Taking the kids

Railfanning -- Stockton, California

(Originally published August 23, 1998)

By Glenn Gehlke

We love: Watching trains at the Stockton Amtrak station.

What you need to know first: Museums are great if your kids yearn to see trains, but for real live railroading excitement nothing beats a busy rail line with its virtually unlimited parade of freight and passenger traffic.

Fortunately for East Bay "railfans" -- folks who watch trains as a hobby -- two of the busiest railroad lines in the nation converge on Stockton. The former Santa Fe Railway depot now served by Amtrak offers a comfortable venue for plenty of train-watching fun.

What's to do: The century-old Stockton station sits along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline that runs between Bakersfield and Richmond. On an average day it is not uncommon to see six or more trains per hour. You can sit on a bench and catch the action under the station's awning, or for a closer look you can walk onto the platform beside the tracks where you can gaze about a mile to the east and west.

Not that you really need to be this close to hear the trains coming, because their approach triggers the crossing bells on nearby San Joaquin Street and the locomotives sound their horns long before they pop into view.

You are likely to see long piggyback or "stack" trains carrying cargo containers bound to or from the Bay Area. Occasionally a group of "light engines" will roll by -- unassigned locomotives being sent to another point on the line where they are needed. Many of the engineers are regulars here and will freely return a friendly wave, particularly from the younger fans.

One highlight of your visit to the station should be the arrival of an Amtrak San Joaquin passenger train. As entertaining as the train's arrival is the commotion that ensues as passengers scurry about the station. A conductor's shout of "All aboard!" and the train is quickly on its way. Within moments the station falls silent again.

Pitfalls: Trains run 24 hours a day, but it is nearly impossible to know when the rails will be busy and when they won't. You can usually count on Amtrak's San Joaquins, which pass through Stockton eight times each day. Schedules can be found in the station. As for freight traffic, your best bets are weekdays before 11 a.m. or after 3 p.m.

The station borders the busy tracks on its south side and a major road, San Joaquin Street, on the east. There are no fences to corral little ones. The neighborhood, while generally safe, is not the best. You should discourage your children, especially younger ones, from exploring on their own.

To get there: Take Highway 4 east from the Bay Area, or from Interstate 5 exit at Charter Way in Stockton. Continue east until you reach San Joaquin Street. Turn left and follow the road until you reach the railroad crossing. The Amtrak station is at 735 S. San Joaquin St., with parking to your immediate left after the tracks.

And furthermore: The restrooms in the station are intended for Amtrak patrons only, but rarely does anyone check your credentials.

Where to go to eat: Vending machines dispensing a typical array of junk food and are located inside the station. If chips and soda aren't your thing, you'll have to venture back to Charter Way where you can find a variety of fast food and dine-in restaurants.

Hours: The tracks are in use around the clock. You can park at the station any time, but you can only venture inside between 8 a.m. and 8:30 p.m.

Costs: Free.

Call: 209-946-0517 during business hours.

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Distributed by the Contra Costa Times

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