By GARY FONG
CALIFORNIA – To some, the train is one of the most enjoyable modes of travel. To others it’s archaic, a thing of the past. For me, it seemed an interesting way to spend some of my newfound, Cali-based free time and what I hoped would be a great way to a see a bit of the US.
I say “hoped” because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m what you would call a newbie when it comes to train travel. I had never ridden Amtrak, the national rail service here in the US. And what little train experience I did have was mostly via short trips, in Japan on their bullet trains, and one long haul trip on the Trans-Siberian Express (from Ulan Bator to Beijing), which did little to help me appreciate the benefits of train travel (but that’s for another post).
What I did know is that I wouldn’t be herded into an aluminum can and shot 35,000 feet up into the air or stuck behind the wheel of a car focused on the interstate for hours on end, but instead (and again hopefully) comfortably ensconced in a window seat where I could take in some lovely scenery.
With this in mind, I opted to try Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, which travels along the Western corridor of the US (from San Diego in the South to Seattle in the North) and is known for its stunning views of the coastline. The idea of doing the entire route was a bit overwhelming for a first timer like myself so, instead, I settled on the California leg – from Northern to Southern California (more specifically, Los Angeles to Sacramento) which clocked out at whopping 13.5 hours one way, to cover a distance that would have taken only an hour by air.
So how was it (other than really long)? Actually, it turned out to be quite good. Yes, the trip was lengthy but I also found it quite leisurely and relaxing compared to other forms of travel. The train, which uses Amtrak’s double-decker superliner cars, was more comfortable than I expected (clean and not overly run down), and came equipped with reclining seats (leg room is sufficient to minimize the chance of your chair back being kicked), free Wi-Fi, and power outlets (for your electronics). There’s also the requisite food dining car, which is clearly a profit center for Amtrak given the constant loudspeaker updates and reminders.
However, the highlight turned out to be what I was most looking forward to: the spectacular scenery, which ranged from beautiful mountainscapes and lovely ocean panoramas (with sunset), to interesting glimpses into life along the coast, be it farming, ranching, or remnants of the US government’s Titan II missile system (the train passes Vandenberg Air Force Base). There was even some graffiti along the route (mostly near the SF Bay Area), which provided an interesting contrast to the natural solitude of the landscapes. And credit to Amtrak: they also have these wonderful lounge cars decked out in floor-to-ceiling windows, which provide a great panorama for taking in the scenery.
Overall, I enjoyed my trip on the Coast Starlight and would consider Amtrak again. Yes, it’s a far cry from the train standards of Europe and Asia, but it’s definitely a step up from the likes of Greyhound (the US national bus system) and much more pleasant than as say, a flight on a budget airline. Plus the scenery is better too.
What’s the little thing that makes a trip on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight worthwhile? Sitting in the lounge car, sipping a cold beer while taking in the lovely views.
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