Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
“The journey is too fast, it passes too quickly; what a yearning I have now for long journeys!” proclaimed Franz Kafka in his European train travelogue. If you board Amtrak anywhere in the United States, not even for a moment will you feel deprived of a long journey. In fact, a mellow, meditative state of mind is all you need to revel in the leisurely and lengthy routes that Kafka yearned for. Feeling sufficiently mellow after months of the pandemic, I jumped on a train in the most important railway junction in California that you may not know —my adopted hometown of Martinez in the San Francisco Bay Area. Aboard Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the train would take me to Los Angeles along the most scenic route in California. Without any transfers.
To European eyes, the schedule looks unreal. The Coast Starlight sets off from Seattle and covers the distance of 1,377 miles (2 216 km) to Los Angeles in thirty-six hours, out of which twenty-one are spent in California. When Franz Kafka yearned for his long journey, not even crossing three European countries was enough. Amtrak, on the other hand, can saturate you with scenic views within a single state. The schedule implies that the train moves at a leisurely pace of 40 miles per hour (62 kilometers per hour), hardly an attractive alternative to driving or flying time-wise. With Coast Starlight, however, it is about the romance of the journey, not the efficiency of the schedule. European trains may be faster but none of them will take you to the edge of ocean cliffs. Moreover, the Coast Starlight gives you glimpses into parts of California you might otherwise never see.
Your train is your home: At the Martinez station, I discovered the train would arrive an hour late. The cause was straightforward—Coast Starlight passes through the Shasta area in northern California where wildfires had damaged the tracks. When the train finally pulled in, a conductor checked my phone for the ticket, accompanied me into the business class care, and reminded me to wear a mask at all times, except when drinking or eating. The cars of Coast Starlight are gigantic, steel double-deckers, so you end up feeling like stepping into an edifice as opposed to a train. The conductor led me up a staircase where I could choose any available leather seat, just not one directly next to a passenger—for pandemic reasons. En route to Los Angeles, choose a window seat on the right, to be on the coastal side.
Naturally, the business class offers comfortable seats with extra legroom for slightly more cost. Coast Starlight Superliner cars hark back to the early nineties with carpet-like fabric-lined walls and ceilings. A clean and comfortable ambiance pervades. For overnight passengers, Coast Starlight provides a private sleeper car as well as several economy car options.
Leaving Martinez, the train follows the winding shore of the Carquinez Straight, where views fishermen gather in the early morning light. Here, one can see a microcosm of California along the tracks—high-tech industrial plants, ornate neighborhoods, bike paths, but also homeless encampments and abandoned warehouses. The Oakland and San Jose stations provide important transit connections for those who have the Bay Area as their destination—for example, an Amtrak bus takes commuters from the Oakland station to San Francisco. In fact, Amtrak operates useful bus services along the entire Coast Starlight route. Hop on a bus in Martinez for a trip to the Napa wine country. Farther north in Oregon, a bus at the Klamath Falls station takes travelers to Crater Lake National Park. With all these options. this train journey can be turned into a full-scale exploration of the American West.
The Grapes of California:
The Coast Starlight continues along the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains and then appears in the marshes, not far from Monterey Bay. The next stop is Salinas, now known as a farming town, which leaves it off travelers’ itineraries. Undeservedly so—after all, Salinas was the birthplace of John Steinbeck, whose museum stands just steps away from the station. An Amtrak bus offers a short side trip to Monterey, which may be famous for its pier, festivals, and aquarium, but thanks to its role in the Cannery Row novel, it has a connection to Steinbeck as well.
From Salinas, the train hugs the valley along the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. Skirting vegetable farms and oil fields, the route then gives way to welcoming scenic highlights. First comes the Paso Robles station, where the train enters the up-and-coming Central Coast Wine Region. And then, with help from several tunnels, it overcomes the highest point of the journey—Cuesta Pass. Although the pass does reach spectacular elevations by world standards, the steep descent toward San Luis Obispo provides spectacular panoramas. The train descents an eye-popping 1,140 feet (347 m) on 8 miles (13 km) of tracks. Count on countless curves, including the famous horseshoe switchback. From there, a landscape that I consider the garden of California—small fields, orchards, and vineyards, with the backdrop of volcanic hills unfolds. The most prominent of them is the jagged Bishop Peak towering over San Luis Obispo. But it is only one of the “Nine Sisters” of hills that lead all the way to Morro Bay, the popular Central Coast resort. Morro Bay is easily reached from San Louis Obispo by taxi or a county bus, in less than half an hour.
After shaving off the elevation from the pass, the train crosses the Stenner Creek Trestle, the longest bridge on the route (960 feet, 290 meters). In the era of highways and flights, it is hard to appreciate how important the construction of the railway was for San Luis Obispo. Unlike San Francisco and Los Angeles, which had been major ports for a long time, the Central Coast region felt remote and almost forgotten by the rest of the state. Local businessmen had to use all kinds of methods when inciting the Southern Pacific company to bring tracks to their town. It was therefore with a big fanfare, when on May 5th, 1894, the inaugural train arrived from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo. It was welcomed there with a cacophonous sound of bands from all over the county and a party that involved grilling of “twenty beeves”.
Since the tracks down from Cuesta Pass were the most expensive and the most challenging section of the route, it is incredible that they took only two years to build. The company hired Chinese laborers for the arduous tasks of tunneling and laying down the tracks, while the Stenner Creek Trestle was assembled from pre-fabricated pieces, which had to be shipped by fifty freight trains from a steel mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The construction fell seriously behind and the festivities could proceed only because the laborers laid ten thousand feet of track on the day before the opening and “because the contractors allowed half the standard number of ties per rail length, and left the bed graded without gravel.“ But those were minor issues—San Louis Obispo was finally connected to a railway from the north, and after several years, tracks were built farther to the south to reach Santa Barbara. As a result, the Southern Pacific could begin running its coastal trains from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 1901. The trains were called variously Shore Line Limited, Coaster, or Starlight—depending on the time of their departure. When Amtrak was established in 1971, it paid homage to this history by putting the Coast Starlight service on its schedule.
