San Diego's best kept secret

by Gary Piro


hen I was a small child growing up in the San Fernando Valley, one of my fondest memories was riding the trolley-train to my aunt's house in downtown Los Angeles. That right, in the 1940s and 1950s the greater Los Angeles area had an extensive and popular mass transit system that they affectionately called "The Red Car." This was an electric train that closely resembled San Diego's red trolley, with the exception that this trolley had a huge metal bar sticking out of its roof, to glide along the overhead cable lines that gave it power.

My mother tells me that, when she was a teen, you could ride the Red Car anywhere in the Los Angeles area for 5 cents -- 10 cents if you wanted to go to the beach at Balboa. Since the valley was so rural at that time, many young people took the Red Car to Los Angeles or Hollywood's booming movie town for work.

One of my saddest memories was seeing the tracks torn up throughout the city in the late 1950s, when President Eisenhower's vision of interstate freeways had become the law of the land and the trolley was made obsolete. It would be over 30 years before I would ride another train (except for the occasional novelty train ride at Disneyland or Knot's Berry Farm).


Coasting along


A few weeks back, my family decided to give our nephew a treat by taking him on a train ride to San Diego. Although I've wanted to ride on San Diego's Coaster for quite some time, it seems that it never seemed to fit into my schedule until we ran out of ideas for what present to give a 2-year-old. Judging by the size of the little guy's eyes as the Coaster pulled up to the station, it looked like our present was going to be a big hit.

For a very reasonable price, we took a Saturday trip to Seaport Village, strolled through the shops on the bay, listened to a free concert by a talented flamenco band from Malta, rode an "old fashioned" carousel and got home by nap time (his, not mine). We were told at the depot that, for no additional cost, we could transfer onto the trolley and ride to the Mexican border but that's another trip.


Fun for all

I think all kids love trains. But I was amazed at how much fun the adults seemed to be having on the Coaster ride. People just seemed to be friendlier and more willing to start up a conversation than at other public places.

In sharing my experience with some of my neighbors in Carlsbad, I was amazed to learn that two of my neighbors commute to work on the Coaster. "I'll never drive to work again," said one neighbor, "even if I could get to work twice as fast." People are getting on the train, casually drinking their morning coffee, reading the paper and sometimes working on their lap-tops before they arrive at their work fully refreshed. I started to feel jealous that there was no train to my office (which is only 10 minutes from home).

One afternoon, I went to visit my son in Oceanside near the new train-transit center and noticed a number of men in three-piece suits getting off the daily commuter and walking to their "transit-oriented" home near the beach. I imagine that many of these people eat their dinner and are strolling out on the pier long before some of their coworkers have finished fighting the evening traffic at the I-5 and I-805 merge.

I started looking for ways to make an excuse to use the train again, so on my next trip to visit my mother in the San Fernando Valley I decided to take the Pacific Surfliner. For just a little more money than driving, I traveled from Oceanside to Burbank. Again, I found the people riding with me to be extremely friendly. At the first stop in San Juan Capistrano, I was looking out the window at the shops and museums along a skinny little street (you know me and streets). The woman across the aisle enthusiastically told me that the street I was looking at is thought to be the oldest street in California. Also, a large house in the foreground has been inhabited by several generations of one family for over 200 years!

The time to ride to Los Angeles was only one-half hour longer than the drive, provided there's no traffic that often extends the length of the drive. I found out that I can make the trip even faster and cheaper if I get off the train in Los Angeles and get right on LA's new subway system (which now serves an incredible 128,000 people per day).

San Diego's growing train-transit system is its best-kept secret. There's just something about the gentle rocking of the train and the sound of the train whistle that seems to bring out the child in you. If you wish, you can read that book you've been wanting to start, take the opportunity to start up a conversation with a stranger of even write an editorial -- like I'm doing right now!

Mr. Piro is a former County Planning Commissioner and the owner of a civil engineering and land-planning firm in San Marcos. E-mail: PIROENGRCS.COM.