The Bus, The Train, and a Missed Ballgame
How to get from Monterey to the Bay Area and back without a car in one whole day.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS NOTHING MASS ABOUT THIS TRANSIT: it involved just one guy making one 200-mile trip by train and bus. In the end, it was nothing if not a mass of strange developments.
Planning the trip from Monterey to the Oakland Coliseum—to test the feasibility of making an A’s day game without the headache of driving—was rather massive all by its lonesome.
There aren’t many options for a car-less traveler to get from Monterey to the Bay Area. Caltrain doesn’t make it to Monterey County, extending only as far south as Gilroy. (If Measure A passes, the train will be extended to Salinas within two or three years.) The Monterey Salinas Airbus is expensive, and doesn’t go to Oakland. Amtrak quickly emerged as the most viable option. The bizarreness began there.
Amtrak’s Ollie Johnson confirmed what the Web site said: to get from Monterey to the Coliseum by game-time, I would need to report to the Monterey Transit Plaza at 6:25am for a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Merced. From there, the San Joaquin Amtrak train would roll me to Stockton to meet another bus, which would in turn arrive in Oakland around 1pm.
When I asked Johnson if she believed traversing scenic Stockton to get to the Bay Area sounded a little silly, she agreed and offered to transfer me to the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, which includes BART, and whom she said took over the operation of Salinas-San Jose link in early April.
Ultimately, after more than 10 minutes on hold, and a review of the same bizarre options, their reps pinballed me back to my pals at Amtrak and inspired me to turn to Monterey Salinas Transit to complete the first leg, and work my way up to the East Bay from Salinas.
THE STRAIGHT SHOT TO SALINAS, MST’s 21 bus, only runs down Highway 68 a couple of times a day. The number 20 runs from Monterey through Marina to Salinas every half hour. A 9:45am bus would shuttle me to the Salinas Transit Center in time to catch an Amtrak bus to the San Jose commuter train to Oakland.
The bus arrived late—operator Danny, who declined to give his last name, cited a delay due to a broken alarm system. We made up the time, despite a number of road construction obstacles that at one point required a passenger to disembark and move an orange cone so the bus could complete a right hand turn. The ride cost $4.
On the bus, the joys of public transit had a chance to settle in: I enjoyed the freedom to let my eyes trace the green and golden contours of the Salinas Valley, to flip through the slick, colorful TAMC Measure A packet, and to visit with passengers both enthralled and displeased with MST service.
RJ Adams of the Monterey County Office of Education’s Monterey Transition Program happened to be on board. He told me it’s a lifeline for his developmentally disabled students, who on this trip were learning to travel from Monterey to Salinas on their own. Another passenger couldn’t stop griping about route 16 in Marina, noting his fatigue with bus operators and their excuses for delays.
We hit Oldtown at 10:38am, which gave me only a few minutes to de-bus and hustle up to the train station off Market Street for the 10:45am Amtrak bus. This, of course, violated the arrive-a-half-hour-before-departure rule, but saved me another half hour of waiting around the desolate train depot.
Amtrak clerk James Rogers booked me to Oakland for $18 and had a one-word answer when asked what local transit service needs: “More.”
“There’s nothing,” he said, “between here and San Jose, Gilroy or Monterey.”
Moments later, the air-conditioning of the big cruiser bus was cooling away the heat generated by my connecting wind sprint. By 12:12pm, we were approaching the San Jose’s Diridon Caltrain Station next to the HP Pavilion.
The spotless double-decker commuter train that left the station at 12:30pm was a powerful pro-rail argument in motion. Above my own big, sturdy table, which offered ample space to spread out and work, a five-foot-wide window revealed views of a hawk flapping his way over salt flats outside of Fremont. In the Capitol Corridor train’s café car, Bruce Campbell told me the discounted BART tickets ($10 worth of tickets for $8) are almost as popular as the bean-and-cheese burrito ($2.25). He then recommended the 375ml bottle of Hahn ($8) or a top-shelf cocktail for $5. I returned to my work while reeds and water whizzed by outside.
The train arrived at the Oakland Coliseum station at 1:34pm—four hours after my departure from Monterey, and about an hour after the A’s Kirk Saarloos threw his first pitch. This probably gave me enough time to jump on BART and make it to the Coliseum in time to see designated hitter Frank Thomas hit a two-run bloop single to right field in the fifth inning. But that would have made a return trip practically impossible.
So I performed an about-face on the landing platform and pointed south. I promptly learned that on the Caltrain, there was no way I’d be able to catch the last connection from San Jose to Salinas at 3:25pm. I was stranded.
BUT THEN CAME AN ACCIDENTAL SAVIOR: Amtrak’s southbound Pacific Coast Starlight, which runs from Seattle to Los Angeles and passes through Oakland once a day. Scheduled to run through Oakland at 8:50am, it was arriving more than five hours late.
The Coast Starlight rumbled into Oakland just after 2pm. Twenty-one bucks later I was aboard.
Despite its tardiness, the Starlight lingered in Oakland for more than 20 minutes for what an assistant conductor called “maintenance.” In San Jose, the conductor made an announcement that I found disturbing, and comical: “We’re coming to San Jose; go ahead and get some fresh air, relax, because we’re gonna be there…for a while.
“Our engines are almost out of oil so we need to take them over to the roundhouse and drain them. Bear with us, we’ll try to make this as fast as we can. So we’re going to cut off these engines, go over to the roundhouse, then come put the engine back on the train. There will be no power, air conditioning and all bathrooms will not work, so please use them now.”
Eventually the strange trip got back on track. From my perch beneath the skylights in the Starlight’s lounge car, a floating feeling crept into my being. At first I thought it came from two sources: both from looking down, from the upper-deck perspective of the speeding train, on the scores of cars scurrying on the 101—and from the freedom of being above it.
After another moment of thought—one that trickled through the sequence of complications and connections that brought me to this point—I identified still other sources for that floating feeling: weariness from executing the adventure, hope that some day this kind of travel could be hassle-free, and relief that I had already arranged to be picked up in Salinas.