Rollicking Ragsters Ride the Rails

by on September 5, 2010 · 9 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, San Diego

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Transit center, downtown San Diego, next to Santa Fe Depot. (Photos by Patty and Frank.)

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Saturday the 4th of September, a bunch of OB Ragsters and friends jumped the rails.  Eight of us met at the Old Town Trolley Station around 10am with a map to take the entire loop east to Santee and then back again.

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Rollicking Ragsters at SDSU Station. Frank, Patty, Rich, Anna, Genie, Michele, Annie, Court.

Most of us had never traveled so far on San Diego’s MTS (Metropolitan Transit System), and many of us had to buy a $5 day pass, so that we could ride for hours. A good deal.

The plan was to board the trolley at the Old Town station, go east all the way to Santee on the Green Line, back up, and change lines and head south to Grossmont, La Mesa and all the way to downtown on the Orange Line.  We ended up doing the entire loop, and had to change to the Blue Line once we had lunch to take the short distance back to Old Town.  The entire excursion took about 4 and a half hours, including our excellent lunch complete with bottomless Mimosas.

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The cavern at SDSU.

Part of the big plan was to get off at the relatively new SDSU station, as many of us had never seen it, which we did.

When our train finally left the Old Town Station at 10:30 to head east, there were eight of us rollicking Ragsters, and the train was packed, standing room only.  This was on a Saturday.  Many of our fellow travelers disembarked at Fashion Valley and Mission Valley to visit the malls no doubt.  The rest of the round trip was made in partially-filled cars, with plenty of room for us to spread out.

This was an experience in public transportation. I’ve always wanted to do this, visit the State station, and get a view of San Diego and some of its companion towns through the windows of the trolley.

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Upstairs at the SDSU Station.

Mission Valley is amazing – viewed from the track.  It’s so green, the jungle surrounding the San Diego River is quite a sight for eyes accustomed to beaches and the brown/ yellow leftovers of late summer.  You can see playing fields, condo swimming pools, and the golf courses from the advantage point high up on the tracks.  If you’ve never witnessed it, it is surprising to see how many people live in Mission Valley.  Yet, there’s quite a few empty condos and time shares that line the shores of the River.  I wondered at the vacancy rate in all these buildings, many of them built over the last five to ten years.

The cars are all air-conditioned of course, and we experienced both the older cars and the newer sleeker ones.  Some cars announced the next station, and some didn’t.  We slid through the other stations: Hazard Center, Rio Vista, Fenton Parkway, Qualcomm, Mission San Diego.

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The artsy "roots" protruding from the station ceiling.

Leaving the San Diego River area, we crossed I-8 and entered the tunnel that leads to the San Diego State University Station, a modern, state-of-the-art facility.  We got off at this station and began to observe where we were.  The cavernous station had elevators, stairs and one-way escalators to the top.  There weren’t that many others as it was a weekend, and a holiday weekend at that.

The station had artwork on the brick floors and artwork hanging from the high ceilings.  The ceiling art were made up of wire and metal “roots” of the make-believe trees above.  Blotches of black tile could be seen mingling with the yellow brick floors with cryptic symbols and saying.

We made it to the top and to the sunlight outside, and we acted like tourists at a favorite cultural site, milling around as we did.

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We gathered around these black splotches of meaning.

About a half hour later, we boarded the Green Line train once again, and headed east to territories I’ve never seen from the advantage point of an a/c trolley car, rolling through Alvarado, 70th Street.  We flew on to Grossmont, took a left turn north and hit Amaya Drive, El Cajon, Arnele Avenue, Gillespie Field, and finally, the end of the Green Line at the brand new Santee Town Center – a giant mall in the sun.  We didn’t get off as we could see the heat and brightness from inside the cars.  The trolley in Santee is one of the only places where it stop for traffic lights.

Without turning around, the car just headed south in the other direction leaving Santee. We got off at the shady Grossmont station to wait for the Orange Line to take us to La Mesa.  There was a small crowd at the Grossmont site as it is a minor transit center in itself.

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Outside the SDSU Station, ground-level.

