An Amtrak Adventure – Los Angeles to San Francisco

[Part 1 of this story covered joining the Southwest Chief in Chicago, a bit of an adventure in itself, and settling in for a two night and three day journey.  In part 2 we travelled through Kansas, Colorado and new Mexico top Albuquerque and spent our first night on the train.  In Part 3 we had a disastrous meal, crossed Arizona in the dark and arrived at LA Union Station, a fine example of the Art Deco style of architecture and said goodbye to Robert.  In Part 4 we sample the delights of the Traxx Lounge – not exactly the breakfast we had been hoping for – and board the Coast Starlight to travel north up the Pacific Coast to Oakland for San Francisco.]

The Traxx lounge for the Coast Starlight, the next train we are taking, is a fenced off bar area with free soft drinks, coffee and newspapers but no sign of the traditional American breakfast fare.  As in Chicago, the train conductor, this time a lady called Bobby, comes round to each of the passengers, introduces herself and checks our tickets and passports.  All very easy and polite.  We are offered a ride on a Red Cap buggy – do we look old?? – but decline as we would rather walk through the station and soak up more of the atmosphere.  The train is leaving from Track 11 and off we head.

Although this train looks the same externally and the first class sleeping compartments are exactly the same, the public areas are significantly different and there is a full programme of activities.  As we are only travelling as far as Oakland CA (for San Francisco) today we will only be on the train from the 10.20 am departure to the 9.32 pm arrival.  Later in the week we will be rejoining the train at Oakland and continuing through to the end of the line at Seattle WA.  The first leg will cover 464 miles whilst the second leg will be 913 miles and will last nearly 24 hours.

This train has a first class observation car, the Pacific Parlour Car, where there is a full service bar and you can eat light meals. On the lower deck there is a large screen cinema.  They also hold wine and cheese tasting sessions.  Next to the Parlour Car is a dining room with a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner with first class passengers getting priority for sittings.  Lastly there is another observation car available for all passengers with a cafe/bar on the lower deck and a games room aimed at children.  In this car there are talks from National Parks Trail Rangers about the countryside we are passing through.

Our sleeping car attendant is a complete contrast to Robert.  He is a bit of a jobs worth and does not try to build any rapport with his customers.  Indeed, when we stop at Santa Barbara CA and there is an opportunity to get off the train for a few minutes, I hear a lady talking to him in Spanish.  She then approaches me and says in English, “I just told him he ought to learn to smile”.   It didn’t have much effect.

One nice touch though is that once we’re in our cabin the attendant appears with a small bottle of Californian champagne and a large orange for each of us.  The champagne is cold and dry but not a quite a Moet Chandon.  The orange is delicious, sweet and very juicy.

The first stop is Burbank of film studio fame but the most prominent local landmark is the Bob Hope Airport.  It seems to be used by regional passenger jets and private jets.  One end of the runway is right against the rail tracks.  It must be quite a sight when a plane is landing or taking off.

From Burbank we enter the Simi Valley which reminds us of Turkey in that there are fields and fields of poly-tunnels.  There are also a lot of crops growing in open fields.  Again like Turkey there are large numbers of people crawling across the fields weeding and picking ground crops such as strawberries.  Unlike Turkey’ however, these all seem to be men not women.

Bookings are being taken for lunch so we choose the 11.30 sitting as we had not had anything you could call a breakfast.  As we set off down the corridor we bump into an English party who were on the Southwest Chief.  Like us they had been booked to travel by the California Zephyr.  One of the party said that he was getting so used to the cramped bedroom conditions that he was planning to sleep in the wardrobe at their hotel in San Francisco, it would be quite roomy enough.  We knew what he meant.

It’s time for a visit to the Pacific Parlour Car to see what it has to offer.  First impressions are that it lives up to its advertising.  We’ve booked an early table for a snack lunch and are told it’s a free-seating lounge and that we can have a four-seater table to ourselves.  A mixed blessing as it means that we won’t be meeting some fellow passengers.  Lunch is a fat bagel filled with smoked salmon and horseradish butter followed by a selection of tarts and washed down with a Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Sauvignon both from Pacific Northwest (Oregon and Washington States) vineyards.

The Car has something we have almost weaned ourselves off, WIFI.  It’s out with the netbook and onto Hotmail where there are loads of emails, some interesting, but none that need a reply.  The world has obviously given up on us.   The other thing they have is a cupboard of board games including three sets of monopoly – just what you would expect in the world’s largest capitalist country – and just one of trivial pursuits – no need to test the capitalist mind on the abstract.

The train is now in Ventura County and the train stops at Oxnard which proudly proclaims itself to be at a height of 61 ft above sea level.  This can only mean one thing and bang on cue, as the train pulls out of the station, the Pacific Ocean comes into view.  Sandy beaches, waves and blue water, exactly what you would expect for the Californian seaboard.  The service road that runs parallel to the beach and next to the rail track is lined with parked-up RVs.  There are lots of birds including cormorants, white egrets and plovers.  Further along there were rows of beach houses ranging from little more than shacks to expensive but not flamboyant properties.  The rail tracks are very close to the sea at most 100 yards above the shoreline.

The next station is Santa Barbara where two National Parks Service Trail Guides board the train and announce they are to be giving a talk about the sights to be seen from the train over the next 120 miles.  We dash to the observation car to bag some seats and get the last two available.  They explain that we are about to pass some of the longest beaches in America and that for the most part you can only see this stretch of coastline from the train.  Also, although our general direction of travel is northwards the first stretch travels east to west and marks the northern extremity of the Santa Barbara Sound.  The other boundaries of the Sound are a set of low lying islands some distance out to sea.  These are the islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel that form the Channel Islands National Park.