Today, San Luis Obispo is a thoroughly pleasant town with a historical district, a Spanish mission, wineries, and mountains as its backdrop. Its vibe is enriched by the presence of California Polytechnic University, which was, coincidentally, founded in the same year when the coastal train service began. Since then, Central Coast has been firmly placed into the mosaic of California.
When train becomes a hyperreality: From San Luis Obispo, the train meanders toward the coast. Hours are flying by, and passengers are becoming more and more restless. What do you do when stuck on a train for a full day and the views are not scenic for a while? Some people watch movies on their iPads. I wanted to make it a screen-free day, so I read through the pile of books I brought on board. In between, I talked to our car’s conductor—given the size of the cars and the journey times, each Amtrak car has its own conductor, which creates a feeling of familiarity you rarely encounter on European trains. I asked her about meal options—because of the pandemic restrictions, the dining car is available only to sleeper car passengers. Being denied the usual white tablecloth dinner was the journey’s biggest pandemic downer.
The conductor suggested another option to me—the lounge car has a café on the lower floor. Placed between the business and economy classes, the lounge car is what makes Amtrak Amtrak. The upper floor of the car has a few tables and benches to eat, but there are also seats resembling armchairs. The large windows curving overhead add light and encourage socializing, unlike the business car, whose less light gives a feeling of privacy. On the Coast Starlight route, the lounge car is mainly for watching the landscape. I made myself comfortable with a hot meal from the café, ready to observe what was about to come.
Strangers around me mingled and conversed, with whatever social distancing possible. I smiled because it reminded me of what I had read in a book just a moment before. In it, Umberto Eco described his travels on the West Coast as going into hyperreality. I suddenly understood what he meant. In Europe, a train is a service; a mode of transportation. In America, it is a world of its own—a hyperreality of life across multiple cars, getting to know people, and sharing your time with them.
From sea to shining stars: The chatter in the lounge car paused with the first glimpses of the ocean. In a moment, the train made it all the way to the coastal cliffs and then followed them for tens of miles. Sometimes, the train even seemed to veer too close to the edge, with nothing below but a steep slope of ice plants, a narrow sandy beach, and the waves of the Pacific. The ice plants around the tracks looked as Californian as redwood trees, but in fact, they were brought from South Africa to make coastal soil more stable for railway construction.
What makes this coastal section melancholic was the lack of any cell phone signal. No settlement of significance is anywhere nearby. No internet service exists onboard since Amtrak’s hyperreality is that of the time past. Unless you download your movie, you are out of luck—your only option is to talk to others or to watch the ocean. The remoteness has its upsides. Here, views normally difficult to see or inaccessible create a visual panoramic series of natural beauty. On another note, the train passes by the Vandenberg Space Launch Complexes. While some have ceased to operate and are now museums, there is Complex 4, which was revived by Elon Musk in 2013 as the launchpad for his Falcon 9 rocket.
Santa Barbara: The rugged coast eventually evolves into a resort town, with Spanish-style architecture of ubiquitous arches and red-tile roofs, including the station building. Here, on its last stretch, Coast Starlight apparently becomes a commuter transit for Angelenos who come to Santa Barbara for a relaxing getaway. From my window view, I understood why Santa Barbara was so well-liked—so much life there, from barbecues in the parks to sightings of at least two beach weddings, positioned against the sun gradually setting beneath the horizon. For some reason, the wedding scenery generated the most excitement among the passengers, and the “Did you see the wedding?” conversations kept going for the rest of the journey.
The now-bloated train sped up again and passed by Montecito with its luxury mansions lording themselves above the tracks. At the Coast Starlight’s now high speed. there was no time to feel envy at the living conditions of Oprah Winfrey, Bruce Willis, and Prince Harry and Meghan. On the other side of the tracks, the beach betrayed an even more relaxed sight with old campers, used by surfers, who flock to the shore for the weekend.
Are we there yet? According to the map, we were now close to our final destination. It was hard to believe that we were still two hours and one mountainous obstacle away. Even Franz Kafka would have been saturated with sights by then. The train turned away from the coast to rise through Simi Valley, passed through a tunnel, and then only slowly descended into the dry San Fernando Valley. Our quick arrival at the Union Station in Los Angeles came therefore as a surprise—we made it there half an hour early, despite the late start at Martinez and the mellow pace of the long journey.
Those yearning for even a longer journey can always transfer to the Pacific Surfliner train, which continues along the coast to San Diego. Even though the Coast Starlight gave me a unique and scenic look at California, I was yearning to transfer to walking. So, I packed my pile of books and entered the beautiful station building, styled as a grand, colonial-era cathedral. What a fitting terminus to a train service, which, maybe inadvertently, managed to preserve the charm of the old times.
IF YOU GO
- The Coast Starlight train runs three times a week between Seattle and Los Angeles, via Portland and the San Francisco Bay Area. It covers a distance of 1,377 miles (2 216 km) in 36 hours. The distance from Martinez in the Bay Area to Los Angeles is 496 miles (798 km) and the journey takes 13.5 hours.
- Book an Amtrak ticket through their website https://www.amtrak.com/home, or on a mobile application (https://www.amtrak.com/mobile). Note that neither economy nor business car tickets have assigned seats—you get a seat after boarding the train.
- The schedule of Coast Starlight, including the related bus connections, can be found here: https://www.railpassengers.org/site/assets/files/20928/coast-starlight-schedule-101220.pdf