Sunday, August 1, 2010

A trip on the Coast Starlight: part 1

Last week, we cashed in some of my Amtrak "guest rewards" miles and took a sleeper-roomette on the Coast Starlight to Portland. We left San Diego on the morning Surfliner, and connected in Los Angeles with train #14. In short, it was a blast. We had a wonderful time, loved the experience, and would do it again in a minute.

The Coast Starlight leaves from Los Angeles at 10.15am. The train was packed with about 600 passengers, so it was full. The consist included 3 revenue sleeper cars, the restored Pacific Parlor car, dining car and cafe lounge, and 4 superliner cars, one with a video arcade. It's a class system on the train with the sleeper car passengers staying upfront, and the coach passengers staying in the back. In my next post, I'll tell you more about the on-train experience. In this post, I'll tell you more about the trip itself. Click on any image for a closer view.

From LA, the Coast Starlight runs through the San Fernando Valley over to the coast, and up past Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo. Through this part of the trip, there are spectacular ocean views, and beautiful vistas of the rolling golden hills.

There were lots of people getting on and off at most stops. Although it tracks with highway 101 here and there, most of the time the train goes through roadless regions, farmland, and vineyards. It turns in through Salinas, arriving in the Bay Area (Oakland and Emeryville) around 10pm. There was a big transition at that point with lots of people getting off (particularly those who had joined in the central coast/Santa Barbara stations) and those getting on.

At this point we climbed into our bunks to go to sleep, and we didn't register the late night/early morning stops in Sacramento, Chico, Redding or Dunsmuir. We woke at dawn, looking out at a very different landscape of conifers and steep hills. We saw the sunrise behind Mt Shasta, which was spectacular, and then on up through the cascade range picking off one snow capped volcano after another.

There were lots of tunnels in this section towards the Cascade Summit, and snowsheds as well. In one spectacular section we did a 180° into the Williamette valley.

Then it was through central Oregon, with rural farmlands and covered bridges, before the final stretch into Portland. We disembarked into the wonderful old Portland Union Station.

This train is popular, and not just with people willing to spend on the sleeper accommodation. There were lots of people riding in coach class, and for many it's the only practical way into smaller towns (like San Luis Obispo CA, or Eugene OR). I had thought that some of these long distance trains are a bit of an anachronism, but it's clear they aren't, and for every casual tourist couple like us, there are many people relying on them for access.

By the way, we were on time or early into every station--beats my poor Surfliner, which is plagued with traffic delays!

Next time: life on board the train.


Jay L Myers said...

Beautiful post! Well written and laid out; terrific photos. As a long-time veteran of Amtrak long-distance travel, I am impressed by how accurately you convey the feel of riding on these American treasures. Would that more Senators and Representatives who wish to eliminate Amtrak would take a ride on these long-distance trains and see their value to everyday Americans.

IT said...

Thanks, Jay.

Stay tuned for my "life on board" post. Also, I will tackle the erroneous idea that long-distance rail is an "anachronism", where it's clearly a lifeline.

MadPark said...

I too have been traveling on long distance trains (since the mid-1960s, before Amtrak took over) and found your report accurate and will be sharing with a couple of friends thinking of using the Starlight next spring. Hint: 2 people will be MUCH more comfortable using the family room (#15) downstairs than using roomettes which truly are only appropriate for one adult traveler plus perhaps a young child. And, yes, the downstairs roomettes are always quieter, except for #12 next to the stairway.

IT said...

Thanks for stopping by!