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Southern California Transit Advocates is a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion, development and improvement of public transportation in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

Palm Springs Study Tour

-- Dana Gabbard

Our annual Day After Thanksgiving trip provides an opportunity during a weekday to explore the far reaches of Southern California's transportation network. For the past few years a perennial runner-up choice had been Sunline Transit in the Coachella Valley. When Sunline began its bi-directional SunLink service to Riverside's Metrolink station (using ex-OCTA Superbuses, no less) the idea began to seem a bit more practical. But the last SunLink departure to Riverside would allow a bare few hours of bus riding. When it was decided to utilize Greyhound for the return trip the last obstacle to a Palm Springs trip had been surmounted and it was our choice for the 2002 DAT transit adventure.

Lionel Jones handled the trip planning while I investigated fare options. It soon became clear this was not a trip for the frugal, as it entailed paying pricey fares for Metrolink, SunLink and Greyhound. One money saver I discovered was the existence of a $3 Sunline day pass. Except while the Rider's Guide noted "Driver will punch pass to validate" it wasn't clear where you bought one. I hoped drivers sold them the way operators at Omnitrans can. But what if they didn't? Our tight schedule wouldn't allow time wasted on tracking down a pass sales outlet (and would they be open on the day after Thanksgiving?) Faced with the chilling specter of a fruitless search for a day pass I contacted the agency and confirmed day passes were not sold by drivers. But thankfully besides pass outlets you could also
purchase them direct from the agency. And even use a credit card and have them mailed to you. So at our November meeting I collected $3 each from members who anticipated going on the trip and bought the day passes in advance.

On Friday, November 29 via Red Line car #607 I made my way to Union Station to rendezvous with members departing from there. Besides myself present were Charles Powell, Frank Schroder, Woody Rosner, Robert Meinert, John Ulloth, Kymberleigh Richards and Armando Avalos. After purchasing tickets we made our way to the platform to catch Metrolink's 91 line train #702, departing at 6:25am. The departure time was the subject of some confusion as the main display board in the station had the train leaving at 6:35am. while the train conductor announced 6:23am. Turned out the earlier time was correct (much to the chagrin of a bay area member who ran up the ramp in time to witness our train clearing the platform). As usual we rode the top floor of the last car and enjoyed the vista as Los Angeles receded behind.

At Norwalk Lionel Jones and Andy Novak joined us. Kymberleigh brought forth her Chex Morning Mix, which is becoming a trip staple, and soon there was much contended munching. One advantage of using the 91 line is it serves several stations in Orange County, making it convenient for members behind the Orange Curtain. In Fullerton Mark Strickert and Dan Dalke joined us. This was my first ride on this new Metrolink route and I found it just a bit different than any other - at one point we spotted a horse trail paralleling the train tracks. Later we passed a cemetery with adjacent trailer house.

We arrived at Riverside-Downtown station a few minutes early. A quick reconnoiter revealed the SunLink bus was there already laying over at the bus stop adjacent to the platform. Somebody indicated the driver had walked off for a few minutes, maybe to use the facilities or take a quick cigarette break? We milled about - a few of the bus fan used the opportunity to take snapshots of the Superbus. It was impressive, with a full wrap festooned with the SunLink and Metrolink logos.

Eventually the driver showed up and began collecting the $8 fare directly from passengers (back when OCTA ran them these buses had fareboxes and a remote camera for the driver to observe you paying the fare without having to leave the tractor/trailer rig the driver rides in). Here the driver has to personally handle fare collection. The driver, named Richard, also answered some questions and overall was quite courteous. There were only two other passengers and finally we all settled in before pulling out at 8:20am (five minutes behind schedule). The equipment numbers were 901/901T (T for trailer). About this time I distributed the day passes so we would all be prepared upon arriving in Sunline territory.

For those unfamiliar with it, I should explain the superbus is a a 18 wheeler/freight truck turned into a transit bus. The driver sits in the cab while passengers are in the trailer compartment. The middle section is low floor while you step up stairs to reach the fore and aft areas. Sunline added a bathroom and some amenities - coffee and hot tea service (you stick a nominal fee in a slot for your hot drink). I understand when Sunline began SunLink there was also a selection of snack foods for sale (and maybe apples?). Evidently that didn't work out or was too much hassle and was discontinued. Seats were cushioned, and the obvious upscale market it was meant to attract was reflected in the cup holders and power outlets for laptops at the table in the front section. Via the 215, 60 and I-10 we reached Loma Linda in about 30 minutes and had two passengers get off and one get on. Interestingly at this point we were in Omnitrans territory and could have caught routes 2, 8, 9, 19 or 200 at a nearby stop!

We arrived at the Carl's Jr. in Beaumont/Banning early and the driver told us we had time to get a bite or use the restroom. I was weak and indulged: a chili cheese omelet breakfast burrito, which I ate after we departed (I was embarrassed it was slow still being made while everyone else got their order). Next we passed the Cabazon outlet complex and Casino Morongo. The area was mobbed - maybe with both shoppers and gamblers. Nobody boarded at these stops. As we pulled back on the freeway we saw the dinosaur statue (made famous in the movie "Pee Wee's Big Adventure"). Now the surroundings became more arid.

