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By Fred Swegles
The first hints of daylight greet George Thomas at around 6:30 a.m., as he rounds the Beach Cities curve en route to Oceanside at the controls of a Metrolink train that departed San Bernardino at 4:31 a.m.
A little magic will greet him about six minutes later in San Clemente. Anywhere from eight to 10 friendly faces are apt to smile and wave at him, as he and they trade glances along the town’s 2.3-mile beach trail.
Thomas has operated the same early morning Metrolink route for the past eight years. He sees many of the same faces daily—southbound at around 6:38 a.m., back northbound at around 8.
He’ll flash the Hawaiian “shaka” sign at those who greet him.
It’s about the same every weekday. Thomas, who lives in Garden Grove, awakens at 1:45 a.m., is out the door by 2:20, drives to San Bernardino and reports for duty at 3:21.
The 4:31 commuter train out of San Bernardino arrives at Oceanside at 7:03, heads back at 7:39 and ends at 9:44 in Riverside. There, Thomas turns the train over to another crew. He is shuttled back to San Bernardino, ending his shift at 11:21.
There’s nothing quite like the Aloha spirit he experiences in San Clemente, he said.
Trey Hunt, a Sheriff’s Department investigator in San Clemente, occasionally rides Thomas’ train to Oceanside on a Monday to join him for coffee during George’s half-hour turnaround there.
A couple named Al and Sue, who walk their dog along the beach trail, once rode his train to Riverside and spent the night at the Mission Inn, riding his train back to San Clemente the next morning.
Metrolink’s George Thomas, right, and Trey Hunt of San Clemente share a lighter moment while Thomas' train is halted on a side track, waiting for two other trains to pass, while en route to Oceanside. Photo: Fred Swegles
During a turnaround in Oceanside, Metrolink's George Thomas, left, chats with Brian Bang and Trey Hunt of San Clemente. Photo: Fred Swegles
After operating his Metrolink train from the cab car and being pushed to Oceanside by the locomotive, Engineer George Thomas switches to operating the train northbound from the locomotive, pulling the train back to San Clemente and beyond. Photo: Fred Swegles
“Al and Sue asked my wife and I to dinner,” Thomas said.
Brian Bang, who has been running the beach trail since long before it became a formal trail, has been known to gather his family to wave to the passing engineer. The family also made the rail pilgrimage to Oceanside for a friendly coffee.
The catalyst for much of this camaraderie is Hunt, who used to run the beach trail daily until his knees went bad. Now he exercises before work alongside former lifeguard Larry Moore in Marine Safety Headquarters’ conditioning room. From there, they can spot Thomas’ intense headlight as it rounds the Beach Cities curve.
“We know we’ve got about six to eight minutes,” Hunt said. They will head out the back door to deliver the morning wave. Al and Sue may be there too, and Brian Bang. Or Jennifer Boring, who used to run more frequently.
And that’s just on Thomas’ southbound run.
“I’m sure there’s a whole other population for his northbound run,” Hunt said.
It isn’t necessarily every day that Moore and Hunt, one or both, will be behind headquarters, as other obligations may interrupt. But it’s most days.
“Everybody is welcome to join us,” Moore said.
Hunt and Boring got into a habit of greeting Thomas. Word spread. People who would gather for coffee in North Beach outside Kaylani Coffee Co. got into waving. So did a friend Hunt and Boring knew from their daily runs.
He became known for the animated way he would wave. “He’s jumping up and he’s dancing,” Hunt said. “He’s a crack-up.”
One day, not realizing Thomas was not operating the train that day, he gesticulated to such an extreme that the actual engineer halted the train, assuming an emergency, Thomas said.
Bang, a railroad buff, got to know Hunt during daily runs. Learning of the shaka greetings behind Marine Safety HQ, Bang began to time his run to coincide.
“It’s something I look forward to,” Bang said. “Over time, I got to know George. I’ve got videos of my family, all waving at him. We always say, ‘There’s nothing like San Clemente.’ This is one of those special traits of San Clemente.”
“He’s just a character,” Hunt said of Thomas. “He’s got more than the Dos Equis guy, ‘the world’s most interesting’ guy.”
Thomas operated freight trains from 1969 to 1983 before moving to Hawaii to reside “in paradise” for 15 years as a dive instructor. There, he said, he picked up the Aloha spirit.
“It becomes embedded in you,” he said. A divorce led him back to California, whereupon Amtrak hired him. He is on lease to Metrolink, and this year will make six years he has been happily remarried.
“I met my current wife on the train,” he said. She would get on the train in Orange and ride to San Clemente twice a week. “She started waving,” he said.
The couple can enjoy more time together after May 10, when Thomas retires. Some other engineers, he said, know about the welcome he receives in San Clemente and would like to succeed him.
“It’s indicative of our town,” Moore said. “It started with someone (San Clemente founder Ole Hanson) on the train, noticing that this chunk of land could be a very special place. We are here because of the train. We were born from that. There’s something special about that relationship.”
Fred Swegles is a longtime San Clemente resident with more than 47 years of reporting experience in the city.