A Trip Up The Coast: Traveling by Train Through California
June 11, 2012 4 Comments
This is the first post in a short series based on my recent trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco by train. With an overnight stop in San Luis Obispo and a weekend in San Francisco, there were some great urbanist and transit lessons to be learned.
From the historic halls of Los Angeles’s Union Station to the platforms of San Luis Obispo’s depot is about a 5 hour journey by train. The five hours, about an hour and a half longer than driving, pass quickly and smoothly, especially when you have a traveling partner. From beautiful seaside tracks to fields of crops, the sights are amazing. The ability to relax, use the free Wi-Fi (which works better than many public Wi-Fi systems, with just a limit on downloading individual files over 10MB) make the trip extremely pleasant.
Leaving Los Angeles, the stops are often — Glendale, Burbank, Simi Valley — and seem to come right after one another. The train speeds up quickly, though, and the ocean-front ride up to and through Santa Barbara must be one of the most beautiful trips in the country. It’s even more enjoyable with a drink, some snacks, and a camera. Not long after come the hills leading into San Luis Obispo county, which were picturesquely blanketed in a thick layer of fog.
We chose to stay in San Luis Obispo for a day (more on that in a later post) before continuing on to the Bay Area.
There are a few ways to do the trip. On a single train, you can take Amtrak’s Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Oakland. Because that train only runs once per day and we were going to stop in SLO, we took the Pacific Surfliner for the first leg of our trip. This is one of Amtrak’s most popular routes, used by tourists, locals, and commuters alike between SLO and San Diego. It’s fast, frequent, with unreserved seating and free Wi-Fi.
When leaving SLO, we took the once-daily Coast Starlight northbound. In San Jose, you can switch from Amtrak to Caltrain (the Bay Area’s commuter train, like Southern California’s Metrolink) to continue your journey up the peninsula and into San Francisco. Otherwise, you can continue on the Coast Starlight around the bay and into Oakland, which is what we did because we had a friend in the area who was going to pick us up.
The trip from SLO to Oakland is another 5.5 hours or so, making the total travel time nearly 11 hours if you were to go straight from LA. This puts the train trip about four hours longer than the car trip by a similar route. If you were to take the 5 Freeway rather than the 101, you’d save even more time in a car. The train trip was a bit cheaper than flying for two of us, but of course takes much longer too.
As you pass through Gilroy, the train hits speeds of 80 mph, which is pretty good in my opinion. If this could be sustained for most of the trip, it’d be a legitimate option for most people traveling in California. Unfortunately, average speeds for most of the trip sit between 35 and 60 mph. At times due to the curves of the track going over and through mountains, at times due to the short distance between stops… the train is just unable to sustain a higher speed. Average speeds between 35-60 mph simply do not cut it if you have to travel the whole way in one trip.
This is precisely where a new CA rail project through the central valley would be an immense improvement. If not with a High Speed Rail project, at least connecting Los Angeles to Bakersfield (from where Amtrak currently runs the San Joaquin line to Oakland) via rail will shave off a few hours from the current trip time. While I’m a proponent of HSR in general, who knows if the current project being discussed will really get going, with all of the mismanagement and mistrust it’s gained. Shouldn’t there be a secondary plan in discussion at least? While it won’t have nearly the amount of jobs, cost, or benefit of CA HSR, an LA-Bakersfield rail link would at least still serve the state well by vastly improving Los Angeles to Bay Area service (though it would also have nearly none of the beautiful views of the current route).
In the end, the train trip was fun. It was scenic. It was relaxing. It was a great way to see the state and an enjoyable way to travel to multiple destinations, with one or more stops in the middle. It rivals or exceeds car travel for a trip like this. I’d do it again for similar trips with multiple stops or distances shorter than LA-SLO. It is not, however, a viable alternative for someone trying to make a quick trip all the way to San Francisco. California must do more to improve rail travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is much more comfortable than and can rival flying in certain situations (and will most certainly compete with–and beat–driving). Whether this improvement comes from a completed HSR project, or a blended approach as they’re currently pushing, or simply a completed link from LA-Bakersfield and improved Amtrak service, something must be done.