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The Coast Starlight

I’ve wanted to take a journey on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight for years. Alas, timing was always a challenge. It’s so hard to justify spending 11+ hours on a train when a short flight will suffice, but 2017 has been my year of trains. Over Memorial Day MJ and I took the California Zephyr and Capitol Limited to get across the country and this month I’ll be hopping on the Carolinian with a close friend, and fellow train adventurer, from Philadelphia to Raleigh.

We finally decided to take the Coast Starlight down to Los Angeles a couple weeks ago to get me to the Open Source Summit and MesosCon.

Now I’m going to pause for a moment to talk about my feelings about Amtrak. It’s the only long-haul passenger service in the United States, and I love trains. It makes it my de facto home train so I have a special fondness for it. But Amtrak is expensive, often more so than flying, and the cars are extremely dated. The food even in the dining cars isn’t great, and there is no variation in the menu between routes that I’ve seen thus far. They serve a fair amount of pork, which excludes much of the menu for me and making the menu even smaller. I can’t imagine riding on it as a vegetarian unless you packed your own food. The air conditioning leaves much to be desired and even if you get on a train that advertises having WiFi, your best bet is to assume it’s not working. The WiFi situation often isn’t their fault, coverage is simply spotty through some of their service area, which leads me to another thing out of their control: the United States is big and taking a train that typically must travel below 79 MPH is going to be slow.

Still, it’s my train and I enjoy taking trains. The views, the disconnection, the dull roar of the rails. I can relax, get some reading done or chat with my fellow passengers in the lounge car.

MJ and I departed early on a Saturday morning to begin our trip at an Amtrak bus station near the Embarcadero here in San Francisco. Unfortunately our train was delayed, as I hear often happens with this route, so after the bus dropped us off at Jack London Square station we had a couple of hours to kill while we waited for the train. It did finally arrive though!

In spite of not doing an overnight this time, we sprung for the Roomette so we could have have private space to retreat to during our 11 hours on the train. This class of room got us access to the famous Pacific Parlour Car. The status of the six Pacific Parlour style cars is tracked on pacificparlourcar.com, explaining that five of them are in operation by Amtrak on the Coast Starlight on train numbers 11 southbound and 14 northbound. These are pretty special car in the Amtrak fleet, they’re Hi-Level lounge cars by The Budd Company in 1956 for the Santa Fe Railway, not Amtrak. They’re also shorter than the other cars, which you notice a little when walking between the cars but it’s definitely noticeable from the outside of the train. As for the features of the car itself, this page has a photo tour that takes you through the bar area, seating area, dining area and downstairs to the movie theater.

The Parlour Car

In the afternoon the parlour car also hosted a wine tasting, but while it was fun to move around a bit and have a few sips of wine, the wine snob in me was not terribly impressed with the selection. I did manage to have a Stone IPA during dinner though, which somewhat to make up for the lackluster showing from the wines.

The downstairs movie theater was pretty cool, unfortunately they weren’t showing any movies. When I asked about the movie theater one of the staff members said the royalties were too expensive so they currently couldn’t show any. I’ve also read on the forums that they’ve struggled with the technology aspect of it, switching to DVDs when satellite feeds wouldn’t suffice. I couldn’t stop thinking about this for the rest of the trip. What an opportunity for someone interested in developing a Creative Commons program! Old movies! Modern, CC-licensed cartoons! So many great options! Maybe some folks would be disappointed that it wasn’t known blockbusters, but it’s quality content and certainly better than nothing. Develop a reliable SSD-based box to stick in there to play the content on the TV and then you get to avoid DVD and satellite issues. I actually now want to be the crazy tech lady who runs the movies on the Coast Starlight.

All that said, I probably wouldn’t have watched a movie during the trip. Hah! As my first journey on the Coast Starlight I was eager to see the scenery down the whole route.

Down through the bay area we had the predicable salt marshes, a group of hikers here and there. As we went further south we passed through a lot of farm land. Here and there the backdrop of mountains made for some views worth seeing.

I also managed to get a panoramic photo as the train navigated the horseshoe curve at Cuesta Pass. Zoom in on the photo, you’ll see both the front and end of the train! Our car was near the middle of the train, and it takes a few seconds to take the panorama, making the following photo possible.

And then just south of San Luis Obispo we got to the amazing part of the trip. The train heads west and runs along the coast line. We enjoyed dinner as we looked out over the cliffs and beaches.

No joke, RVs, surfers and palm trees ruled down here.

The sun set as the clock ticked past 8PM and the rest of the trip was taken in darkness as we passed through Oxnard and Burbank. It was interesting to learn that the Burbank airport is attached to the Amtrak station, which is a rare thing here in the US, but obviously makes a lot of sense. We got into Union Station in Los Angeles just after 9:30PM on Saturday evening. Onward to our Sunday of adventures in Los Angeles!

Sub-optimal air-conditioning aside, I really enjoyed the trip down and I’m glad we finally took the time to do it. More photos from the trip down here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157685483861352