Chugging Down Memory Lane: Traveling By Train In California

My fascination with trains started when I was probably about ten years old. Every summer, my parents would drop me off at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles where I’d catch the Amtrak train to visit my grandparents in San Diego. I have such happy memories of them meeting me at the terminal, waving as my train pulled up.

Union Station, Los Angeles

My interest in train travel continued years later, after graduating college, when I backpacked around Europe with a Eurail Pass in hand. I was amazed by the vast network of rail lines and the speed, efficiency, and (for the most part) punctuality of the trains. I especially enjoyed boarding a train in one city, sleeping overnight in a couchette, and then waking up in another country altogether!

So, after a more than twenty-year-long hiatus, I decided to try out American train travel once again. Instead of driving the usual 120 miles to San Diego to visit my sister, brother-in-law, and twenty-month-old nephew, I hopped aboard Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner. The roundtrip fare set me back $55.80 (with my AAA discount), so roughly equivalent to the price of a tank of gas. This makes it economical for a person to travel solo, but if you’re going with anyone else it’s more cost effective to carpool. The train was scheduled to depart at 9:40 a.m. and arrive in downtown San Diego at 12:25 p.m., which is about a half-hour longer than it would have taken to drive that distance. Of course, Southern California is notorious for its horrendous traffic so a road trip could take three or more hours anyway.


The interior of L.A.'s Union Station

As I walked through historic Union Station to board my train, I was (as always) awed by the beautiful architecture—a mélange of Spanish Mission and Streamline Moderne styles. Its cavernous interior has vaulted, wood-beam ceilings, thick adobe walls and polished marble floors that amplify the footfalls of people rushing to catch their trains. Built in 1939, Union Station remains a major transportation hub and an iconic symbol for Los Angeles. I boarded my train and was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the coaches. I was half expecting them to be run-down relics from the past, since the U.S. isn’t exactly known for its investment in rail technology. However, it was a thoroughly modern, climate controlled, double-decker train—it even had LED signs displaying the upcoming stops. The seats in Coach Class were clean, comfortable, had plenty of legroom, and reclined quite a bit as well. (For all the technological advancement, I must say that a small part of me missed the clackety-clack sounds and the burnt, oily smell I remembered from being a kid though.)

View of the Pacific Ocean from the train

The Pacific Surfliner originates on California’s central coast in San Luis Obisbo, passing through Santa Barbara (and many points in between) before reaching Los Angeles, where I boarded. My route continued through Orange County with several stops, including one in Anaheim, not far from Disneyland. As it passed San Juan Capistrano, the train curved towards the coast where the remaining half of the journey took place. My window seat afforded panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean all the way till we reached the terminus in downtown San Diego. The station, called Santa Fe Depot, is another beautiful example of Spanish Mission-style architecture. Built in 1915, it’s situated right on the harbor with modern steel and glass high-rises surrounding it on three sides. Quite a bit smaller than L.A.’s Union Station, the whitewashed building has two ornate towers and its interior walls are adorned with gold, green and blue glazed tiles. Their Moorish-inspired pattern is reminiscent of tiles I’ve seen on my journeys in Southern Spain.

There are several benefits of rail travel, the most obvious reason being that you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. You have the ability to read a book, watch a movie on your laptop or do some work in this “portable office.” Having access to Wi-Fi would have been nice and, unfortunately, I was reminded that I wasn’t traveling in Germany or Switzerland when the train pulled into San Diego forty minutes late. The biggest detraction, however, was that my return trip was supposed to depart on Sunday at 6:00 p.m. but was inexplicably canceled. So, rather than take a later train and arrive after midnight, I took a morning one on  Monday instead.San Diego's Santa Fe Depot

All in all, my train experience was really quite fun. It made my journey seem like a special event and not just another mundane drive down to San Diego. The trains going both directions were filled to capacity, so it’s apparent that it’s a popular mode of transportation. That being said, I can see why it’s so hard to pry Californians away from their cars. If the trip had been less expensive, more reliable, and gone faster I could definitely imagine a lot more people traveling by rail, like is so common in Europe and Asia. I’m really excited that our government is finally investing in high-speed rail (HSR) in the coming years. Even still, it will take a long time for us to catch up with so much of the world. I long for the day when I can hop on a train and be whisked to San Diego in only 80 minutes. Maybe California’s HSR network will be built in time for me to take a high-speed train to my nephew’s high school graduation?

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