A Weekend in Los Angeles, February 23-25, 2007

Don Winter

We're heading to Los Angeles on the weekend of February 23rd/24th for symphony and opera performances, as well as the R&LHS excursion on Saturday, 24th. When we arise on Friday, 23rd, we wonder whether we will, in fact, be going, since there are several inches of snow on the ground and, it transpires, highway 58 is closed due to icy conditions. But, the highway opens at about 12:15 pm, so we're on the road shortly after lunch, and at the hotel near Los Angeles Union Station by 4 pm.

We walk over to Los Angeles Union Station, and then to the Metro bus station at the east end of the tunnel, to check out the location and times of the LAX Flyaway bus service we'll be using in April and May. Later, we have dinner at a Mexican Restaurant in Olvera Street and then walk over to Walt Disney Concert hall for the evening's symphony concert.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Brahms 4th Symphony, Christoph von Dohnanyi

This 8 pm concert is "casual Friday", so there's only one work on the program, the orchestra are in casual dress, we get an introduction to the bass section from one of its members, and the audience is invited to meet (some of the) orchestra members afterwards. This is our first visit to Walt Disney Concert Hall, which has a very impressive interior arrangement. The acoustics prove to be magnificent, and the performance is very good, but a remembered comparison with the Chicago Symphony's performance of the same work in Orchestra Hall in November (2006) shows that the latter is still the better orchestra, while the two conductors had quite different interpretations of the symphony. One particular item of interest is that Dohnanyi seats the orchestra with split violins (seconds on the right), with celli and basses behind the first violins and violas behind the seconds.

After the concert, we walk back to the hotel, where our night is disturbed by a failing, and ultimately failed, room air conditioner. (The hotel staff moves us across the hallway while we're out on the excursion, on Saturday.) On Saturday, February 24, 2007, we board a bus in the Amtrak bus area at Los Angeles Union Station, with 35 or so other people, for a 9 am departure for the bus ride out to Pomona, where 15-20 other people join the excursion.

Metrolink Operations Center, Pomona

At the Metrolink Operations Center, half the group is able to visit the Dispatching Offices while the other half is meeting with the manager of the Metrolink operations contractor, Connex/Veolia, with the groups then trading places. There are three Dispatchers at work on this Saturday morning, in a facility which has a total of six dispatching positions, and normally uses four on weekdays, to dispatch the Metrolink line from Los Angeles Union Station to San Bernardino, Lancaster, the Moorpark area (with an extra segment at Montalvo, the west end of the Santa Paula branch) and Oceanside via Fullerton (as well as the Coaster line onwards to San Diego). The Dispatching facility also has a live online earthquake reporting service and online weather facilities.

Each Dispatching station has a screen showing the trains operating on the lines dispatched by Metrolink, one showing all of the lines under the control of that Dispatcher, and one that can be focused on any specific operational area within that zone at the Dispatcher's discretion. All operations are controlled by the mouse and on-screen controls.

Connex/Veolia replaced Amtrak as the Metrolink operations contractor when Amtrak declined to step up to Metrolink's enhanced liability requirements in late 2005. The operations retained the existing staff, with only the management responsibility being changed. Connex used to operate two of the franchises in Great Britain, but has since lost both of them due to poor performance. The operator has some 150 operational staff, with 8 conductors and 4 locomotive engineers being women.

From Pomona, the group proceeds to have lunch at a Hometown Buffet in Montclair, and the heads out to West Colton, with a brief excursion to the Colton crossing of the BNSF and UP, which is likely to receive a grade-separation in the next few years, before arriving at the UP West Colton Yard, headquarters of the UP's Los Angeles Service Unit.

UP West Colton Yard

Our host in West Colton was Tom Florence, Manager of UP's Los Angeles Service Unit. Tom manages all of UP's routes and facilities within an area bounded by Yuma, Las Vegas, Bakersfield, San Luis Obispo and the coast and land boundaries of California south and west of those locations, including everything in Los Angeles. Tom gave half the group a briefing on UP's current activities in the LA Service Unit, while the other half visited the West Colton Yard Tower, one floor above, with the groups then trading places. Tom and his staff have had a busy week with a major derailment on Beaumont Hill and several other incidents within the area!

In the first seven weeks of 2007, UP has used the Tie Replacement Team and its large track machine to replace many wooden ties with concrete ties on the Los Angeles Subdivision, and has performed other track improvement projects on the major lines in the region, including the Alhambra Subdivision. These two lines between Colton and Los Angeles are currently operated in directional fashion, with trains going west on the Alhambra sub and east on the Los Angeles sub. Tom answers questions about UP operations in the area, and even gamely answers a leading questions about UP's handling of Amtrak trains and their (lack of) on-time operations.