Once on the Orange Line, we passed through La Mesa, passed the Spring Street, Lemon Grove, Massachusetts stops and headed into Southeast San Diego. There was the Encanto station, then Euclid Avenue, 47th Street, – the trolley rode right through a graveyard, and the stops at 32nd and Commercial. We then glided into downtown, Park and Market, onto to City College – a major transit site.

It was slow going through downtown and we finally filtered out the doors of the long cars at the transit center next to the Santa Fe Depot train station.  Riding the rails had given us an appetite and we gladly pushed into the station’s one open restaurant, one of French cuisine. That’s where we had the bottomless Mimosas.

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Waiting for that last train.

Lunch was over, and we boarded the Blue Line for a short trip north back to Old Town. We passed Little Italy, Middletown and the Washington Street stations, and pulled into our last stop for the day.   Some of us were exhausted and some of us were drunk, but it had been a fun-filled adventure, riding the rails with friends.

A couple words to the wise: most stations do not have much in the way of amenities, like food and drink, and many don’t have public restrooms. A good number don’t even have shade for sun-sensitive travelers.  Yet the cars are pleasant, the people we encountered polite, and it’s an overall pleasurable trip for cheap-thrills.

I highly recommend it. It’s a great way to see where we live.

Patty adds:

It was a great time and a chance for some of us to get to know each other better. There were some interesting views, into the backyards of different neighborhoods, from the San Diego river valley, the industrial areas of El Cajon, and on to Encanto… patio furniture, junkyards and clotheslines, getting a glimpse into how different folks live. I loved seeing the murals, was intrigued by the graffiti and made somber by the number of homeless people I saw, but the day was gorgeous, the sky blue and the mimosas were sweet!

Up next, the Blue Line to the border!

Anna adds:

Those of us who are transit riders tend to read the words “it’s not the destination, but the journey” with a certain cynicism. We are more often heard repeating those time worn words “Are we there yet?” I accepted the invitation to ride the rails this past Saturday morning with somewhat less enthusiasm than I would have accepted say a late afternoon invitation to some air conditioned restaurant. On the other hand, experiencing what is quotidian for me- taking buses and trolleys on a daily basis in this case- with a group of friends, can wrench the ordinary from its dull moorings. And so it did.

Surface streets provide us with a view of our “public” face. As Frank notes, the trolley routes provide glimpses into backyards, onto rooftops and even afford us a momento mori, as our sleek red train entered the green heart of the Mount Hope Cemetery. The view is grittier, lonelier once you are outside of the city core or more populated transit hubs. An erratic line of trash- the ubiquitous plastic bags- and graffiti stretch along the right of way, forming a high tide of human indifference and neglect, although no one was to be seen in these places. Eerie.

Santee. I regard Santee as I do vast tracts of Yellowstone only available to the most intrepid backpackers: I’m glad it’s there, but it’s not someplace I want to go. But go to Santee we did, since as Frank reminded us, our outing would be incomplete otherwise. The man believes in setting goals and following through on commitments. As we moved east from SDSU, the topography flattened out, looked more blasted in the late morning sun while the mountains humped along the horizon loomed larger. The landscape did not seem given over to the merely commercial so much as to the industrial, with low metal sheds, barrels and equipment in lots filled with everything but shade. We can be pretty thoughtless when referring to “real” work, particularly since meaningful human efforts span so many things, but in the garages and lots of El Cajon and other eastern areas exist products and services that are both desired and necessary. They have a place in the big scheme of things as long as they are not “next door.” This leg of the trip was a lesson in zoning.

Patty told me that Santee has had a downtown face lift. And there it was- at the end of the trolley line. A cluster of low buildings painted in terracotta and buttery yellows were on both sides of the trolley tracks. I’m not sure if this is the “real” downtown or a shopping mall, but the buildings were the same tired SoCal strip mall architecture with an attempted rescue by paint. (We saw the same architectural approach at the Market Creek shopping plaza along the south eastern route.) Without the band of merry Ragsters I would probably have given myself up to an existential crisis at this point.

