First of an occasional series
IBIT editor Greg Gross recently took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Oakland with guest columnist Walt Baranger.
It’s a two-day trip all the way to Seattle, but only one to Oakland. You leave Los Angeles’ Union Station at exactly 10:15 a.m. and slide into Oakland’s Jack London Square station around 9:30 p.m.
I say “around” for a reason. This train is known to regular users as the “Coast Starlate.” But the crew works hard to get the Coast Starlight running on time — and on my trip, they succeeded.
Unlike aboard airliners, you won’t suffer in your Coach seat. At 6’3,” I had enough legroom to fully stretch out without my feet touching the seat in front of me, and the seats recline far enough to let you sleep very comfortably — which I did!
The first couple of hours out of Los Angeles, there isn’t much to look at. Suburban-industrial grunge around Glendale and Van Nuys, and the backyards of bungalows of the San Fernando Valley, the porn production capital of planet Earth.
After that, things get interesting. Fans of old Western movies and the original Star Trek TV series will recognize the rocks outside of Oxnard. Then you hit the coast.
This is the part of our trip with the views “suitable for framing.”
Mile after mile of beaches, coves, surf, kelp beds and the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean. Flocks of pelicans glide inches over the waves in perfect formation and make it look effortless. Look carefully and you may see dolphins. In one cove, you might see a couple of abandoned sailboats, beached and tipped onto their sides.
The train hugs the side of the sandstone cliffs as it skims a hundred feet or so over the shoreline. If you’re the nervous sort, don’t look down.
Off in the hazy distance stand the oil rigs of the Ellwood Oil Field, site of the disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Some of these wells are still working today, but no new ones have been allowed since.
Given the recent events in the Gulf of Mexico, the sight of those rigs, sullen mechanical sentinels on a pristine horizon, is a pointed reminder of what can happen when we overestimate engineering — and underestimate Murphy and his law.
On the opposite side of the train from the ocean, you catch glimpses of Vandenberg Air Force Base, one of the backup landing sites for the Space Shuttle. The view includes a single runway that seems to be aimed straight at the train.
Heading north out of San Luis Obispo, you wind through the Horseshoe Curves, switchbacks so tight that the train threatens to double back on itself like a snake.
After that, you swing inland through California farm country. Cows graze languidly at the foot of rolling hills. There are sprawling rows of crops and fields of rusting machinery. Somebody has an old railroad caboose parked on one side of their house.
Your nose will tell you when the train reaches Gilroy. This town is not the home of one the world’s largest garlic festivals for nothing.
The last of sunset will be fading as you make your way out of San Jose and across a low trestle over the foot of San Francisco Bay for the run into Oakland.
North of the Bay Area, sadly, you’ll miss California’s beautiful northern mountain country overnight, including Mount Shasta. But given the other views you’ll have in both directions, that’s just me being greedy.
Coach passengers in the know bring their own blankets and small travel pillows for sleeping. Those in sleeping compartments have no need.
Likewise, passengers who pay the admittedly steep add-on price for a compartment also get all their meals included as part of the fare. If you’re making the whole run between Seattle and L.A., though, that’s transportation, lodging and meals over the course of two days.
You also get access to a special parlor car for more private dining if you wish, as well as special events like wine tastings that are off-limits to Coach passengers.
Meals in the dining car are by reservation. Compartment passengers get first crack. On my trip, the kitchen crew and dining car staff fell behind. Passengers with reservations were called to the dining car an hour or more late. In the rush, they may get your order wrong, as they did with my lunch hamburger.
Oh well, at least the vegetarian pasta at dinner was pretty good.
The Cafe Car includes an upstairs observation deck that, unlike the old dome cars of the 1950s, runs the entire length of the car, with seats facing the windows for the best possible view. Trails & Rails guides from the National Park Service narrate the more scenic stretches.
EARLY BIRD SCENERY
But if you want to enjoy those choice views in that car, do what the regulars do and get there early. The moment the conductor finishes taking your ticket, get up and head for the Cafe Car. He who hesitates will NOT get a seat.
Amtrak is in dire need of new passenger cars, and nowhere more so than on the Coast Starlight, whose cars predate laptops by decades. Some have been modernized, others not. That means that your seat may have either one electrical outlet, or two — or none.
Another Amtrak quirk: You can reserve compartments online, but your Coach seat is assigned only on the day of your trip, by hand—in pencil.
I’ll be polite and just call it “quaint.”
The ride also suffers from being used by freight trains, as do all of Amtrak’s routes. The freight companies that own the rails feel no need to maintain them to passenger-train standards. I saw one woman practically thrown out of the aisle and into the seat to her left.
So yeah, the Coast Starlight has a few kinks that go beyond schedule-keeping. But in some ways, it’s the ideal American train trip — a scenic route with just enough time and comfort to enjoy it. I’d do it again.
TRAIN: Coast Starlight
ROUTE: Seattle (King Street Station) — Los Angeles (Union Station)
Train 11 southbound, Train 14 northbound
DISTANCE: 1,377 miles
TIME: 35 hours
SLEEPER BERTHS: Yes
DINING CAR: Yes
LOUNGE CAR: Yes
CAFE CAR: Yes
COST (approx.): $320 round-trip Coach (for compartment, add $478 – $1,083. Per trip, not per person)