Coast Starlight: San Francisco to Los Angeles – October 2015

Coast Starlight
The front of the Coast Starlight

Read about my last day in San Francisco here

Heading out into San Francisco at dawn shows it in a different light, with Broadway all but silent and the streets quiet before rush hour begins, it genuinely felt as if it was sleeping. The yellow cab I had booked stood out against this starkly; especially considering the slowly lightening sky was clearly a steely grey.

The temporary trans-bay bus transit terminal was about as clinical as they come. Replacing the dilapidated Amtrak terminal by the ferry building it was certainly more organised, although long haul land travel in the US still feels like the poor relative when compared to air travel.

Thankfully the coach driver was a cheerful soul, albeit with a slightly world-weary edge, as we boarded his coach for the trip across the bay. Quickly joining the freeway that becomes the Bay Bridge it was clear we were, traffic-wise at least, going the right way as the four lanes of traffic heading into the city were already jammed.

It wasn’t long until we were over the bridge and off the freeway, into the narrow streets of Oakland, which at points I was surprised the coach could even navigate, as we headed into the city’s more gentrified area around Jack London Square.

Jack London Square Station
Jack London Square Station

As with my last visit I was still surprised by quite how small the train station here is considering it lies on the main line route that runs from Vancouver in the north to San Diego in the south.

With just two platforms and a modest, if fairly well designed, waiting room/ticket office, it just adds to the notion that America really doesn’t do passenger rail travel anymore and is the land of the plane and, to a much greater extent, the car.

Following a stop at the nearby maintenance yard the Amtrak Coast Starlight finally pulled in about two hours late and we were rushed aboard the (at least) 11-double-decker-carriage-long train and were soon slowly trundling through Oakland and the rest of the east bay sprawl towards San Jose.

While Oakland remains as rundown as I remember and again its southern regions back up its northern ones in its image as the less well to do of the cities on the bay, as it gives way to open land there are interesting things to see, so I soon made my way to the train’s viewing/café car, where I stayed for the best part of the next 12 hours.

Abandoned houses
Abandoned houses

South of Oakland a stretch of track runs through an area that lays below sea level. Amongst the swampy ground and tidal pools were a surprising number of long abandoned shacks and small houses – I don’t know the history of these dwellings but I’m sure there are stories to be told there – they certainly look like it

Heading into the outskirts of San Jose the train passed right by the Levi Stadium, home to Wrestlemania 31 earlier in 2015, that I had investigated attending. On the other side of San Jose, after a brief stop at the city’s station, we found ourselves stopped for a lengthy period in a small timber yard and passing point, waiting for a freight train to go by, thanks to the logistical nightmare that is the single track system used up and down this line.

The next chunk of the journey, about six hours worth at an estimate, stretches down to the hills before San Luis Obispo so is, for the most part fairly repetitive, however the views across the at times arid farm land and small communities we passed through brought their own interest. Some of the hamlets (if Americans use that word) were run down and looked barely lived in while others were, in contrast, clearly quite well to do. Along with this the train passed through the Elkhorn Slough Marine Reserve near Salinas, which gave the chance to see some fairly impressive seabirds in the estuary.

South of San Jose
South of San Jose

Most of the trip I spent lost in the views and various podcasts, occasionally separated by friendly chat with some of the other passengers who ranged from other relaxed tourists to anxious travellers hoping to meet connecting trains in LA, meaning their journeys would last well over 24 hours on the Amtrak network.

The second half of the journey became more visually interesting as we passed through oilfields down a long, increasingly deep valley, before the three engines at the head of the train really did their work as we wound up the hills and moutains to San Luis Obispo. As we did so there was a lot of talk of how dry the surrounding countryside was and the ongoing drought which all the Californians onboard were hoping would break soon thanks to El Nino.

The plateau on which San Luis Obispo lies is punctuated by the peaks of a series of extinct volcanoes, today with clouds gathering around them, while the train snaked around a remote prison in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

Mountains at San Luis Obispo
Mountains at San Luis Obispo

As we headed down the other side of the mountains there was more farmland and small clusters of houses before we entered the vast airforce base that lies on the coast and we soon got our, long-awaited, first view since Salinas of the Pacific Ocean as the sun began to set.

The waves crashed onto undisturbed beaches, accessible only from the sea, in the twilight making for some impressive sights while the runways used for Space-X, and previously the Space Shuttle programme, lay on the landward side.

This area also brought the first faint traces of Hollywood as these were the beaches and dunes used in the likes of Planet of the Apes and, much earlier, the epics of the silent movie era.

As darkness fell in earnest I made my way back to my seat in the coach cabin for the final hour or so through the beginnings of the vast sprawl of Los Angeles.

The rough Pacific
The rough Pacific

Union Station, in the city’s ‘Downtown’ district, is a grand looking place with a 1930s style vibe, though its nine platforms felt somewhat meagre for a station in the centre of a city this size.

The baggage reclaim hall offered the same meagre feeling as mine and only a handful of other cases tumbled down the chute onto the dated conveyor (I was amazed the vinyl in my case survived this fall).

Heading outside with my cousin I was struck instantly by the warm air, despite the fact it was now nearing 11pm. The other thing that struck me, once again, was the size of Los Angeles and the sky scrapers of Downtown.

We were soon past these though and on the freeway heading towards the coast making for a surprisingly quick journey to El Segundo, a suburb near LAX with an amazingly small town feel considering its location.

After a much-needed welcoming cup of tea it didn’t take long for the day of travel to catch up with me and sleep called in preparation of my time exploring the mind-boggling hugeness that is Los Angeles.

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