For over four hours, eight of us took part in the most quintessential of American past times- the road trip. The road trip, which has generated its own unique, American literary genre, is always about the extraordinary landscape, natural and built, that we fight against,that we love, screw up and keep moving through. For four hours that landscape moved through me. Thanks for the camaraderie, my friends!

Here is a gallery from our trip. (Be sure to click on the photo for a larger version.)

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Peyton Farquhar September 5, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Great account, but what’s the story with traveling with a bicycle. Does trolley policy allow a rider to either bring it on board with him or is there a place to stow it like there is on the front of a bus?


avatar annagrace September 5, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Riders bring their bicycles on the trolleys- I see it all the time. Here’s the word from the MTS website: “Bicycle Permits are no longer required to ride the Trolley with a bicycle.

On the trolley, one bike is allowed on during rush hours and two at other times. Board the bike through the last door of the car. If the maximum number of bikes is already onboard, go to another car or wait for the next trolley. Stand with your bike during the entire trip.” There are also bike lockers. Read about it here-


avatar dave rice September 6, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Thanks for that info Anna – I’ve been kicked off trolleys in the past for not having registered my bike with MTS, though it’s been several years since I’ve tried. Good to know they’re a little less draconian these days – while public transit would generally fail me due to large amounts of walking or waiting on buses, having a bike for the first and last few miles of a journey helps a lot.

And on your Santucky comments – a cluster of shopping malls is as close as anyone comes to a ‘downtown’ in East County, unless you count the few blocks surrounding the El Cajon courthouse/jail that have had their streets torn up in order to jam up traffic and create the illusion of city life.


avatar Dickie September 6, 2010 at 2:41 pm

This sure does sound like a fund day. When I was a kid in NY, which has the closes thing to a real public transport system in the country, I rode the subways everywhere and also just for fun, from the time I was 10 or so. Another angle on public transport is as a means for some real-world experience and education as it makes makes going somewhere-else accessible to a kid.

Gee, I think I will take that trip next time I am in SD. . .


avatar dave rice September 6, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I’ve had great public transit experiences in NYC, Boston, DC, and Atlanta…but maybe that’s because I’m basing my comparisons to the system I grew up with (I lived until I was 11 in and around La Mesa with my grandmother, who didn’t drive). San Diego is pretty lame today, but in the early ’80s it was ten times worse. I remember when the trolley finally came to within a mile of our University apartment with the La Mesa Blvd. station, it was the first time I got to see downtown.


avatar Danny Morales September 6, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Having been out on the job Saturday, damnit!…Having worked on a section of The Trolley, I remain in awe of the nuts and bolts of a 750 vdc catenary system…Having grown up like Dickie in NY (albeit out on The Island) I used to take the LIRR into a adventure surrounded by leather strap hangers and wicker trimmed seats but then again…Having shown my age, I’m outta here, geezers!-Danny


avatar Diane5150 September 6, 2010 at 8:09 pm

“Some of us were exhausted and some of us were drunk, but it had been a fun-filled adventure, riding the rails with friends.”

I want to hear the story about the drunks who annoyed the exhausted people.


avatar Allan of East County September 8, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Good story from someone other than our typical commuter. People often ask me what there is to see from the Trolley. I tell them about the shopping areas or the touristy places to end up at (Zoo, Sea World, Old Town, TJ). Except for the Green Line through Mission Valley, it’s all industry and apartment backsides. As far as bicycles go, number of bikes is self regulating. People cram as many as they can at either end of the trolley car. Just not directly behind the operator. I’ve seen as many as nine bikes pour from one car.
– Train Operator for more than 10 years.


avatar ss September 11, 2010 at 8:41 am

I ride the trolley pretty regularly Old Town to Downtown and it usually is a pleasant ride I have been wanting to do that loop just to see the rest of the city get off and check out the local hood in the area. Sorry I missed the outing. I have done the border run and then walked into TJ for lunch and that was fun but it was pre 9-11 so it was easy then.
The bike path from the Old town Trolley to OB makes it easy to bike commute too.


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