This area was once famous for its oil production and before WWII was a major contributor to the US supplies.  Nowadays there are still a number of oil platforms a few miles off-shore.  After some distances, maybe 30 miles, the track turns northwards at a headland called Point Conception.  We are told there is an important lighthouse on the point but the cliffs are too steep for us to see it so we have to make do with an excellent photograph.  This area is known for shipwrecks including one when five large naval vessels lost their way in sea fog and all went aground.  No doubt a few heads rolled after that one.

The track now runs on top of cliffs and the sea is much rougher.  The rangers point out one public beach with road access although the public need to book a place on the sand early in the morning.

We now enter the military land that is part of the Vandenbergh Airforce Base.  This base has had many functions over the years including being the largest West Coast US Air Force pilot training school, and is still active in space programme satellite launching.  Rocket launcher stands and tracking systems can be seen from the train.  It is mentioned that a former lifeboat station below us on the coast now acts as a base for boats to recover the debris that falls away from rockets in the first seconds after launch.  During WWII it was also a prisoner of war camp housing German and Italian prisoners.  The Germans were difficult to manage but the Italians jumped at the opportunity to work in the agriculture industry and did the work of the farm hands who had gone off to war.  After the war many of them settled in the area so there is now a thriving Italian community.

Looking out to sea we could see great waves of mist approaching the shore.  These mists are obviously a regular occurrence as the foliage is noticeably greener.

After stopping at San Luis Obispo (mile 220), the train starts a long, single track ascent over 11 miles to the Cuesta Grade Pass at about 1,000 ft.  The route climbs through a number of tunnels and a series of spectacular bends where you can look out of the window of the train if you’re sitting near the middle and see the front and the back of the train simultaneously.  At some points you can see the front of the train through one window and the back of the train through the opposite window.

As we begin our descent the train comes to a halt at a point where there is a double track and there is a freight train stopped alongside us.  The conductor explains over the tannoy that we are waiting for the freight train, which, being some 100 units long, is longer than the bypass track, and therefore has to clear the single track ahead of us.

The train now enters the Salinas Valley.   At the southern end there is a Chevron oil field that covers a vast area with “nodding donkey” extraction pumps.  Judging by the amount of activity this must be a productive field.  Further on in the valley we come to an even larger agricultural area.  This area is known colloquially as America’s Salad Bowl as the climate allows all year round planting and picking of everything from lettuces to strawberries.

We take dinner in the dining room and have another excellent communal dining experience.  We sit opposite a couple who had joined the train at Santa Barbara en route for Seattle.  They had recently retired and had decided, like us, to take advantage of their increased leisure time and travel by train rather than by plane and car.  We exchanged stories about bringing up families.  They have three sons and a daughter and we found how similar in many ways our lives had been.  We learnt from them that there had been a major power outage in Southern California and Western Arizona this morning.  Everything was affected.  We were extremely lucky that the Southwest Chief had got through before it happened else we would have been stranded indefinitely somewhere in the sticks.  Doesn’t bear thinking about.

After dinner it’s one hour to Oakland CA our railway destination for tonight.  The train has gone back to dawdling so don’t know when we will actually get there.

Well, one final sting in the tail after a ‘fun packed’ journey from LA.  The train pulls into Oakland about 15 mins late just before 10pm, no big deal.  We have to pick up our two cases and find the free Amtrak bus going into San Francisco, about 20 miles away.  But there is a complete lack of signage and station staff.  In the station lobby there is an Amtrak desk which is closing.  We learn that the two staff on duty at the station are the same people who are going to unload the baggage from the train.  There are about 20 people like us totally confused and getting more and more frustrated and anxious.  We find the bus and the driver assures us he will wait until the luggage has been unloaded and sorted but can we give him our bus tickets.  We don’t have bus tickets – they should have been issued way back in Chicago umpteen days ago.  Back into the station lobby where an Amtrak official who has just come off the train agrees to give a few of us bus tickets.  The tickets look fine but when we take them to the bus driver he says he can’t accept them.  He then takes pity on us and says we can come on the bus anyway and that there’ll be no charge.  Back to the luggage problem, the two lady staff members from the Amtrak desk are still trying to unload the bags from the train.  It’s all very inefficient.  We haven’t seen our cases since we checked them in at Union Station, Chicago on Tuesday lunchtime and it’s now Thursday night.  Eventually after ¾ hour our cases are retrieved and loaded onto the bus.  What relief.

The real frustration was that this all happened within a very small area of the station but there was no one in control and no one who wanted to help, except the patient and friendly bus driver.  And the train was held up whilst all this inefficiency went on.

The bus works very well.  We’re soon speeding over the Bay Bridge across San Francisco Bay and straight into downtown.  The first stop of the bus is at a taxi rank and a number of us get off relieved to be nearly there.  We’re straight into a taxi and whisked to the Hotel Vertigo in 5 mins, check in and straight to bed.

[The Vertigo Hotel, a recommendation from our son-in-law Julian, was renamed in recognition of the hotel’s role in the film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock.  The film is played on a continuous loop in the lobby.  An excellent hotel, recently refurbished in Art Deco style to chime with the film, and within easy walking distance of most places of interest.]

[In Part 5 we rejoin the train three days later en route for Seattle, out final stop]

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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