San Diego, Tijuana and Oceanside

After over 18 hours in transit, I arrived in San Diego about an hour after I left Melbourne (thanks to the wonders of international time zones). It was around 1pm local time when I walked out of the San Diego International Airport and caught the city bus into the centre of San Diego.

After dropping my bags at the hotel, I walked down to the waterfront and visited the USS Midway. The USS Midway is a floating museum; a decommissioned aircraft carrier with military aircraft from all countries and eras on display. It is a massive area, with many depictions of how everyday life on board the 64,000 ton, 974 ft (296 m) vessel would have been. Fascinating, and well worth a visit.

A Privately owned dome car stands out the front o the historic Santa Fe Depot in San Diego

A Privately owned dome car stands out the front o the historic Santa Fe Depot in San Diego

On my way back to the hotel, I passed the Santa Fe Depot. The Santa Fe Depot is San Diego’s main railway station, used by Amtrak California’s Pacific Surfliner and NCTD Coaster services. The station is an historical building, which was constructed in 1915 in a Spanish style (to reflect the history of the area and proximity to Mexico) with an ornate dome at one end.

San Diego's Santa Fe Depot with an Amtrak locomotive to the left of the picture and a red Siemens S70 tram to the right.

San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot with an Amtrak locomotive to the left of the picture and a red Siemens S70 tram to the right.

 

In the rail yard in front of the station, there was a privately owned dome carriage, as well as an Amtrak California Pacific Surfliner service awaiting departure for Los Angeles; an F40PHI locomotive at the south end of half a dozen double deck Surfliner cars.

From the station, I walked back to the hotel and slept for the first time since 6am Melbourne time.

An EMD F59PHI locomotive hauls double deck Surfliner cars on Amtrak California's Pacific Surfliner at San Diego station.

An EMD F59PHI locomotive stands at the southern end of a set of double deck Surfliner cars on Amtrak California’s Pacific Surfliner at San Diego’s Santa Fe Depot.

The next day, I decided to head for San Ysidro and walk across the border into Mexico, so I made my way to the City College stop and waited for a Blue Line tram.  The 17 mile (28 km) journey from downtown San Diego to San Ysidro takes about 45 minutes, and the tram line passes through mostly light industrial areas as well as passing a massive naval base as it runs along a former railway track reservation.

A Duewag U2 tram at San Ysidro

A Duewag U2 tram at San Ysidro

On arriving at San Ysidro, I left the 3 car Duewag U2 tram and followed the signs towards the border. The signs took me up a footbridge, then down to a turnstile in a cyclone wire fence; affixed to the fence were multiple signs bearing stern warnings that I was now leaving the USA, and of the consequences of not taking your passport with you across the border (I double checked and triple checked).

A stone plaque marking the actual border between the USA and Mexico at San Ysidro

A stone plaque marking the actual border between the USA and Mexico at San Ysidro

I walked through the turnstile into a “no-man’s-land”; a sort of long courtyard with disused buildings on both sides. The area was deserted, and felt very intimidating; it was hard not to imagine Mexican soldiers hidden in the seemingly disused buildings, watching the new arrivals walk thorough into their country. I managed to pass through the courtyard without assault from the imaginary soldiers, and exited through another turnstile. I found myself in Tijuana, Mexico; as simple as that! No one checked my passport, no one even observed me enter the country (although the dozen or so CCTV cameras at the USA end watched me leave).

I walked into Tijuana, passing touting taxi drivers (“City Tour, I’ll show you the real Tijuana”) and past the shops selling all sorts of discount drugs (some legal, some not; no prescription required). I crossed the footbridge over the Rio Tijuana (a massive dry concrete canal) and walked into the downtown area of Tijuana. The tourist area of downtown Tijuana is a large pedestrian mall with clean restaurants and gift shops selling “discount” clothes and souvenirs. There were also a lot of “pharmacies” selling more discount drugs. All of the shops I went into accepted US dollars as well as Mexican peso (the shops had an exchange rate of 8 pesos to the dollar, with the official rate at over 12). There were street performers such as Mariachi Bands and also quite a few “zebras”. The “zebras” were donkeys painted with zebra stripes (I never managed to work out the significance of this); the owners charging tourists to take photos with them.

The archway in Tijuana near the central tourist precinct

The archway in Tijuana near the central tourist precinct

The downtown area of Tijuana is a very sterilised version of Mexico; clean and relatively safe. After lunch I wandered out of the downtown area and into the inner suburbs. I didn’t wander far or stay long; the slum housing and deserted streets felt alien and unsafe. When I did come across someone, they stared, wondering why such an obvious tourist would wander this far from the safety of the tourist precinct.

The slum areas of Tijuana are only a few kilometres from the tourist precinct

The slum areas of Tijuana are only a few kilometres from the tourist precinct

I made my way back into the tourist area and must have taken a wrong turn. All of a sudden, I found myself in streets full of sleazy looking men and scantily clad young women in heavy makeup. The young women were loitering around doorways, and tried to get my attention as I walked past, some brushing my arm with their hand in a suggestive manner. I kept my eyes front, and walked on, hoping I would find the right turn. I passed a motel offering hourly rates (desde habatacion de lujo, MN$40 hora), and saw the familiar street market in the distance.

I found my way back to the border crossing and walked across the footbridge towards the US Customs post. The footbridge crossed a massive 5 lane freeway which crossed the border. The Mexico bound lanes were flowing freely, but the 5 lanes heading into the USA were at a standstill; a massive international traffic jam. Street vendors walked amongst the cars, selling toys and food to the waiting motorists. There was a queue for the foot crossing as well, but it was moving a lot quicker than the cars. I joined the end of the queue, and we shuffled along the footpath and into the border post, and within about 45 minutes I was near the head of the queue. I had purchased a new leather belt in Tijuana, and spent the time in the queue putting it on. My camera case had a belt clip, so I clipped my camera to my belt, ready for any photogenic situation.