West Colton Yard was built by SP in 1972, and has four separate yard areas in a seven and one half mile span along the south side of the Alhambra sub. main line: the Receiving Yard at the west end, Hump and Sorting Bowl in the center, Departure Yard at the east end, and the area, on the south side of the Bowl, where the bad-order cars are parked awaiting repair. The hump facility at West Colton is unique, in that its approach from the receiving yard is downgrade, with its own retarders, rather than upgrade, the downgrade steepening after the hump is passed heading for the Bowl tracks. Along the south side of the yards are the tower and offices adjacent to the Hump at the southwest end of the Bowl, the "One Spot" car repair facilities along the south side of the Bowl, the locomotive fuel racks at the southeast corner of the Bowl, and the new (May 2006) Locomotive Repair Shop on the south side of the Departure Yard.

The staff in the Tower explain the yard operations, pointing out the specific ongoing activities. One train finishes humping while we watch, one set of locomotives has to go down into the Bowl to push some cars onto their cut, and a westbound double-stack changes crews on the main line across the way. Back in the bus, the entire group is driven alongside the Receiving Yard as Tom Florence explains what we see, and then back the other way to the Locomotive Shop. UP is building a locomotive washing facility just west of this shop, which can perform complete rebuilds of all locomotives, but not paint them (other than touchup). The shop is switched using a transfer table and a road-rail switching unit (Road-King).

In the yard area, we do see some Green Goat hybrid and/or genset reduced emission switchers, but they are not operating and the yard is being switched by groups of three elderly locomotives. On the way back from the locomotive shop, the group stops for a brief visit to the car repair facilities, where cars are moved into and out of the repair locations using ropes and winches. There are four parallel repair facilities in this shop.

After dropping Tom off near the yard entrance, the bus returns to Pomona, where a third of the group departs, and then continues to Union Station, reached at 6:10 pm. We hurry over to the hotel, where we drop off my camera and Chris' day bag in the new room before walking over to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which we reach at 6:42 pm and are in our seats by 6:47 pm, albeit without drinks or dinner. (We will get drinks and a snack at the first intermission of the opera, on the level 3 concourse.)

Los Angeles Opera, Tannhauser

The premier performance of the LA Opera Tannhauser is at 7 pm on Saturday, February 24th. Our seats are in row C of the Balcony (the upper tier), towards the left side. When we take our seats, the stage is obscured only by the scrim, with an angle wall-of-doors visible behind it. Behind that, we can see that everything is colored red. After James Conlon has come on to start the overture, the scrim lifts, revealing that there is also a baby grand piano on stage (used, dramatically, where the score would suggest the singers had harps to play), at front left. As the overture gives way to the bacchanale, various dancers appear, opening the doors in the wall of doors, which eventually recedes to the sides showing that the rest of the stage is occupied by a pair of side-by-side turntables on which are mounted various wall segments with windows, doors, and garish lighting, with the floors covered by red carpets, with various pieces of red furniture. All of the dancers are clothed in red, and spend the entire ballet period in postures of copulation. (The publicity had warned of "explicit sexual acts".) During this period, the turntables repeatedly rotate to reveal different groups of people and sets of furnishings, in different configurations.

Eventually, the turntables and their walls take up a stable position for the Venusberg scene. By this time, it is clear that the costumes reflect an updating to Paris in the 'Gay Paree' of the 1890s or so, with the scenery suggestive of the Moulin Rouge. Peter Seiffert, as Tannhauser, and Lioba Braun, as Venus, are clothed differently from the dancers, he in a dark business suit. It is immediately apparent that Braun cannot (on this occasion) sing at the required volume for this role, but that Seiffert is in very good voice.

The transition to the forest at the end of the Venusberg scene shows that the turntables and wall segments will be present for the entire opera. The effect is less credible in representing the forest than in representing a building interior, even with the lighting attempting to color everything green and/or white. The number of pilgrims seems to be smaller than I would have expected (and is smaller than the male contingent of the chorus in other scenes). Martin Gantner as Wolfram and Franz Josef Selig as the Landgraf prove to be in equally good voice as Seiffert.

The turntables and wall segments serve quite well for the hall for the song contest, where Petra Maria Schnutzer as Elizabeth is particularly effective, especially in her intervention in the rush to judgment. The other song contestants sing reasonably well, but give little characterization. The song contest music seems to be the version used at Bayreuth (resembling the original Dresden score, although the bacchanale seemed more nearly the Parisian version).

In Act III, the wall segments again fail to give a reasonable impression of a forest, but do serve quite well for the intrusion of the Venusberg (again, all in red) in the later part of the act. Schnitzer, Gantner and Seiffert all perform well, but Braun again has too little voice to match them. The sequence of events at the end has its usual chronological problem (too little elapsed time for Elizabeth's intercession to have caused the staff to flower before the second group of Pilgrims had left Rome, if they had then to have had time to walk to the vicinity of the Wartburg in central Germany). The final tableau (the only curtain calls in the entire performance) draws lengthy deserved applause.

After walking back to the hotel, we eat a late supper at a Chinese Restaurant on North Spring Street. Our return home on the Sunday midday is marked by the sustained heavy winds in the Mojave Desert, followed by our discovery that the pet sitter had apparently never visited and the cats had consumed all of the food and water we had left out for them on Friday. Fortunately, all seem to have recovered nicely.