a bit of the Bay that looks unchanged in my lifetime. Still rural, still a little down at the heel but not too bad.

A place with both wabi, that lonely/empty/desolate feeling and sabi, the mark of time.

Passing under the C&H sugar plant where my maternal grandfather worked as a machinist for all those years. There's a barge at the dock with raw sugar product from Hawaii. Salt and sugar, these train tracks have carried a lot of powder north and south.

Heading near the area of the Port Chicago explosion -- what a lot of history these train tracks skirt.

I expected us to cross at the railroad bridge between Martinez and Benicia, but we are still on the Martinez side, heading along the Carquinez Straits and upriver. Lots of piers and wrecks of older piers. We're in the area where tankers unload now. Lots of empty tank cars on the tracks beside us, between our train and straits.

We're stuck in a train traffic jam! We have a red light, says the helpful train lady.

Oh, I misidentified that first railroad bridge. It was the one on 80 into Vallejo, not the one at 680 between Martinez and Benicia. I think we'll cross the straits here to head to Suisun -- what a litany of old working California towns.

We're winding through the refinery now. Trust the old Southern Pacific tracks to hit every industrial heavy shipping spot along the way. Heading for the railroad bridge. Rusty old tub out at the end of pier -- oil tanker called the Overseas Rustman. Quite the joke. I wouldn't trust that old tanker to carry seawater across the street. Shiny new tankers on the other side of the strait -- a matched set.

The railroad bridge is so much lower than the high arch of the auto bridge. We're heading along 680 now, close enough that I can wave at passing drivers.

Nice reflections of the hills and clouds and sky in the salt marsh. It would make a very confusing puzzle.

So many birds in these wetlands!

A few lazy wind turbines spin. Suisun City, with flocks of birds and more confusing salt flat skyscapes. And suddenly, as we approach Fairfield, cows. What an improbable thing. And palm trees struggling up out of the edge of the wetlands.

Big power substation that puzzles me, because you don't send electricity by rail. But then I realize you might send power station inputs by rail.

Bird's eye view of badly landscaped and partly flooded backyards. Might there be a connection?

The power lines go along the railroad tracks now in a long sinuous sine wave that makes me dizzy. We race by the cars below us. Oh, what fun a bullet train would be!

A new housing development rises alongside the wetlands with shiny brand-new windows, starkly surreal. Not far above sea level in a time of global warming. Lord, what fools we mortals be! The water table is right there, right there, inches below their thresholds.

Dikes around the furrowed fields. A flooded feed lot, not quite as nasty as a flooded hog farm. A little higher, and the nut trees begin.

Right outside of Dixon now.


Goodbye Train 532!

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