Second in an occasional series
THE PACIFIC SURFLINER (Amtrak California)
Trains have been running this 350 mile-route from San Luis Obispo to San Diego since 1938, when it was known as The San Diegan. In 2000, Amtrak renamed it the Pacific Surfliner.
If you wonder how they came up with that name, just look out any west-facing window.
This is not one of Amtrak’s longer runs, but it has a lot going for it. It’s a nice way to get to Santa Barbara without battling through Los Angeles freeway traffic. For that matter, it’s a nice way to get to — and from — LA itself.
In fact, one of the great joys of this run is to look out the window from your comfortable seat, beverage and snacks in hand, as the train glides past all the cars trapped on Interstate 405.
Because it’s a fairly short run, there are no sleeper cars on this train — only Coach class, Business class and a Cafe car, all of them usually double-deckers.
The only real “problem” I have with this train is that it’s too darned relaxing. I could get some work done on my laptop, but most times, I’d rather just stare out the window and admire the ocean view until the train rocks me into a nice little nap.
As many times in my life as I’ve seen it, the Pacific Ocean just never gets old.
This train runs along some of the narrowest beaches I’ve ever seen, especially around San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. In some spots, it looks as if you could go directly from the train to the surf in about ten steps. Obviously, his makes the Surfliner pretty handy for surfers.
Since it hugs the coast for most of its route, it also works out nicely for cyclists who like to ride the old Highway 101 along the coast — especially for those wanting to avoid riding on the Interstate 5 freeway between San Diego and Orange counties.
( When Camp Pendleton Marine Base closes its roads to civilian cyclists during security alerts, riding the shoulder of the freeway is the only route left. It’s legal, but with shoulders full of road debris and cars whizzing by at upwards of 80 mph, you can’t call it fun.)
It’s also a great train for baseball fans. In San Diego, the Santa Fe station also happens to be a connecting point for the San Diego trolley, which will take you directly to Petco Park, where the San Diego Padres play.
And in Anaheim, where the Los Angeles Angels play, the train not only stops in the Anaheim Stadium parking lot, but it’s actually closer to the stadium than many of the parking spaces!
This line does have a couple of peculiarities.
For one thing, there’s no place in San Diego to turn these trains around. So when they head north, they’re literally backing up the entire distance, with an engineer steering from the last car in the front while the engine pushes from the other end.
Imagine driving all the way from San Diego to Los Angeles in reverse.
Heading south, the engine’s pulling the train forward, as it’s supposed to.
The other odd thing is a lot more annoying. For a large chunk of every day, you can only ride this train as far north as Los Angeles. You have to go the rest of the way on an Amtrak bus. Why? Because America’s only national passenger railroad doesn’t own its own rails.
The tracks Amtrak runs on belong to freight companies, and for those hours of the day, freight trains get priority — not just on this line, but nationwide. That means the passenger trains have to pull onto sidings to let mile-long freight trains go by — or, as in the case of the Pacific Surfliner, stop running altogether on long segments of your route for long stretches of the day.
That’s the way Congress set it up when Amtrak was founded back in 1970 — and yeah, it seems pretty stupid to me, too.
But why quibble when you can just chill out with some of the loveliest ocean views on the planet, and thumb your nose at freeway traffic at the same time?
NAME: Amtrak Pacific Surfliner (formerly The San Diegan)
ROUTE: 350 miles, 30 stops
REGION: Southern California coast, San Luis Obispo-San Diego
OPERATOR: Amtrak California
TRAIN: 1 diesel locomotive
1 Business Class car
1 Cafe car
3 Coach cars (includes 1 Control/Coach)
RIDERSHIP: 7,200 passenger per day, 2.6 million per year