We arrived at the Palm Springs Mall at 10:20am (ten minutes late). There was no crosswalk to the mall across the street and our stop lacked a shelter (although the stop opposite did have a shelter). And it was raining lightly. We noticed there was no cut out for the bus. We were very glad when route 14, an Orion hi floor #503, showed up about 10:35am. Our bus operator was Nancy and there were five passengers (all ride counts exclude trip participants). As we passed a DMV I noticed sand bags sitting amidst a strengthening rain storm. As we traveled toward Desert Hot Springs (mostly on Gene Autry Trail) I noted the sand and rain outside and how desolate it all appeared. But at least the seats were fabric covered! Closer to Desert Hot Springs we saw development, even a Korean bbq. I also noticed like Orange County the bus stop signs have ID numbers. We did a lengthy diversion on Hacienda to a park and returned (this is only done in one direction). I saw no indication that this enhanced ridership. We arrived at the layover (Palm/8th) next to a 7-11 after passing thru a commercial district.

About 11:35am we began the return trip, passing a Thai place. Soon the load built up to 15 riders (one-third kids). The rain really was coming down. A lot of the load deboarded at Palm Springs Mall. We continued on to downtown Palm Springs (Palm Canyon and Baristo) just after Noon. While the ground was soaked thankfully the rain had stopped (and never returned the rest of the day). Dan decided to do a mini-tour of his own because he planned to catch the last SunLink back so we bid him goodbye. After a time at the stop we encountered a Sunline supervisor named Ray. We asked about the route 111 bus we hoped to catch. We soon learned it was running late - in fact bus service overall was disrupted by the weather and heavy traffic (Christmas shoppers). I contemplated the glitz star in the sidewalk when a quick conference was held on what to do. Instead of having lunch mid-trip we decided to seek a suitable eatery nearby and catch the bus we intended to catch after lunch.

After walking a few blocks we discovered a McDonald's mere feet from a stop and settled on that. At 1:34pm we caught route 111, an Orion #507. Our bus operator was Debbie. Along Palm Canyon we had 13 passengers. We continued on to Highway 111, very upscale and commercial (although you'd have sudden areas of pristine land, which I have heard is usually Indian tribal land).

This is the trunk line of the Sunline system, running along the main commercial arterial and providing connections to service up and down the valley from Palm Spring to Indio. Weekdays it has 25 minute service and actually runs until just past 10pm.

At Westfield Shoppingtown over 30 passengers boarded for a seated load. By the time we reached Indio there were still 26 passengers. We arrived at Flower and Highway 111 in Indio (aka Sunline Clean Air Center). There were CNG fuelling pumps and we witnessed a Postal Service truck pull up to fill its tanks. While there was supposed to be a "Sunmart" selling snacks we were disappointed to find it closed.

At 3:30pm we caught route 91, #506, with seven passengers. This is mostly a large one-way loop with two hour headways. I soon understood why as we passed through the sleepy small town of Coachella. As we went along the scenery was rustic countryside. There were fields of dates and lemons. At times the country roads were bumpy as we made our way into the hinterlands. In the remote enclave of Mecca, six deboarded while two got on. But don't think everything was strictly Hooterville - once after going down a deserted stretch of road we turned and suddenly before us was an apartment complex (and I'm not talking eight to ten units). In Thermal I noticed a neon side on the side of a building advertising Nextel cell services.

At 4:55pm we had returned to the Flower and Highway 111 location. This actually was a decent transit center of the streetside variety with large shelters, seating and even a coke machine (we were disappointed to find it was out of sodas). I gave a buck to Charles Powell who joined some of the group that sought refreshment across the street in some sort of grocery outlet location. He came back with a diet vanilla coke, the only soda they had. One swig told me why this heavily promoted new flavor had quickly ended up at a surplus place. But it was drinkable.

Our last Sunline bus was a return trip to Palm Spring on route.111, #517. We departed at 5:15pm with 14 passengers. It was getting dark - one fun game to pass the time was to look for illuminated street signs with celebrity names. There was even one for Elvis. Back in Palm Springs we were dropped off across from the Greyhound station, which was dark and closed. Most of us had bought tickets in advance. One bit of excitement was spotting a Morongo Basin bus just about to leave for a return trip. We had some time to kill - most of the group wandered off the gawk at the commercial district one street up. Woody Rosner and I split a appetizer tray at a small Chinese place down the street. We all made our way back to the station before the 7:45pm scheduled departure. This bus actually started down in Calexico and ran about 15 minutes late. After going thru the pull around behind the building it stopped. Besides our group there were a few others boarding. Those without tickets bought them at the Moreno Valley station (which strangely was still open, all alone in an otherwise dark strip mall). Riverside's station was dark and nobody boarded. San Bernardino had a lively station and people hopping from one bus to another - this included Mr. Strickert whose bus connection would take him to Santa Ana train station. The rest of us went on to El Monte and from there caught buses to take us home or to cars that would help finish the journey.

What an epic journey; A true adventure!