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"California Car" Bi-level Railcar
The California Car is the first generation of Superliner derived bi-level intercity railcars owned by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and operated by Amtrak under the Amtrak California brand on intercity corridor routes in Northern and Central California. The cars were built in the mid-1990s for the Caltrans Division of Rail by Morrison-Knudsen. Amtrak's Superliner was used as the design baseline for the California Car, but several changes were made to the design to make the car more suitable for corridor services with frequent stops. All cars were overhauled by Alstom at its Mare Island facility between 2009 and 2012.

In 1990, California residents passed Propositions 108, 111 and 116. Combined, the three measures authorized the sale of nearly $3 billion in bonds for the creation of rail services across the state including commuter rail and intercity rail. With this new source of money, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) set out to specify a standardized railcar for the state that would be suitable for rail operations across the state. The result of this effort were designs for both intercity and commuter rail cars based on the Superliner. While the commuter rail version was never built, the intercity version has become very successful.

Several changes were made to the Superliner design to make it more suitable for corridor services with frequent stops. The major changes include two large entry vestibules for high-volume passenger loading and unloading, two automatically controlled door pairs per side, two straight staircases, large workstation tables and a control cab to allow for push-pull operation. The first generation of these Bi-Level intercity cars, were dubbed the "California Cars".

When delivered these cars were plagued with problems and Caltrans actually refused the first attempted delivery due to cracks in the frame. That forced Morrison-Knudsen to ship the cars back to the manufacturing plant for repair. After Caltrans accepted delivery, these trains were first put in service on the San Diegan line (the predecessor to the Pacific Surfliner) and crews immediately encountered automatic doors that failed to function properly, causing delays in service. Attempted repairs failed to fix the problematic doors and failures continued for years with doors between train cars later failing to operate properly as well.

Around 2000 the California Cars were removed from the frequent, congested and heavily used San Diegan route and reassigned to the less demanding Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin routes. Around the same time the upper-level floor of the California Cars began to sag which required costly repair. All 66 California Cars were overhauled by Alstom, the builder of the second generation "Surfliner" California Cars, at its Mare Island facility between 2009 and 2012 to extend their service life.

Reliability has significantly improved on these cars in recent years, which still see heavy use on the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin routes.

After the success of these cars, Amtrak and Caltrans ordered 62 second generation Surfliner cars from Alstom in 1998 and 1999, which were delivered between 2000 and 2002. Caltrans, along with a coalition of Midwest states, ordered 130 third generation cars from Nippon Sharyo in 2012, with delivery expected to begin in 2015, of which 130 will go to California.

66 California Cars were built (all numbered in the 8000 series) in four different types.

Coach Cars
32 coach cars were built for Amtrak California and all are named after rivers. The coach cars have 76 seats on the upper level, 13 seats on the lower level and one wheelchair position on the lower level. There are 6 workstation tables on the upper level allowing groups of 4 to meet around a table with each other. There also 2 sets of club seating areas without tables where groups of 4 can sit facing each other. At the far ends of each coach car there are single seats on each side of the end door (that allows passengers to pass into another car) with a glass partition (to block noise from the end door). The lower level has two restrooms (one is wheelchair accessible) and a large luggage rack. On Capitol Corridor trains the shelves on the luggage rack are stowed, revealing secure areas for 3 bikes.

Coach/Baggage Cars
6 coach/baggage cars were built for Amtrak California and all are named after bays. The layout of upper level of the coach/baggage cars is identical to the coach cars with 76 seats, 6 tables and 2 club seating areas. The lower level has 7 seats, one wheelchair position, one restroom and a locked compartment used to store checked baggage. There is a staircase leading from the upper level down into this compartment which has a locked door at the top of the stairs. The coach/baggage cars were originally assigned exclusively to the San Joaquin.

Cab/Coach Cars
14 cab/coach cars were built for Amtrak California and all are named after mountains. As delivered, the cab/coach cars had a very similar layout to the coach cars except with 68 seats on the upper level. Recently some of the 13 seats on the lower level have been removed and a partition has been installed to create a baggage/bicycle compartment. On the San Joaquin trains this compartment is locked and used for storage of checked baggage, on Capitol Corridor trains the door to the compartment is left open and up to 13 bikes may be stored on racks.

Café Cars
14 café cars were built for Amtrak California and all are named after valleys. The upper level of the café car is divided into three areas: a lounge seating area with small tables that face the windows, a table seating area with booths for 2, 3 and 4 people and a large galley where an attendant sells and prepares food. Originally the car offered full service dining in the table seating area. An attendant would seat diners, take orders, prepare food in the galley and deliver it to passengers. The other half of the car had walk up café service where passengers ordered from the café attendant and took the food to a seat in the lounge area of the car or back to their seat in a coach car. The full service dining proved to be unpopular (even on the San Joaquin with its 6+ hour end to end travel time) and the second attendant was eliminated. Passengers are now free to sit at any seat in the car. The lower level of the café car has a restroom, a storage area for additional food/drink carts and additional table seating. This additional seating was originally designed to accommodate passengers with disabilities and serve as overflow seating, but is now used as an office area for conductors and other Amtrak crew members and a door has been placed in front of the stairs down to this area.

"California Car" coach/cab car leading the San Joaquin in Fresno, CA.

California Car Overview
Manufacturer: Morrison-Knudsen
Built at: Hornell, New York
Family name: Superliner derived bi level intercity railcar
Constructed: 1996
Refurbishment: 2009-2012 by Alstom at Mare Island
Number built: 66
Formation: single car
Fleet numbers: 8000 series
Capacity: 89 seated, 1 wheelchair position (coach car)
Operators: Amtrak & Caltrans as Amtrak California
Depot: Oakland
Lines served: Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin
Car length: 85 ft 0 in
Width: 10 ft 2 in
Height: 16 ft 2 in
Entry: Step
Doors: 2 sets of bi-parting automatic doors per side
Maximum speed: 125 mph
Power supply: 480 V AC 60 Hz Head end power
Trucks: GSI 70
Braking system: Air
Coupling system: AAR
Track gauge: 4 ft 8 1⁄2 in

See also:


Surfliner Railcar - The second generation intercity railcar, based on the California Car.

Superliner Railcar - Amtrak's original bi-level railcar.

Rail Passenger Cars

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California Car coach-cab car leading the San Joaquin in Fresno, CA.