The clear road on the left is the road into Mexico and the traffic jam on the right is the road into the USA

The clear road on the left is the road into Mexico and the traffic jam on the right is the road into the USA

When I was near the front of the queue, a very large US Customs gaurd (with a holstered gun, Taser and pepper spray) who had been standing sentry suddenly looked at me in alarm, and in a loud voice said “Sir, please put your hands out to your sides”. I was suddenly confused and scared, what had I done?? I did as instructed, and he said “Sir, what is that at your side”? I looked down to where he was pointing, and saw that my t-shirt had covered my camera case and created an unidentifiable bulge at my side (about the size of the Immigration guard’s pistol). I managed to croak “it’s only a camera”, and the Immigration guard instructed: “lift your shirt slowly, and show it to me”. I did as I was instructed and the guard inspected the camera case. After mumbling “Thankyou for your cooperation”, he left me alone. My heart pounding, I walked though the Customs check without further incident and back into the USA. I made  mental note to remove my camera before going through any more security checks.

The next morning, I set out to travel the rest of the San Diego tram network. San Diego has 3 tram lines, operated by MTS (Metropolitan Transit Service). The trams of varying ages, but are all red and capable of running in multi unit within their class, up to 5 articulated trams in a consist. The previous day, I had caught the Blue line down to San Ysidro and today I would travel on the Orange and Green lines. I purchased a Region Plus Day Pass from the vending machine at the tram stop (which would give me unlimited tram rides, plus the Coaster and Sprinter services which I planned to travel on later). I boarded an Orange line tram, which headed east from the city area, then north and out through reasonably well to do suburbs of Lemon Grove and El Cajon. The tram line runs along an old railway reserve, which appears to be still in use, with goods carriages parked at industrial sidings along the route.

A Siemens SD100 tram operating an Orange Line service stands at Gillespie Field

A Siemens SD100 tram operating an Orange Line service stands at Gillespie Field

The journey was pleasant but unremarkable, and we joined up with the Green Line at Grossmont station. I left the Orange line at the Gillespie Field terminus (since late 2012, Orange line trams now terminate at El Cajon), which is situated next to a small but busy airport for light aircraft. After photographing trams and ‘planes for about half an hour, I caught a Green line tram back towards San Diego. The Green line and Orange line separate at El Cajon, with the Orange line running to the east of the city and the Green line to the north. The Green line is busier than the Orange line, serving Qualcamm Stadium, San Diego State University (SDSU), Mission Valley Shopping Mall and Fashion Valley Shopping Mall. The line also runs along an old railway reservation, and includes a short section of underground line near SDSU.

A Duewag U2 tram approaches Old Town

A Duewag U2 tram approaches Old Town

At Old Town Transit centre, I left the tram, and headed for railway platforms. I had timed it perfectly, and within 10 minutes, a Coaster train arrived. An F40PH locomotive hauled the white, blue and green train into the platform at high speed and ground to a halt with a groan of brakes and the strong odour of brake dust. I boarded the double deck car, and found a seat on the top level. The 55 minute journey from San Diego to Oceanside was smooth and comfortable, with a bonus of free WiFi! After leaving San Diego, the train ran close to the coast, at some places running right along the beach, giving beautiful views out to sea.

An F40PHM Locomotive heads a northbound Coaster service which has just arrived at Oceanside

An F40PH Locomotive heads a northbound Coaster service which has just arrived at Oceanside

At Oceanside, the Coaster terminated. After taking a video of it departing the platform (available at my YouTube site) I made my way to the Sprinter platform. Before long, a Siemens Desiro DMU arrived at the platform, wearing the same white green and blue livery as the Coaster (both are operated by NCTD). The train was lightly loaded as it made its way inland through the dusty communities surrounding Oceanside. I studied the Sprinter and Amtrak timetables, and realised that I would not be able to go to the end of the line and back if I wanted to catch the next northbound Pacific Surfliner to Los Angeles, so I left the eastbound Sprinter at Palomar College and caught the next service back to Oceanside.

A Siemens Desiro operating the NCTD Sprinter in Southern California

A Siemens Desiro operating the NCTD Sprinter in Southern California

When I arrived back at Oceanside, I bought my ticket for Los Angeles from the Amtrak ticket machine and headed to the platform. A muffled announcement was just ending as I walked onto the platform, but I could tell from the reactions of the other passengers that it was not good news. The station was staffed, so I went to the ticket office to find out what was going on; a Metrolink train had been involved in a level crossing accident, and my Amtrak train was running 90 minutes late as a result. I wasn’t in a hurry, and the delay gave me more time to photograph other trains around the station.

Eventually, my northbound Pacific Surfliner service arrived into the platform. 5 Surfliner cars and 1 Superliner coach car; cab control car leading and an F59PHI locomotive pushing in the rear. The train squealed to a stop, and I boarded through the sliding doors on the lower level of the Surfliner car. The service did not have reserved seating, so I climbed the stairs and found a seat on the upper level. The seats were more comfortable than the Coaster service; clearly designed for longer distances.

Again, the railway followed the coast, and for about 45 minutes there were picturesque views over the beach and Pacific Ocean. After leaving the coast near San Juan Capistrano, we spent the the next hour or so travelling through the communities that had combined to form Los Angeles’ southern metropolitan area, such as Santa Ana and Anaheim. We arrived into Los Angeles Union Station in the early evening, and after some photographs of the train, it was time to find my hotel.

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