American Adventure – Part Six: The Coast Starlight

The train snakes out through the countryside
The train snakes out through the countryside

Most people who have lived in the UK for any amount of time will be more than familiar with travelling by train, in the USA however, it seems things are a little different. So it was with a mild sense of trepidation that I had chosen to make the journey from The Bay Area to Los Angeles by train, and specifically the AMTRAK Coast Starlight route.

My trepidation wasn’t aided by the slightly hidden AMTRAK office that marked the start of this journey, hidden behind a fairly run down looking building next to the Ferry Building, where I would be picking up the coach service across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, famously one of the Bay Areas less friendly cities.

The coach however was a fine service (if a little late, but in rush hour that’s always forgivable) and there was plenty of time before the train made its way through Oakland anyway, and the journey across the Bay Bridge, even on its lower carriageway, afforded some spectacular views back across San Francisco that, while having a tinge of sadness at leaving such a great city, were still majestic.

Oakland station
Oakland station

The train station in Oakland was also a pleasant surprise, clean and modern, if smaller than I expected with only two ‘platforms’ and a waiting room-cum-ticket office that was big enough, but far from the size of stations in big cities in the UK so when the frankly enormous Coast Starlight pulled up to the platform 45 minutes late I was nicely relaxed ahead of the near 12 hour journey ahead.

Having had an early start I decided to spend the first part of the journey, which mostly took us through the suburban areas around the bay, in my reserved seat where it was a little bit darker and I could rest surprisingly well while catching up on the Kermode and Mayo Podcast, but soon I thought it time I see what the cafe/sightseeing car was actually like and headed towards the front of the train.

What comes next is why I would recommend the Coast Starlight to anyone heading down the West Coast of the USA, particularly the Oakland to LA stretch of it.

As the door to the sightseeing car opened, rather than the slightly gloomy and subdued mood in the coach carriages, I was greeted with bright sunshine and a general sense of a friendly, busy, cafe, just with the view from the panoramic windows continually changing.

Coast Starlight sightseeing lounge
Coast Starlight sightseeing lounge

Much like the adage from the Divine Comedy song I mentioned in an earlier post there was a real feeling that “all human life is here, from the feeble old dear to the screaming child…” but all with a general air of friendliness, topped off by a duo from the National Park Services giving us a largely unobtrusive commentary on some of the more interesting things we could see from the windows.

Once we were through the urbanised area around San Jose and heading towards Monterey the views became somewhat more interesting, to an island boy like me at least, as we had a vista of vast tracts of agricultural land from hills on the west to mountains on the east with the odd hamlet or village made up of, what I can only assume, are the homes of the people we saw working in the fields, which gave a view of another aspect of life in California.

Central Californian oil field
Central Californian oil field

Highlights during this roughly first half of the journey included the salt flats in the Monterey area as we skirted the edges of the Pacific and saw both sea lions who had ventured slightly inland and some spectacular seabird life, an enormous open face quarry along with the railway works that formed part of its several square mile area that, surprisingly didn’t really blight the landscape as much as add an extra element to it and smaller things like the houses that appeared sporadically along the rail side, including one we were reliably informed was built so close to the tracks as the owner is a keen train enthusiast, as was demonstrated by the pair of renovated vintage carriages in his ‘front yard’ (which was probably roughly the size of a parish in Guernsey).

Once the vast valley, which runs from San Jose to just before San Luis Obispo, was done we headed up over a series of hills and, possibly, mountains to head onto the real coastal part of the journey.

Tunnel 10, no longer used
Tunnel 10, no longer used

The views in the mountains were truly spectacular as we traced the same passes as Highway 101 for some parts and at others went through areas with little to know road access affording us views of the truly wild countryside and, bizarrely, a working prison complex, though I guess it had a similar idea to Dartmoor in terms of isolation.

During this part of the journey we also went through a series of impressive tunnels built in the early 1900s, showing how California developed as LA and San Francisco became the cities they are today, as well as a string of extinct volcanoes with lined the track for quite a while.

Lonely Pacific surf
Lonely Pacific surf

Before the train headed back inland and into central LA, the journeys final stage in the sightseeing car took us along the isolated coast from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara, most of which is inaccessible by any other means thanks to a vast airforce base. This stretch featured views across unspoilt sand dunes and salt water lakes to the Pacific Ocean on one side of the train and rocket test launch sites and a huge runway built to accommodate emergency landings of the Space Shuttle on the other which felt like a contrast you’d only be likely to find in this part of the world.

So after almost 12 hours we pulled into Union Station in the heart of Los Angeles which is more like I’d envision the train station in a large city to resemble when down on the platforms, but in the main building is a spectacular work of architectural art dating from the pre-war period when LA was growing into what we know it as now.

All I can really say in summation of this trip is that I would urge anyone travelling this route with the time to spare to take the Coast Starlight as it is a journey like no other, and for a very reasonable price, and for not much more can be upgraded to a full first class experience too, which, if I do it again, I would seriously consider as well.

Read about my last two days in San Francisco.

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