Amtrak – Pacific Surfliner and Coast Starlight

Living on an island, I don’t often get to travel by train so one recent trip was especially enjoyable.

The Amtrak train journey along California’s coast is one of the world’s most scenic rail travel experiences. It was over ten years ago that we did exactly the same trip, so it was interesting to look back and compare notes. On the last occasion, we traveled economy class but this time, business class was well worth the modest price difference.

We traveled from San Diego via Santa Barbara to San Jose, then onward to San Francisco via Caltrain. Breaking the journey in Santa Barbara was nice because that created two fairly equal legs for the whole journey. It meant we could leave San Diego comfortably around lunchtime with the Pacific Surfliner, then leave Santa Barbara similarly at lunchtime with the Coast Starlight the next day or whenever we’re ready.

On our previous economy class trip, we didn’t notice any real differences between the trains. Also, at that time, the route was not impacted by the damaged section of the track, which was currently under repair and required a shuttle bus service between Oceanside and Irvine. On this trip, however, there were notable differences, in business class, between the two trains. It’s impossible to outline all the small details of each train journey because, according to my information, things are always changing on Amtrak. So I will just focus on the things which I noticed and the facilities which I made use of. The most spectacular part of the whole journey is where the tracks are close to the ocean, which occurs at several points on the trip. Since we traveled during the daytime and not overnight, we did not use the sleeper car service.

The Pacific Surfliner travels from San Diego to San Luis Obispo multiple times per day. In addition to the Amtrak website, this train has its own separate Pacific Surfliner website with extra information. Boarding in San Diego, twenty minutes before departure, was orderly, with preference given to Business Class passengers. Business Class has guaranteed seating but no specific seat reservation so it was first-come, first-served, but there were two business coaches and since most people opted for the first coach, there was ample space in the second. My first pleasant surprise was discovering a refreshment stand at the end of our coach which provided fresh coffee, other liquids and pastries. Once the train was in motion, there were several smiling attendants offering a selection of other drinks, including wine. Later on, a lunch box was served, similar to what one would expect on a short-haul flight. Further refreshments were available for purchase from the onboard Market Cafe. The attendants were constantly in action, dealing with any issues or requests from the passengers. The seats in business class were more spacious than in economy and also there was free wifi onboard, which was a definite asset. The only minor irritation on this trip was the (fortunately) temporary shuttle bus service from Oceanside to Irvine. It was unnerving because the bus driver and another passenger were playing their own competing brands of loud music. After the short bus journey, it was nice to be back onboard the train again. In Los Angeles, a stub-end station, the train reverses direction so passengers end up facing the opposite way. It’s useful to know that in advance if wanting to be on a particular side of the train. Currently, a massive project is underway to construct a pass-through rail line for some time in the future. Overall, I have to say the service from the staff was first class and made for a very pleasant journey, so this trip was a wonderfully comfortable and enjoyable experience.

The Coast Starlight commences its journey in Los Angeles and travels all the way to Seattle. On this occasion, the train was completely full because of all the weather-induced airline cancellations. Surprisingly, this was not very noticeable due to the well-organized attendants who had everything under control. The attendant allocates seats to every newly boarding passenger and it’s important to follow their instructions. An unwritten rule onboard Amtrak is that you don’t argue with your attendant because it’s a discussion you will not win. When we arrived at our seats they were occupied by a single person who was not intending to move. One word with the attendant was all it needed to quickly remedy the situation and we were seated comfortably for the remainder of our trip. At this point, we began to notice some differences from the preceding leg of our train journey. Firstly, on the Coast Starlight, there is no wifi available. They say one should look out of the window and enjoy the scenery instead. This makes sense because the scenery along the California coastline is indeed spectacular. The free refreshments consisted of one bottle of water. Anything else needed to be purchased from the snack bar in the adjoining coach. The modest array of snacks could be selected from a series of refrigerated display cupboards and handed to the attendant for re-heating. The coffee was disappointing but I later noticed one person obtaining coffee from the dining car which would probably have been a better option. An alternative to snacking was offered by the dining car adjacent to the business coach. Reservations for the various dinner seatings were organized by the attendants. We didn’t visit the dining car during this trip but a sample menu and dining description can be found on the Amtrak website. A major positive was the strict order onboard this train. There were regular announcements that people should not cause noise disturbance and should use headphones at all times for their electronic equipment. The peace and quiet was very noticeable, especially considering the full occupancy of the train. This particular advisory contributed significantly towards a very pleasant train journey indeed.

One recurring theme on Amtrak is the issue of time-keeping. Both our trains departed exactly on time and were punctual until the latter stages of the trip. There was no apparent reason for this but both trains arrived late at their destinations, the Coast Starlight being significantly later than the Pacific Surfliner. I have to say that the staff on both trains were exemplary and it was amazing to see how well they handled such a demanding job. I much prefer train travel to flying and when there is no urgency, then traveling by train along the California coast is the most comfortable option. It’s also the best way to travel during holiday periods when the roads are so congested. I can highly recommend this scenic train journey.

In this comic, Shoedrop is taking a business trip – or not!